October 9 2012
Salem Witch Trials
Who is a witch? Is she a magical being derived from fairytales? Is she a figment of a child’s imagination? What about a character from a book? These are many different ways to perceive witches, but in no way are any of the real. To the people of Salem in 1692 these storybook witches became real. It became a time of fear. It was a time when reality and imagination collided.
Salem, Massachusetts 1688 is where the trials begin. The trials were a great test for the Boston Puritans of the time. The trouble started in the summer of 1688. A thirteen-year-old Martha Goodwin noticed that some of her families clothing was missing. She accused the washerwoman. The washerwoman’s mother, Glover, angry cursed Martha. The terrible words Glover spoke seemed to infect Martha. Shortly after Martha and her younger siblings fell into fits. Later a minister wrote “it would have broke a heart of stone to see their agonies” (Aronson 23). The Goodwin family called in a physician whose only explanation was witchcraft. It was easy to guess who had afflicted the children. Glover often named as Mary was exactly what Puritans thought of as a witch.
The New England Puritans saw themselves a spiritual community and feared being attacked by the devil. Witches to them were people who had made pacts with the devil. On a popular level, a witch was person who could do harm through magical means (Aronson, 31).
The witch was generally an older woman who did not fit it in. She had few or no children, yet would own property. A person who was bitter, angry, and disrupted the harmony of life was easily accused of being a witch.
Glover easily fit the picture of a witch as she was an angry older woman. Six years previous a dying woman had told another woman that Glover had bewitched her to death. As the woman was getting ready to testify these claims her son was assaulted by a black thing in a blue cap. Glover may have been a poor old lady but she seemed to be able to cause much harm to others.
Cotton Mather the new minister came to aid the Goodwin children. If anybody could help them it was believed to be him. Mather knew that a tangle with a witch was an opportunity for reminding the people of New England why they were there. He realized that this event was leading to a momentous cause. It was a test and a rallying point for the New England Puritans.
After seeing the afflicted Goodwin children Mather set out to reveal Glover for what he believed she was. Firstly he tried a simple test. If she was not working with the devil than he believed she should be able to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Glover butchered line after line and soon after was brought to trial. Suddenly a complication arose Glover claimed that she could not understand English only Gaelic. This was not hard to believe as Glover was from Ireland and was a Catholic. But with an interpreter she confessed all and several articles of evidence were found.
The evidence was many rag puppets and small images. These were believed to be props of witches. By trading ones soul they could become a puppet master and control others through their puppets. But by losing one’s soul they would become essentially a puppet of the devil.
Despite the evidence found in Glover’s home judges were hesitant in their analysis. So they tried another test. This time they brought glover her puppets. If she was not a witch nothing would happen to the accursed when she touched them. But when Glover held her puppets the Goodwin children fell into fits once more and Glover was sent to jail.
Mather saw this as an opportunity. Many ministers of the time would question witches about the devil to find others that the devil may have condemned. Mather using this strategy went to visit Glover in jail. Here Glover admitted to meeting her prince, the devil and four others. Convicted of being a witch Glover was properly hanged unlike being burned in Europe.
Before her death Glover warned that her death would not help aide the Goodwin children. The Goodwin children still fell into fits of pain which their father reasoned was because he had not been harsh enough a parent to them.
With one witch gone Mather was now using the words of the afflicted to find other witches. John Goodwin age eleven said that he could see four evil shapes in the room with him that he could almost name. Mather tried another test. If the invisible forms were from a human being than by hitting the invisible being the human responsible should have injury. Soon after the test an obnoxious woman whose identity is unknown developed a wound.
Mather continued to help the Goodwin children till their fits were gone. But Mather never revealed any other witches he may have found in the process. To the Puritans of Salem this was a success. A witch had been discovered, led to confess and later killed; four children had been afflicted, but all were healed (Aronson 38).
