Salem Witch Trials
The History Cat Classroom
Salem Witch Trials
In February 1692, a strange event struck the Puritan town of Salem, Massachusetts that has bewitched America ever since (pun intended).A group of girls belonging to prominent families of town leaders were mysteriously struck by strange epileptic fits, hysterical crying, and visions of having seen the devil himself.
To the Puritans, the New World was both a land of opportunity and a place of dark woods inhabited by strange savages whose religion was akin to devil worship. The Puritans believed that the devil was very real and was constantly working to undermine their efforts to create a colony that was a beacon of light for God in a world filled with darkness (and Indians, and wolves, and bears, and...)
It all began in December 1692 when Betty Parris,9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, 11, began to have "fits". The girls would scream, throw stuff across the room, crawl under furniture, and contort their bodies in strange positions. The girls also complained about being pinched by an unseen force. The fits went on for days. Several times, church services were interrupted by these outbursts. Then two other girls, Elizabeth Hubbard and Ann Putnam, 12, became the next victims of these strange attacks.
A doctor was called in to examine them. Having found no earthly explanation, the doctor declared that witchcraft must be at work. The girls were questioned and quickly the truth was revealed. A slave named Tituba (either an African or Indian depending on whose story you listen to) had been performing fortune tellings and casting spells - a big no-no in Puritan towns. Tituba was arrested and brought before the court. Knowing that the punishment for witchcraft was death (by hanging-they didn't burn witches), Tituba was quick to turn snitch by giving up other names of local women as undercover agents of the Dark Lord. (Satan, not Voldemort) For the next two years, America's biggest witch hunt got underway that, by the time it was over, three hundred people would be accused, arrested, and brought to trial for the crime of witchcraft.
In addition to Tituba, two local women were named. The fact that Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were co-conspirators of the Devil came as no surprise to the good people of Salem, seeing that they were both social outcasts. Good was a homeless beggar who often got into disputes with the locals. Osborne was a poor widow who rarely attended church. In March 1692 the women were arrested, interrogated, and sent to jail. During interrogation, the names of more local women were given up. Martha Corey had made her opinion well known that she thought the girls were liars who were afflicted with nothing more than a bad acting job. Others that found themselves on the witch "hit list" were Rachel Nurse, Rachel Clinton, and Dorothy Good-- the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good was used as evidence against her mother. She was never hanged though, even the Puritans had some standards of decency.
Each trial was more elaborate than the next as the accused began giving up more names in order to save their own skins. In the days before Jersey Shore, a good witch trial was prime-time entertainment. The courthouse was packed to overflowing as people elbowed their way in to get a glimpse of the freak show.
At center stage were the four girls. Whenever evidence was lacking the girls would fall under the spell of the accused, right their in court for everyone to see. Of course, no one could see anything except for four girls pointing and screaming that they were being harmed by the spirit of the accused. This bit of legal dance work was called spectral evidence. Meaning that it was good enough to show that a person's specter (their disembodied form) was responsible for the attacks, even if the actual person had a rock-solid alibi to prove their innocence.
The model for judges willing to accept spectral evidence, and there weren't many who would, was a 1662 legal pamphlet called "A Tryal of Witches" which laid the groundwork for how to prove that someone's specter had committed an attack.
Only a witch or warlock was capable of committing such dark magic. In the night they would send their spirit out to attack their victims leaving physical marks on the body.
The victim would know who committed the crime because the specter often either took the shape of their attacker or in the shape of their animal familiar-- a black cat, raven, or a wolf, which because you are dreaming, you just know who it is under that disguise.
Most of the accused tended to be poor women with little social standing. Two of the most unlikely victims was 80 years old Rebecca Nurse who was seen as a pillar of the community and Giles Corey a leader in the church. But their good reputations didn't save them from a witch trial and execution. The Massachusetts Colony was firmly swept up in the witch hysteria and nothing was going to stop it...except a cease and desist letter from the governor.