In seventeenth-century New England a witch was thought 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 material possessions, a better life, power, etc.
At this time, Massachusetts Bay Colony operated under British law. In 1542, the first Witchcraft Act was passed in England, officially defining witchcraft as a capital crime. With this act, those accused of practicing witchcraft were considered felons, having committed a crime against their government.
The afflicted were those believed to be harmed by the effects of witchcraft. Beginning in January of 1692, these individuals showed strange, alarming symptoms. Making strange, foreign sounds, huddling under furniture, and clutching their heads, these symptoms were astounding to their parents and neighbors. Those suffering from this affliction were the ones who “cried out” names, thereby accusing townspeople 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 approximately 150 individuals.
Some historians have speculated the afflicted (particularly Betty Parris and Abigail Williams) may have been suffering from a neurological illness known as 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 is also possible some of the afflicted were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as several were refugees from the wars with Indigenous inhabitants in the north. From a young age, these girls had witnessed murder first-hand, and seen entire villages burned to the ground. There is also evidence to suggest there was outright fakery taking place. In some cases, perhaps seeking attention or influence, some were clearly fabricating their torment. The afflictions can thus best be described as the result of a combination of factors.
There is a theory that ergot, a fungus that, under the right circumstances, grows on rye, may have caused the behavior of the afflicted in 1692. The symptoms of ergot poisoning include vomiting, nausea, numbness, as well as blindness, convulsions, and hallucinations. The possibility that ergot poisoning may explain the behavior of some of the individuals who claimed to be bewitched in 1692 was initially introduced by Linnda Caporael in the April, 1976 edition of Science magazine. In this article, Caporael argued the behavior of the afflicted girls during the Salem witch trials could have been caused by ergot poisoning.
A unique theory for the time, this hypothesis was disproven by scholars almost immediately. Within days historian Stephen Nissenbaum publicly disputed Caporael’s claim, and several months later Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottieb published a full review the theory in the same magazine. Like Nissenbaum, Spanos and Gottieb also concluded ergot poisoning does not match the effects observed in the Salem witch trials.
Despite these definitive responses, popular culture has continued to expound this thesis as fact. Media outlets continue to include this theory in discussions of the Salem witch trials to this day.
Historian Margo Burns has an excellent lecture detailing the history of this theory and how it was debunked. A recording of this lecture given at Boston’s History Camp can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZalQmx8F5E&t=2s
Tituba was the slave of Reverend Samuel Parris. When Reverend Parris moved to Salem Village in 1688, he brought with him two “Spanish Indian” slaves, Tituba and John Indian. It is unclear whether he brought the couple back from Barbados or whether he purchased them in Boston. It is also unclear if they were born in the Caribbean or as some have suggested, south Florida. Another slave in the household, a “Negro lad” of 15, died in 1689. The ages of Tituba and John Indian are unknown.
In 1692, Tituba lived in the home of Reverend Parris along with her husband, John Indian, Parris’ 11-year-old orphaned niece Abigail Williams, Samuel Parris and his wife Elizabeth, and their three children, son Thomas, aged 10, daughter Elizabeth, known as Betty, aged 9, and 5-year-old daughter Susannah. In mid-January of 1692, first Betty and then Abigail suddenly fell ill, stuck by a mysterious, frightening sickness. This illness would later spread to a group of neighborhood girls, and then across Essex County. Tituba was the first to be accused of witchcraft by the afflicted girls, toward the end of February. As a lowly slave with no one to defend her, she was a perfect target.
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 describe elaborate visions. The tormenting of the children, she said, was performed by the specters of Sarah Osborne (alternate spellings Osborn, Osburn, Osbourne), Sarah Good, two other women she didn’t know, and a man in black with white hair. 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. It is speculated that Tituba’s owner Reverend Parris beat her to obtain these confessions. Although Tituba was jailed after her examination, she was not scheduled for execution. The judges thought that, kept alive, Tituba could lead to additional witches.
In early histories of the witchcraft trials, including Charles Upham’s Salem Witchcraft, Tituba gets much of the blame for starting the afflictions and strange behavior. It was said that she taught magic and voodoo to the susceptible girls to relieve the boredom of long winter nights. Arthur Miller included wild scenes of Tituba leading witchy celebrations in the woods in his fictional play The Crucible. There is no evidence to suggest these events ever took place.
