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.