George Burroughs was born in Suffolk, England. At a young age, he left England for Massachusetts, where he was raised by his mother in Roxbury. He grew up to attend Harvard College and graduated in 1670. Burroughs then went to Maine, where he preached in Falmouth (Portland), on Casco Bay, until Indians attacked that settlement in August 1676 during King Philip’s War. Burroughs then returned to Massachusetts, settling in Salisbury when he received the call to Salem Village.
As one of his conditions for coming, Burroughs stipulated “that in case any difference should arise in time to come, that we engage on both sides to submit to counsel for a peaceable issue.” Though this was common language in the 17th century New England, it no doubt, had more significance for Burroughs, who had probably learned from the minister that preceded him, Reverend James Bayley, something of what confronted him.
He then became a minister in Salem Village in 1680. The differences were not long in arising, and it was not long before he was in the midst of the conflict taking place in the village. With many villagers not paying their taxes, Burroughs was not always being paid and borrowed money from the Putnam family. It was to Burroughs that Jeremiah Watts wrote his letter of April 1682, lamenting the disputes of Salem Village that were pitting “brother against brother, and neighbors against neighbors.”
By early 1683, the minister’s salary was not being paid at all, and in March, Burroughs simply stopped meeting his congregation. Burroughs then accepted an offer to resume his ministerial duties at Casco Bay, which had been reorganized. He stayed there until the community was once again destroyed by Indians in 1690. He then moved to Wells, Maine.
In May 1692, during the Salem witch trials, based on the accusation of the Putmans, who had sued him for the previous debt, Burroughs was charged, arrested, and brought back to Salem. Among other offenses, he was accused of extraordinary strength, which could not have been achieved without diabolical assistance. Although he eventually repaid his loan, many Salem Village and Andover members testified against him. They called him the “ringleader” of the witches, a virtual priest of the devil. Cotton Mather, a minister from Boston, also took particular interest in the trial because of Burroughs’ unorthodox religious beliefs and practices. He was found guilty and convicted of witchcraft and conspiracy with the Devil.
Reverend Burroughs was executed on August 19, 1692. While standing on a ladder before the crowd, waiting to be hanged, he successfully recited the Lord’s Prayer, something that was generally considered by the Court of Oyer and Terminer to be impossible for a witch to do. His hanging was the only one attended by Cotton Mather, who urged the sympathetic crowd against him. After Burroughs had been hanged, Mather reminded the crowd from atop his horse that Burroughs had been convicted in a court of law and spoke convincingly enough that four more people were executed after Burroughs.