In 1692 a witch hunt swept the small Puritan community of Salem Village in Massachusetts, America. In a couple of months almost 200 people were accused of being witches when their names had been “cried out” by tormented young girls as the cause of their pains. All were accused of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death.
The Puritans or “the godly”, as they called themselves, were a strong religious group that worked towards religious and moral change. They wanted religious purity and saw the Bible as “God’s law” – the only true law. They felt that the Church of England was too tied to Rome and the Catholic Church. Puritans ended up being forced out of Europe and travelled to America where they started colonies. They wanted religious liberty, to worship freely in their own way but they denied that freedom to those who disagreed with them. They had no problem punishing people who had other beliefs. It was very important to read the Bible, to make sure everyone could, they built public schools (1635) and the college, Harvard (1639).
Marriage was important. Husbands were the spiritual head and women were to demonstrate religious piety and obedience. Women were expected to stay at home and take care of the children. Children entered the world with the stain of original sin and could only be redeemed through religious education and obedience. Puritans strongly believed that the devil was everywhere and lived in constant fear for their souls. The Devil could take any form and he needed helpers, often women – witches. Young girls and women were naturally curious and therefore more likely to follow the Devil’s work.
Events that lead up to the Salem witch trials
But, the residents of Salem were not happy. They argued about land, money and the new priest Samuel Parris’ salary. The town was divided, some wanted a local church and others didn’t. Parris preached about the Devil’s work to get the townspeople to feel they needed their own priest. Parris had just moved to Salem with his wife, 9 year old daughter Elizabeth, an 11 year old niece Abigail Williams and the Indian slave Tituba from Barbados. Tituba tells them fascinating stories about magic, voodoo and how to see into the future. Several neighbours came to listen. The children knew this was forbidden and were terrified of the retributions.
In February the girls started to display bizarre behaviour. They screamed, had convulsive fits, and at times could not speak. Samuel Parris contacted doctor Griggs to examine the afflicted girls but he couldn’t find a natural cause for their disturbing behaviour.
He said that witchcraft may be the cause but, by whom?
Were there witches in Salem?
The Salem Trials
The village prayed to get rid of the Devil’s influence. The girls were pressured to reveal who controlled their behaviour; they named Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, two women that didn’t really fit into the Puritan society. Tituba confesses to practicing witchcraft and that there were more witches in Salem. They were arrested and checked for “witches teats” (marks on the body that didn’t hurt or bleed) and “touching test” (afflicted girls became calm when touching the accused). There was no such thing as “innocent until proven guilty”
In March the girls accused Martha Corey. Martha was different; she was a good and respected member of the community, a proof that the Devil could reach the very core of their society. During Martha’s trial, accusers begun to copy Martha’s every movement, it looked as if Martha controlled them. The accusers also claimed they had seen the spectre of Martha when she came to torment them.
Friends of the girls started to show the same symptoms. It became a mass hysteria where accusations of witchcraft spread like fire. Soon there were almost 200 people in prison; the youngest was a 4 years old boy.
The first hanging started in June with the death of Bridget Bishop.
The only way to save yourself from being hanged was to confess. The Devil wouldn’t so if you didn’t you had to be a witch and the sentence was death. Puritans saw the Bible as the only true law and in the Bible it says: “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.
Martha’s husband, Giles Corey, was also accused of witchcraft but he didn’t confess and refused to be a part of the spectacle at court. The penalty for refusal was “peine et fort” – He had to lie on the ground with heavy stones placed on him. After two days when they came for a confession, he said “more weight”. More stones were added until his chest gave in and he was crushed to death.
His wife Martha was hanged three days later. The hanging didn’t break the neck, they slowly suffocated.
The witch hunt comes to a halt
Several people who were against the witch hunt spoke up after the first hanging and begged the court not to allow spectral evidence (testimony of dreams and visions). Governor Phips and the Court ignored this request and continued to execute 18 accused women.
When Governor Phips wife was accused he prohibited further arrests, released many accused witches and dissolved the Court. Phips eventually pardoned all who were in prison but it was too late:
19 were hanged on Gallows Hill, a 71-year-old man was pressed to death with heavy stones, several people died in jail and nearly 200 people had been accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic.”
It’s believed, the first three girls were only faking their bizarre behaviour that started this whole event.
In 1702, the Court declared the trials unlawful and in 1711, the colony paid compensation to the survivors and families of the executed.