“The New Englanders are a people of God settled in those which were once the Devil’s territories; and it may be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed when he perceived such a people accomplishing the promise made of old unto our blessed Jesus … that He should have the utmost parts of the earth for his possession … The Devil thus irritated, immediately tried all sorts of methods to overturn the poor Plantation … and we have now with horror seen the discovery of such a plot. An Army of Devils is horribly broke in upon Salem which is the center, and, after a sort, the first born of our English settlements.” Cotton Mather, Associate Minister of the North Church of Boston.
During the witchcraft hysteria that swept through Massachusetts in 1692, more than 400 persons were accused of being allied with the devil in his plot to destroy the Church of Christ in New England. Of these, nineteen were hanged, and one old man who refused to enter a plea at his trial was pressed to death by the sheriff and his deputies in an effort to force him to do so. When the hysteria at last abated, approximately 150 persons were in the various jails throughout the colony, some of them already under sentence of death while others were still waiting to be tried. More than 55 people escaped certain execution by confessing that they were guilty, and an unknown number of others fled from the colony to avoid prosecution.
At least three women died while they were in prison, while the number of those who died at a later time or who suffered severe mental and emotional breakdowns as a direct result of their ordeals will never be known. Judging by the fact that numbered among the accused were a five-year-old girl, several pregnant women, and a large number of elderly people, this last might reasonably be expected to be high.
The hysteria had its beginning sometime during the winter of 1691/1692 in the home of the Reverend Mr. Samuel Parris, minister of the Salem Village (now Danvers) church. His daughter and niece -- nine-year old Elizabeth Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams who lived with the Parris family -- bored with the inactivity of the winter season, began to spend a part of each afternoon with Tituba, the Parris’s West Indian slave who served the family as cook and housekeeper. Tituba, whose previous owner in Barbados was a witch, entertained the two youngsters with stories of her childhood and her life with her former mistress from whom she had learned some of the mysteries of her vocation. The girls were so fascinated by the stories that they soon invited Ann Putnam, Jr., the twelve-year-old daughter of the parish clerk, to join them, and in time the group was enlarged by the addition of a number of older women ranging from sixteen to forty-five years of age.
It is possible that Tituba not only explained some of the mystic voodoo rites regularly practiced in the native villages of her island home, but that she attempted to divine the future of everyone present by reading their palms, even though fortune telling of any kind was strictly forbidden throughout Puritan Massachusetts. It is also possible that she demonstrated her skills in a crude form of hypnosis, using the two youngest girls as her subjects, for they soon began to act as though they were in a post-hypnotic state, crawling about the house on their hands and knees while they barked like dogs or meowed like cats. They also developed a disturbing habit of staring blankly into space for long periods of time, and Tituba watched helplessly as the girls went through their strange antics, unable to control the behavior that her experiments had triggered.
Parris was even more concerned. When the girls showed no signs of improvement, he called in Dr. Griggs, the local physician, to treat them, thinking that their ailments were of a physical nature. Unable to help them, Griggs told Parris that the girls were “under the evil hand,” meaning that they were being afflicted by evil spirits. In order to exorcise these spirits, Parris invited a number of nearby ministers to join him in a day of fasting and prayer. At the end of the day, the girls’ condition remained the same, forcing the ministers to retire to their homes in defeat.
News of the doctor’s diagnosis spread rapidly throughout the village, and a number of people offered Tituba advice on how to drive the evil spirits away. One woman told her to feed the Parris dog a cake made of rye meal into which some of the afflicted girls’ urine had been added. With the help of her husband, John Indian, Tituba followed her instructions faithfully, but when Parris learned of it, he went into a rage because they had “called on the devil to drive out the devil.”
He began to question the two girls for long periods of time, hoping to learn the identity of those who were responsible for their condition. Receiving what he considered to be an accusation against Tituba, he continued to question them until they also mentioned Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, two local women who were held in very low esteem in the community and who had not been involved in the afternoon meetings. He then transferred his attention to Tituba, who, after extensive questioning, not only confessed that she was a witch and had afflicted the girls on orders from the devil, but also told him that Good and Osborne were equally guilty.
