Witches in Puritan Salem

During the winter of 1691/2, the Reverend Samuel Parris found his home in disarray. His 9-year-old daughter, Betty, and his 11-year-old niece, Abigail, were screaming, running through the house, and having fits. Parris sent for a doctor, who suggested witchcraft might be the culprit. What followed was a moment in American history filled with fear, paranoia, and violence.

To discover who bewitched the girls, Mary Sibley, a local woman, directed the husband of Parris’s slave, Tituba, to make a witch-cake (a urine filled cake fed to the dog). When Parris found out he was furious, and Sibley had to publicly apologize to the church’s congregation. Witchcraft accusations began in earnest as more girls began behaving strangely, and a hysteria gripped the community over the perceived ubiquity of evil forces. Tituba, Sarah Good (and her 5-year-old daughter Dorothy), Martha Corey, and Rebecca Nurse were some of the first to be arrested.

The trials did not follow standard legal procedure. The accusers were never questioned separately, and they were allowed to directly examine those they accused. Examinations were interrupted by girls fainting, screaming, and seeing apparitions. They claimed to be bitten or beaten with sticks and rods, they turned cold, and their arms and legs would lock up. Accounts of the proceedings suggest the spectacle was terrifying for those in attendance. At Elizabeth Proctor’s examination on April 11, the girls had fits and were struck dumb in front of the judge’s eyes. Abigail Williams took advantage of the frenzy, and by the end of the examination John Proctor also found himself arrested for witchcraft.

Many people were charged and convicted of witchcraft over the summer and fall of 1692. 20 were executed, and the rest languished in prison. Some died in the deplorable conditions. The first execution (of Bridget Bishop) occurred on June 10th. Sarah Good and Rebecca Nurse died with 3 others on July 19th. John Proctor was executed along with 4 others on August 19th, including the Reverend George Burroughs. Elizabeth Proctor, who was scheduled to hang with her husband John, was granted a temporary stay of execution due to her pregnancy. Giles Corey had the dubious honor of being the only person officially “pressed” to death in American history (a torture whereby heavy stones are placed on a person’s chest until they die) on September 19th. Martha Corey was hanged with 7 others on September 22nd.

When the tides finally turned, it took some time for the mess to be sorted out. Families had been torn apart, farms were in ruins, and the community was in tatters. Although many were legally cleared by 1711, it wasn’t until 1957 that Massachusetts issued a formal apology and finally cleared the names of everyone involved in the trials. In 1992, the 300th anniversary of the events of 1692, a memorial was built to honor the victims of the Salem witch trials.