Salem Witch Trials

Three hundred years ago, the people in and around Salem, Massachusetts were engaged in the most massive witch hunt in American history. Authorities arrested over 150 suspects from more than two dozen towns, juries convicted twenty-eight, and nineteen were hanged (Aronson, 2003, p. 5). Contemporaries of the tragedy grappled with Satan’s role in the affair. Embracing the reality of witchcraft, many wondered if the Devil had not manipulated the people of New England into an orgy of destructive accusations. With the passing of the participants, researchers began to discount a satanic role and sought instead to assign blame to human agents for the tragedy.

In this paper we’ll discuss the events related to Salem Witch Trials and analyze historical, social and economic factors which contributed to those events. This research is aimed to prove that there were several reasons for persecution of Salem witches such as the desire of New England clergy to create true Christian church, the assertion of male power, superstitious beliefs of people and their inability to explain natural phenomena, and slow development in the field of medicine and incapability to determine causes of certain illnesses.

1. Historical Conditions

1.1. Early American Witchcraft Beliefs

In the seventeenth century people automatically assumed that their difficulties had a supernatural explanation. Floods, thunder, lightning, hailstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and comets were considered the harbingers of illness or destruction. Curses, spells, and the evil eye, most believed, could cause harm. Reports of strange dreams, visions, unseen voices, and prophecies circulated frequently (Aronson, 2003, p. 14). In England, practitioners of magic, men and women who sought to manipulate supernatural powers, abounded. Rich and poor alike consulted cunning folk to recover lost property, to discover a cure for illness, for help in finding missing family members or livestock, for advice in making personal and business decisions, or to identify witches.

New Englanders were engaged in fortunetelling; carefully read almanacs for astronomical data essential to the practice of astrology; read about and pursued the mysteries of alchemy; and a few boasted about their knowledge of the occult (Levack, 1987, p. 65).

1.2. Condemnation of witchcraft by Church

Religious and secular authorities in Catholic and Protestant regions grew concerned about an organized cult of witches. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull condemning witchcraft as heresy, the exercise of supernatural powers obtained through a demonic pact. Two years later, with papal approval, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominican inquisitors, published the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), the first major treatise on witchcraft beliefs (Levack, 1987, p. 11). By the early seventeenth century, works on witchcraft beliefs collectively offered a picture of a secret society of Devil-worshiping witches. Despite the efforts of writers like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, and Jeffrey B. Russell to prove the existence of such cults, recent scholarship has demonstrated that no organized society of witches ever developed (Levack, 1987, p.12).

2. Profile of the Individuals Accused in Witchcraft

2.1 Gender

Women comprised almost eighty percent of those accused, making gender the most significant characteristic (Karlsen, 1987, p. 41). Moreover, approximately half of the males accused had direct involvement with accused women as friends, supporters, or kin (Karlsen, 1987, p. 47). Karlsen concluded that “most witches in New England were middle-aged or old women eligible for inheritances because they had no brothers or sons.” (1987, p. 117). As such, “they stood in the way of the orderly transmission of property from one generation of males to another.” (Karlsen, 1987, p.116). As land became more scarce in the more settled communities, men began to resent these women who had access to it through a demographic accident. The resentment was expressed in witchcraft accusations. “Whether as actual or potential inheritors of property, as healers or tavern-keepers or merchants,” Karlsen argued, “most accused witches were women who symbolized the obstacles to property and prosperity.” (1987, p. 217).

There are no completely satisfactory explanations for the preponderance of women among the accused. They obviously lived in a male-dominated culture. Men held political and religious power, controlled most property, and were the acknowledged heads of households (Levack, 1987, p. 48). Such circumstances make it tempting to view the accused as women who challenged “prescribed gender arrangements.” (Karlsen, 1987, p.119). This would make them the targets of a misogynist culture unwilling to tolerate females who were assertive, economically independent, or reluctant to defer to men; in short, individuals who had refused to accept their place in the traditional social order. There are, however, several problems with such an explanation.

