Salem Witch Trials

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In May-October 1692, in the town of Salem, in Massachusetts Bay Colony, several girls who were listening to the voodoo tales of a West Indian slave, Tituba, said they were possessed by devils. They then proceeded to accuse three women of witchcraft. All three along with sixteen other accused witches who were were accused of witchcraft were hanged. Nearly 150 were imprisoned. No one was burned to death.

The government realized it was in error and stopped the trials. The episode permanently marked Salem, and to this day it is a favorite gathering place for people enamored of witchcraft.

Salem in the 1690s

Salem was a small Puritan settlement in the Massachusetts woods, not far from the coast. It was not a particularly successful settlement, with its villagers struggling to grow enough food to survive and always wary of the forest surrounding them - in their minds, the trees could be hiding angry Indians or demons or any number of evils. Thus, it was not a happy, cohesive community - this was not helped by the recent outbreak of smallpox and the Puritan's sexist practices of women being absolutely deferential to the men in their lives, and the belief that women were more susceptible to the Devil's charms. With everyone living in each others pockets, it was impossible to keep secrets - everyone knew everyone else's business. There was a lot of fear and tension in this village.


Under the Puritan rule of the colony at the time, the existence of witches was accepted as clear fact on scriptural grounds. In accordance with Exodus 22:18, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," witchcraft was criminalized and considered a capital offense.

Reports of witchcraft

The catalyst for the fears that led to the trials was a black woman from Barbados - Tituba. She was a slave in the household of Reverend Samuel Parris, the village preacher. She had entertained Reverend Parris' daughter Betty (9 years old) and her cousin Abigail Williams (11 years old) during the winter of 1692 with stories from her life in Barbados, which apparently involved some sort of magic. It is believed she began demonstrating this magic to the girls, and some of their friends who had joined the group. Knowing these activities were forbidden by their religion, the girls felt guilty - it is then that they began the witchcraft hysteria.

The girls began to exhibit strange behavior - they said strange things, screamed, threw things, crawled under furniture, complained of being pricked and cut by invisible pins and knives, and covered their ears during Reverend Parris' preaching as if it hurt them to hear it. The Reverend described their antics as "beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect" - naturally, when the village doctor (William Griggs) could not find out what was wrong with them it was assumed that they had been bewitched.

The girls soon began to accuse people of bewitching them - the first were Sarah Osborne (an invalid old woman who had married her servant), Sarah Good (a short-tempered beggar) and Tituba. They were all outcasts of the community, and so were easy targets - nobody stood up for them. Arrest warrants for these three were issued on February 29 1692, and they were quickly arrested and tried by Magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne.

The escalation

More accusations followed the imprisonment of the first three accused. They included: Dorcas Good (4 year old daughter of Sarah Good), Abigail Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey (an outspoken woman who was openly skeptical about the girls' accusations), Elizabeth Proctor and John Proctor. These new accusations frightened the community, as Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey had been virtuous, upstanding members of the Salem community - if these people were witches, then anyone could be.

The number of accused in the jails of Boston, Salem and surrounding towns grew rapidly, until they were overflowing - having no real government, the villagers had no organized way to try all these accused witches. A new Governor, Sir William Phips, arrived in May of 1692 and began the Court of Oyer and Terminer ("to hear and determine") to try the masses of accused witches. It comprised 7 judges: Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin.

The trial

The first official session of Oyer and Terminer took place on June 2, 1692. The court based its decisions on 'evidence' such as confessions extracted under torture, 'witch marks' like moles and the reactions of the 'afflicted' girls.

Three women were brought to trial and, under pressure, stated the names of others who were working together to possess the girls. The Puritans governing Salem then saw this as an opportunity to use the legal procedure of court trials to identify and uncover the ways of the occult. Public trials were held and testimony was elicited in an attempt to bring forth the workings of the devil.

Executions

These three women, along with sixteen others who were were accused of witchcraft were hanged. Nearly 150 were imprisoned. Those who had reservations about the proceedings often found themselves to be accused. It is interesting to note that to avoid hanging, all the accused had to do was admit their guilt, but many refused. The refusal to admit guilt to save their lives may be attributed to the sturdy Puritan-based morality of the community at the time. One man would not even dignify the proceedings by entering a plea and was pressed to death. [1]

After many executions, a change in the rule of evidence for these trials excluded "spectral evidence," which was testimony by afflicted persons that they had been visited by a suspect's specter. With that change the subsequent trials resulted overwhelmingly in acquittals rather than convictions, and the later pardons were issued for several of those who had been convicted.[2]

Victims

The Court of Oyer and Terminer was active between June 2 and October 29, during which time they condemned 20 people to be hanged. Many more died in prison awaiting trial. After Governor Phips closed Oyer and Terminer, a new Supreme Court was begun and used to try any remaining witchcraft cases. This time no one was convicted - the Salem Witch Trials were over.

June 10: The first official execution of the Salem Witch trials - Bridget Bishop is hanged.

July 19: Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Wildes.

August 19: Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Proctor and John Willard.

September 19: Giles Corey is pressed to death for refusing a trial.

September 22: Margaret Scott, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Alice Parker, Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker.


Today

Ironically, due to the notoriety of the trial that has survived to this day, tourist influence has now made Salem known for a high density of occult-themed shops.

Other communities

Salem had the only mass witch hunt in American history. However there were 152 accused witches in over two dozen other communities. Latner (2008) challenges the traditional image of Salem as the site of a year-long epidemic of hysteria. Instead, accusations progressed as a sequence of limited and brief flare-ups and the accused were generally logical targets. Within most nearby communities, the witch-hunt passed quickly and the number of accused was small. Even in the high profile centers of the storm, such as Salem and Andover, the episode was limited in duration. The victims of 1692 most often resembled those who were traditionally associated with witchcraft in 17th-century England and New England, generally. Despite its reputation for irrationality and excess, the Salem witchcraft experience demonstrated the kind of constraints, limits, and coherence that scholars have found in other forms of collective violence. Such an approach helps explain how the outbreak spread to numerous communities as well as why the episode came to an end in relatively short order.[3]

External links

References

  1. Five men were convicted and hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death for refusing to cooperate with the court. [1]
  2. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_ACCT.HTM
  3. Richard Latner, "The Long and Short of Salem Witchcraft: Chronology and Collective Violence in 1692," Journal of Social History 2008 42(1): 137-156,