After Parris reported his findings to the authorities, the three women were ordered to appear at Ingersoll’s Tavern in Salem Village for questioning at 10:00 A.M. on March 1. Such a large crowd had gathered to watch the proceedings on the scheduled day, that Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the two Magistrates who were to preside over the examinations, transferred them to the meeting house which was next door to the tavern.
A table and bench were set up almost against the wall near the pulpit for the Magistrates. Elizabeth, Abigail, and several other people who were to appear as witnesses for the Crown, occupied the first pew, only a few feet away from the Magistrates, while the minister’s high-backed chair, turned around, served as the prisoners’ bar. As he was to do in other pre-trial examinations throughout that year, Corwin allowed his colleague to ask most of the questions.
Sarah Good, the first to be called, was a relatively young woman who looked much older than her years. She angrily denied that she was a witch, that she had any familiars or imps who did her bidding, or that she had ever made a covenant with the devil. She also denied that she had ever tormented any of the girls or had employed anyone to do so for her. Asked why she had once left the Parris house muttering to herself, she replied that she had merely thanked Parris for a gift he had given her young daughter Dorcas.
During Good’s examination, Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams, 18-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard, and Ann Putnam, Jr., the last-named two having complained that they were also afflicted by witches, screamed out in pain at times, accusing Good of torturing them so they would not testify against her. Good denied that she was responsible for hurting them, but stated that it was possible that it was Osborne who was doing so.
Ezekiel Cheevers, who was transcribing the testimony, wrote that she did not use the word “God” throughout the entire examination, that she was caught up in a number of lies, and that her answers were given “in a very wicked, spiteful manner, reflecting and retorting against the authority with base and abusive words.”
Among those who testified against her was her husband William, who told the Court that if she was not now a witch, she would very soon become one. Asked why he thought so, he answered that it was because of the manner in which she treated him, “and indeed, I may say with tears, that she is an enemy to all good.”
Tituba was examined next. She at first denied that she knew any evil spirits or that she had in any way hurt the girls, maintaining that it was possible that they had been tormented by the devil. Although she also denied that she had ever seen the devil, she finally admitted that she had seen him a number of times, the first time being the day that she baked the cake. He appeared before her when she invoked his aid in attempting to drive the evil spirits from the girls, and forced her to serve him. She had done so for only a short time, for she finally refused to obey any more of his orders even though he had given her the gift of spectral sight which allowed her to see into the world of the supernatural. He first tried to regain her loyalty with threats, but when this did not work, he tempted her by offering her a yellow bird and “other pretty things.”
Her only contact with the world of the supernatural had been the devil himself until the previous evening when five witches also made an appearance. Four of them were women and one was a tall man from Boston. She recognized two of them as Good and Osborne, but she had no idea who the other three might be. They brought her to the home of Dr. Griggs where they forced her to pinch Elizabeth Hubbard, Griggs’s niece. She did as they ordered only because they threatened to harm her if she disobeyed them.
The devil also appeared later in the evening and brought her to the home of Thomas Putnam. He produced a knife with which he ordered Tituba to cut Ann Putnam, Jr.’s head off. When she refused, he pricked Ann with the point, although he was careful not to draw any blood.
In answer to another question, she stated that the witches and the devil travelled through the air on sticks, but when she was asked if they rode through or over trees and other obstacles, she said that she did not know as they always blinded her before they started out. All she could say with any certainty was that they always arrived at their destination very quickly.
She maintained that Good had two attendants, a cat and a yellow bird, the latter receiving its nourishment by suckling between Good’s fingers. She added that Osborne had a yellow dog and a “thing with a head like a woman, with two legs and two wings.” This corroborated earlier testimony by Abigail Williams who had described the same being. Tituba also claimed that Osborne had another familiar that was hairy and walked on two legs.
