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An infamous episode in American history, the Salem witch trials of 1692 resulted in the hanging of fourteen women and five men who were accused of being witches. In addition, one man was pressed to his death by heavy weights for refusing to enter a plea, at least eight people died in prison, including one infant and one child, and more than one hundred and fifty individuals were jailed while waiting for a trial. According to survival relevant records, including notes, depositions, and official rulings, the main facts of the accusations, arrests, trials, and executions are known. What has always engaged scholars is the search for the causes of the “witch hysteria.”
The proffered explanations for the witchcraft occurrence are many and very conflicting. For starters, On January 20, 1692, in Salem Village, the Reverend Samuel Parris’ nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and his eleven-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, began exhibiting odd behavior, including shouting and entering into trances. Parris eventually called in the local physician, William Griggs, who had found the girls experiencing paroxysm and scurrying around the room and barking like dogs. The doctor was shocked and unable to offer a medical explanation but suggested that it might be the work of evil spirits. Harris consulted with local ministers, who recommended he wait to see what happened. But a word of the unexplained fits had already spread around Salem Village, and soon several other girls, including three from the home of Thomas Putnam, Jr., were experiencing similar behavior.
Pressured to explain what or who had caused their behavior, the girls named three Village women as witches. Their names were Tituba, the Rev. Parris’ slave, who had bewitched many local girls with fortune-telling in her master’s kitchen. Another named as a witch was Sarah Good, an unpopular woman who had reportedly muttered threats against her neighbors, the third was Sarah Osborne, who had allowed a man to live with her for some months before they were married. Warrants for the three were issued on February 29. The next day Salem Town magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin examined the women in the Village meeting house. Good and Osborne declared that they were innocent and knew nothing of witchcraft, but Tituba exuberantly confessed, claiming that witchcraft was practiced by many in the area. On March 21 Martha Corey became the fourth woman of Salem Village to be arrested. While she was examined in the meeting house in front of hundreds of people, the afflicted girls cried out in what appeared to be extreme agony. More individuals were accused and jailed as the weeks passed, but no trials could legally take place because, for the first three months of the witchcraft uproar, Massachusetts was without a legally-established government.
On May 14, 1692, Governor William Phips arrived with a new charter and soon created a special Court of Oyer and Terminer. The chief justice for the Court of Oyer and Terminer was William Stoughton, and the others serving included John Hathorne and Samuel Sewall. The court’s first session, held on June 2, resulted in a death sentence for the accused witch Bridget Bishop; she was hanged on June 10. (She was not the first accused to die, however; Sarah Osborne died of natural causes in a jail in Boston on May 10.) Cotton Mather of Boston’s First Church wrote privately to the court expressing reservations on questions of evidence. On June 15 a group of ministers including Cotton Mather, wrote Governor Phips urging that special caution be taken in the use of evidence in the trials, but the ministers said no more publicly in July, August, or September. The court next met on June 29 and heard the cases of five accused women. When the jury tried to acquit one of them, Rebecca Nurse, Stoughton sent the jury back to deliberate some more. When they returned they had changed their verdict to guilty. The women were hanged on July 19. By this time the witchcraft hysteria had spread not only to Salem Town but to Andover. August and September brought more convictions and hangings. The last eight accused witches were hanged on September 22, in what would turn out to be the final executions. On October 3, Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather, delivered a sermon at a gathering of ministers in Cambridge. The sermon was soon published as Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (1692).
The elder Mather insisted that proper evidence should be used in witchcraft cases just as in any other capital cases. He strongly opposed spectral evidence or evidence based on ghost sightings. As accusations mounted against people of higher and more respectable positions, skepticism grew in the public as to the appropriateness of witchcraft charges. Thomas Brattle wrote an insightful letter to Governor Phips highly criticising the trials. On October 12, Phips, whose own wife had been accused of witchcraft, forbade any further imprisonments for witchcraft, and on the 29th dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. When a new special court convened in early 1693, with several of the same members and William Stoughton once more as chief justice, forty-nine accused persons were acquitted. The difference was in no small part due to the governor not permitting spectral evidence to be heard. When three prisoners were convicted, Phips immediately granted reprieves.
Three months later Phips freed all the remaining prisoners and issued a general pardon. Soon many jurors and judges apologized, and Judge Sewall attempted to take full responsibility for the trials and hangings. A central problem in the trials themselves was the use of spectral evidence. Because the actual crime involved an agreement made between the accused witch and the devil, in which the devil was given the right to assume the witch’s human form, and because, by its very nature, this compact would not have witnesses, finding the acceptable evidence was difficult. Spectral evidence included testimony by the afflicted that they could see the specters of the witches tormenting their victims; the evil deeds were not perpetrated by the accused themselves, but by the evil spirits who assumed their shapes. One problem with spectral evidence was that apparitions of demons were invisible to other people in the same room; only the afflicted girls could see the shapes.
Another concern was the possibility that Satan could appear in the shape of an innocent person. To overcome these obstacles, confessions were vigorously sought. The Salem cases are unusual in that the defendants who confessed were generally not executed, while those who were hanged adamantly maintained their innocence. Considered trustworthy was a testimony to some supernatural attribute of the accused. George Burroughs was accused by six persons of performing superhuman feats of strength. One witness claimed Burroughs could read his thoughts. Another test made on the accused was for any “supernatural weaknesses” such as the inability to recite prayers correctly. Many factors must be considered in examining the causes of the witchcraft hysteria. Fundamental is the recognition that among the settlers of New England, belief in witchcraft was prevalent.
Additionally, Salem was beset with political problems and internal strife. Land disputes and personal feuds were common. Some scholars maintain that the Puritan villagers felt they had failed God and deserved to be punished for their sins. The role of the clergy has also been much debated; some historians see them as largely responsible for stirring up the people and making them expect retribution. Others credit the clergy with ending the trials. The afflicted girls have been variously described as outright liars and frauds, children looking for excitement, victims of disease, and sincere believers in the idea that they were victims of witchcraft.
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