In 1692, in the village of Salem, Massessechuets, two young girls made claims that other members of their community were witches.
These accusations soon spiraled out of control, resulting in multiple accusers, over 200 people being charged with witchcraft, and the deaths of 20.
It remains one of the most notable cases of hysteria and injustice in American history.
Learn more about the Salem Witch Trials, why they happened, and its aftermath on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The Salem Witch Trial is probably the best-known case of witch trials, but it is far from the only case, nor is it even the worst.
Beginning in the 14th century, Europe experienced a wave of witch hunts that would pop up sporadically over the next several centuries. Countries all over Europe would suffer from witch hunt frenzies, and it is believed that as many as 10,000 people may have been killed due to accusations of being witches.
Witch trials began with the Catholic Church but were later picked up by Protestant sects after the Reformation.
By the time of the Salem Witch Trials at the end of the 17th century, the witch hunts had mostly died down in Europe. However, one of the last great witch hunts took place in England from 1644 to 1647 by the Puritans.
In New England, many of the colonies that were established were established by a religious sect known as the Puritans. The Puritans were never a formal Protestant denomination per se, such as Congregationalists and Presbyterians.
As such, it is not possible to pin down a specific set of beliefs, but the term “Puritan” was originally used as a pejorative to describe the group who were considered to be extremists by most Christians in England. The Puritans never called themselves Puritans. They referred to themselves by such terms as “the godly,” “saints,” or “God’s children.”
The Puritans who moved to America did so to get away from other sects that weren’t as pure and also to create their own communities, which were run by their rules and to the exclusion of everyone else.
The reason I spent so much time on this is to explain exactly what sort of community Salem was and the environment in which the witch trials took place. As much as Americans like to think of the early Puritans as escaping persecution, in reality, the communities they created in New England were theocracies.
The story starts in January 1692 when two girls began having what were described as “fits.” They would have convulsions, scream, bark, throw things, and would contort themselves into unusual positions.
The two girls were nine-year-old Betty Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams. It should be noted that Betty was the daughter of the village’s only ordained minister, Samuel Parris, and Abigail was his niece.
Doctors examined the girls and determined that there was nothing physically wrong with them. A minister from a nearby town, John Hale, said it was “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect…”
The cause of the girl’s problem was diagnosed to be witchcraft.
Once the witchcraft diagnosis was issued, several other young girls in the village started showing the same symptoms. In particular, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., and seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard. Putnam was the daughter of Thomas Putnam, one of the leading citizens in Salem and a close friend of Samuel Parris. Hubbard was an orphan, but worked in the home of the doctor that diagnosed the first girls.
The initial accusations of the girl were against three women they claimed were witches: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and a woman named Tituba.
Sarah Good was a woman who had fallen on hard times and was a beggar. Sarah Osborne was a poor elderly woman who seldom attended church services, and Tituba was an enslaved indigenous woman from the Caribbean who was owned by the village minister and father of one of the accusers, Samuel Parris.
All three women were arrested in early March, and all of them were women who lived on the outskirts of society.
Both Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne vehemently denied being witches. Tituba initially denied it but then admitted to witchcraft, which changed the entire proceedings. I should note she admitted it only after being beaten by Samuel Parris.
Tituba gave an elaborate explanation of making a witch’s cake. She said that she wasn’t a witch but that “The devil came to me and bid me serve him.” She accused other people in her confession and weaved a fantastic story that included black dogs, hogs, a yellow bird, red and black rats, cats, a fox, and a wolf.
Her strategy seemed to be just to become an informer and go along with it to avoid conviction.
However, her confession didn’t help the overall witch hunt. It lent credibility to all of the accusations that had been made. She had a first-hand account of meeting the devil himself, which only lent urgency to the investigation.
More accusers came forward, and they began to name even more witches.
In late March, Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft, and she was a full member of the Salem religious community. Four-year-old Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was accused, as were Rebecca Nurse and Rachel Clinton from the nearby village of Ipswich.
Martha Corey was skeptical of the accusations made by the girls, which probably made her get on their radar.
Physical examinations of all the accused were conducted to look for moles and birthmarks, which were thought to be signs of the devil.
Throughout April, the accusations kept piling up. People who defended the accused were themselves arrested.
One of the primary sources of testimony against the accused was spectral evidence.
Spectral evidence would today be called ‘not evidence.’