She stated that the tall man from Boston had white hair, and always wore black clothing, while the women wore hooded capes, two of which were white, the others black. Asked why she had not told her master about her meetings with the devil and the witches, she replied that they had threatened to kill her if she did.
The girls began to scream out in pain while she was testifying, and Tituba claimed that she could see Sarah Good tormenting them, doing so in her own shape. When the girls again began to scream, she said that she could no longer see who was hurting them since the evil had temporarily taken away her spectral sight.
Sarah Osborne was the last to be examined. The questions asked her were similar to those asked the other two. She denied that she had ever had any familiarity with evil spirits or that she had ever made a contract with the devil, adding that she had never even seen the devil in her entire life. She also denied that she had ever hurt the girls or had employed anyone else to do so for her. Told that both Good and Tituba had accused her of tormenting the girls, she replied that she could not help it if the devil went about in her likeness to perform his evil deeds.
In spite of her denials, the girls identified her as one of the witches who had afflicted them in the past, one of them adding that she had even worn the same clothing then that she was wearing now. A woman had testified earlier that Osborne once told her that “she would never be tied to that lying spirit again.” Asked to clarify this statement, Osborne explained that a voice had once commanded her to stay away from church services, but that she had disobeyed it by attending services the very next Sunday. She added that the voice had never tried to tempt her again. Asked by Hathorne why she had not been to services for the past fourteen months, she answered that she had been extremely ill during that time.
The three defendants were examined every day until March 7, usually in their jail cells. Tituba answered the questions put to her almost exactly as she had on the first day. This, coupled with the fact that she showed the Magistrates bruises on various parts of her body which she claimed were the results of beatings she had received from the witches while she was in jail, convinced the Magistrates that she was telling the truth.
Although Good and Osborne continued to deny that they were guilty, no one believed them. On March 5, two local men testified that they had seen some supernatural sights in Salem Village on March 1 which they attributed to the malevolence of Good and Osborne, while that same day William Good testified that on the night before his wife was examined he saw a “wart or tett” just below her right shoulder that he had never noticed before. This last was a very important piece of evidence since the witches’ familiars were believed to receive their nourishment from growths on their hosts’ bodies.
Convinced that the women were guilty, the Magistrates ordered them taken to the jail in Boston to await trial. Osborne was so sick that she died in jail two months later, while Good, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy gave birth to a boy while she was in jail. The baby lived for only a few days. Good was tried during the first week in July. Found guilty by the jury, the Court sentenced her to be hanged at Gallows Hill in Salem on July 19, and the sentence was carried out as ordered.
Tituba’s case was different from that of the others. Since she confessed that she had once been a witch, the Magistrates and ministers believed that she had again accepted Christ as her savior. Because of this, she was in no danger of losing her life, but since the authorities were not certain as to what her punishment should be, they kept her in jail. She was never brought to trial, and when the hysteria was over in May of 1693, she could have been released as soon as her court and jail costs were paid. Before she was released, however, she stated that “her Master did beat her and otherwise abuse her to make her confess and accuse (such as he called) her Sister-Witches, and that whatsoever she said … was the effect of such usage.” When Parris learned of this damning statement, he refused to pay her costs, telling her she would have to remain in jail until she retracted it. Since she stubbornly insisted that she had told the truth, she stayed in jail until a Virginia planter bought her by paying her costs. He brought her to Virginia where she remained until she died.