The following trials were very similar to this one. Children seemed to be disturbed by a evil spirit and the accused was prisoned on flimsy evidence. As the trials went on accusers became more extravagant in their claims. In court rooms the cursed would suddenly fall into fits and scream at the accused. Later during trials wounds would magically appear on the cursed. Was it that no one noticed the pin sticking through their lip as they walked in or that they carefully put it in during the trials un-noticed.
People accused of being witches that confessed were often not punished as harshly. One of the few was Tituba, a slave from Barbados. Tituba was accused the same time as another; after seeing that claiming one was not guilty did not work Tituba confessed. Tituba spread many supernatural stories to the court. She told of a creature that had a head of a woman, two legs and wings, another creature was a hairy being that walked like man. Many of her other mythological creatures were from South American folktales. Tituba talked about a terrifying bird which showed up again and again the later trilas. Tituba also spoke of a man. He was a tall man dressed in black who seemed to be the satanic ringleader. The last Tituba spoke of was the Devil. She warned people of him telling them to watch out for a man with a dark book. When questioned about the Devil’s book the only names Tituba claimed to see were Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Both Sarah’s were already on trial for being witches and this cemented their fates.
Tituba’s trial was for many of the later trials a starting point. Her stories and the act of feeling upset about what she had done had saved her. She was one of the few who had been accused and had gotten off much better than most despite being thrown in jail. The Puritans of the time did not see her as a horrible witch as they say many others. Though directly Tituba was not thought of much again her role played a major part in the later events.
Towards the end of the trials more people like Margret Jacobs and Sarah Churchill had figured out that Tituba’s strategy of confessing kept them from being killed. By May anyone accused knew to confess led to temporary safety. However this was a turning point in the trials. After confessing in court (the cursed seemingly fine) guilt ate at these women. To confess was to lie. And some of the confessors could not bear to have such horrible, deadly lies on the consciences.
Sarah Churchill was the first to take back her confession. By lying she fell to tears as she was “being undone.” Only after did she turn to Sarah Ingersoll who was neither an accused or accuser and confessed all. She told that she had never signed the Devils book. But Sarah Ingersoll did not believe her. Yet Ingersoll carefully recorded Sarah Churchill’s admittance and preserved it for history.
Margret Jacobs later told that the afflictions of the cursed had frightened her and she had confessed to make them stop. Others later retracted their confessions stating the same. Later at age eighteen, Mary Easty denied all doings of witchcraft and was ruled as innocent. It may have been that she was a powerful figure but also that her statements and logic were hard to ignore for people of the time.
The trials came to end when two main accusing figures Thomas and Ann Putman Sr. both died in 1699. Ann Jr. aged now nineteen was now head of her family when she became chronically ill. Worn down by fatigue, responsibility and the weight of her past Ann started to resemble those she had accused.
On August 25, 1706 Ann Putnam released a statement admitting that as a child she had been an instrument in accusing several people of witchcraft which led to their lives being taken away from them. That now she had good reasons to believe that they were innocent people.
Her statement brings us to believe that she had been part of a conspiracy by her extended family and that all of the accusers had worked together to bring down people that they did not like/ opposed them.
What to young girls and boys may have been seen as “sport” had brought great un-justice to those living in Salem. The playing of being the one in charge may have been great fun to those accusing but led to destruction of those accused.
The Salem Witch Trials were an awful event in history. They show how easily we can be led to believe things. There are many different theories about exactly what happened. But we know that this event in history was a great production. The decade of trials almost seems like it should be in a story book instead of a textbook. The true bad people frame the innocent and later confess to their crimes. This time of supposed witchcraft was not a book though. It really happened many people lived through great in-justice as they pleaded their innocence.
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Aronson Marc. Witch-Hunt Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials. Atheneum Books for Young Readers,
Boyer; Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed. Harvard University. Press, 1976
Le Beau, Bryan F. “Archiving Early America. “The Carey Document: On the Trail of a Salem Death
Warrant. 16 September 2012.
Norton, Mary B. In the Devil’s Snare. Cahners Business Information, Inc.:2002
Salem Witch Museum. “Salem Witch Museum.” FAQs About the Salem Witch Trials.
21 September 2012.