Little evidence exists that English culture in the seventeenth century experienced “generalized” conflict or hostility between the sexes on either side of the Atlantic. In addition, although men filed most of the charges of witchcraft against women, many came from other women. These might have been women who shared a distrust or dislike of nonconforming women. More likely, such considerations played little or no role in their charges; women accused other women because they sought to punish those causing harm in their community. Finally, according to one survey of seventeenth-century material, “no colonist ever explicitly said why he or she saw witches as women.” (Karlsen, 1987, p.153). Perhaps the tendency to single out women reflected the seventeenth-century assumption that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men and as a consequence were less able to resist Satan.

2.2. Age and Wealth

Age and wealth were also significant factors in witchcraft accusations. The young seldom had to fear suspicion or formal charges. The overwhelming majority of the accused were over forty. While older women of all levels of New England society might be accused, a higher proportion came from the ranks of the poor, but not the very poor (Aronson, 2003, p. 79).

2.3 Reputation

Many of the accused witches shared unsavory reputations. Some were known for their contentious behavior (Aronson, 2003, p. 88). For example, during Elizabeth Morse’s trial, several witnesses testified to heated confrontations with her. Also, like Morse, the accused often revealed special healing powers. It had become commonplace by the late seventeenth century for people to suspect spiteful, poor, older women of being witches. A witness of a witch hunt in Chelmsford, England, contended that villagers had come to suspect “every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furred brow, a hairy lip, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, a skull cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, a dog or cat by her side.” (Burr, 1914, p. 78).

3. Life in Salem Village

Salem is one of the larger towns along the Bay of Massachusetts. Englishmen came there in 1626 (Aronson, 2003, p. 57). For years many other Puritans migrated from the mother country. A group of settlers decided to set up west of Salem. This area was known as Salem Village. They felt they had not very much in common with Salem and the village made its own parish (Aronson, 2003, p. 58).

By 1692 the people of Salem Village had become familiar with a wide range of occult beliefs. They understood the powers of the Devil and that God chose, at times, to release this prince of evil on his chosen people. Their fears of witchcraft centered on the harm witches could cause the people and property dear to them. Should a disagreement with an older woman of low repute be followed by some mishap, most assumed that she was responsible for their hardships. Some responded with countermagic, countercharms, or white magic, but others chose a more cautious approach. They called upon physicians, for example, if the afflictions seemed the result of illness (Aronson, 2003, p. 123). Yet medical specialists inevitably concluded that no physical explanation sufficed, that witchcraft had produced the suffering. Complaints to judicial authorities followed. Officials arrested and examined the suspects, and neighbors provided evidence of the accused bad temper and attributed mishaps to their occult powers. The afflicted often charged that they had seen the “shape” of the suspect doing harm, and few would stand in their defense (Aronson, 2003, p. 140).

4. The Accusers

4.1. Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather was a respected clergyman in Puritan Massachusetts. He believed that certain people used magic to help the Devil do his evil work. Most colonial New Englanders felt this way. He did warn that the evidence against a person suspected of using black magic needed to be weighed carefully. There is always the chance that an innocent person might be accused of witchcraft (Levack, 1987, p. 76).

4.2. Samuel Parris

The people of Salem Village elected Rev. Samuel Parris to be the pastor. He was only 25 years old at this time in 1689 and had no experience as a clergyman (Levack, 1987, p. 133). Most of his sermons were about good and evil. Many of the people were fighting between themselves about the new generation of New Englanders and how they were less God fearing and thought that God might let bad deeds happen to punish them.

4.3. Accusations Begin

In 1692 Elizabeth Parris, Rev. Parris’s 9-year-old daughter, and Abigail Williams, his 12-year-old niece, started to have fits that were uncontrollable (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 63). Then 11 year old Anne Putman, daughter of Thomas Putman, Samuel Parris’s supporter, and her cousin 17 year old Mary Walcott started having the same type of fits.

The local Doctor, William Griggs, was brought in to decide just what was wrong with them. Because he could not find anything physicial wrong with them, he claimed it was the result of “bewitchment” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 63). Now all the adults were pressuring the children to tell them who cast the spell on them. After a lot of pressure the first two girls named the witches that were tormenting them.

