The Salem Witch Trials
Ivy Tech Community College
The year 1692 set the stage for 144 men and women to be imprisoned in the colonies of what we now call The United States. Twenty innocent colonists were executed, while four died in prison. These events occurred during a dark time in America’s upbringing, known as the Salem Witch Trials.
The Puritans had fled England due to religious persecution, but somehow managed to persecute those closest to them. In 1630 the Puritans set up their community in Salem, Massachusetts in hopes of reforming the Church of England. Samuel Parris was elected as minister in 1689, and by 1692 the town of Salem had over 600 residents. The first accusations of witchcraft occurred when Parris came home to find his daughter and niece acting “strange.” Without any means of explaining the girls’ behavior, the town physician declared that the girls had been “bewitched.” The nine and eleven-year-old girls pointed the finger at three women in town, and so the arrests began (McBain). Way before the trials began in North America; people had been persecuting witches for thousands of years.
Most people these days have heard of The Odyssey, a story that is over 2,700 years old and created a name for witches with the character, Circe (Fradin and Fradin). Many believed that a witch would help the devil by causing supernatural harm to others, which created fear. Magic had been used throughout the ages to explain what people could not understand. In previous years, if an outbreak of disease killed civilians, the townspeople did not have the technology to understand why this terrible thing had happened; instead they believed that dark magic had caused death.
Blaming a person for being a witch was an easy way to get rid of rivals. For example, if a neighboring farmer grew better crops, he could be accused of spelling his crops to grow; therefore he had to be a witch. This pattern of false accusations kept occurring throughout history. Europe persecuted vast numbers of people between the 1400s and 1600s. According to Turning Points in US History, The Salem Witch Trials, an estimated 30,000 Europeans were murdered for being supposed witches. (Fradin and Fradin).
During the 1600s, Christians feared magic. This was because Christianity, along with Jewish and Muslim religions, all believed in one god. Pagan religion; however, worshiped multiple gods and nature, and practiced magic. Christians believed that anyone who practiced magic received their powers from the devil. Christians, along with church officials in Europe hunted and killed witches. When these Christians traveled to North America in the early 1600’s, they brought their fear of magic and witchcraft with them (Crewe and Uschan).
The first memorable accusations in the New World came from two young girls. After these accusations came into public view, many more young girls began to cry out that they had been bewitched as well. Tituba, a West Indian slave, was among those who had been accused. Although she denied any involvement in the bewitchment of the two girls, she eventually confessed to being a witch. This confession gave credibility to the girls’ stories (Wilson). Soon after, adults even began to lay blame on others, but they had ulterior motives.
It is apparent that many of the accused women were wealthy property owners. With these women imprisoned, the government would be able to cease their land. Men that were jealous of a woman’s success could blame the woman of practicing magic. It is also important to point out that if a woman lived alone, she was considered overbearing and arrogant (MacBain). These types of personalities in women could often be seen as offensive to men in these times, which was an excellent motive to charge her with the felony of practicing witchcraft.
June 2, 1692 was when the witch trials began. Tituba and any other person who confessed did not have to endure a trial. These people avoided the death sentence, which explains why so many began confessing to using magic. Those who were tried in court and found guilty faced death. Burgan, explains in his book that “the judges seemed ready to believe that the accused were actually witches” (Burgan).
When a person was convicted, the usual death sentence was to be hanged. There was one, Giles Corey, who died in a more gruesome manner. He was 80 years old and refused to enter a plea to the charge of witchcraft. Court officials piled stones on Giles Corey’s chest until the weight of the stones eventually killed him. The nature of his death upset many residents in Salem and Boston. At this time there were still many accused witches that needed to go on trial, but by this point in time many colonists began to believe that the witch hunt had gone on long enough.
This was especially true in the mind of Thomas Brattle. He considered the idea of the witch trials ridiculous and began to publish his comments in a public letter that appeared in early October. Thanks to Brattle, along with other outspoken ministers, Governor Phips stopped the progress of arresting witches. He also freed many of the prisoners. By May Phips pardoned all of the remaining so-called witches (Burgan).
A decade after the trials had past, the courts began to receive petitions. In 1703 a petition was presented, signed by spouses and children of those who had been condemned in 1692. The petition stated that “something must be done to take off infamy from the names” (Roach). The names were then cleared because the accusations had been made by people influenced by evil spirits.
In the end, innocent men and women had been murdered in the pursuit of finding witches. Giles Corey was pressed to death by stones for not entering a plea of guilty or not guilty. The Puritan beliefs at the time seemed to overturn the sense of right and wrong, but the outbreak of panic had many actually believing that witchcraft, along with the devil, was taking over the town of Salem. Those who knowingly, falsely accused were most likely threatened by those who had more land or power. Although this may be tough to look back at, we as Americans can learn from all tragedies in our past.
Burgan, Michael. (2005). We The People, The Salem Witch Trials. Compass Point Books. Minneapolis, MN.
Crewe, Sabrina, Uschan, Michael V. (2005). The Salem Witch Trials. Gareth Stevens Publishing. Milwaukee, WI.
Fradin, Judith, Fradin, Dennis. (2009). The Salem Witch Trials. Marshal Corporation. New York, NY.
MacBain, Jenny. (2003). The Salem Witch Trials: A Primary Source History of The Witchcraft Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. Rosen Publishing Group. New York, NY.
Roach, Marilynne K. (2002). The Salem Witch Trials: A Day by Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing. Lanham, MD.
Wilson, Lori Lee. (1997). How History is Invented: The Salem Witch Trials. Lerner Publications Company. Minneapolis, MN.