In seventeenth-century New England a witch was believed to be an individual who sold their soul to the Devil. In return for this sacrifice, the Devil was thought to provide this person with supernatural powers that could be used to wage war against faithful Christians. As it was believed any person could become a witch, man, woman, or child, these frightening creatures were understood to by hiding in plain sight and could be blamed for a range of misfortunes.
At this time, Massachusetts Bay Colony operated under English law, which defined witchcraft as a capital crime publishable by death. Though a serious criminal offense, witchcraft suspicions rarely escalated to trial in colonial New England. In fact, in the 25 years leading up to the Salem witch trials, only one person was executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts.
There is no contemporary evidence that indicates anyone accused of witchcraft in Salem was in fact a witch. Instead, it is clear those who confessed did so under extreme pressure and fabricated elaborate stories under duress.
It is interesting to note the practice of folk magic persisted in both England and New England throughout this period. Though frowned upon by the church, many people continued to use charms and old folk remedies in an effort to cure illnesses, find lost objects, protect their homes, or find witches hiding in the community. These practices were not necessarily associated with being a witch, a much more insidious crime, and the use of simple folk magic rarely led to a witchcraft accusation.
The afflicted were those believed to be tormented by witchcraft. Beginning in January of 1692, these individuals showed alarming symptoms of a mysterious illness. They made strange, foreign sounds, huddled under furniture, writhed in pain, and clutched their heads. Those suffering from this affliction were the ones who “cried out” names, accusing others of bewitching them. Though the initial afflicted were primarily adolescent girls, eventually grown women and men also exhibited symptoms of bewitchment.
The accused were those suspected of practicing witchcraft. These people were named by the afflicted, leading to arrests and trials for the crime of witchcraft. As the mysterious affliction spread, those afflicted began to complain disembodied spirits were stabbing them, choking them, and jabbing them with pins. These disembodied spirits, or “specters,” were soon identified as real individuals living throughout Essex County. This would culminate in the arrest of 150-200 individuals.
When considering the question “what caused the illness in 1692,” it is important to remember there is a danger in seeking a singular, all-encompassing explanation. It is far more likely this behavior was due to a combination of factors.
Some historians have speculated some of the afflicted (particularly Betty Parris and Abigail Williams) may have been suffering from conversion disorder. Individuals who are under extreme psychological stress can sometimes experience this illness. Symptoms include blindness, hallucinations, twitching/spasming, and temporarily losing the ability to speak. If we think about the conditions of the first afflicted girls, who were living in a very tense and stress-filled household in the months leading to their illness, this could explain their unusual behavior. It has also been suggested some of the afflicted were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as several were refugees from the wars with Indigenous tribes in the north and had witnessed extreme violence as children. Additionally, it is very likely some of the accusers were faking their symptoms—perhaps for power, attention, to seek vengeance on individuals they believed had once wronged them or their families, or because they were simply young, suggestable, and fell into a net of mob mentality.
Ergot is a fungus that, under the right circumstances, grows on rye. Those who consume this substance can become very ill, experiencing spasms, convulsions, delirium, and hallucinations. According to a theory put forward by Linnda Caporael in the April 1976 edition of Science magazine, ergotism could explain the behavior of the afflicted (those who claimed to be tormented by witches) during the Salem witch trials, including their violent convulsions and the many stories of spectral witches and ghostly figures.
A unique theory for the time, this hypothesis was almost immediately disproven by Salem witch trials scholars. Shortly after the appearance of this article, Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottieb published a full review of the theory in Science magazine. In their response, Spanos and Gottieb firmly concluded:
“The available evidence does not support the hypothesis that ergot poisoning played a role in the Salem crisis. The general features of the crisis did not resemble an ergotism epidemic. The symptoms of the afflicted girls and of the other witnesses were not those of convulsive ergotism. And the abrupt ending of the crisis, and the remorse and second thoughts of those who judged and testified against the accused, can be explained without recourse to the ergotism hypothesis” (Nicholas Spanos & Jack Gottieb, 1394).