THE HYSTERIA SPREADS “The devil, exhibiting himself ordinarily as a small black man, has decoyed a fearful knot of proud, froward, ignorant, envious, and malicious creatures to list themselves in his service by entering their names in a book by him tendered unto them. These witches, whereof above a score have now confessed, and … are now tormented by the devils for confessing, have met in hellish rendezvous, wherein … they have had their diabolical sacraments, imitating the Baptism and the Supper of our Lord … (and) have associated themselves to do no less a thing than to destroy the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ in these parts of the world … each of them (having) spectres, or devils … to be the engines of their malice. By these wicked spectres they seize poor people about the country with … preternatural torments (by which) there are some who have died. They have bewitched some, even so far as to make them self-destroyers; and others are in many towns … languishing under their evil hands. The people thus afflicted are miserably scratched or bitten, so that these marks are most visible to all the world, but the cause utterly invisible; and the same invisible fairies do most visibly stick pins into (their) bodies … and scald them and hideously distort and disjoint all their members, besides a thousand other sorts of plagues beyond those of any natural diseases … A large part of the persons tortured by these diabolical spectres are horribly tempted by them, sometimes by fair promises and sometimes by hard threatenings, but always with felt miseries, to sign the Devil’s Laws in a spectral book laid before them; which … being in their tiresome sufferings overcome to do, they have been immediately released from all their miseries and they appeared in spectre then to torture those that were before their fellow sufferers.” -- Cotton Mather.
During the first week in March, several of those who had attended the afternoon meetings at the Parris house began to accuse other people in the community of torturing them because they refused to accept the devil as their master. The people they accused were arrested and examined, and in almost every case, sent to jail to await trial. Soon, a number of young boys and men complained that they were also being afflicted by witches, and the list of those accused of practicing witchcraft began to grow at an astounding rate.
On May 14, when Sir William Phips, the newly-appointed Royal Governor of Massachusetts, arrived in Boston to assume his duties, more than fifty accused witches were in the various jails of the colony awaiting trial. Phips acted as quickly as he could. He set up a special Court of Oyer and Terminer on May 27 to try the witchcraft cases, and two days later named seven of the leading men in Massachusetts as Justices. They were Wait Winthrop, Samuel Sewall, William Sergeant, John Richards, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, and Deputy Governor William Stoughton, who was to serve as Chief Justice.
On the recommendation of Increase Mather, minister of the North Church of Boston, Phips appointed twelve of the leading ministers to set up guidelines to aid the Court in the coming cases. The ministers, convinced that the devil had the power to assume the shape of anyone he chose to impersonate, recommended, among other things, that spectral evidence -- instances in which the spectre of a person was seen performing acts of witchcraft while the person was elsewhere and unaware of what was taking place -- should not be permitted. Once they had completed their task, they assigned Cotton Mather the responsibility of writing the final draft. Although he followed their recommendations faithfully, he nullified the one pertaining to spectral evidence by adding a postscript of his own in which he praised the authorities and the members of the Court for their diligence in detecting and prosecuting the witches to this date. He urged them to continue their good work, being careful in doing so that they were always guided by the laws of God and the English statutes.
By the time the paper was completed and given to Chief Justice Stoughton on June 15, Bridget Bishop had already been tried, condemned, and executed, all on the basis of spectral evidence. Since none of the Magistrates or Justices had any formal legal training, they assumed that they were to continue on in the same manner, and every person tried at the next three sittings of the Court was found guilty on the same type of evidence.
After Bridget Bishop, a twice-married, attractive, middle-aged woman who owned a tavern on the Salem-Beverly line, was hanged on June 10, Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill resigned his commission, refusing to help send anyone else to the gallows on the basis of what he considered extrajudicial evidence. His resignation did not put a stop to the prosecutions, for Jonathan Corwin was appointed to replace him, and the Court continued to sit.
During the early days of the hysteria a number of people had expressed disapproval of the manner in which their neighbors had to suffer because of the accusations of the afflicted girls. The girls, unwilling to lose their newly-acquired position of importance in the community, effectively stilled the voices of these people by crying out against them. Among the targets of this counteroffensive were Rebecca Nurse, Martha Cory, John Proctor, and John Willard, each of whom was executed. When Saltonstall returned to Haverhill after leaving the Court, he, too, condemned the Justices, and Magistrates, and the afflicted girls, and the latter tried to silence him by crying out against him, accusing him of having signed the Devil’s Book. Because of his standing in the colony, however, little or no attention was paid to their charges, and he was never arrested.
