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The Salem witch trials were prosecutions conducted of people indicted for witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. More than 200 people faced accusations of witchcraft. Thirty were found guilty, and nineteen of them were executed by hanging. Fourteen of the victims were women and five men, but an unknown number of innocents were injured as well.

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Salem Witch Trials

By: History.com Editors

Updated: September 29, 2023 | Original: November 4, 2011

HISTORY: The Salem Witch Trials

The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. 

By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would endure for centuries.

What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?: Context & Origins

Belief in the supernatural—and specifically in the devil’s practice of giving certain humans (witches) the power to harm others in return for their loyalty—had emerged in Europe as early as the 14th century, and was widespread in colonial New England . In addition, the harsh realities of life in the rural Puritan community of Salem Village (present-day Danvers, Massachusetts ) at the time included the after-effects of a British war with France in the American colonies in 1689, a recent smallpox epidemic, fears of attacks from neighboring Native American tribes and a longstanding rivalry with the more affluent community of Salem Town (present-day Salem). 

Amid these simmering tensions, the Salem witch trials would be fueled by residents’ suspicions of and resentment toward their neighbors, as well as their fear of outsiders.

Did you know? In an effort to explain by scientific means the strange afflictions suffered by those "bewitched" Salem residents in 1692, a study published in Science magazine in 1976 cited the fungus ergot (found in rye, wheat and other cereals), which toxicologists say can cause symptoms such as delusions, vomiting and muscle spasms.

In January 1692, 9-year-old Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams (the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village) began having fits, including violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming. After a local doctor, William Griggs, diagnosed bewitchment, other young girls in the community began to exhibit similar symptoms, including Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott and Mary Warren.

In late February, arrest warrants were issued for the Parris’ Caribbean slave, Tituba, along with two other women—the homeless beggar Sarah Good and the poor, elderly Sarah Osborn—whom the girls accused of bewitching them.

Salem Witch Trial Victims: How the Hysteria Spread

The three accused witches were brought before the magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne and questioned, even as their accusers appeared in the courtroom in a grand display of spasms, contortions, screaming and writhing. Though Good and Osborn denied their guilt, Tituba confessed. Likely seeking to save herself from certain conviction by acting as an informer, she claimed there were other witches acting alongside her in service of the devil against the Puritans.

As hysteria spread through the community and beyond into the rest of Massachusetts, a number of others were accused, including Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse—both regarded as upstanding members of church and community—and the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good.

Like Tituba, several accused “witches” confessed and named still others, and the trials soon began to overwhelm the local justice system. In May 1692, the newly appointed governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, ordered the establishment of a special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) on witchcraft cases for Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties.

Presided over by judges including Hathorne, Samuel Sewall and William Stoughton, the court handed down its first conviction, against Bridget Bishop, on June 2; she was hanged eight days later on what would become known as Gallows Hill in Salem Town. Five more people were hanged that July; five in August and eight more in September. In addition, seven other accused witches died in jail, while the elderly Giles Corey (Martha’s husband) was pressed to death by stones after he refused to enter a plea at his arraignment.

Salem Witch Trials: Conclusion and Legacy

Though the respected minister Cotton Mather had warned of the dubious value of spectral evidence (or testimony about dreams and visions), his concerns went largely unheeded during the Salem witch trials. Increase Mather, president of Harvard College (and Cotton’s father) later joined his son in urging that the standards of evidence for witchcraft must be equal to those for any other crime, concluding that “It would better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.” 

Amid waning public support for the trials, Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer in October and mandated that its successor disregard spectral evidence. Trials continued with dwindling intensity until early 1693, and by that May Phips had pardoned and released all those in prison on witchcraft charges.

In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials; the court later deemed the trials unlawful, and the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the process. The damage to the community lingered, however, even after Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and providing financial restitution to their heirs in 1711. 

Indeed, the vivid and painful legacy of the Salem witch trials endured well into the 20th century, when Arthur Miller dramatized the events of 1692 in his play “The Crucible” (1953), using them as an allegory for the anti-Communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. A memorial to the victims of the Salem witch trials was dedicated on August 5, 1992 by author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

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HISTORY Vault: Salem Witch Trials

Experts dissect the facts—and the enduring mysteries—surrounding the courtroom trials of suspected witches in Salem Village, Massachusetts in 1692.