Basically, the accusers would say they were tormented by spectral images of their accusers. The argument went that if the spectral image of someone appeared, then they must have given permission to the devil to use their image as if there was some sort of supernatural copyright law.
To be fair, spectral evidence was highly controversial even at that time. There was a big theological debate surrounding the issue.
Those advocating spectral evidence believed that a denial of belief in spirits and demons necessitated disbelief in God. Therefore, such beings had to exist.
Moreover, they claimed that the devil couldn’t take the form of someone innocent.
Others claimed that the devil could take the image of someone innocent and that even if such a spirit had appeared before someone, it didn’t imply that the person whose form appeared was guilty. It was simply the devil playing tricks to trap the innocent.
In May, after the accusations began piling up, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, convened a Court of Oyer and Terminer, which was an old term for hear and decide.
Several notable figures in the Massachusetts Colony, including clergyman Cotton Mather, implored the court to deny spectral evidence, but their requests were ignored.
One of the first people to come before the court was an older woman by the name of Bridget Bishop, who was rumored to be gossipy and promiscuous. She was also known to wear odd clothing, which was against the Puritan ethic.
She claimed, “I am as innocent as the child unborn.” Nonetheless, she was found guilty and became the first person in Salem to be executed for witchcraft on June 10.
She was hung by the neck at a place called Gallows Hill, just outside of the village. Contrary to popular belief, no one was burned alive in Salem.
The trials resumed in July, and five more accused were sentenced to death: Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes, and Rebecca Nurse. They were all executed by hanging on July 19.
On August 19, more people were sentenced to death. Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, and John Proctor were all executed for witchcraft by hanging.
In September, the trials continued. One man, an eighty-one-year-old farmer named Giles Corey, refused to enter a plea before the court. As punishment for not entering a plea, he was crushed to death with heavy stones.
On September 22, eight more people were executed.
By this time, it became obvious to almost everyone that the trials were getting out of hand. Over 200 people had been accused of witchcraft by a very small number of accusers.
Concerns were now raised that these matters should be brought to the attention of the crown back in England.
On October 29, the governor of Massachusetts closed the Court of Oyer and Terminer and ended all further executions. Not coincidently, it was around this time that his wife had been accused of witchcraft.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer was replaced by the Superior Court of Judicature, which didn’t allow spectral evidence.
Trials continued into 1693, but without spectral evidence, only 3 of 50 defendants were found guilty, and no one was executed.
By May 1693, Governor Phips had pardoned everyone who had been imprisoned and found guilty of witchcraft. However, the damage had already been done. Twenty people had been killed because of the witch trials.
In 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting in repentance for the Salem witch trials. The courts later declared the proceedings to have been unlawful.
Samuel Sewall, the leading judge in the case, later publicly apologized for his role in the trials.
In 1711, the Colony of Massachusetts assembly issued a law reversing the decision of twenty-two people who were convicted and petitioned the government. There were seven convicted people who did not sign the petition.
The Governor agreed to provide compensation for those convicted and their families.
As for the accusers, none of them were ever formally punished for their role. Ann Putnam Jr. made a full apology in 1706 to the Salem church and claimed that Satan had deceived her to make accusations against innocent people.
In 1957, the descendants of those not listed on the 1711 legislation had their innocence formally proclaimed. However, the legislation only listed one name, Ann Pudeator, and everyone else was lumped under “certain other persons.”
It wasn’t until October 31, 2001, that the Massachusetts governor signed a law specifically exonerating all the convicted and executed by name….over 300 years after it happened.
The Salem Witch Trials have captured the public’s attention for almost three centuries. At the core of the fascination is the simple question: what happened?
There have been many theories put forward, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive with each other.
The first is that this was simply a case of mass hysteria. This is a phenomenon that isn’t well understood, but this could have been one of the biggest examples of it. The problem is, this wasn’t a riot or some popular convulsion that occurred over the course of a few days. These were trials, with judges and testimony, in a courtroom that was conducted over a period of months.
What caused the initial fits by the girls who were the main accusers? Many people have put forward an illness known as ergotism caused by eating molds that were found in rye bread at the time. A bird-borne encephalitis has also been proposed as a reason.
However, the cause might have been much simpler. It could have been a case of attention-seeking, petty jealousies, and grievances.
The Salem Witch Trials are one of the darkest chapters in American history. Almost everyone involved regretted their involvement soon after it was over, and those who accused others of witchcraft had to live with the deaths of twenty innocent people.