History and Education

The 1692 Salem Witch Trials

In January of 1692, nine-year-old Betty Parris and eleven-year-old  Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece of Salem Village minister Reverend Samuel Parris, suddenly feel ill. Making strange, foreign sounds, huddling under furniture, and clutching their heads, the girls’ symptoms were alarming and astounding to their parents and neighbors. When neither prayer nor medicine succeeded in alleviating the girls’ agony, the worried parents turned to the only other explanation; the children were suffering from the effects of witchcraft. As word of the illness spread throughout Salem Village, and eventually Essex County, others began to fall ill with the same alarming symptoms. The afflicted complained disembodied spirits were stabbing them, choking them, and jabbing them with pins. Soon names were cried out as the afflicted began to identify these specters. Neighbors, acquaintances, and total strangers were named in the statements and examinations that followed. Gossip and stories from decades prior were dredged up as fear continued to spread. Over the course of the year 1692, between 150-200 people were jailed for witchcraft. Ultimately, 14 women and 5 men were hanged, one man was tortured to death, and at least give people perished in prison. This was the largest series of witchcraft trials to ever take place in North America, and would be the last large-scale witch panic to take place in the English colonies.

To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which these events occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of seventeenth-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, the recent smallpox epidemic, the ever-present threat of attack by Indigenous tribes and their French allies, boundary and border disputes between neighbors. These factors alone created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. In the second half of the seventeenth-century, these fears were made worse by a growing factional conflict in Salem Village, rising inflation, and the removal of the Massachusetts Bay Charter in 1684. To many it seemed the Puritan ideal of a “City on a Hill” was slipping away, decades of work suddenly pulled from their grasp. Many wondered if Satan’s forces had infiltrated their new land.

When the original charter was revoked in 1684,  the colony was left to exist in a state of legal limbo for years. When the new charter finally arrived in May of 1692, the growing number of witchcraft accusations prompted newly appointed Governor William Phips to hastily create a special court, the Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to determine), to oversee these cases. As a special court created amidst an ever increasing witchcraft panic, the magistrates made a series unusual choices– the most dangerous being the decision to allow the use of spectral evidence. At this time, some believed witches were able to project a ghostly version of themselves beyond their physical body, which could be sent to torment unsuspecting victims. This form of evidence had never been used in a colonial English witchcraft trial before, and was controversial from the start.

The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem. Goodwife Bishop was found guilty and hanged on June 10. Eighteen people, from all stations of life, followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days. Finally, due to a combination of factors, including numerous petitions and letters authored by the accused, their family members, and local ministers, as well as the accusation of individuals from the highest ranks of society (including the Governor’s own wife!) Governor Phips disbanded the court in October.

Trials resumed in January of 1693, this time with a new court, the Supreme Court of Judicature, the same court we use in Massachusetts to this day. This court differed from the first in that it no longer accepted spectral evidence. With this standard of evidence gone, most were found not-guilty and released. Though a few convictions, from both the old and new court, remained, in late January Governor Phips stepped in once again and issued last minute reprieves. The Salem witch trials were over.

As years passed, apologies were offered, and restitution was made to some of victims and their families. In 1697, the Massachusetts General Court ordered a day of fasting and prayer in atonement for errors made by the colony, including the witchcraft trials. On this day one judge, Samuel Sewall, and 12 jurors, came forward to apologize for their roles in the Salem witch trials. The other magistrates never admitted there had been a miscarriage of justice, going to their graves believing they did what was best for the colony.

Though a resolution was passed by the General Court in 1711 which reversed the attainder (restored the civil liberties) in the case of many of those condemned in 1692, seven individuals were not included by name, and thus technically remained convicted of witchcraft. In 1945, a bill was introduced into legislature to clear six names, headed by descendants of Ann Pudeator. Twelve years later, a resolution was  passed that pardoned “Ann Pudeator and certain other persons.” However, these “other persons” were yet to be formally named. Five of the missing names were finally added to the resolve in October of 2001, formally declaring the innocence of Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmott Redd. Unfortunately, one last name, that of Elizabeth Johnson Jr., was missed in the 2001 resolve. Inspired by a talk given by historian Richard Hite, a group of middle school students in North Andover, Massachusetts, took it upon themselves to clear the remaining name. Though measures have been taken to right this mistake, Elizabeth Johnson Jr.’s name has yet to be formally cleared in Massachusetts.

