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A girl is forced to disrobe in a Salem Court so that she can be checked for marks that would identify her as a witch. From a painting by Thompkins H. Matteson.

Part I: The Witches of Salem: The Events of 1692

Sometime toward the end of January, 1692, Betty Parris, nine year-old daughter of the Reverend Samuel Parris, became ill. She suffered from convulsions that contorted her body. At times she would cry out and cower under chairs as if frightened of something. Soon her thirteen-year-old orphaned cousin, Abigail, who also lived in the Parris household, showed the same symptoms. Reverend Parris and his wife did not recognize the malady and had the girls examined by several doctors. The physicians could find nothing wrong with the girls and by mid-February Dr. William Griggs declared that he thought "the evil hand is upon them." After that the word spread quickly through the tiny community of Salem Village: "There are witches among us."

The events that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 are still shocking and controversial even today. Before they were over, 19 people would be hung, four would die in jail, and one would be tortured to death. In its wake the proceedings would leave shattered families, suspicious neighbors and an embarrassment to Massachusetts that the state government would still be apologizing for three hundred years later. While the "why" of what happened at Salem is still up for debate even today, the "what" is fairly clear. In 1692 Salem was a small, somewhat poor, village with a population of around 550 people. It lay just inland from the much larger port of Salem Town and the residents were mostly of the Puritan sect. These Protestants had left Europe and settled in the new world hoping to be able to worship God as they pleased. Ironically, even though they'd been forced to leave their homes for religious reasons themselves, the Puritans tended to be very intolerant of anybody else who broke their strict moral and legal codes.

A Hard Life

Life in Salem Village was grim. The winters were cold and forbidding and good weather brought on the need for hard work. Like any group of people living closely together, the Puritans had their "haves" and "have nots" and disputes over land ownership were frequent. The possibility of an outbreak of the deadly disease smallpox was a constant concern. Some of the villagers were also at odds with their spiritual leader, the Reverend Parris, who was demanding a raise. Attacks by Native Americans had become common among the towns of Massachusetts in the preceding years, and this danger also played upon the villagers' minds. Finally, and perhaps most foreboding of all, this was not the first time the specter of witchcraft had raised its head in Salem Village. Four years before a woman named Goody Glover had been accused of witchcraft and hanged.

Over the following weeks, whatever was happening to Betty and Abigail seemed to spread to other girls in the community. To most observers their fits seemed beyond anything the girls could have created themselves. The Reverend John Hale from a nearby village wrote, " These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and back turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any epileptick fits, or natural disease to effect."

Soon the "afflicted" in the village numbered seven, ranging in age from nine to twenty. Betty, the youngest, was sent away and spared what was to follow. The others continued to act strangely and fears that they all were under a witch's evil spell grew. Finally, one of the afflicted girl's aunt, Mary Stibley, induced the Parris' family slave, Tituba, to bake a "witch cake" to reveal the source of the evil. The cake, made of rye and the girls' urine, was fed to the Parris's family dog, who Stibley believed to be an evil messenger. The cake and the dog revealed nothing, however, and earned Stibley a public rebuke from Rev. Parris, who thought that using "white magic" to combat "black magic" was unwise as he found all magic to be the tools of the devil.

The Accusations Begin

A woman is hanged for witchcraft in Salem.

As the end of February approached, pressured mounted on the girls to reveal the name of the witch or witches that tormented them or somehow explain their bizarre behavior. Finally, seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard named the Parris' slave, Tituba, as the witch.

Not much is known about Tituba other than she grew up on the island of Barbados. She was likely of Native American background, but nobody knows for sure. What is known is that during the preceding winter months she kept some of the girls entertained with stories of her native land with its strange traditions, games and magic. In quick succession two other women were also named as witches by the girls: Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn. The girls claimed that the women "or specters in their shapes did grievously torment them." Both the women were unpopular within the community: Good smoked a pipe and was bad-tempered. Osborn did not attend church and was entangled in a land dispute over her first husband's will.

To be accused of witchcraft in those days was no minor matter. In 1641 the English law had made the practice a capital crime. It was thought that witches, who could be either male or female, had made a pact with Satan agreeing to serve him in return for certain powers which included the ability to curse other people. Tituba, Good and Osborn were arrested on February 29th. The next day after questioning, which surely included a beating, Tituba confessed "the devil came to me and bid me to serve him." She also confirmed that Good and Osborn were her sister witches. Her confession also made mention of a mysterious man in black (perhaps the devil) and tales of flying through the air on a broomstick.