It is a common misconception that only women could be 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 often the most likely targets during witch-hunts. This is partially the result of literature written in the early fifteenth-century, which identified women as those most susceptible to the devil’s trickery. This is also because those suspected of witchcraft were often those who did not fit within social norms; older women, past their childbearing years, woman financially independent or living alone, or those known to challenge social roles such as argumentative, outspoken women were often targets during a witch-hunt. As a result, a stereotypical “witch” emerged as an older, irate woman living alone on the outskirts of society.
For more information about women as the targets of witch hunts, see Carol Karlsen’s excellent book “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England.”
With the exception of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death, the following were hanged:
- Bridget Bishop
- George Burroughs
- Martha Carrier
- Martha Corey
- Mary Easty
- Sarah Good
- Elizabeth Howe
- George Jacobs, Sr.
- Susannah Martin
- Rebecca Nurse
- Alice Parker
- Mary Parker
- John Proctor
- Ann Pudeator
- Wilmott Redd
- Margaret Scott
- Samuel Wardwell
- Sarah Wildes
- John Willard
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. Tradition holds that several families came to claim their relatives and buried their bodies privately on their property.
The exception is George Jacobs, whose body may have been found in the nineteenth-century. In 1864, the Fowler family, who purchased a portion of the Jacobs property, uncovered remains in a grave marked by two old stones. The toothless, tall skeleton was seemingly proof that Jacobs’s family had retrieved his body after his hanging and buried it at Northfields. The skeleton was re-interred. Jacobs was again exhumed in the 1950s by the town of Danvers. Stored for decades, his remains were buried for their final time in 1992 at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.
Memorials honoring the victims of the witch trials stand today in both Salem and Danvers.
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, throughout Europe the crime of witchcraft was treated much in the same way as the crime of heresy, and burning was typically (though not exclusively) used as the punishment. However, in England and its colonies, witchcraft was treated in the same way as any felony, and the punishment was execution by hanging.
Following the directions given to them by their neighbor Mary Sibley, Tituba and John Indian prepared a “witch cake” on February 25, 1692. This act was an attempt at counter-magic. Though strongly discouraged, attempts at utilizing magic were still relatively common in Puritan New England. Tituba and John Indian were not alone in utilizing folk charms to attempt to protect the home and ward against evil forces. This charm called for the combination of the sick girls’ urine with rye meal to create a small cake. This cake was then baked and fed to a dog. The hope was this may harm the witch responsible for hurting the children. If the responsible witch was harmed, they may be more easily identified or might step forward and 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 the invisible specters tormenting them, naming Tituba, the beggar Sarah Good, and the bedridden Sarah Osborne.
Interestingly, Mary Sibley, the neighbor who originally 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 brought before the Salem Village congregation and Parris read aloud a paper listing her errors. After this penance, she was able to go back to her regular routine, as the rest of Essex County became further and further embroiled in the witchcraft panic.
The Salem witch trials took place over the course of approximately one year. The initial afflictions of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began in January of 1692. By March, the first arrests were made. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was formed by Governor William Phipps in May, and trials took place before this court until October. During the course of this year there were four hanging dates, June 10, July 19, August 19, and September 22. In January of 1693 a new court was formed to hear the remaining cases of those awaiting a verdict in jail. With this new court, which no longer accepted spectral evidence, eventually all those with remaining convictions were pardoned and their cases dismissed. Slowly, the jails began to empty.
The Salem witch trials are quite unique, in that they were so intense and yet came towards the end of the witch hunting era. Witch-hunts began in Europe in the fifteenth-century and continued until the mid-eighteenth. 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 pick up and 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. After Sewall, twelve jurors also came forward and issued an apology. In 1696, the House of Representatives called for a day of public fasting in acknowledgment of the Salem witch trials. Many of those effected, both as accusers and accused, chose to leave Salem after the witch trials.
In September of 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. On October 17, 1711, legislature approved the reversal of attainder reversals for twelve individuals executed in 1692, and seven of those condemned but not executed. In 1945, a bill was introduced into legislature to clear the last six names, headed by descendants of Ann Pudeator. Twelve years later, in 1957 a resolution was finally 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 finally added to the resolve in October of 2001, formally clearing the names of Bridget Bishop, Susana Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott and Wilmot Redd.
