The Salem Witch Trials

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The Salem Witch Trials: History

Campbell, Donna M. "The Salem Witch Trials." Literary Movements < campbell/enl310/witch.htm>


Although the accusations of witchcraft at Salem described by Cotton Mather in The Wonders of the Invisible World have become the most notorious example of the hysteria about witches, the events of 1692-1693 were neither the first nor the only instances of such accusations in New England. Individual cases include that of Mistress Ann Hibbens, a Boston widow hanged for witchcraft in 1656 In The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Carole F. Karlsen comments that Hibbens had been excommunicated from the Boston church sixteen years before her witchcraft trial but was not formally charged until her neighbors accused her of maleficium (killing cattle and so forth) as well as evil actions such as knowing that other people were talking about her. A previous outbreak of witchcraft hysteria had occurred thirty years earlier in Hartford, Connecticut, during which thirteen people were accused of witchcraft, four of whom were duly convicted and executed. An outbreak at Fairfield, Connecticut, occurring at the same time as the Salem outbreak, resulted in seven accusations and one conviction, but no executions.

According Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum's account in Salem Possessed, the outbreak at Salem began in the winter of 1691 when the girls of the village, aided by Tituba and John Indian, a West Indian slave couple, attempted to tell their futures by using a makeshift crystal ball. On February 29, 1692, warrants were issued for three women: Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, the former two proclaiming their innocence while the latter confessed. As events unfolded, 185 people were accused at Salem, 141 women and 44 men. Of that number, 52 women and 7 men were tried; 26 women and 5 men were convicted; and 14 women and 5 men were executed, the last group on September 22, 1692. The true end to the trials of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, however, came on October 3, 1692 when Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather, preached a sermon that was soon published as Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men. Condemning without qualification the spectral evidence upon which several cases had relied, Increase Mather declared that "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned" (Boyer and Nissenbaum 10).

Who were the witches? Karlsen's demographic analysis of the available data shows that not those accused but those convicted of witchcraft in Salem and elsewhere were overwhelmingly women over the age of forty, with women over sixty being at an especially high risk for both accusation and conviction. The men convicted tended to be the family members of convicted female witches. Further, although those convicted of witchcraft in England tended to be poor, those accused of witchcraft in Salem were frequently relatively wealthy or powerful; for example, in addition to the wives of selectmen and some wealthy widows, two sons of former Governor Simon Bradstreet were accused but not tried, as was Captain John Alden, son of the legendary John and Priscilla Alden of Plymouth Colony.


Explanations differ as to the underlying causes of the outbreak at Salem. Boyer and Nissenbaum argue that what happened at Salem was the outgrowth of conflicts between the rising mercantile class and the people who were tied to a land-based economy--that is, that the wealth and power of the merchants "were achieved at the expense of the farmers" (Karlsen 212). Claiming that Boyer and Nissenbaum's theory does not account for the overwhelming proportion of women accused, Karlsen interprets the economic issues somewhat differently. In addition to the sexual and doctrinal threat posed by independent women, Karlsen contends that the many accused who were women with property and no male heirs constituted a threat to an economic system based on the "orderly transfer of property from father to son" (217); in short, that such women were viewed as tying up the colony's wealth without performing the essential functions of bearing and raising male children. Too, a widow who inherited the traditional "widow's third" from her husband was competing with her sons and stepsons for scarce resources. A similar case is that of Abigail Faulkner, who took charge of the family estate when her husband became incapacitated and was almost immediately denounced as a witch.

They Called It Witchcraft

By MARY BETH NORTON, New York Times, October 31, 2002

ITHACA, N.Y. — In 17th-century New England, almost everyone believed in witches.

Struggling to survive in a vast and sometimes unforgiving land, America's earliest settlers understood themselves to be surrounded by an inscrutable universe filled with invisible spirits — both benevolent and evil — that affected their lives. They often attributed the sudden illness of a child, a household disaster or a financial setback to a witch's curse. The belief in witchcraft was, at bottom, an attempt to make sense of the unknown.