5. The Witches

5.1. Sarah Osburn, Sarah Good and Tituba

The first one accused of being a witch was Samuel Parris’s slave, Tituba. The second woman was Sarah Good, a woman of “ill repute” and the third woman was Sarah Osburn, who was old and always sick and did not go to church because of her bad health. On March 1, 1691, warrants were sent out for these three to be questioned by John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, the magistrates (Burr, 1914, p. 80). They questioned the three women in the Salem Village Meeting House.

Where Sarah Good had denied knowledge of the Devil and Sarah Osborne had made only a grudging admission of contact with the occult, Tituba provided a richly textured story of witchcraft in Salem Village. Her responses reflected many of the familiar images from the lore of occult beliefs. Her examination extended well into the afternoon and no doubt held the villagers in rapt attention.

Tituba maintained that there were four other witches active in the village — Good, Osborne, and two women she did not know from Boston. It remains difficult to explain Tituba’s extraordinary testimony. Unlike Good and Osborne, perhaps she sought only to please her listeners and willingly followed wherever John Hathorne’s questions led her. On the other hand, she may have done so out of fear of her master. The author of one contemporary account contended that Tituba said afterward that Parris beat her until she confessed and named her “sister-witches.” (Calef, 1700, p. 343). Given the vivid imagery in her testimony, we may, also, conclude that Tituba may have been describing hallucinations resulting from her occult experiences as a fortuneteller.

5.2. The confessions of the other witches

Mather and Parris had focused upon the imminent threat of a satanic plot because of the incredible confessions heard in an increasing number of examinations of suspects in late summer. For those who attended the proceedings from mid-July through the first week of September, or for those who heard about them, the enormity of the conspiracy emerged in startling clarity. Dozens of women, men, and children enthralled stunned spectators with details of an extraordinary scheme. They heard how the Devil had recruited a substantial following, called witch meetings, celebrated mock sacraments, and planned to destroy Christendom.

Several of the confessors described the Devil as a cunning black man who had approached them at a vulnerable time in their lives (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 65). Individuals with frustrated love lives attracted the Devil’s attention. Mercy Wardwell had been disconsolate because “people told her that she should never hath such a young man who loved her.”(Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p.783). Convinced that they were right, Mercy did not return the young man’s advances, and “he finding no encouragement [from her] threatened to drown himself.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 783). Rebecca Eames grew despondent over an adulterous relationship “she was then in such horror of conscience that she took a rope to hang herself and a razor to cut her throat.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 282). Mary Toothaker was terrified by the repeated rumors of Indian attacks. In the spring of 1692, she “was under great discontentedness & troubled with fear about the Indians, & used often to dream of fighting with them.”(Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 767).

Whatever their personal problems, the Devil promised to resolve them. The unfaithful Rebecca Eames contended that he had assured her that “she should not be brought out or even discovered” if she would join him (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 282). To most, however, the Devil offered material rewards for their allegiance: “fine clothes” for Mary Bridges, Jr., Hannah Post, and Sarah Wardwell; and Sarah Hawkes “should have what she wanted.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p.135). Elizabeth Johnson and Mary Marston anticipated “happiness & joy.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, 502). Mary Toothaker would no longer have to worry about Indian attacks; and Mary Lacey, Jr., expected “crowns in Hell.”(Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p.768).

Joining the Devil, according to the confessors, involved two important rituals — signing his covenant and being baptized by him. The recruits provided their signatures in a variety of ways. Mary Lacey, Jr., and Mary Marston simply signed “with a pen dipped in ink.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 201). Sarah Hawkes made “a black scrawl or mark with a stick as a confirmation of the covenant.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 387). Once they had signed, the Devil took them either to a pond or a river and baptized them into the cult (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 71). Mercy Wardwell said that she had experienced the opposite extreme. The Devil baptized her in her home “in a pail of water in which he dipped her face.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 781). Regardless of the mode or place of baptism, the confessors agreed to renounce Christ and yield to Satan “soul & body.” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 387).

Once in the Devil’s “Company,” the recruits were obligated to attend witch meetings. Several testified that they had met in Salem Village near Samuel Parris’s house (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 66). Getting to the meetings proved a novel experience for the witches. Most claimed that they rode upon sticks or poles, a means of transport that took them above the trees (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1977, p.140).

