People of the Witchcraft Trials:
Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Despite being generally known as the “Salem Witch Trials,” the preliminary hearings in 1692 were actually conducted in several towns across the province, including Salem Village (now Danvers), Ipswich, Andover, and Salem Towne. The most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Towne.
The Puritans of New England were a significant group of English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who had grown discontent with the Church of England. They contended that The Church of England had become a product of political struggles and man-made doctrines and that they were beyond reform. Escaping persecution from church leadership and the King, they came to America.
Before the Witch Trials, the Puritans were floundering about, trying to find a purpose. Until about 1660, most “Americans” had a common goal; working together to forge a new frontier; but, after the Puritan colony was well established, attention turned to gain, both materially and spiritually. The Puritan colonists did not care for the English political leaders. Instead, they idolized the founding fathers, like those who came over on the Mayflower. However, by 1692, the founding fathers were dead and gone. The majority of the population was initially born in England, but, over the years, the tide changed, and in the late 1600s, America was filled with people born on her soil.
There was no separation between church and state, and people who did not attend meetings were suspect and could be punished. Many towns had a rule that a man could not vote if he was not a member of a church. Because lying was considered a sin, it was punishable by law. Hangings were not common; but, when one occurred it was a form of entertainment that young children were encouraged to attend. The most popular part of the hanging was the last words when the person about to be executed would say goodbye to his or her family. Puritans reasoned allowing children to witness hangings would teach them the consequence of immoral behavior.
Life was an exhausting array of chores with little amusement. The average family made their own bread, butter, cider, ale, clothes, candles, and just about everything else they used. Every member of the family could expect to work from morning to night. Houses were dark, damp, and depressing. A candle was always burning, even in the middle of the day because the tiny windows let in so little light.
Most people could not write, and signed their names on legal papers with their “mark.” Signing an “X” was unfashionable to young girls (and even grown women), who liked to make curly cue hearts and other inventive designs. Because most people couldn’t read, they didn’t care (or know) how their name was spelled, and, since the court reporter couldn’t very well ask an illiterate person how to spell his or her name, the spelling depended on who was taking the notes. Many of the official documents spell individual names differently. Mary Easty was also Esty, Osborn, Osburn, Cory, Corey, and so on. Even learned and educated men used loose grammar, and did not worry about proper spelling.
Normal families had 5-10 children of their own, and it was not uncommon to have an extra child living in the home. By the age of seven, children were given their full share of responsibility and expected to perform to adult standards. During this time, New England had one of the lowest rates of infant mortality in America. Nine out of ten infants born there survived at least until age five, and perhaps three-quarters lived to see adulthood. In more rural areas as many as 25% of children died before the age of one, and only about half made it to adulthood.
Most marriages ended with the early death of a spouse. A couple was lucky to get seven years out of each other. Second and third marriages were common. The man was head of the household. A woman might offer her opinion to her husband behind closed doors, and even prove a valuable ally, but, she was expected to concede to her husband in all matters. She could not own property without her husband’s permission, or vote. It was assumed that women were the weaker sex in every way, and if she did not follow her husband’s rules, he was encouraged to use physical abuse as a form of “correction.”
Though Salem was never attacked, there was a real fear of Indians, especially due to an orphan from Maine who had watched his parents killed by Indians.
With the Puritan people, the Bible was the law. It was taken literally, and sins like adultery and sodomy could be punished by death. During this time, the Puritan faith had been taking some blows, and, because there were few new people joining the ranks, ministers were constantly preaching about the falling ranks and the rise of the devil. These same ministers commonly spoke of the virtue of being a good wife, which was all a woman could really hope to be. A woman would be frowned upon if she owned her own land, didn’t have a lot of children, or, was in any way, outspoken or different. In the meantime, many people dabbled in the occult and practiced white magic. Simple wives tales like fortune-telling were passed down from generation to generation, though it was considered evil and ministers were often preaching about the dangers of inviting the devil in through the occult.
There was also a general distrust and suspicion at the time. For instance, if a cow suddenly died, its owner would likely think one of his neighbors had cursed him. A man would not dare to question God’s judgment; he just questioned it being aimed at him. If he searched his soul and found he had done nothing to deserve the death of his cow, he would blame the misfortune on the devil acting through a witch. To deny God was unquestionable, so, by the same token, to deny the existence of the devil would be just as blasphemous. The Bible was taken to be the complete truth, and men who could read would consult the Bible for personal, as well as legal matters.
The Puritan lifestyle was stringent and righteous, and, they were not the loving and forgiving type one might expect in such a religious community. According to Marion Starkey, a 20th Century author, and historian, if a man had a toothache, the Puritans figured he had in some way sinned with his tooth. This feeling was so strong that some of the accused witches confessed in bewilderment and wracked their brains to find something they had done in the past to allow the devil to use them in such a manner. The Puritans used fasting to honor God and unite the community in various causes, even though meals were very important, and usually the only time in the day when a person could sit and relax for a moment.