The people in many of the Massachusetts towns, attributing every natural disaster, every unexplained loss of their livestock, and every strange illness of their loved ones to the malevolence of witches, watched with mounting interest as the jails were filled with the accused Salem and Salem Village witches. The authorities of several towns, among them those of Andover and Gloucester, requested the help of the afflicted girls to help them rid their towns of the devil’s minions.
Two of the girls were sent to Andover in July. Although they claimed to be able to see a large number of witches, they were unable to identify them by name, and to make their task easier, the authorities opened up the meeting house, forcing the townspeople to walk by them one at a time. The girls were in constant pain, tortured by the spectres of the local witches who were trying to keep their identities secret. As each person passed by the girls, he or she was forced to touch them. If the girls’ pains were eased by the touch -- it was believed that a witch’s familiar had to return to the host’s body whenever physical contact was made with the victim -- the person was considered guilty. Justice of the Peace Dudley Bradstreet wrote out more than forty warrants before he rebelled, stating that he would rather resign his commission than send any more people to jail on this type of evidence.
The girls professed to see the hand of the devil in his decision, and cried out against him and his wife, accusing them of killing nine persons by means of witchcraft. Before a warrant for their arrest could be served, the couple fled to New Hampshire. The girls also cried out against Bradstreet’s brother John, accusing him of afflicting a number of people as well as a dog. John also fled to New Hampshire to avoid arrest, and the dog was condemned to die, giving it the distinction of being the only one of all those who were afflicted, either animal or human, to be executed.
The witch hunt in Andover might have gone on indefinitely but for the fact that the girls cried out against a man who was then visiting in Boston. When he learned of the accusation, he swore out a warrant for the arrest of everyone connected with defaming his character, and sued them for 1000 pounds sterling in damages. The charges against him were dropped, and the girls returned to Salem Village. They had accomplished far more than anyone had originally anticipated, for more than fifty Andoverites were in jail as the result of their accusations.
Three months later, the two girls went to Gloucester in another search for witches. As they were crossing a bridge leading into the town, they cried out against four women they met. The four were arrested and sent to jail, while the two girls, satisfied with what they had accomplished, returned to Salem Village.
Encouraged by their successes, the afflicted people began to accuse some of the more important people in the colony, crying out against Increase Mather’s wife, Justice Corwin’s mother-in-law, and Governor Phips’s wife, the latter probably because she had dared to release a woman accused of being a witch while the Governor was in Maine directing the war against the French and the Indians. To protect his wife and those of his friends who had also been accused, Phips decreed that spectral evidence would not be admissible in future court cases.
He disbanded the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and appointed a special Superior Court, to which he assigned the same seven Justices who had served on the other Court, to try the huge backlog of witchcraft cases that threatened to choke the entire judicial system. He then wrote to the Privy Council in England, asking for advice on conducting all future witchcraft cases.
The Superior Court sat at Salem on January 3, and because of the ruling concerning spectral evidence, 49 of the 52 people that appeared before this tribunal were cleared. Stoughton wanted to execute the three who were found guilty before there was any more interference from the Governor, so he signed their death warrants as well as those of five others who had been found guilty by the previous court but who had been granted reprieves for one reason or another.
Consulting with the King’s Attorney, Phips learned that the eight condemned prisoners had been found guilty on the basis of spectral evidence, the last three in direct violation of his orders. He immediately signed a stay of execution for the eight, angering Stoughton so much that he refused to preside over the Court when it sat at Charlestown on January 31. At that session, every person brought before the Court was cleared, and the Court moved to Boston on April 25 to clear up the huge backlog of cases in that town. Although Stoughton again presided over the Court, every person brought before it was again found innocent and freed.
The following month, Phips received the long-awaited letter from England which convinced him that there was no longer any necessity to continue the witch trials. He issued a Proclamation pardoning everyone who had been found guilty or who was then in jail awaiting trial, including those who had confessed to save their lives, and granted unconditional amnesty to all those who had fled from the jurisdiction of the Court to escape prosecution. The witchcraft hysteria was officially ended.