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, disappear from the historical record entirely. Others appear in court records as trouble makers later in life; Mercy Lewis is noted as having had a child out of wedlock, Mercy Short was excommunicated from her church for adultery, and Sarah Churchwell is recorded as having engaged in premarital sex. In 1699, Ann Putnam Jr., one of the central 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.
Samuel Parris’ slave Tituba, one of the first to be accused, was among the last to be released from jail in the Spring of 1693. Samuel Parris seems to have sold Tituba once she was released, and then like so many others, she disappears from the historical record.
The 300th anniversary of the trials served as an opportunity to bring a sense of reconciliation and an appreciation of the lessons of that time. The Salem Witch Trials Memorial was erected in 1992 in recognition of the Tercentenary.
For more information about the aftermath of the Salem witch trials, see Emerson Baker’s book “A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience.”
In the modern world, the word “witchcraft” has taken on a variety of new meanings. Today, thousands participate in a pantheistic religion commonly refereed to as modern-day witchcraft. This religion includes reverence for nature, belief in the rights of others and pride in one’s own spirituality. This religion is commonly called Wicca, though not all those that identify as modern-day witches consider themselves Wiccan. Practitioners of modern-day witchcraft focus on the good and positive in life and in the spirit and entirely reject any connection with the devil. Their beliefs go back to ancient times, long before the advent of Christianity; therefore no ties exist between them and the Christian embodiment of evil. Witchcraft has been confused in the popular mind with pointy black hats, green faces and broomsticks. This is a misrepresentation that witches are anxious to dispel.
Salem, Massachusetts has an enormous population of Neo-pagan practitioners. Many identify as modern-day witches, while some do not use this terminology. It is impossible to know for sure how many Wiccans live in Salem today, however based on a 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 750,000 Wiccans were identified living in the United States. This religion continues to grow considerably, and this number is expected to have doubled if not tripled by this time.
For more reading about modern-day witchcraft and Neo-paganism, see Margot Adler’s “Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshipers and Other Pagans in America.”
Essex Society of Genealogists
“The Essex Society of Genealogists, Inc. (ESOG) has served Massachusetts’ and New England’s genealogical community with live educational presentations, genealogical projects, and publications to facilitate research in this fascinating, historical region. Founded in 1975, as a chapter of the Massachusetts Society of Genealogists, ESOG became an independent society in 1981. The Society is home based at the Marcia Wiswall Lindberg Room of the Lynnfield Public Library. The collection includes approximately 3000 volumes of genealogies and town histories. Also in the collection, are complete runs of the Massachusetts vital records in printed form and on microfiche, microfilm of Essex County census, early probate, and deed records, and many journals and genealogical periodicals. The genealogy reading room also houses some sources for other areas outside of Essex county, such as greater New England, New York, and Atlantic Canada”
Massachusetts Society of Genealogists
“MSOG is made up of chapters throughout Massachusetts: Bristol, Merrimack Valley, Middlesex, and Worcester. Each chapter has its own governing board of officers, annual meeting, and election. Each chapter is a member of the state board and is represented by the chapter’s president. Chapters do not meet during the months of July and August. MSOG offers memberships for the Individual, Family, and Organization. Membership is from September 1st through August 31st. Join today and begin enjoying the many benefits of being a MSOG member. Join/renew now for 2018-2019.”
New England Historical Genealogical Society
“We are located in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, and are America’s leading research center for genealogists of every skill level. Visitors have access to millions of documents, manuscripts, records, books, microfilms, photographs, artifacts, electronic resources, and other items that preserve and reveal our nation’s history. NEHGS genealogists, archivists, and librarians are available to assist patrons with their research inquiries and provide orientations to the library collections.”
Massachusetts Historical Society
“Founded in 1791, the Massachusetts Historical Society is an invaluable resource for American history, life, and culture. Its extraordinary collections tell the story of America through millions of rare and unique documents, artifacts, and irreplaceable national treasures.”
American Antiquarian Society
“The American Antiquarian Society is a national research library of American history and culture through 1876”
Massachusetts Genealogical Council
“MGC stands in a nationwide community of genealogists and historians asking for access to public records and supporting the preservation of history.”
University of Virginia Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html
University Missouri Kansas City Law School: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/salem.htm
Salem Witch Trials facts: http://salemwitchtrialsfacts.com/