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Colonial America | Culture | Salem Witch Trials

Learn more about present-day
Danvers
(formerly known as
Salem Village), where the 1692
witch trials took place.

The infamous witch trials of 1692 took place in Salem Village, now present-day Danvers, Massachusetts. At that time, Salem Village was a small rural community adjoining the much larger and more commercially prosperous city of Salem. The Salem witch hysteria lasted only a few months, but by the time it ended, 19 people were hanged, one was "pressed" to death, at least four died in prison while awaiting trial, and many others had been accused of practicing witchcraft.

Reverend Samuel Parris

Read a biography of Reverend Samuel
Parris.
Parris' daughter and niece were
the first girls in Salem Village to become
"bewitched" and make accusations.

One way to begin the story of the Salem witch trials is with Reverend Samuel Parris. Born in London in 1653, Parris moved to Barbados to conduct business on a plantation he inherited from his father. Becoming bored with merchant life in Barbados, Parris joined the ministry. In 1688, John Putnam, an influential leader in Salem Village, invited him to preach at the Village Church of Christ, which had gone through three ministers in 16 years.

From the beginning, Samuel Parris disputed with the town inhabitants over his salary. He deliberated for almost a year before finally accepting the position. In 1689 Parris and his family, along with an Indian slave named Tituba, moved to Salem Village where Parris served as the community's minister for the entirety of the Salem witch hysteria.

At this time in history, Puritans regarded all activities besides work and prayer as potentially sinful distractions. Parents expected as much of their children as of adults. After early childhood, children had little time for play or amusement. The only books were religious in nature. The only break in the weekly routine was on Sundays. Then, instead of work, there were long church services in the morning and afternoon, and religious reading, prayer, and contemplation at home for the rest of the day. In those days, observance of the Sabbath was enforced by law.

DID YOU KNOW?
No victims in Salem were burned
at the stake. While that practice
was common in Europe, witchcraft
was punishable by hanging in New
England. Richard Trask, historian
and Town Archivist for Danvers,
Massachusetts, answers more
frequently asked questions about
the Salem witch trials.

Perhaps due to boredom or as a result of the strict household in which the Parris children were raised, 9-year-old Betty Parris and her cousin, 11-year-old Abigail Williams, began secretly spending their evening hours listening to Tituba tell stories. Sometimes Tituba would engage the girls in forbidden activities such as fortune telling.

Then in early 1692, Betty and Abigail began to act strangely. They experienced fits that included seizures, screaming, and making odd noises. Soon more of Betty's playmates began experiencing similar behaviors, including 11-year-old Ann Putnam, 17-year-old Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott. The local physician, Dr. William Griggs, could find no physical explanation for the girls' odd behavior. He attributed their illness to the supernatural.

Just three years earlier, Cotton Mather, a prominent Boston minister, published a book called "Memorable Provinces" in which he described similar strange behaviors of the Goodwin children who were living in Boston and who had accused a servantwoman of bewitching them. The servant was eventually convicted and hanged as a witch. Mather's book described the Goodwin case in detail.

View a map showing the locations
of the accused, the accusers, and
the households affected by the
events in the Salem area.

With the recent popularity of Mather's book, many in Salem Village believed that witchcraft could be the cause of the young girls' strange behavior. Community leaders spent days fasting and praying to no avail. Asked by Revered Parris to name the person(s) responsible for bewitching them, the girls accused Tituba and two other women living in Salem Village—Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. In the eyes of the community, Tituba seemed a logical choice. With her Caribbean background and low social standing, she did not fit in with Puritan society. Neither did Sarah Good—a beggar and a social misfit—nor Sarah Osborne, who was old, often skipped church, and was generally unfavored in the community. The prominence of the Parris and Putnam families added support to the girls' claims. All three of the accused women were arrested and imprisoned.

Visit the Discovery Channel's
interactive website, which
features a video, biographies
of key personalities, and
additional information about
the Salem witch trials.

In March, magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin examined Tituba. Had Tituba confessed only to fortune telling, she would have been punished, and the situation might have ended there. After enduring beatings from her master, however, she confessed to being a witch. Not only that, she named Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good as her accomplices. Tituba's confession removed any remaining doubt about the cause of the children's behavior in the eyes of the magistrates. Soon other townspeople came forward and testified that they, too, had been harmed. The three women were blamed for a variety of problems, ranging from crop failures to dead livestock.

Crowds gathered in meeting halls as the girls displayed their afflictions for a growing audience. Encouraged by Reverend Parris and Ann Putnam's mother to name other witches, the girls next accused four upstanding members of the community—Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Cloyce, and Mary Easty. The uproar was immediate. People were astonished that such upstanding citizens as these could be guilty of witchcraft.

At this point, the governor, Sir William Phips, appointed a special Court of Oyer and Terminer ("to hear and determine") to try the cases. Five associate judges were appointed, three of whom were close friends of Cotton Mather. Presiding over them as Chief Justice was Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton.

Painting Salem Witch Trials

Read the Salem Witchcraft Papers, complete transcripts
of every court document and legal proceeding that took
place during the Salem witch trials.

