A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials

A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials

Between early 1692 and mid-1693, the Salem witch trials took place in colonial Massachusetts. More than 200 persons were charged with witchcraft (the devil’s magic), and 20 were executed.

Some of the accused were pardoned and their families were compensated by colonial officials in 1711. However, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., the last condemned Salem “witch” whose name had yet to be cleared, was formally exonerated only in July 2022. The story of the trials has become synonymous with paranoia and injustice since the 17th century. The witch hunt, fueled by xenophobia, religious extremism, and long-brewing societal tensions, continues to captivate the popular imagination more than 300 years later.

Witch Hunting — Tony Fels

Salem is tense.

Many religions, including Christianity, taught in the medieval and early modern ages that the devil could give persons known as witches the power to harm others in exchange for their loyalty. From the 1300s to the end of the 1600s, a “witchcraft craze” swept over Europe. Thousands of alleged witches, usually women, were executed. Even though the Salem trials occurred as the European craze was winding down, local factors explain their initiation.

The English monarchs William and Mary began a war with France in the American colonies in 1689. The battle, known to colonists as King William’s War, decimated portions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia, and Quebec, driving refugees into the county of Essex—specifically, Salem Village—in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The displaced individuals put a strain on Salem’s resources, exacerbating the already-existing conflict between families with ties to the port’s wealth and others who relied on agriculture. The Reverend Samuel Parris, who became Salem Village’s first ordained pastor in 1689 and immediately earned a reputation for his harsh ways and selfish disposition, was also a source of contention. The Puritans believed that all of the fightings was the work of the devil.

History of the Salem Witch Trials - History of Massachusetts Blog

Parris’ daughter Elizabeth (or Betty), age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, began suffering “fits” in January 1692. They yelled, flung objects, made odd noises, and contorted themselves into bizarre positions. The supernatural, according to a local doctor, was to blame. Ann Putnam Jr., a 12-year-old girl, had similar experiences.

On February 29, under pressure from colonial officials who tried local cases, magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed three women for their plight: Tituba, a Caribbean woman enslaved by the Parris family; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.

The witch hunt has begun.

Beginning on March 1, 1692, the three ladies were taken before the local magistrates and examined for many days. Osborne and Good both claimed innocence. “The devil appeared to me and begged me to serve him,” Tituba said. She painted detailed pictures of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds, and a “tall man with white hair” who wanted her to sign his book. She confirmed signing the book and stated that there were three other witches out to harm the Puritans.

Five myths about the Salem witch trials - The Washington Post

After the seeds of paranoia were established, a barrage of allegations rained down over the next six months. The accusations leveled against Martha Corey, a devout member of the church in Salem Village, alarmed the community; if she could be a witch, anyone could. Magistrates even interrogated Good’s 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy, whose cautious responses were misinterpreted as a confession. When the colony’s vice governor, Thomas Danforth, and his subordinates attended the hearings in April, the questioning became more serious.

Dozens of persons from Salem and other Massachusetts towns were interrogated. On May 27, 1692, Governor William Phips established a Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to determine) for the counties of Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex. Bridget Bishop, an older woman notorious for her gossipy tendencies and immorality, was the first alleged witch tried before the special court. When asked if she had committed witchcraft, Bishop replied, “I am as innocent as the unborn child.” The defense must not have been compelling, because she was judged guilty and became the first person to be hanged on what was eventually known as Gallows Hill on June 10.

Cotton Mather, a respected priest, addressed a letter to the court just a few days after it was founded, pleading with it not to allow spectral evidence—testimony regarding dreams and visions. The court mostly ignored this plea, condemning five persons to death by hanging in July, five more in August, and eight in September. Following in the footsteps of his son Cotton, Increase Mather, then-president of Harvard, rejected the use of spectral evidence on October 3: “It would be better for ten accused witches to escape than one innocent person to be executed.” In reaction to these requests and the interrogation of his wife as a suspected witch, Phips prohibited additional arrests and released numerous accused witches. On October 29, he disbanded the Court of Oyer and Terminer, replacing it with a Superior Court of Judicature, which barred spectral evidence and sentenced only three of 56 defendants.

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