While witchcraft was often feared, it was punished only infrequently. In the first 70 years of the New England settlements, about 100 people were formally charged with being witches; fewer than two dozen were convicted and fewer still were executed.

Then came 1692. In January of that year, two young girls living in the household of the Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem Village began experiencing strange fits. The doctor identified witchcraft as the cause. After weeks of questioning, the girls named Tituba, Parris's female Indian slave, and two local women as the witches who were tormenting them.

Judging by previous incidents, one would have expected the episode to end there. But it didn't. Other young Salem women began to suffer fits as well. Before the crisis ended, 19 people formally accused others of afflicting them, 54 residents of Essex County confessed to being witches and nearly 150 people were charged with consorting with the Devil. What led to this remarkable outcome?

Traditionally, historians have argued that the witchcraft crisis resulted from factionalism in Salem Village, deliberate faking, or possibly the ingestion of hallucinogens by the afflicted. I believe another force was at work. The events in Salem were precipitated by a conflict with the Indians on the northeastern frontier, the most significant surge of violence in the region in nearly 40 years.

In two little-known wars, fought largely in Maine between 1675-1678 and 1688-1699, English settlers suffered devastating losses at the hands of the Wabanaki Indians and their French allies. Most of Maine was abandoned twice, in 1676 and 1690, not to be resettled thereafter for decades.

The key afflicted accusers in the Salem crisis were frontier refugees whose families had been wiped out in the wars. These young women said they saw the Devil in the shape of an Indian. In testimony, they accused the witches' reputed ringleader — the Rev. George Burroughs, formerly pastor of Salem Village and of several Maine parishes — of bewitching the soldiers sent to fight the Wabanakis.

It is worth noting that while Tituba, one of the first people accused of witchcraft, has traditionally been portrayed as a black or mulatto woman from Barbados, that was not the case. All evidence points to her being an American Indian. Her contemporaries uniformly referred to her as Indian. In addition, most slaves in Massachusetts at the time were indigenous to North America — transported from Spanish missions in Florida and the Georgia sea islands.

To the Puritan settlers, who believed themselves to be God's chosen people, witchcraft explained why they were losing the war so badly. Their Indian enemies had the Devil on their side. His diabolical assistance allowed them to lay waste to frontier settlements — and then disappear.

In late summer, some prominent New Englanders began to criticize the witch prosecutions. In response to the dissent, Gov. William Phips of Massachusetts in October dissolved the special court he had established to handle the trials. But before he stopped the legal process, 19 people (14 women, five men) had been hanged. Another man was crushed to death by stones for refusing to enter a plea and thereby acknowledge the court's authority over him. Eight more of the accused had been convicted but not yet hanged; they survived because Phips reprieved them several months later.

The governor still believed in witches, but he concluded that much of the spectral evidence presented at the trials had been "the Devil's testimony" and so could not be trusted. Visions of witches had diabolical, not divine, origins. That made the identification of the spectral torturers suspect, for the Devil could appear in the shapes of innocent men and women. Accordingly, when the trials resumed in 1693 in the regular Massachusetts courts, the judges no longer accepted spectral evidence. Yet juries still convicted three more of the accused. Phips reprieved them, too.

The war with the Indians continued for six more years, though sporadically. Slowly, northern New Englanders began to feel more secure. And they soon regretted the events of 1692. Within five years, one judge and 12 jurors formally apologized as the colony declared a day of fasting and prayer to atone for the injustices that had been committed. In 1711, the state compensated the families of the victims. And last year, more than three centuries after early Americans reacted to an external threat by lashing out irrationally, the convicted were cleared by name in a Massachusetts statute. It's a story worth remembering — and not just on Halloween.

Mary Beth Norton, a professor of American history at Cornell University, is author of "In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692."

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