|The Salem Witchcraft Trials
READ P. 128 –131 in the text America a Narrative History
The Puritan ruling class suffered a blow that weakened its hold over the colony. Its control was curbed by the Charter of 1692, which made Massachusetts a Royal Colony. Its respected position was further undermined by the hysteria and remorse generated by the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials.
Belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout Europe and New England in the seventeenth century. (Discuss) The reason the Puritans left England was to find religious freedom. They had suffered long and severe persecution at the hands of the State Church in England and longed for a land of liberty where they and their children could practice their religion in freedom. They paid dearly for this choice. Many died due to the privations of the new world, and hard work and poverty was the lot of those who survived. But they considered their religion more precious and worth the sacrifice they made for it.
This background is necessary to understand in why they would react strongly against any threat which might corrupt that for which they had suffered and died; especially should that threat be a heathen practice, and especially if that practice should be witchcraft, which Almighty God had categorized repeatedly as being among the worst of abominations.
By the early 1690’s many Puritans were certain that God had abandoned them as His “Chosen People”. They felt that they had failed to live up to the standards of orthodox Calvinism, and they were ready to interpret their misfortunes as signs of Divine wrath. The presumed presence of witches in the little village of Salem, Massachusetts, seemed to be just such a telltale sign.
In Massachusetts, the deposing of Andros left the colony in political limbo for three years, and this allowed what might have been a brief outbreak of witchcraft in Salem to escalate into a bitter and bloody battle that the provincial government, caught in transition, reacted to only belatedly. Their charter was revoked, but the new Royal Governor had not arrived yet. It was in this power vacuum that the Salem witchcraft trials took place.
In the late 1680s Rev. Samuel Parris an ex-merchant in the West Indies moved to Salem. He brought with him his servants including Tituba, an Indian woman, and her husband. This old woman was well versed in Voo-doo, and during the long winter months began to tell fortunes and read palms for other servants, and later to village women and children.
On a winter’s day in 1692, nine year old Betty Parris and her eleven year old cousin, Abigail Williams began to play at magic in asking questions about their future, and future husbands, in the kitchen of the small house in Salem, Massachusetts. They enlisted the aid of Tituba. She told Voo-doo tales handed down from her African past and baked “witch cakes”. The girls soon became seized with fits and began making wild gestures and speeches. They crawled around on the floor, emitted strange sounds, and shook and trembled with midnight fears. A Dr. Gregg concluded that the girls were bewitched. Village elders forced from them confessions that they were being tormented by three women.
The three women were Mrs. Good, Mrs. Osburn, and Tituba. The “afflicted” children said harm had come to them from these women. Two of the women protested their innocence, but Tituba said that she did serve the devil and that the other two were witches, and hurt people. Mrs. Sarah Osburn died in jail. Sarah Good was tried a second time and executed. Tutuba was not executed because she testified against the other two. She was in jail for a year, then sold into slavery out of the country, because she owed for her room and board while in jail.
In Salem the initial accusations against three older women quickly multiplied. Within a matter of weeks, as fear gripped the town, dozens had been charged with witchcraft, including several prominent members of the community. But formal prosecution of the accused witches could not proceed because neither the new Royal Charter of 1691 nor the Royal Governor to rule the colony had yet arrived. For three months, while charges spread, local authorities could only send the accused to jail without trial. When Governor William Phips arrived from England in May 1692, he ordered a special court to try the accused, but by now events had careened out of control. “Spectral” evidence was allowed in the courtroom, with the “afflicted” girls rolling on the floor in convulsive fits as the accused women were questioned. All through the summer the court listened to testimony.
By September it had condemned about two dozen villagers. Nineteen of them were hanged on barren “Witches Hill” outside the town, and 80 year-old Giles Corey was crushed to death under heavy stones. The trials rolled on into 1693, but by then colonial leaders, including many of the clergy, recognized that a feverish fear of one’s neighbors, rather than witchcraft itself, had possessed the little village of Salem.
(Transparency – Charts for John Demos article Underlying Themes in New England Witchcraft)
By September 1692, twenty “witches” had been executed and 150 suspects were in jail awaiting their fate. Gradually a few brave souls stepped forward to speak out against the executions. The governor finally lost patience when his own wife was accused of being a witch. He ordered all suspects released and several of the girls who had made the original accusations confessed that they had lied. It was an embarrassing affair for the Puritan hierarchy, and it cost them much public respect. (Discuss why one would choose execution before
confessing to witchcraft to save their life.)
Many factors contributed to the hysteria. Among those entertained are:
Generational strife: Adolescent girls are at the bottom of the social ladder. Were they getting the attention they craved in this way by lashing out at middle aged women?
Old family animosities: Was this one family’s way of getting even with another family? (See Laura Whisler’s family history)
Tensions between agricultural Salem Village and the nearby
commercial center called Salem Town: The following quote is from
page 128 of your text.
