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, 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. 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 five 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. However, 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 a 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 procedural 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.
The first to be tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer was Bridget Bishop of Salem Town. 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 levels of society (including the Governor’s own wife!) Governor Phips disbanded the Court of Oyer and Terminer 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 testimony. With this controversial 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 the years passed, some offered apologies for their role in the witchcraft trials and restitution was eventually paid to many of the 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. This last case was finally resolved in the summer of 2022.