Even though the witches did confess all their sins their stories sound like legends which cannot be proved by any scientific facts. Besides, their confessions remind the warnings of church leaders who lived during those days and endeavored to emphasize the power of church by threatening people with stories about Satan and his evil acts. Thus, the confessions by witches sound so unrealistic that we may assume that those women and, also, men accused in witchcraft were forced to say those things. In fact, there is evidence that many of the people accused were tortured. Giles Corey, husband of Martha Corey (she was named as witch) was pressed to death when he refused to go to trial. Large weights were put on his chest to force him to confess. Giles Corey died instead of confessing a lie. Giles Corey was 80 years old and just refused to speak. This way he would not be taken to trial.

Furthermore, many women spoke of their hidden wishes (e.g. desire to have young lover; wear nice clothes; attract men, etc.) which could not come true because of strict Puritan values. Moreover, some women who were named as witches did not repent even when they went to the gallows which proves that they were not involved in witchcraft (for example, Sarah Goods, Rebecca Nurse).

6. Change in Heart

The witch hunt was getting out of control. People were beginning to think about what they were doing. In October of 1692 Governor of Massachusetts, Sir William Phips was outraged when his own wife was mentioned by the afflicted girls (Levack, 1987, p. 121). He suspended the court that he had started in May 1692. He replaced the court with a new Superior Court of Judicature, which did not allow spectral evidence. The court only condemned only 3 of the 56 people on trial (Levack, 1987, p. 123). Phips pardoned these three. In May of 1693 Phips pardoned all of the others waiting to be hanged. They were free to go as long as they paid their jail bills. Lots of them stayed in jail for months because they could not pay their bill.

7. Forgiveness and Memorial

Massachusetts little by little repented for the Salem Witch Trials. Rev. Joseph Green replaced Rev. Parris and the colony observed a Day of Atonement in 1697 (Levack, 1987, p. 167). Samuel Sewell, the judge, admitted publicly that he was wrong in taking part in the witch trials. He was the only judge to make such a statement. Also, Anne Putman who accused several women in witchcraft made a public apology for her part (Levack, 1987, p. 174).

In 1711 legislature passed a bill restoring the good names of some of the victims and their heirs got restitution. In 1957 the city of Salem and the town of Danvers (originally Salem Village) dedicated memorials to the “slain” witched in 1691. In the end, 19 people were hung, five died in jail including the infant baby of Sarah Good, and one died from torture.


Thus, Salem Witch Trials is one of the saddest pages in the history of America. The desire of those immigrants to New England who had brought occult beliefs with them, sought to create a society of closely knit Christian villages with a strong sense of communal responsibility. Inspired by the belief that they were on a mission for God to preserve the true church, these committed immigrants eagerly pursued the task of establishing a Christian utopia. God, they believed, had entered into a covenant with man to save his predestined “elect” status. Therefore, one of the possible causes of the massive witch hunt was the desire of people to establish the true Christian church and emphasize their special place in cosmos destroying those whose behavior was somewhat different from traditional Christian beliefs. As it was mentioned earlier in this paper, some witches had fortunetelling and healing skills. Also, some of them were old and ill and could not attend church. Besides, some women were unfaithful to their husbands; the fact that, also, contradicts Christian values.

The second reason was the desire of men to preserve their dominant status in the society. As it was stated earlier, the majority of those accused were women. Besides, women could strengthen its status in the society by inheriting property and gaining economic prosperity.

Furthermore, the lack of knowledge in the field of medicine was the third cause of the witch hunt. It is obvious that the doctors who were not able to explain the origin of illness could not admit their incompetence. Therefore, they did not want to ruin their reputation and simply stated that witchcraft caused the illness.

Finally, Salem farmers suffered from unfavorable weather conditions. Since they could not find scientific factors to explain natural occurrences they endeavored to find supernatural causes.

Thus, there can be various interpretations of the persecution of witches in the seventeenth century but we can certainly state that those women were innocent victims of the ignorant society.

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