Despite these definitive responses, television shows, documentaries, blogs, articles, and podcasts continue to present this as a likely theory. It seems this is a theory that simply will not fade away, remaining ever-present in popular culture.
For a more detailed discussion of the ergot theory, how it was debunked, and why it remains in popular culture, visit our blog.
Tituba, an enslaved woman owned by Salem Village’s minister Reverend Samuel Parris, was one of the first people to be accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials.
Samuel Parris had arrived in Salem Village in 1688, along with his wife, their three children, his niece, and three slaves, Tituba, John Indian, and a teenage boy who died after the family’s arrival.
Once witchcraft was suspected in 1692, Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne were accused of harming the sick children. As an enslaved person with no one to defend her, she was an easy scapegoat.
She was first examined on March 1 at Ingersoll’s ordinary, and for days afterward in jail. Although initially Tituba denied any knowledge of witchcraft, she would soon confess under the enormous pressure. The tormenting of the children, she said, was performed by the specters of Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, two other women she didn’t know, and a man. She herself had ridden on a stick with Osborne and Good to torment Ann Putnam Jr. She had seen any number of supernatural animals – a black dog, a black hog, a yellow bird, cats, even a human-headed bird. All were “familiars,” companions of witches in animal form. She had signed the Devil’s book, where she saw the marks of nine witches.
Although Tituba was jailed after her examination, she was not tried before the court in 1692. Her trial did not take place until the spring of 1693, after the executions were over and the panic had subsided. Though found innocent, Reverend Parris refused to pay her jail fees. Tituba was eventually released after she was sold to a new master who purchased her for the price of her imprisonment. After this transaction, she disappears from the historical record.
It is a common misconception that only women were accused of witchcraft. The crime of witchcraft could be committed by any person, man, woman or child. During the Salem witch trials, five men were convicted and hanged, and one man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death for refusing to cooperate with the court. Though it was unusual, there are cases of witch-hunts in Europe where more men than women were accused and prosecuted for witchcraft. Take the Icelandic witch-hunt between 1625 and 1685, where 8 women and 110 men were accused.
Though witchcraft was not technically a gendered crime, women were the most vulnerable to accusation. This is partially the result of literature (such as the Malleus Maleficarum), which identified women as the most susceptible to the Devil’s trickery. However, this was also because those suspected of witchcraft were typically individuals who made others uncomfortable or pushed against social norms. This often led neighbors to suspect older women, past their childbearing years, woman who were financially independent or living alone, women who had done something scandalous (such as marrying beneath their station or having a child before marriage), and argumentative or outspoken women.
As a result, once legal witch trials came to an end, a stereotypical “witch” emerged in folk tales and popular legend. These creatures were almost always described as older, irate women living alone on the outskirts of society.
Hanged on June 10
Hanged on July 19
Hanged on August 19
Reverend George Burroughs
George Jacobs Sr.
Pressed to Death on September 19
Hanged on September 22
This question remains unanswered. It is believed the bodies were cut down after their executions and dropped unceremoniously into a crevice on the side of Proctor’s Ledge. This was an extremely hot summer, so speedy burials would have made sense. There is no truth to the idea that convicted witches couldn’t be buried in “consecrated ground” – that was not a Puritan concept. Instead, it is believed some of the families came to claim their relatives and buried their bodies privately on their property.
For example, family tradition holds that Rebecca Nurse was buried on the family land (what is today the Rebecca Nurse Homestead), in an unmarked grave. It is believed George Jacobs Sr. was buried at home in Northfields, now Danversport. A corpse, believed to be Jacobs, was discovered on this property and was reburied in the cemetery at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead in 1992.
As time goes on, more and more locations where victims may have been buried have been suggested. There’s an intersection in Peabody thought to be the approximate location of Giles Corey’s final resting place. A few historians pinpointed a spot a few years ago where John Proctor may have been buried. Historian Marilynne Roach found a sentence fragment in the records that mentions Reverend George Burroughs’ burial costs, indicating his loved ones also collected his remains. With time, we may find more evidence suggesting additional burial locations.