Since its opening in 1972 in a renovated historic church building, the Salem Witch Museum has served as a distinctive local landmark and major contributor to the city’s cultural and historic landscape. For the past five decades, the museum has told the true story of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and provided context for understanding the phenomenon of witch-hunts and witchcraft from the fifteenth-century into the modern-day.

The museum was founded during Salem’s push to redevelop its core and market itself as a city of unique historical importance in the late 1960s and 70s. Public interest in Salem’s connection to the witch trials of 1692 was piqued by the publication and Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, in the 1950s. However, fascination with everything related to witches and witchcraft increased dramatically after several episodes of the TV sitcom Bewitched were filmed at various locations throughout Salem and aired across the country in 1970. The museum was founded shortly thereafter to educate the public about the 1692 trials.

The mission of the Salem Witch Museum is to be the voice to the innocent victims of witch-hunts, from 1692 to the present day. By understanding this history, through audiovisual displays, guided tours, educational events, and discussion, we strive to highlight the stories of the innocent individuals targeted during witchcraft trials.

Education Department – [email protected] 

 

Interested in learning more? 

Our FAQ page has been developed to answer some of the most common questions related to this topic. You can find a link to this page here: https://salemwitchmuseum.com/faqs/

A recommended reading list can be found here: https://salemwitchmuseum.com/2020/05/12/recommended-reading-list/

Our YouTube page includes recordings of previous virtual events as well as a series of educational videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzzhxiEO3OCyZesBkxonZmQ 

The Salem Witch Museum Timeline

An overview of The Salem Witch Museum from its founding in 1972 to the present.

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The Salem Witch Museum: Past and Present

For the past four decades, the museum has told the true story behind the Salem witch trials of 1692 and provided context for understanding the phenomenon of "witch hunts" and witchcraft in general from the Middle Ages to modern times.

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The Salem Witch Museum Offers Free Admission for Residents

The Salem Witch Museum has offered free admission to Salem residents for the past several years. With the museum's recent exterior conservation and planned redesign of its web site, administrators are hoping that more Salem residents will be drawn to its doors.

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The Salem Witch Museum Launches Major Conservation Project

After a full eight months of preservation work to the museum's brownstone and brick exterior - costing upwards of $500,000 - the classic Gothic Revival structure won't look any different than it did before all the work began. Every one of its crenellations, arched windows, buttresses and battlements will appear to be untouched.

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Witches: Evolving Perceptions

Our second exhibit, “Witches: Evolving Perceptions” examines the European witchcraft trials, how the word “witch” has evolved and changed over time, and the phenomenon of witch-hunting.

An audio tour provides an overview of the European witchcraft trials of the early modern era. Witch-hunts began in Europe in the fifteenth century and continued well into the eighteenth century. During this time, shifts in religious thought, evolving superstitions, and general legal and social changes combined with a period of particular fear and tension due to massive outbreaks of disease, major religious wars, economic shifts, and irregular weather patterns. This dangerous mixture led to centuries of witch-hunts across Europe and its colonies, resulting in the deaths of at least 45,000 (though the exact number remains unknown). This exhibit considers how and why witch trials began, where they were the most intense, how the stereotypical image of a witch emerged in popular memory, and what the word “witch” means in the modern-day.

 

In 2019, we had the great joy of announcing the acquisition of a first edition of L. Frank Baum’s classic novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Considered to be America’s first fairy tale, this novel is responsible for several changes to the image of the witch in the twentieth-century. This very special book is currently on display in this exhibit.

The tour concludes with a discussion of a formula for a witch-hunt and how this formula may be applied to three twentieth-century examples. When studying the history of witchcraft, it is important to understand that witchcraft was a crime created and imposed on innocent people. No individual actually had the power to cause hailstorms, spread mass disease, or fly through the night to a gathering of evil beings. This was a crime imposed on innocent people during times of mass fear and hysteria. While the legal prosecution of witchcraft came to an end in the eighteenth century, the pattern of behavior that caused witch-hunts can be identified throughout history and in the modern day. Visitors are encouraged to submit their own example they believe fits this formula, and may do this online at https://salemwitchmuseum.com/witch-hunt.

We encourage you to explore more in Salem and learn more about the Salem Witch Trials on these sites.