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The Salem Witch Trials

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The Witches of Salem

By Stacy Schiff

“Where will the Devil show most malice but where he is hated and hateth most” Cotton Mather wrote.

In 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed fourteen women, five men, and two dogs for witchcraft. The sorcery materialized in January. The first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed. Although we will never know the exact number of those formally charged with having “wickedly, maliciously, and feloniously” engaged in sorcery, somewhere between a hundred and forty-four and a hundred and eighty-five witches and wizards were named in twenty-five villages and towns. The youngest was five; the eldest nearly eighty. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; daughters their mothers; siblings each other. One minister discovered that he was related to no fewer than twenty witches.

The population of New England at that time would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans. Having suffered for their faith, they had sailed to North America to worship “with more purity and less peril than they could do in the country where they were,” as a clergyman at the center of the crisis later explained. On a providential mission, they hoped to begin history anew; they had the advantage of building a civilization from scratch. Like any oppressed people, they defined themselves by what offended them, which would give New England its gritty flavor and, it has been argued, America its independence.

New England delivered greater purity but also introduced fresh perils. Stretching from Martha’s Vineyard to Nova Scotia and incorporating parts of present-day Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine, it perched on the edge of a wilderness. That was a precarious position well before 1692, when the colony teetered between governments, or, more exactly, as a Boston merchant put it, “between government and no government.” The settlers unseated their royal governor in a deft 1689 military coup. They had endured without a charter for eight years.

From the start, the colonists tangled with that American staple, the swarthy terrorist in the back yard. Without a knock or a greeting, four armed Indians might appear in your parlor to warm themselves by the fire, propositioning you, while you cowered in the corner with your knitting. You could return from a trip to Boston to find your house in ashes and your family taken captive. The Indians skulked, they lurked, they flitted, they committed atrocities—and they vanished. “Our men could see no enemy to shoot at,” a Cambridge major general lamented.

King Philip’s War, a fifteen-month contest between the settlers and the Native Americans, had ended in 1676. It obliterated a third of New England’s towns, pulverized its economy, and claimed ten per cent of the adult male population. Every Bay Colony resident lost a friend or a relative; all knew of a dismemberment or an abduction. By 1692, another Indian war had begun to take shape, with a series of grisly raids by the Wabanaki and their French allies. The frontier had recently moved to within fifty miles of Salem.

From the pulpit came reminders of New England’s many depredations. The wilderness qualified as a sort of “devil’s den”; since the time of Moses, the prince of darkness had thrived there. He was hardly pleased to be displaced by a convoy of Puritans. He was in fact stark raving mad about it, preached Cotton Mather, the brilliant twenty-nine-year-old Boston minister. What, exactly, did an army of devils look like? Imagine “vast regiments of cruel and bloody French dragoons,” Mather instructed his North Church parishioners, and they would understand. He routinely muddied the zoological waters: Indians comported themselves like roaring lions or savage bears, Quakers like “grievous wolves.” The French, “dragons of the wilderness,” completed the diabolical menagerie. Given the symbiotic relationship of an oppressed people and an inhospitable landscape, it was from there but a short step to a colluding axis of evil.

The men who catalogued those dangers—who could discern a line of Revelation in a hailstorm—protected against them, spiritually and politically. They assisted in coups and installed regimes. Where witches were concerned, they deferred to the Biblical injunction: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Exodus commands. The most literate men in Massachusetts in 1692 were also the most literal. Among them, few probed the subject of witchcraft as intently as did the lanky, light-haired Mather, who had entered Harvard at eleven and preached his first sermon at sixteen. He knew that the hidden world was there somewhere. He would relinquish no tool to exhibit it.

Mather shared the North Church pulpit with his illustrious father, Increase Mather. The president of Harvard, Increase was New England’s best-known and most prolific minister. (His son would eventually eclipse him on both counts, publishing four hundred and thirty-seven books, twenty-six of them in the next four years.) The elder Mather was returning from England that spring with a new charter. The fruit of three years’ negotiation, it promised at last to deliver Massachusetts from chaos. The colonists awaited it in jittery suspense; all manner of rumor circulated as to its terms. So unreliable was the news that a monarch could be dead one minute and alive the next.