Other accusations followed: Rebecca Nurse, Martha Cory, Sarah Cloyce, and Elizabeth Proctor were arrested in March and April. On April 11, John Proctor, husband of Elizabeth, became the first man arrested for witchcraft after he protested the arrest of his wife. Mary Warren, a maidservant of the Proctors and one of the "afflicted" girls, recanted her accusations after her employers were jailed saying that she and the other girls were lying. The other girls immediately turned against Mary and accused her of witchcraft. She quickly changed sides again saying that she was lying about lying.

On May 27th the newly-elected governor, William Phipps, commissioned the Court of Oyer and Terminer to try these cases. The "afflicted girls" were star witnesses for the prosecution. The court also allowed the use of "spectral evidence" which meant that the girls could testify to seeing invisible entities that nobody else could. The result of this was that no matter how wild a story the girls made up, even though there was no way to corroborate it with independent witnesses or evidence, it was still believed. This would even play itself out in the middle of the courtroom. If a defendant looked like that might win an acquittal, the girls might suddenly start screaming and contorting their bodies as if in pain. The girls would claim that the ghost, or "specter," of the defendant, which only the they could see, was attacking them.

The "Witches" are Put to Death

On June 2, 1692, Bridget Bishop became the first person to be tried and convicted of witchcraft. Eight days later she was hung on Gallows Hill. By July 19 there was a second round of trials and convictions and five more women thought to be witches were hung. More trials followed. August 19 saw five more hanged, mostly men. John Proctor was among the group. His wife Elizabeth only escaped the noose because she was pregnant.

A statue of a Puritan stands in front of the Witch Museum in modern Salem town.

Before the trials were over, 141 people were arrested for witchcraft. Ironically, only the honest people died. If one was willing to confess to witchcraft they were forgiven. In fact, not one person who actually confessed to witchcraft was hanged or even brought to trial . This forgiveness came with a price, however, as the accused were pressed to name other witches in the community. While some people did this reluctantly, others probably found it an excellent opportunity to settle old scores.

Sometimes this backfired, however. Giles Cory, who earlier had refused to defend his wife when she was accused of witchcraft, found himself under arrest as family members of witches were looked at with considerable suspicion. Through a quirk of law, a person could not be tried unless they submitted a plea to the court. Giles Cory refused to do this, and to make him cooperate sheriff's officers administered the Peine Forte Et Dure to him. This torture consisted of putting the person under a large wooden board and piling rocks on top of them until they said what you wanted them to say. Giles Clory did not cooperate, however, and after two days of being crushed, died.

The "afflicted girls," who for the most part were servants, orphans and the weakest members of their society, suddenly realized they had great power. They could strike fear into the hearts of even the most powerful families in the village. Their names were on everybody's lips as far away as Boston and they were invited to other towns in the area to help expose witches. More and more people were arrested and the hysteria spread through Massachusetts.

An End to the Madness

It is hard to say how long this would have continued if the Governor's own wife had not been accused of witchcraft. This prompted him to take control of the situation. On October 8th he ordered that spectral evidence no longer be allowed at trials. At the end of the month he prohibited any more arrests, released many of those in jail, and dissolved the court. Though the hangings were over at that point, it still took until May of 1693 before all those charged with witchcraft were either released or pardoned.

What happened at Salem lay as an open wound in the Massachusetts colony for many years. In 1697 the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for what had happened at Salem. Samuel Sewall, who was one of the judges, publicly confessed to his error and guilt in the fraudulent convictions. Nine years later Ann Putnam Jr., one of the "afflicted girls," publicly apologized for her part in the tragedy. The village of Salem, prompted by the shadow of the trials, renamed itself to Danvers in 1752. Finally, in 1957, the State of Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692.

Visitors can grab a bite to eat the the creepy Crypt Cafe.

Today the town of Salem revels in its connection to the rather sordid history of the nearby village. Visitors can go and visit a memorial dedicated to those that died or learn about what happened from museums, historical plays or tours. They can even have lunch at the Crypt Café which has an appropriately creepy atmosphere.

The question that still haunts us today, however, is why did it happen? What caused the girls to behave strangely and accuse their neighbors? Almost none seriously believes that witches were responsible. If Satan was not the source of this tragedy, what was?

Part II: The Witches of Salem: Theories and Speculations

 

Copyright Lee Krystek 2006. All Rights Reserved.