To the Puritans, there was little separation between dreams and real life – there being a reason for everything, believing that dreams contained prophesies revelations, and truths that were more real than daily life.
Massachusetts was a colony of England, and was forced to run things according to a set of rules, called a “Charter,” handed down from the English king. However, just to get word to England would take 10 weeks by ship. In March 1692, when the first “witch scare” broke out, the previous charter had been long eliminated. This meant there was no leader, no rules, and the nearest thing to a leader was in England negotiating for a new charter. Because of the situation, the accused witches were examined, and held in jail, but, not tried. In May, Increase Mather, a Puritan minister who was involved with the government of the colony and the administration of Harvard College, sailed back from England with a new charter and a new governor. This is when the actual trials began.
All his life, Thomas Putnam, a resident of Salem Village, had been resentful of rich families, like the Porters, the richest family in the village. Both families grew up in Salem Towne, but the merchant Porters were more worldly and successful than the farming Putnams. No matter how hard he tried, Thomas Putnam, an influential man in his own right, just felt he couldn’t measure up to the Porters, who had more land and more money. But, what really bothered Thomas Putnam was that the Porters were considered smarter than the Putnams because they were better spoken. As a result, Thomas set out to break away from Salem Towne and form Salem Village; but, the township wasn’t eager to let the property go.
Salem Village was allowed to build a meeting house, but, it was to act as a franchise of the Salem Towne meeting house. Thomas Putnam tried to pull rank by handpicking the ministers, but, this only served to divide the community in half; those who supported Putnam and his choice of a minister and those who hated Putnam, and wouldn’t support any choice he made. In the end, all the unsuspecting ministers, who were sometimes not even paid, would eventually leave Salem Village because of the conflict.
Salem Village was finally allowed to act on its own, and Samuel Parris was the first minister to hold the job for the budding community.
The Witch, According to the Salem Puritan
There were many beliefs among the Puritans of what constituted a “Witch.” They thought that witches were notorious for killing otherwise healthy infants and that they had pets, known as “familiars,” to do their evil bidding. The familiars would drink the blood of their witch masters from an extra “teat” located somewhere on its body, usually near the genitals as well as having the particular habit of sucking between the index and middle finger.
Witches were also thought to be able to “curse” those who had irritated them. They were also believed to have made a pact with the devil and were unable to say the “Our Father” prayer without making mistakes.
In Salem Village in the winter months of 1691-92, 9-year-old Elizabeth “Betty” Parris, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece (respectively) of Reverend Samuel Parris and his wife Elizabeth, began to have fits. The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions. The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. Village doctor, William Griggs, was called and he could find no physical evidence of any ailment and gave his opinion that the girls were victims of witchcraft. John Hale, a minister in nearby Beverly, described their condition as “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect.”
Betty Parris was the first to claim her illness was due to having been “bewitched”. Their contortions, convulsions, and outbursts of gibberish at first baffled everyone, especially when other girls began to show similar symptoms. After Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr. also began to show signs of strange behavior. Shortly after her illness, the Salem witch trials began, with the girls accusing neighbors of witchcraft.
The first three people accused and arrested for allegedly afflicting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard was Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. The accusation by Ann Putnam, Jr. is seen by historians as evidence that a family feud may have been a major cause of the Witch Trials. Salem Village was the home of a vicious rivalry between the Putnam and Porter families and most of the residents were somehow engaged in this rivalry. It was so bad, that Salem Village citizens would often engage in heated debates that would escalate into full-fledged fighting.
Sarah Good was a homeless beggar who was accused of witchcraft because of her appalling reputation. At her trial, she was accused of rejecting the puritanical expectations of self-control and discipline when she chose to “torment and scorn children instead of leading them towards the path of salvation.” Sarah Osborne rarely attended church meetings and was accused of witchcraft because the Puritans believed that she had her own self-interests in mind. The local residents of Salem Village also found it distasteful when she attempted to control her son’s inheritance from her previous marriage. Tituba was a slave of a different ethnicity than the Puritans and an easy target for accusations. She was accused of attracting young girls like Abigail Williams, and Betty Parris with enchanting stories of sexual encounters with demons, swaying the minds of men, and fortune-telling, which stimulated the imaginations of young girls.
All three of these women were seen as outcasts of and fit the description of the “usual suspects” for witchcraft accusations. No one stood up for them and they were brought before the local magistrates and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692. Afterward, they were sent to jail and numerous other accusations followed.
Martha Corey, Dorcas Good, and Rebecca Nurse of Salem Village, and Rachel Clinton of nearby Ipswich were soon accused. Martha Corey had voiced skepticism about the credibility of the girls’ accusations, drawing attention to herself. The charges against her and Rebecca Nurse deeply troubled the community because both were full members of the church. Dorcas Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was only four-years-old, and when questioned by the magistrates her answers were construed as a confession, implicating her mother. In Ipswich, Rachel Clinton was arrested for witchcraft at the end of March on charges unrelated to the afflictions of the girls in Salem Village.