Salem Witch Trials: Victims, Hunters, and What REALLY Happened
In a town called Salem in 1692, innocent people are accused of witchcraft and cavorting with the devil. A witch panic ensues and the town wants nothing more than to eradicate the evil in their midst…many people tried to stay out of their way. But the witch hunters and officials came knocking on at least one hundred and fifty people’s doors. And many found themselves in jail and then in a courtroom, being accused of things they didn’t do. And sadly, at least twenty of the accused were convicted and climbed Gallows Hill to be hung for their supposed crimes. In this article, we take a deep dive look into what really happened in the Salem Witch Trials.
What WAS It Like to Live in Salem in 1692?
The year is 1692 and we’re in Salem, a new colony in New England mostly made up of Puritans but there’s also a quaker family or two. The weather and environment in general is bleak and cold. The village is surrounded by forest and wilderness. You’re taught from a young age that anything bad that happens is because of the Devil and his followers…because of witches. They dwell in the woods around the village…close to your back door. Creeping ever closer to steal your soul. It’s been a cruel winter and there have been smallpox outbreaks all over New England.
The Political Climate in Salem
The political climate isn’t much better – Britain has increased taxes on the colony, of which the colony can’t truly afford. And the Reverend Increase Mather has left the colony to go to English Court seeking clarification on Salem’s governmental architecture and procedures. Essentially, the people of Salem are governed by the church. There is NO separation of church and state. So anything done against the bible or religion is done against the community and is a crime and sin. The villagers have no fun, no holidays, all piety and prayer and penance. Not to mention, the ongoing disputes over land ownership in the village.
What Event Triggered the Salem Witch Trials?
The epicenter and the catalyst of the Salem Witch Trials was the Reverend Samuel Parris’ home he shared with his wife, their daughter Elizabeth (Betty), their niece Abigail Williams, and two slaves from the West Indies Tituba and her husband John Indian. The girls are coming into puberty and want to buck back against the strict rules of their parents and society and experiment with divination as taught to them by Tituba. Tituba was also known to tell them stories of “Voodoo” while the girls gathered in the kitchen to keep warm. Betty starts having these strange episodes or “fits”, as they called them, and Abigail follows suit. When the doctor finds no physical reason for these fits, he makes the suggestion the girls are bewitched.
Then the girls spill the beans about the egg yolk games they’ve been playing with Tituba and how she tells them stories of magic from her homeland. Tituba is beaten, and confesses. But the fits continue and the girls accuse more people for their fits – Sarah Good and Sara Osborne are the next accused. Pretty soon, more pre-pubescent and teen girls join the “afflicted” and fall ill with fits and convulsions, blaming more and more people in Salem of witchcraft and being in league with the devil.
The Salem Witch Hunters, Judges and Officials Involved
Mather was a Puritan minister and a learned man who actually studied at Harvard and revolted against the British government and King James II. his father, Increase Mather, was also a well known minister in his time. It’s funny because when you research Cotton Mather, many of the resources start to praise him for his writing and ministry…IMO they should get right down to the terrible part he played in the trials.
He is believed to have set off the entire Salem witch panic when he “observed the Goodwin children’s fits”, supposedly took home a child for observation purposes, and then wrote all about these fits in Memorable Provinces. He said there were no medical reasons for the fits, and that there were most definitely people practicing witchcraft and putting their immortal souls at risk. Writers who opposed the trials criticized Cotton and Increase only a few years after the fact, essentially calling them both the fire starters.
The Other “Officials”
Emerson Tad Baker, Professor of HIstory at Salem State University says, “it may seem hard to believe but Governor Phips carefully chose men he described as “persons of the best prudence.” (to judge the Salem Witch Trials). They were wealthy merchants and high ranking militia officers. The chief justice was William Stoughton, the newly appointed deputy governor of the colony. He was from Dorchester, and was joined by four judges from neighboring Boston: Captain Samuel Sewall, Major John Richards, Major-General Wait Winthrop and Peter Sergeant.
Three justices, Jonathan Corwin, John Hathorne and Colonel Bartholomew Gedney, came from Salem and as Essex County judges had already been involved in the crisis. The ninth member of the court, Colonel Nathaniel Saltonstall, lived in Haverhill, on the northern edge of Essex County.”
The Salem Witch Trials Victims’ Numbers
During the Salem Witch Trials, there were 150 accusations, 141 arrests, 31 convictions, and 20 executions that we know of. Keep in mind the historical documents aren’t consistent and scholars believe some might have been changed to protect the families involved in the finger-pointing, as they were later ashamed of the whole thing. Not to mention, the panic spread outward from Salem to other local communities including Beverly, Boston, Andover, and Charlestown (among others). So the true numbers may be much higher, sadly.
Honoring A Few of the Salem Victims
Sarah Good denied the accusations of witchcraft to the very end. She made this statement to her accuser, Reverend Noyes, “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” In 1717, Reverend Noyes choked on his own blood after a brain hemorrhage. Was Sarah actually a witch? That is up for debate.
Dorcas Good was Sara’s four-year-old daughter was jailed and confessed. But was bailed out by a villager not long after. We don’t know if there was ever a conviction in her case.
