The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Salem Village Witch Trials
Witchcraze! Persecution of Witches
The Salem Village Witch Trials of 1690—1692 are the most written about incident of the entire Burning Times.
Many believe the Salem witch trials to be the only witch trials that occurred in the British Colonies. Others believe them to have been the only trials stimulated by accusations from children. (They were not; there was tremendous precedent for children as witnesses throughout the Burning Times and especially in England. The judges of the Salem witch trials were well aware of this.)
Only one thing is very unique and unusual about the Salem witch trials and that is that not long after the trials had concluded, judges, accusers, and the community repented of their actions, many publicly. Judge Samuel Sewall (1652—1730) so repented of his role in the death of the 19 “Salem Witches” that for the rest of his life he wore coarse penitential sackcloth against his skin, beneath his outer garments. Many later appreciated that participation in the witch trials (as accusers and judges) was something of which to be ashamed or embarrassed; hence even the records of these trials demonstrate some gaps. It is believed that families later edited documents to minimize records of involvement.
The name “Salem” means Peace and was derived from “Jerusalem.” The Puritan founders had set themselves a high standard for creating an outpost of God in the wilderness surrounded by Paganism. They lived in absolute fear of the surrounding forest, where witches were believed to make pacts with the devil in the form of Native Americans, especially the local Abenaki who had mounted an aggressive campaign to force the Europeans from their ancestral territory. Many of those involved with the witchcraft trials and accusations had first-hand knowledge of Indian attacks on English settlements. It was a community with a high percentage of people suffering from what would now be considered repressed post-traumatic syndrome.
The epicenter of the Salem witch crisis was the parish home of Reverend Samuel Parris, whose household included his ailing wife, his daughter Betty, two slaves—Tituba and her husband John Indian—and an 11-year-old relative named Abigail Williams, usually described as his niece.
The settlers had an extremely conservative vision of Christianity. No fun was permitted nor leisure time, especially for girls. During the cold winter, Tituba entertained her charges and other young girls with stories while sitting in the kitchen, the one warm spot in the home. Exactly what stories she told them is unknown: the oft-repeated speculation that she told them “voodoo tales” is just that: speculation.
The girls allegedly experimented with household divination: floating egg whites on water to reveal information about future husbands. Betty suddenly began to develop odd symptoms. Reverend Parris consulted physician William Griggs, who was unable to discover any physical cause for Betty’s condition. Griggs suggested the possibility of bewitchment. Betty began to suffer convulsions and fits; she and Abigail accused Tituba, their slave, of bewitching them. Tituba was beaten; she eventually confessed to witchcraft. Two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, were also accused of tormenting the girls. The circle of bewitched girls grew larger and accusations of witchcraft soon flew against various members of the Salem Village community as well as those from other towns.
Details of the trials are complex; many books from many perspectives examine the crisis in Salem. Stories of the victims are famous: only a few can be briefly told here.
On June 2, 1692 Bridget Bishop was the first to stand trial. Bridget was a tavern keeper, owning two taverns: one in Salem Village and another at Salem Town. Among the accusations against her was maintaining her youthful appearance despite her years. Various upstanding married men of the community testified that she sent her “shape” or apparition to torment them in their dreams.
She was accused of attending witches’ sabbats and giving suck to a familiar in the form of a snake. She was stripped and carefully searched; a “witch’s tit” (an extra nipple) was allegedly found between her anus and pudendum.
Martha Corey was arrested in March 1692, followed by her husband Giles in April. She was sentenced to death on September 10th. Giles stood trial several days later. Eighty-year-old Giles Corey knew that by English law, refusing to plead, whether innocent or guilty, would stall the legal procedure. If he never entered a plea, the authorities would be unable to confiscate his property and assets, which would instead be inherited by his heirs as normal.
Giles Corey refused to plead. He was never convicted of witchcraft, although he is perhaps the most famous victim of the Salem witch trials. Giles Corey was pressed to force him to either confess or plead innocent. The procedure involved lying a person flat on their back with their limbs extended outwards as far as possible so as not to provide any buffering. Stones and heavy iron weights were then gradually piled atop the body: the person must plead or die.
Pressing occurred only once in American history; Giles Corey is the only victim to this date. Technically, it was illegal under law established in England in 1641; the procedure should not have been administered to Corey. As each weight was added, the victim was asked if he would now like to plead. Giles Corey’s only response during the process (and his last words) was the demand “More weight!”
Reverend George Burroughs, a Harvard graduate, was the former pastor of Salem Village. Twelve-year-old Anne Putnam accused him of appearing to her in the form of an apparition, torturing her, and demanding that she sign his book, which she refused. Putnam claimed Burroughs’ first two wives appeared to her in sheets with napkins about their heads and told her Burroughs murdered them. Others then came forward and accused Burroughs of being “the devil of a witches’ coven.”
Burroughs was eating dinner with his family in Boston when a marshal arrived with an arrest warrant for “suspicion of confederacy with the devil.” Burroughs, who once held the same position as Reverend Parris did then, was brought back to Salem to face trial as the alleged coven leader. He was convicted. Standing on the gallows, just before his execution, Reverend Burroughs recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, which, according to then-popular belief, should have been impossible: it was believed that those in league with Satan could not say the Lord’s Prayer correctly and in full. His recital received an instant reaction: many among the crowd of observers demanded Burroughs be freed. However, Cotton Mather stepped forward and personally convinced those in positions of power that the hanging should proceed; Burroughs was executed.
Sarah Good denied the charges against her to the bitter end. Her very last words, when encouraged to confess by one of her accusers, Reverend Noyes, were to tell him: “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” Sarah was executed; Noyes died in 1717 choking on his own blood as a result of internal hemorrhaging.
The youngest accused witch was Sarah’s daughter, Dorcas Good, aged four, charged with “suspicion of acts of witchcraft.” While jailed, little Dorcas confessed to owning a snake, a present from her mother, which sucked on her index finger, and displayed a red spot on that finger. Those words condemned her to imprisonment while awaiting trial. Special miniature childsized chains were crafted for her. Dorcas Good remained in jail until December 1692 when Samuel Ray of Salem posted a £50 bail bond for her release. No records indicate whether she was ever brought to trial.
A group of Salem Village girls eventually leveled charges resulting in 150 witch accusations, 141 arrests, 31 convictions, and 19 executions. The accusers were young girls, not politicians; they did not know whom it was safe to accuse. When they accused Lady Phips, wife of the governor, and the pregnant wife of the prominent Reverend John Hale of witchcraft, Hale, for one, began to oppose the whole prosecution, publicly confessing that his previous strong support for the proceedings had been wrong. A number of ministers and other prominent men came to his support and the court recessed.
Between June 10th and September 22nd, 1692, the following 19 people were hanged in Salem Village:
The final straw occurred when several people accused of witchcraft in nearby Andover responded by bringing a defamation suit against their accusers demanding heavy financial damages. The Salem witchcraze promptly ended.
In May 1693, Governor Phips ordered all those awaiting trial on witchcraft charges be released from prison, once their legal fees were paid. Excommunications were erased.