In isolated settlements, in smoky, fire-lit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels most passionately, and imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive. The seventeenth-century sky was crow black, pitch-black, Bible black, so black that it could be difficult at night to keep to the path, so black that a line of trees might freely migrate to another location, or that you might find yourself pursued by a rabid black hog, leaving you to crawl home on all fours, bloody and disoriented. Even the colony’s less isolated outposts felt their fragility. A tempest blew the roof off one of the finest homes in Salem as its ten occupants slept. A church went flying, with its congregation inside.

A visitor exaggerated when he reported that New Englanders could “neither drive a bargain, nor make a jest, without a text of Scripture at the end on it,” but he was not far off. If there was a book in the house, it was the Bible. The early modern American thought, breathed, dreamed, disciplined, bartered, and hallucinated in Biblical texts and imagery. St. John the Baptist might well turn up in a land dispute. A prisoner cited Deuteronomy 19:19 in his own defense. When a killer cat came flying in your window—taking hold of your throat and crushing your chest as you lay defenseless in your bed—you scared it away by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. You also concluded that your irascible neighbor had paid a call, in feline form.

“The math is right. Its just in poor taste.”

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Human frailty was understood to account for inclement weather: teeth chattering, toes numb, the Massachusetts Puritan had every reason to believe that he sinned flamboyantly. He did so especially during the arctic winter of 1691, when bread froze on Communion plates, ink in pens, sap in the fireplace. In tiny Salem village, the Reverend Samuel Parris preached to a chorus of rattling coughs and sniffles, to the shuffling of cruelly frostbitten feet. For everyone’s comfort, he curtailed his afternoon sermon of January 3, 1692. It was too cold to go on.

Weeks later, word got out that something was grievously wrong in the Parris household. The minister’s eleven-year-old niece and nine-year-old daughter complained of bites and pinches by “invisible agents.” Abigail and Betty launched into “foolish, ridiculous speeches.” Their bodies shuddered and spun. They went limp or spasmodically rigid. They interrupted sermons and fell into trances. Neither appeared to have time for prayer, though until January both had been perfectly well behaved and well mannered. At night they slept like babies.

In 1641, when the colonists established a legal code, the first capital crime was idolatry. The second was witchcraft. “If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death,” read the Massachusetts body of laws. Blasphemy came next, followed by murder, poisoning, and bestiality. In the years since, New England had indicted more than a hundred witches, about a quarter of them men. The first person to confess to having entered into a pact with Satan, a Connecticut servant, had prayed for his help with her chores. An assistant materialized to clear the ashes from the hearth and the hogs from the fields. The servant was indicted in 1648 for “familiarity with the devil.” Unable to resist a calamity, preternatural or otherwise, Cotton Mather disseminated an instructive account of her compact.

In 1688, four exemplary Boston children, the sons and daughters of a devout Boston stonelayer named John Goodwin, suffered from a baffling disorder. “They would bark at one another like dogs, and again purr like so many cats,” noted Mather, who observed Goodwin’s family and wrote of their afflictions in “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions” the following year. (The 1689 volume was a salute to his father’s “Illustrious Providences,” a grab bag of apparitions and portents, published five years earlier.) The Goodwin children flew like geese, on one occasion for twenty feet. They recoiled from blows of invisible sticks, shrieked that they were sliced by knives or wrapped in chains. Jaws, wrists, necks flew out of joint. Parental reproof sent the children into agonies. Chores defied them. But “nothing in the world would so discompose them as a religious exercise,” Mather reported. Thirteen-year-old Martha could read an Oxford compendium of humor, although she seized up when handed a volume he deemed “profitable and edifying,” or one with the name Mather on the cover.

To observe her symptoms more closely, Mather that summer took Martha Goodwin into his home. She cantered, trotted, and galloped about the household on her “aeriel steed,” whistling through family prayer and pummelling anyone who attempted it in her presence—the worst house guest in history. She hurled books at Mather’s head. She read and reread his pages on her case, lampooning their author. The sauciness astonished him. “And she particularly told me,” Mather sputtered, four years before the Salem trials, “that I should quickly come to disgrace by that history.”

The cause of Martha’s afflictions was identified soon enough. The witch was the mother of a neighborhood laundress. On the stand, the defendant was unable adequately to recite the Lord’s Prayer, understood to be proof of guilt. She was hanged in November, 1688, on Boston Common.