THE AFTERMATH Phips was summoned to London on 1694 to answer to a number of charges, the most serious of which was that he had misappropriated government funds. He died in January of 1694/95, only a few weeks after he arrived, so he was never brought to trial. Deputy Governor Stoughton served as acting Governor until the new Royal Governor arrived in Boston in 1698.
Seeing that so many of the people involved in the witchcraft cases were suffering from pangs of conscience, Stoughton issued a Proclamation setting aside January 14, 1696/97 as a Day of Fasting and Prayer throughout the entire colony. In the Proclamation, he asked God to forgive “all the errors of his servants and people” during the late tragedy. On the appointed day, Judge Samuel Sewall attended services at the South Church in Boston. He handed a paper to the minister and remained standing until the minister had finished reading it aloud to the congregation. It read: “Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and his family, and being sensible that as to the guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem … he desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God … would pardon that sin and all other his sins … and would powerfully defend him against any temptation to sin for the future.” Sewall observed a day of humiliation and prayer each year on this same date for the rest of his life to atone for his part in the hysteria.
The Salem jurors also circulated a paper that year that stated that “they were not capable to understand nor to withstand the mysterious delusion of the powers of darkness,” and humbly begged the forgiveness of everyone who had been harmed by their actions.
Ann Putnam, Jr., believed by many to have been the leader of the afflicted girls in spite of her age, humbled herself at church services shortly after a new minister replaced Parris at the Village church. She became a recluse, broken in mind and health, and died when she was only 36 years old.
A number of Samuel Parris’s parishioners blamed him for the outbreak of the hysteria, stating that he whipped Tituba until she confessed to a crime that she had not committed and accused two others of being equally guilty of the same crime. They pointed to the fact that he had signed formal complaints against six of the accused witches, and were convinced that he had encouraged and even instructed the afflicted girls in their wild accusations. Although Parris publicly admitted his errors, he refused to resign his position as they demanded. Instead, he asked Increase and Cotton Mather to come to Salem Village to plead in his behalf, but in spite of their help, he was finally forced to leave the Salem Village church in 1697. He first went to Boston, then served as minister in several small parishes until he died in Sudbury in 1720.
Twenty-one people who had been directly affected by the hysteria appealed to the General Court in 1709 for redress. One of the claimants was William Good whose daughter Dorcas, then only five years old, was arrested, examined, and sent to the jail in Boston where she remained for more than a year before she was released. Sixteen years later, she still had the emotional and mental maturity of a five-year-old child. The General Court set aside the sum of 532 pounds sterling in 1711 to be divided among all the claimants, of which Good received thirty as his share.
In 1692, the members of the Salem church voted unanimously to excommunicate Rebecca Nurse and Giles Cory, two victims of the madness. In 1712, the members voted to set aside the excommunications, and allowed their names to be again entered on the rolls of the church. This was the last meaningful official act bearing on the witchcraft hysteria of 1692.
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Salem Witch House, Salem, Mass. In this house, the home of Magistrate Jonathan Corwin, were held many of the pre-trial examinations of those accused of witchcraft in 1692. When Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill resigned his commission as a Justice on the special Court of Oyer and Terminer, Governor Phips selected Corwin, a highly-respected member of the Salem church, to replace him. The Witch House, refurbished in authentic 17th-century style, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Massachusetts.
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Pre-trial examinations were held in a number of places, although the great majority were held at the meeting house in Salem Village. To give it the appearance of a courtroom, a table and bench were placed up front to the right of the pulpit and close to the wall. This is where the Magistrates presided over the proceedings and where the court stenographer transcribed the testimony. The afflicted girls and others who served as witnesses for the Crown sat in the first two pews on the same side of the building as the Magistrates. The minister’s high-backed chair, turned around, was placed a few feet away from the Magistrates, and served as the prisoners’ bar. At least one law officer, and sometimes as many as three, guarded each of the prisoners during the examinations.