Bridget Bishop was a successful bar owner, she owned two bars alongside her wealthy husband. Also an attractive woman who did what she pleased, wore “colors” that people said were of the devil. Accused of witchcraft and of tormenting some of the married men in the town in their dreams. Interestingly, she had been accused of witchcraft 12 years prior to Salem and found innocent. The second time around, she was found guilty and hung on Gallows Hill.
Reverend George Burroughs was accused and convicted of being the “devil of the coven”. The people believed he was the leader of the Salem Witches. At his hanging, he said the Lord’s Prayer perfectly which made everyone believe he was innocent. People started demanding he be freed but Cotton Matther convinced the crowd otherwise, and the Reverend was hanged anyway.
At Martha Corey’s trial, she prayed in front of hundreds of people. The afflicted girls accused Martha of coming to them and tormenting them in astral form with a book in her hand. And a yellow bird as her familiar that sucked between her fingers. When asked, Martha said she was a gospel woman and had no knowledge of such things. The accusing girls yelled that she was a “gospel witch” and bent and writhed in pain whenever Martha moved in the courthouse. They claimed she was tormenting them in astral form right in front of the entire court.
Giles Corey was Martha’s husband who was also accused of witchcraft. When he refused to enter any plea, they used a pressing method to try to extract a plea out of him. He refused because he knew at the time, if he didn’t enter a plea, they couldn’t technically try him and his property would be passed down to his heirs in the wake of his death. They put stone after stone on top of him and asked, are you guilty? What is your plea? And he responded, “MORE WEIGHT”.
Tituba is probably the most famous of the accused. She was an indigenous Kalina Columbian in the Parris home, of whom the young girls accused of teaching them witchcraft. Sources show she had been a kitchen slave in Barbados but was likely sold into slavery from her native Columbia. She was the first to be accused of witchcraft by Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams. She first spoke against the accusations and claimed her innocence. But was later beaten by Samuel Parris and then confessed to making a “witch cake”, and also to practicing defensive magic that her mistress in Barbados taught her.
So there’s some interesting tactical defensive techniques Tituba put into play to save herself during the trials, including her confession to folk magic practices. But also accusing others in nearby towns of witchcraft…seemingly deflecting the blame from herself. In addition, she became a spectacle to the townspeople because just her words would send people into fits. She also claimed there were many familiar spirits in Salem influencing the witches she was accusing including red foxes, wolves, cats, dogs, birds, rats and hogs. Apparently she spent some years in a Boston jail before being bought out and becoming a slave to another family.
What Actually Caused the Salem Witch Trials?
We may never know what truly caused the Salem Witch Trials, but we can surmise it was a combination of things. Here’s a few of the more substantive theories for you to read and then decide for yourself:
So this theory came about in the late 1970s when a scholar put forth the claim that the Salem townspeople had suffered an outbreak of ergot on the rye they used to make their bread. Ergot is a fungus that can cause hallucinations when made into bread. In addition to paranoia and hallucinations, ergot poisoning causes a weakened immune system, twitching and muscle spasms, heart problems, etc. This same issue is theorized to have played a large part in the Medieval plague outbreaks and in a terribly disturbing event called the Dancing Death where hundreds of people essentially danced until they died.
An Unfounded Theory
According to an article via Science written by Spanos and Gottlieb, the ergot poisoning theory is unfounded and likely untrue as to the reason for the Salem Witch Trials. They claim that ergot poisoning has two distinct groups of symptoms based on one’s diet and vitamin deficiencies. In order to suffer neurological effects, the individual would have to have a significant vitamin a deficiency. Vitamin A specifically comes from a diet rich in dairy and fish.
Both of which the residents of Salem consumed as staples in their diet, being a fishing community who relied on dairy. Instead, if they did suffer ergot poisoning in Salem, they would have showed another group of symptoms mainly showing a gangrenous condition. There’s no evidence of gangrenous outbreaks in Salem. Not to mention, the girls who were first afflicted came from well-to-do families who would have had diets rich in dairy and fish.
PTSD and Mass Hysteria
According to writer Gordon Harris with Historic Ipswich, “building a new society in the wilderness while surrounded by wild animals and hostile indians induced transgenerational trauma and psychological symptoms that we now know as PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder, as well as mass conversion disorder which culminated in the Salem Witch Trials.” Another name for mass conversion disorder is mass hysteria. So essentially we have a combination of religiosity, superstition, adaptation to a new environment, and psychological disorders with mass hysteria to blame.
Watch These Movies and TV Shows on the Salem Witch Trials
One of my favorite TV series based on witchcraft is the Salem TV Series. The historical aspects are pretty accurate, but there are indeed fantasy elements that spice up the entertainment factor. Check out The Crucible, the 1996 version is supposed to be one of the better films (there was a version made in the 1950s and then another in the 2000s). If you really enjoy horror films, watch The Lords of Salem by Rob Zombie. And for a historical drama watch Salem Witch Trials a 2002 TV Movie.
To learn more about the Salem Witch Trials, Primary Sources:
- Cry Witch the Salem Witch Trials 1692 by Juliet H. Mofford
- Diary and Life of Samuel Sewall by Mel Yezawa
- Daily Life During the Salem Witch Trials by K. David Goss
Listen to our FULL Podcast Episode on the Salem Witch Panic:
More on Witch Trials:
- Basque Witch Trials: Trial in France and Spain
- Moll Dyer: The Witch and the Haunting in Maryland
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