Samuel Parris, the Salem minister, would have known every detail of the Goodwin family’s trials from Mather’s much reprinted “Memorable Providences.” The book included the pages Martha wildly ridiculed. The “agitations, writhings, tumblings, tossings, wallowings, foamings” in the parsonage were the same, only more acute. The girls cried that they were being stabbed with fine needles. Their skin burned. One disappeared halfway down a well. Their shrieks could be heard from a distance.

Through February, Parris fasted and prayed. He consulted with fellow-clergymen. With cider and cakes, he and his wife entertained the well-wishers who crowded their home. They prayed ardently, gooseflesh rising on their arms. They sang Psalms. But when the minister had had enough of the “odd postures and antic gestures,” the deranged speeches, when it became clear that Scripture would not relieve the girls’ preternatural symptoms, Parris called in the doctors.

In 1692, a basic medical kit looked little different from an ancient Greek one, consisting as it did of beetle’s blood, fox lung, and dried dolphin heart. In plasters or powders, snails figured in many remedies. Salem village had one practicing physician that winter. He owned nine medical texts; he could likely read but not write. His surgical arsenal consisted of lances, razors, and saws. The doctor who had examined a seizing Groton girl a generation earlier initially diagnosed a stomach disorder. On a second visit, he refused to administer to her further. The distemper was diabolical in origin.

Whoever examined Abigail and Betty arrived at the same conclusion. “The evil hand” came as no surprise; the supernatural explanation was already the one on the street. The diagnosis likely terrified the girls, whose symptoms deteriorated. It may have gratified Reverend Parris. Witchcraft was portentous, a Puritan favorite. Never before had it broken out in a parsonage. The Devil’s appearance was nearly a badge of honor, further proof that New Englanders were the chosen people. No wonder Massachusetts was troubled by witches, Cotton Mather exulted: “Where will the Devil show most malice but where he is hated, and hateth most?” The New England ministry had long been on the lookout for the apocalypse, imminent since the sixteen-fifties. The Book of Revelation predicted that the Devil would descend accompanied by “infernal fiends.” If they were about, God could not be far behind.

Soon the twelve-year-old daughter of a close friend of Parris’s began to shudder and choke. So did the village doctor’s teen-age niece. A creature had followed her home from an errand, through the snow; she now realized that it had not been a wolf at all. The girls named names. They could see the culprits clearly. Not one but three witches were loose in Salem.

From Marthas Vineyard to Nova Scotia New England perched on the edge of a wilderness.

What exactly was a witch? Any seventeenth-century New Englander could have told you. As workers of magic, witches and wizards extend as far back as recorded history. The witch as Salem conceived her materialized in the thirteenth century, when sorcery and heresy moved closer together. She came into her own with the Inquisition, as a popular myth yielded to a popular madness. The western Alps introduced her to lurid orgies. Germany launched her into the air. As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures. An influential fifteenth-century text compressed a shelf of classical sources to make its point: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” As is often the case with questions of women and power, elucidations here verged on the paranormal. Though weak willed, women could emerge as dangerously, insatiably commanding.

The English witch made the trip to North America largely intact. She signed her agreement with the Devil in blood, bore a mark on her body for her compact, and enchanted by way of charms, ointments, and poppets, doll-like effigies. Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands. They made pregnancies last for three years. They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest. They stole babies and penises. The Massachusetts witch disordered the barn and the kitchen. She seldom flew to illicit meetings, more common in Scandinavia and Scotland. Instead, she divined the contents of an unopened letter, spun suspiciously fine linen, survived falls down stairs, tipped hay from wagons, enchanted beer, or caused cattle to leap four feet off the ground. Witches could be muttering, contentious malcontents or inexplicably strong and unaccountably smart. They could commit the capital offense of having more wit than their neighbors, as a minister said of the third Massachusetts woman hanged for witchcraft, in 1656.

Matters were murkier when it came to the wily figure with six thousand years of experience, the master of disguise who could cause things to appear and disappear, who knew your secrets and could make you believe things of yourself that were not true. He turned up in New England as a hybrid monkey, man, and rooster, or as a fast-moving turtle. Even Cotton Mather was unsure what language he spoke. He was a pervasive presence, however: the air pulsed with his minions. Typically in Massachusetts, he wore a high-crowned hat, as he had in an earlier Swedish invasion, which Mather documented in his 1689 book. Mather did not mention the brightly colored scarf that the Devil wound around his hat. Like the Swedish devil’s gartered stockings or red beard, it never turned up in New England.