No one was burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft in America. While many of the European executions included burning the accused witch at the stake, it is a common misconception that any burnings took place here in America. With the exception of England, witchcraft was treated much in the same way as the crime of heresy throughout Europe, and burning was typically (though not exclusively) used as the punishment. However, in England and its colonies, witchcraft was a felony, and the punishment was execution by hanging.
The location of the 1692 hanging place has not always been agreed upon by historians. Maps of 1700 Salem show “Gallows Hill” but no marker for the execution site. It was long thought the summit of Gallows Hill may have been where the hangings took place.
In 1921, historian Sidney Perley believed he had found the right spot, near the base of Gallows Hill. His conclusion led the City of Salem to purchase part of Proctor’s Ledge in 1936, calling it “Witch Memorial Land.” No memorial was built at the time, and for years after, most people still believed the executions took place at the summit.
In 2010, a team of researchers began to reconsider all of the evidence and eventually concluded that Perley had been right. The real execution spot was confirmed as Proctor’s Ledge in January of 2016, partly based on 1692 eyewitness accounts, (re)discovered in the records by historian Marilynne Roach, saying they were able to see the hangings from their homes. This placed the location near the bottom of the hill. On July 19, 2017, the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial was dedicated.
Following the directions given to them by their neighbor Mary Sibley, Tituba and John Indian (both enslaved people owned by Reverend Samuel Parris) prepared a “witch cake” on February 25, 1692. This action was taken after Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris) had suffered from a mysterious illness for nearly two months.
The creation of this cake was an attempt at counter-magic. Though strongly discouraged, attempts at utilizing magic were still relatively common in Puritan New England. This English charm called for the combination of the sick girls’ urine with rye meal to create a small cake. This cake was then baked on hot ashes and fed to a dog. The hope was this may harm the witch responsible for hurting the children, who may then reveal themselves.
Ultimately, this attempt at counter-magic backfired. Betty Parris and Abigail Williams grew worse and more in the neighborhood became ill. Now the children began to identify invisible specters, naming Tituba, the beggar Sarah Good, and the bedridden Sarah Osborne.
Interestingly, Mary Sibley, the neighbor who suggested creating a witch cake, was never accused of witchcraft. In late March, she was brought before Samuel Parris and lectured for her error in proposing such an act. She was also made to stand before the Salem Village congregation as Reverend Parris read aloud a paper listing her errors and a statement of her repentance. However, after this penance, Mary Sibley was able to resume her life, evidently free of witchcraft suspicions. In contrast, Tituba was one of the first to be arrested in 1692 and would spend over a year in prison.
The events known as the Salem witch trials took place over the course of a year and a half.
The initial afflictions of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began in January of 1692. It was this illness that would trigger the witchcraft panic. By March, the first arrests were made.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer was formed by Governor William Phips in May, and trials took place before this court from June until September. During this time there were four hanging dates, June 10, July 19, August 19, and September 22. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was disbanded in October, causing a halt in the proceedings. Many continued to languish in jail awaiting their trials.
In January of 1693, the newly formed Massachusetts Supreme Court of Judicature oversaw the remaining cases of those awaiting a verdict in jail. With this new court no longer accepted the highly controversial spectral evidence. Though three more were found guilty, and convictions remained from the previous court, Governor Phips issued last minute pardons for these cases by the end of January. No more executions took place.
Trials would continue over the following months. Some, like Tituba, did not see their day in court until May of 1693.
The Salem witch trials are unique, as they were the largest and deadliest series of witch trials in North American history, and yet came towards the end of the witch hunting era. Witchcraft was no longer a criminal offense under English law by 1736. The Salem witch trials were the last large-scale witch panic to take place in colonial America.
After Governor Phipps pardoned the remaining convictions in January of 1693, those involved in the Salem witch trials attempted to move on with their lives. This would prove to be challenging, as the experience of the Salem witch trials would haunt those living across Essex County for years to come.
Judge Samuel Sewall was the only magistrate to apologize for his role in the Salem witch trials. In 1697, during a colony wide public fast and day of atonement for the sins of the colony (the witch trials included), Boston’s judge Samuel Sewall stood before his congregation as his minister read aloud his statement of apology. It is said, Sewall continued to honor that day for the rest of his life. Twelve jurors also came forward and issued an apology for their role in the witchcraft trials.
