The Salem, Massachusetts Witchcraft Hysteria

The First Examination

Examination of a witch

Examination of a witch

Sarah Good was brought out first. She adamantly denied hurting the girls and indicated she thought Sarah Osborne might be a witch. Then, Sarah Osborne was brought forth, denying any role in the afflictions. She was the first of the accused to bring up the point that the devil could be using her likeness without permission, but this did not sway the judges. During the questioning of both of these women, the “afflicted girls” would scream in agony, go into trances, and copy every movement Good and Sarah Osborne made.

Tituba came out last. At first, she denied harming the girls, claiming she loved Betty and would never hurt her, but, the “afflicted girls” were screaming that Tituba was hurting them at that very moment.

Soon, Tituba realized her claims of innocence were falling on deaf ears and changed her story. She began to tell the shocked audience about late night broomstick trips with Good and Osborne, familiars in the shape of yellow birds, a grotesque animal with the head of a woman, and most alarming, a tall, male witch leader from Boston who carried with him the devil’s book, which had at least nine signatures, though Tituba couldn’t read who they were.

She described how the devil tempted her with “pretty things,” and how Good and Osborne pressed her to hurt the girls. Tituba’s confession had a number of consequences; it lent credibility to the girls, but more importantly, it scared the wits out of everyone present. Even the “afflicted girls” remained silent while Tituba wove her story. The villagers were dismayed to realize the witch problem was bigger than they had imagined and set about trying to find the seven witches who had made their mark in the tall man from Boston’s evil book.

The Afflictions Intensify

Afflicted Girl

Afflicted Girl

To all who saw, the fits seemed genuine. At one point, a girl who was not named claimed to be watching the specter of a ghost wrapped in a white sheet float about the crowded room. Her father snatched into the air in the direction she pointed and mysteriously produced a torn piece of sheet. Events like this cause present-day historians to assume the afflictions were not only faked but facilitated by adults who knew they were fake. Because of his bad reputation, most people assume the girl and father in this story are Ann and Thomas Putnam, but, the record does not mention names.

The “afflicted girls” were a scary and convincing sight, bleeding, rigid, contorted, crying and screaming out in agony. Some would lay there comatose and others would writhe around on the floor. They became experts at embellishing each other’s story. One fearful night, the whole congregation was huddled together in terror believing hundreds of invisible witches were surrounding the meetinghouse peering in through the windows all around them. The action wasn’t limited to the meetinghouse and suspicious events began to happen throughout Salem. People would search for a lost broom to find it sitting high in a tree. The heightened fear added to the chaos, and everything seemed to carry an ominous note. The whole town was gripped with fear of a demonic invasion.

The afflicted were always being poked, pinched, or bitten by specters, and they had the marks to prove it. Blood flowed freely, and bruises were common. As a rudimentary test, bite marks on the afflicted were compared with the bite of the accused and it always seemed to match up, even if the accused had no teeth. More and more girls began to join the circle of the afflicted and even some grown women. We can never be sure if this was an honest case of mass hysteria, a ploy for attention, or a subconscious outcry to the constrictions placed upon women. What is known is that once one girl said something, the other girls, backed by their parents, would chime in and embellish the story.

It can be difficult to ascertain who did what, particularly at examinations and trials because there was no official stenographer. Notes were taken by any number of people, quite often the Reverend Samuel Parris, and the records tend to lump the afflicted as “the girls,” or “the afflicted.” Of all the girls afflicted, only two lived with both their parents. Abigail Williams was a constant voice among the afflicted from the very beginning until the end.

Mercy Lewis was an active witchfinder from the start. She eventually gave birth to an illegitimate child. Long after the trials, when people discussed the “afflicted girls,” Mercy would be used as an example to discredit them and suggest they were nothing more than trollops looking for attention. Elizabeth Hubbard was an orphaned servant girl working for her own aunt and uncle. According to records, “She is notable for remaining in a trance for an unusually long time: the whole of the Elizabeth Proctor’s examination.” Mary Walcott was said to have spent most of the examinations knitting.

Mary Warren, John and Elizabeth Proctor’s servant girl, had a brief moment of sanity when she tried to recant after the Proctors were arrested. But, when Abigail Williams said Mary had signed the devil’s book and Mary, herself, was accused of being a witch, she quickly decided she would rather be afflicted, and slipped back into her fits. Susanna Sheldon was nothing if not inventive. In less than two weeks, she was allegedly bound and gagged by spirits four times, though there was always a neighbor handy to untie her.

It wasn’t just young girls who were “afflicted.” Mrs. Bathshua Pope was an older woman who joined in with the accusers after Tituba’s confession. Her affliction gave her permission to mouth off publicly, complaining when sermons went on too long and throwing objects across the room at accused witches. Goody Bibber as an older woman known about town for gossip and ill will. Her actual name was Sarah Bibber, but, at that time, the Puritan community had a class system. A married woman of respect was referred to as “Mrs.,” or “Goodwife,” while women of a lesser class, were referred to as “Goody.” While she did not have a bad reputation because of a checkered past, most people about town did not like her, and would rather avoid her. More than once, folks complained that Goody Bibber seemed able to go into fits “whenever she pleased.” During the witch hysteria, she was mentioned in depositions and testimony against 15 people accused of witchcraft.

Ann Carr Putnam, Sr., the mother of Ann Putnam, Jr., also went in and out of fits. She was the first to accuse Rebecca Nurse. Ann had long struggled with nightmares of her dead sister. In her dreams, Ann’s sister and both of her deceased children would appear as if they were trying to tell her something important, but, Ann couldn’t understand them. She mentioned this to others about town, and it was well known that Ann Sr. thought someone had not only cursed her family but, caused the death of most of the young children. To Ann, there was simply no other explanation for the family to have such a high casualty rate.

What Happened to the Accused:

Specter of a Puritan "Witch"

Specter of a Puritan “Witch”

The “afflicted girls” would say a person’s “shape” was torturing them, a warrant was issued, and the accused would be taken into custody. The accused would then be checked over for the witch’s mark by a group of people of the same sex. The mark was usually found somewhere near the genitals (quite often between the vagina and the anus). Just to have a questionable mark was bad enough, but, if it was pricked with a pin and did not bleed, it was damning evidence.

The accused was brought in front of the girls for an examination, and the “afflicted” would immediately fall into fits. Typically, they would claim the accused person’s “shape” was sitting on the beam near the ceiling. Sometimes there was also an animal, usually a yellow bird sucking between the index and middle finger. Sometimes there was an invisible man whispering into the ear of the accused. The suspected “witch” would naturally deny this, throwing their hands up in the air, and rolling their eyes, but, the “afflicted girls” would copy every movement to the extreme, as if they couldn’t control their own movements.

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