By May, 1692, eight Salem girls had claimed to be enchanted by individuals whom most of them had never met. Several served as visionaries; relatives of the ailing made pilgrimages to consult with them. They might be only eleven or twelve, but under adult supervision they could explain how several head of cattle had frozen to death, several communities away, six years earlier. In the courtroom, they provided prophetic direction, cautioning that a suspect would soon topple a child, or cause a woman to levitate. Minutes later, the victim’s feet rose from the floor. With their help, at least sixty witches had been deposed and jailed by the end of the month, more than the Massachusetts prisons had ever accommodated. Those who had frozen through the winter began to roast in the sweltering spring.

On May 27th, the new Massachusetts governor, Sir William Phips, established a special court to try the witchcraft cases. He assembled on the bench nine of the “people of the best prudence and figure that could be pitched upon.” At its head he installed his lieutenant governor, sixty-year-old William Stoughton. A political shape-shifter, Stoughton had served in five prior Massachusetts regimes. He had helped to unseat the reviled royal governor, on whose council he sat and whose courts he headed. He possessed one of the finest legal minds in the colony.

The court met in early June, and sentenced the first witch to hang on the tenth. It also requested a bit of guidance. During the next days, twelve ministers conferred. Cotton Mather drafted their reply, a circumspect, eight-paragraph document, delivered mid-month. Acknowledging the enormity of the crisis, he issued a paean to good government. He urged “exquisite caution.” He warned of the dangers posed to those “formerly of an unblemished reputation.”

In the lines that surely received the greatest scrutiny, Mather reminded the justices that convictions should not rest purely on spectral evidence—evidence visible only to the enchanted, who conversed with the Devil or with his confederates. Mather would insist on the point throughout the summer. Other considerations must weigh against the suspected witch, “inasmuch as ’tis an undoubted and a notorious thing” that a devil might impersonate an innocent, even virtuous, man. Mather wondered whether the entire calamity might be resolved if the court discounted those testimonies. With a sweeping “nevertheless”—a word that figured in every 1692 Mather statement on witchcraft—he then executed an about-face. Having advised “exquisite caution,” he endorsed a “speedy and vigorous prosecution.”

A month later, Ann Foster, a seventy-two-year-old widow from neighboring Andover, submitted to the first of several Salem interrogations. Initially, she denied all involvement with sorcery. Soon enough, she began to unspool a fantastical tale. The Devil had appeared to her as an exotic bird. He promised prosperity, along with the gift of afflicting at a glance. She had not seen him in six months, but her ill-tempered neighbor, Martha Carrier, had been in touch on his behalf.

At Carrier’s direction, Foster had bewitched several children and a hog. She worked her sorcery with poppets. Carrier had announced a Devil’s Sabbath in May, arranging their trip by air. There were twenty-five people in the meadow, where a former Salem village minister officiated. Three days later, from jail, Foster added a malfunctioning pole and a mishap to her account. The pole had snapped as the women flew, causing them to crash, Foster’s leg crumpling beneath her.

She appeared entirely coöperative, both in a jail interview with a minister and before her interrogators. The justices soon learned that Foster had failed to come clean, however. It seemed that she and Carrier had neither flown nor crashed alone on that Salem-bound pole: a third rider had travelled silently behind Foster. So divulged forty-year-old Mary Lacey, a newly arrested suspect, on July 20th. Foster had also withheld the details of a chilling ceremony. The Devil had baptized his recruits, dipping their heads in water, six at a time. He performed the sacrament in a nearby river, to which he had carried Lacey in his arms. On July 21st, Ann Foster appeared before the magistrates for the fourth time. That hearing was particularly sensational: Mary Lacey, who supplied the details missing from Foster’s account, was her daughter.

“Behind the back between the legs around my disappointed parents nothing but net.”

“Did not you know your daughter to be a witch?” one justice asked Foster. She did not, and seemed taken aback. Mary Warren, a pretty, twenty-year-old servant, helpfully chimed in, a less dramatic witness at Foster’s hearing than she appeared on other occasions, when blood trickled from her mouth or spread across her bonnet. Warren shared with the court what a spectre had confided in her: Foster had recruited her own daughter. The authorities understood that she had done so about thirteen years earlier. Was that correct? “No, and I know no more of my daughter’s being a witch than what day I shall die upon,” Foster replied, sounding as unequivocal as she had been on the details of the misbegotten Salem flight. A magistrate coaxed her: “You cannot expect peace of conscience without a free confession.” Foster swore that if she knew anything more she would reveal it.