“Salem Village was about eight miles from the larger Salem
Town, a thriving port. A contentious community made up of
independent farm families and people who depended upon the
commercial activity of the port, the village struggled to free
itself from the influence and taxes of Salem proper.”
L.S.D.: An outbreak of food poisoning that may have caused
hallucinogenic behavior has even been proposed. The group of young
girls may have been hallucinating from contaminated bread.
Researchers have recently postulated that they were suffering from
ergotism, a toxic condition produced by eating grain tainted with the
parasitic fungus ergot, genus Claviceps. Ergot is a hallucinogen
related to L.S.D.
5. Alien sightings: Hey - I thought it might be worth a try?
Probably no body will ever fully understand the underlying causes, but the fact that accusations of witchcraft kept spreading suggests the anxiety of this tumultuous era, marked by war, economic disruption, the political takeover of the colony by Andros and then his overthrow, and the erosion of the early generation’s utopian vision.
The bereaved families worked tirelessly to have the names of their
executed loved ones cleared. ( Read Petition of Isaac Estey and Others: dated March 18th 1702.)
Their efforts were finally rewarded when the court cleared their names and awarded the families 20 pounds for the loss of their loved one. (Read the House of Represenatives conclusion of July 21, 1703)
Laura Whisler’s Family History and connection with the Salem Witchcraft Trials.
Mary Estey is my distant relative on my mothers side. She and her two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Cloyse, were accused of being witches. (Their maiden name was Towne) On April 21, 1692, Mary Estey, age 58, was accused of witchcraft and thrown into jail. At about the same time her sister, Rebecca, age 71, was arrested on the same charge. Neither of them had ever been accused before of even the most minor infraction of the law. Conditions in the jail were terrible. Members of the family brought food, clothing and bedding.
The jury found Rebecca “not guilty”. This caused such a courtroom clamor that the judges ordered the jury out again and practically ordered them to bring in a “guilty” verdict, which they did. Rebecca was placed in chains, led to the church where she was ex-communicated and
executed by hanging on July 19, 1692. After the crowd left, her sons stole her body to insure proper burial.
Mary was released after her first arrest. As soon as the “afflicted” children heard of it they went into terrible fits. Mary was re-arrested, taken out of bed at midnight, after just three days of freedom, and put into jail. Immediately the children returned to normal; “proof” that Mary was a real witch.
After her sentence and while awaiting death, Mary wrote a petition to the judges in which she described herself as a:
“humble petitioner, knowing my own innocency, blessed be the
Lord for it, and seeing plainly the wiles and subtility of my
and I “am condemned to die, the Lord above knows my innocency then
and likewise does now as at the great day will be known to men and
angels—I petition to your honours not for my own life for I know
that I must die and my appointed time is set but the Lord knows it is
that if it be possible no more innocent blood may be shed…” “I shall
answer it at the tribunal seat that I know not the least thing of
witchcraft therefore I cannot I dare not belie my own soul I beg your
Honours not to deny this my humble petition from a poor dying
innocent person and I question not but the Lord will give a blessing
to your endeavors.”
The principal participants in the testimony given at the trial were the
group known as the “afflicted children”. They were:
Elizabeth Parris age 9 Daughter of Rev. Samuel Parris
Abigail Williams 11 Niece of Rev. and household member
Ann Putnam 12
Mercy Lewis 17
Mary Wolcutt 17
Elizabeth Hubbard 17
Susannah Sheldon 18
Mary Warren 20
Sarah Churchill 20
There was a land dispute between Salem and Topsfield which had been in court numerous times. The Towne boys (Mary, Sarah and Rebecca’s brothers – maiden name) did farming/logging in the disputed area. The Putnam men filed suit against them and lost, yet they continued using the land, and feelings became more bitter. When the “witch trials” of the Towne sisters cam up, it was these Putnam men, wives and daughter, Ann (see above), whose testimony was critical in their convictions. It was a chance to even the score.
Mary was executed on September 22, 1692, it is assumed, under conditions like her sister. She was led to the public gallows and executed in full view of her family (9 children) and a large gathering of townspeople. Mary left a grieving husband and a family of devoted children, three of whom were under the age of 21.
When Sarah was released her husband moved her and the family out of the country immediately.
Isaac Estey spent the rest of his life clearing his wife’s name, so that his children would no longer be disgraced in the eyes of the community. In 1707 Ann Putnam (mother of the Ann above), who had testified in every witchcraft trial except one, made a public confession. She said that she had been deluded by the Devil in testifying as she had. Petitions were made to the court in 1702 and 1703. Shortly before his death in 1712, Isaac’s efforts were rewarded. The verdict was annulled and in acknowledgment of the injustice done to him and his family, he was awarded 20 pounds.