In 1710, a committee was formed to consider the claims for restitution by the survivors and loved ones of those impacted by the Salem witch trials. In 1711, legislature approved the reversal of attainder for twelve individuals executed in 1692, and seven of those condemned but not executed. In 1957, a resolution was passed that pardoned “Ann Pudeator and certain other persons.” However, these “other persons” were not formally named in legislature until 2001. The missing names were added to the resolve in October of 2001, formally clearing the names of Bridget Bishop, Susana Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott and Wilmot Redd.
However, one last name remained uncleared, erroneously missed by this legislature. Thanks to the efforts of middle schoolers in North Andover, Massachusetts, and historian Richard Hite, Elizabeth Johnson Jr. was officially exonerated in 2022.
Little is known of the lives of the afflicted girls after 1692. The most is known about the life of Betty Parris, the afflicted daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris. Betty was married to a shoemaker in 1710 in Sudbury, Massachusetts. She and her husband went on to have five children and she died in 1760 in Concord, Massachusetts. Several of the afflicted girls, such as Abigail Williams and Mary Warren, disappeared from the historical record entirely. Others appeared in court records as trouble makers later in life; Mercy Lewis had a child out of wedlock, Mercy Short was excommunicated from her church for adultery, and Sarah Churchwell was recorded for having engaged in premarital sex.
In 1699, Ann Putnam Jr., one of the most active afflicted girls during the Salem witch trials, had to take charge of her younger siblings after her parents both unexpectedly passed away. In 1706, at the age of 29, Ann wished to become a fully communing member of the Salem Village church. As was required, she submitted a conversion statement to the congregation, read aloud by the new minister, Reverend Joseph Green. In this statement she expressed remorse for her role in the Salem witch trials, noting it was “a great delusion of Satan.” Ann would never marry, and ultimately died of unknown causes nine years later.
Regarded today as an important American drama, The Crucible premiered on Broadway in 1953. Written as an allegory for the contemporary actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, this play was never intended to be a factual representation of the witchcraft trials of 1692.
Two of the play’s main plot devices are fictional. The first is the idea there was a forbidden romance between John Proctor and Abigail Williams. The second is the story of a forbidden circle of magic that met at the Salem Village parsonage led by Tituba. While the story of the love affair was likely added to enhance the drama of the plot, there is no evidence to support any connection existed between Abigail Williams and John Proctor. In actuality, John Proctor was 60 years old. Abigail Williams was 11 years old and never worked as a servant in Proctor’s home.
The story of the circle of forbidden magic has deeper roots in the retelling of the witchcraft trials, as this was first suggested by Charles Upham in his 1867 work Salem Witchcraft. However, Upham did not base this theory in primary source evidence, instead creating a narrative of the beginning of the trials that is unsupported by contemporary documents. Nevertheless, this story has lingered for centuries, and remained a dominant theory until the end of the twentieth century. In addition to these stories, many of the details of Miller’s account are imagined (including the ages and names of those involved, the dates of the executions, the people hanged each day, and more).
For a highly detailed breakdown of the historical inaccuracies in The Crucible, check out historian Margo Burns “Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: Fact & Fiction (or Picky, Picky, Picky)”
Though a very large and diverse movement, thousands of individuals today find the title, mythology, and legacy of the witch to be a powerful spiritual, personal, and political identity. The modern witchcraft religion is difficult to define, as it is a deeply personal practice with no singular governing structure. However, it can be generally defined as an peaceful, earth-centered religion that draws on older-pagan traditions.
This form of witchcraft is very different from the definition of a witch in seventeenth-century New England. Modern Witches do not recognize the existence of the Christian Devil and thus do not practice witchcraft as defined by the colonial period.
Though the exact number is unknown, there is a large and visible population of Witches who live and work in Salem today. According to an American Religious Identification Survey, 750,000 Witches were identified living in the United States in 2001. It is expected this number has doubled, if not tripled, by this time.