At this, Mary Lacey was called. She berated her mother: “We have forsaken Jesus Christ, and the Devil hath got hold of us. How shall we get clear of this evil one?” Under her breath, Foster began to pray. “What God do witches pray to?” a justice needled. “I cannot tell, the Lord help me,” the befuddled old woman replied, as her daughter delivered fresh details of their flight to the village green and of the satanic baptism. Her mother, Lacey revealed, rode first on the stick.

Court officers removed the two older women and escorted Lacey’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Mary Lacey, Jr., into the room. Mary Warren fell at once into fits. At first, the younger Lacey was unhelpful. “Where is my mother that made me a witch and I knew it not?” she cried, a yet more disturbing question than the one posed in June, when a suspect wondered whether she might be a witch and not know it. Asked to smile at Warren without hurting her, Mary Lacey failed. Warren collapsed to the floor. “Do you acknowledge now that you are a witch?” Lacey was asked. She could only agree, although she seemed to be working from a different definition: a recalcitrant child, she had caused her parents plenty of trouble. She had, she insisted, signed no diabolical pact.

The ideal Puritan girl was a sterling amalgam of modesty, piety, and tireless industry. She was to speak neither too soon nor too much. She read her Scripture twice daily. Increase Mather warned that youths who disregarded their mothers could expect to “come to the gallows, and be hanged in gibbets for the ravens and eagles to feed upon them.” The attention to a youngster’s spiritual state intensified at adolescence, when children became simultaneously more capable of reason and less reasonable. Fourteen was the dividing line in law, for slander among other matters. One was meant then to embrace sobriety and to “put away childish things,” as a father reminded his Harvard-bound son.

The father was the master of the family, its soul, the governor of all the governed. He was often an active and engaged parent. He sat vigil in the sickroom. He fretted over his children’s bodies and souls. A majority of the bewitched girls had lost fathers; at least half were refugees from or had been orphaned by attacks in “the last Indian war.” Those absences were deeply felt. A roaring girl wrestled aloud with the demons who would assault her the following year: she was well aware that she was fatherless—how often did they need to remind her as much? But she was hardly an orphan. In a heated, one-sided conversation, observed and preserved by Cotton Mather, the seventeen-year-old admonished her tormentors, “I have God for my father and I don’t question but he’ll provide well for me.”

The justices reminded Mary Lacey, Jr., that if she desired to be saved by Christ she would confess. “She then proceeded,” the court reporter noted. She was more profligate with details than her mother or her grandmother had been. It was a hallmark of Salem that the younger generation—Cotton Mather included—could be relied on for the most luxuriant reports. It appeared easier to describe satanic escapades when an adolescent had already been told, or believed, that she cavorted with the Devil. The record allows a fleeting glimpse of Mary’s sense of herself. “I have been a disobed—” she began, after which the page is torn.

Following Mary’s testimony, her mother was returned to the room. The older woman had so often scolded that the Devil should fetch her away. Her wish had come true! Tears streaming down her face, the teen-ager now managed a spot of revenge: “Oh, mother, why did you give me to the Devil twice or thrice over?” Mary sobbed. She prayed that the Lord might expose all the witches. Officials led in her grandmother; three generations of enchantresses stood before the justices. Mary continued her rant: “Oh, grandmother, why did you give me to the Devil? Why did you persuade me and, oh, grandmother, do not you deny it. You have been a very bad woman in your time.” The three returned to jail as a clutch of warrants made their way to Andover.

By the end of July, it was clear that— with the help of a minister mastermind—the Devil intended to topple the Church and subvert the country, something he had never before attempted in New England. Certain patterns emerged as well. To cast aspersions on a bewitched girl, to visit one’s imprisoned spouse too regularly, was to risk accusation. It bordered on heresy to question the validity of witchcraft, the legitimacy of the evidence, or the wisdom of the court. The skeptic was a marked man. It could be wise to name names before anyone mentioned yours. It was safer to be afflicted than accused. Increasingly, you slept under the same roof, if not in the same bed, as your accuser.

