The Salem, Massachusetts Witchcraft Hysteria

Puritan Woman

Puritan Woman

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.

Salem Village

Salem Village, Massachusetts

Salem Village, Massachusetts

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.

The Afflicted

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 Accused

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.

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