During the trial proceedings, the accusers would often collapse or cry out in pain. The girls would mimic the actions of the accused, biting their lips or stomping their feet. The problem for the jurors was that it was one person's word against a group of others'. Gossip, stories, and hearsay were admitted as evidence by the courts, as well as spectral evidence (testimony by the accusers that the specters of the accused had visited them). Under these circumstances, the benefit of the doubt went to the accusers—not to the accused, no matter how prominent a citizen they appeared to be. In the case of Rebecca Nurse, a well-respected church member, Nurse was initially acquitted. However, Chief Justice Stoughton told the jury to reconsider one of Nurse's statements that may have incriminated her, and they came back with a guilty verdict.

In many cases, the accused chose to confess, since a confession allowed a person leniency. Unfortunately, those who took this course usually had to name their accomplices in order to be convincing, so husbands turned on wives, children turned on parents, and friends turned against friends.

On May 10, Sarah Osborne died in prison awaiting trial. By that time more than two dozen people had been accused of witchcraft, including several men who had tried to defend their wives. Four-year-old Dorcas Good (daughter of Sarah Good) became the youngest of the accused after three girls complained that Dorcas's specter had bitten them. Even a former minister of Salem, George Burroughs, who was living in Maine at the time, was brought back to Salem Village and imprisoned on charges of witchcraft.

What would YOU do if you
were accused of being a
witch in 1692 Salem Village?
Experience the Salem witch
trials firsthand at this unique
interactive website sponsored
by National Geographic.

Bridget Bishop was hanged on June 10, making her the first person to be executed in Salem for witchcraft. On July 19, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes went to the gallows. On August 19, John Proctor, George Jacobs, Sr., Martha Carrier, John Willard, and George Burroughs—Salem's former minister—were all hanged. As Burroughs stood in the gallows, he recited perfectly the Lord's Prayer in front of the large crowd. This was a feat a witch was supposed to be incapable of doing. After Burrough's execution, Cotton Mather reassured the rattled crowd by explaining that "the devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light." On September 22, Alice and Mary Parker, Ann Pudeator, Martha Corey, Margaret Scott, Wilmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Easty were led to Gallow's Hill and hanged.

Drawing of Giles Corey Punishment

A drawing depicting Giles Corey's gruesome punishment. He
was pressed to death for refusing to stand trial on charges of
witchcraft.

By October, more than 100 people had been accused of witchcraft, and 20 had been executed. Among the twenty was 80-year-old Giles Corey, whose wife, Martha, spent five months in jail beside him after he testified against her. Corey refused to declare himself innocent or guilty before the courts. As a result, he was pressed, or crushed to death under a pile of stones. Martha Corey was hanged three days later.

By this time, some community leaders were becoming uneasy at the court's heavy reliance on spectral evidence in the witchcraft trials. Cotton Mather's father, Reverend Increase Mather, expressed dismay at the use of spectral evidence alone to convict someone. He said it "were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned."

The governor himself felt the firsthand affects of the hysteria when the afflicted girls accused his wife of being a witch. At this point, the credibility of the accusers finally came into question. In October of 1692, Governor Phips replaced the court of Oyer and Terminer with the Superior Court of Judicature, which no longer allowed spectral evidence as grounds for conviction. Under the new court's ruling, 49 of the 52 accused witches were granted their release from prison. The following spring, Governor Phips pardoned the remaining three condemned victims.

DID YOU KNOW?
John Proctor, a tavern owner in Salem
Village, was the protagonist in Arthur
Miller's play "The Crucible." While the
play is loosely based on the events
of 1692, the real John Proctor openly
condemned the witch trials and soon
became the first male to be accused
of being a witch in Salem Village. He
was hanged on August 19.

Families struggled for years to recover their lands after the witch hysteria ended. Properties of the executed and the accused were confiscated. Families who managed to keep their land had difficulty caring for their crops and farms. The accused and their families were responsible for paying for their maintenance while in jail, so many, though no longer legally bound to their jail cells for witchcraft, remained there until their debts were paid in full.

Salem Witch Trials Memorial

Visit the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.
Dedicated in 1992, the memorial honors the
women and men executed in the 1692 witch
trials.

In 1697 Boston declared an official "Day of Repentance." Samuel Sewall, one of the judges appointed to the court of Oyer and Terminer, issued a formal apology to the congregation. Twelve jury members responsible for condemning countless innocent people also expressed their sorrow and regret. In 1706, Ann Putnam, one of the original accusers, offered a public apology to the Salem Village church congregation—read aloud by Reverend Joseph Green—Samuel Parris's replacement. Part of her statement read that "it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time." During the Salem witch hunt of 1692, Ann Putnam accused 62 people of being a witch.

Finally, in 1711, Massachusetts Bay compensated the surviving victims who had been jailed and the relatives of those who had been executed. In 1992, three hundred years after the notorious witch hysteria, the city of Salem, Massachusetts, dedicated a memorial to the victims of the 1692 Salem witch trials.

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