Bewitched women choked with fits, whereas men—who stepped forward only once the trials had begun—tended to submit to paralyzing bedroom visits. Imputations proved impossible to outrun. The word of two ministers could not save an accused parishioner. Neither age, fortune, gender, nor church membership offered immunity; prominent men stood accused alongside homeless five-year-old girls. No one ever suffered afflictions without being able to name a witch. Many braced for a knock at the door.

The court met again early in August, when three men were convicted: George Jacobs, an elderly farmer; John Willard, a much younger one; and John Proctor, the first village man to have been accused. In Cotton Mather’s first Thursday sermon that month, he addressed the trial that all of Massachusetts awaited. Tipping his hand a little, he called once for compassion for the accused, twice for pity for the justices. They were, after all, up against the greatest sophist in existence. They labored to restore the innocent while excising the diabolical; it made for a hazardous operation. The following day, Mather wrote excitedly to an uncle in Plymouth. God was working in miracles. No sooner had they executed five witches—all impudently protesting their innocence—than God had dispatched the Andover witches, who offered “a most ample, surprising, amazing confession of all their villainies,” acknowledging the five executed that had been their confederates, and naming many more. They identified their ringleader, who came to trial that afternoon. “A vast concourse of people,” noted Mather, made their way to Salem for the event, his father among them.

“Peggy can we find someone to misuse a few of these campaign funds for a run to the deli to get us some lunch”

The demonic mastermind was a minister in his early forties named George Burroughs. He had grown up in Maryland and graduated from Harvard in 1670, narrowly missing Samuel Parris. He was in his late twenties when he first arrived in Salem village, where he spent three contentious years. He was never ordained. Before and after that tenure, Burroughs served on the vulnerable Maine frontier. During a 1689 raid, he had joined in a seven-hour battle, waged in a field and an orchard. A veteran Boston militia captain lauded the Reverend for his unexpected role. The assault cost the settlers dearly; two hundred and fifty of them were killed or taken captive. Twice widowed, Burroughs retreated down the coast to Wells, eighty miles north of Boston. From a lice-infested garrison, he several times in the winter of 1692 appealed to the colonial authorities, who had withdrawn troops from the frontier, for clothing and provisions. The enemy lurked outside. They could not hold out for long.

Burroughs’s spectre had been terrifying Salem villagers since April, when he first choked the twelve-year-old daughter of the Parris stalwart. He nearly tore her to pieces, bragging afterward that he outranked a wizard—he was a conjurer. (Days later, he introduced himself with the same credentials to Parris’s niece, whom he also bewitched.) He had murdered several women and—evidently a secret agent, in the employ of the French and the Indians—dispatched a number of frontier soldiers as well. His mission was a frightful one, he informed the twelve-year-old: he who should have been teaching children to fear God had now “come to persuade poor creatures to give their souls to the Devil.” It was he who presided over the satanic Sabbaths.

Sixteen people had given evidence at Burroughs’s preliminary hearing. Nearly twice as many testified at his trial. Eight confessed witches revealed that he had been promised a kingship in Satan’s reign. Nine witnesses accused the short, muscular minister—a “very puny man,” in the estimation of Cotton Mather—of feats that would have taxed a giant. (Mather provided the sole surviving account of the trial, although we have no evidence that he ever entered the courtroom.) “None of us could do what he could do,” a forty-two-year-old Salem weaver recalled. He had attempted to lift a shotgun that Burroughs had fired but, even with both hands, could not steady the seven-foot weapon. Asked to account for his preternatural strength, Burroughs said that an Indian had assisted him in firing the musket. Lurking behind the testimony was what may have been the most pertinent charge against the former village minister: he had survived every Indian attack unscathed. Several of the bewitched had not been so lucky. Others who might have testified about the musket handling were dead.

The girls delivered up their own reports with difficulty, falling into testimony-stopping trances, yelping that Burroughs bit them. They displayed their wounds for court officials, who inspected the minister’s mouth. The imprints matched perfectly. Choking and thrashing stalled the proceedings; the court could do nothing but wait for the girls to recover. During one delay, Chief Justice Stoughton appealed to the defendant. What, he asked, did Burroughs think throttled them? The minister replied that he assumed it was the Devil. “How comes the devil then to be so loath to have any testimony born against you?” Stoughton challenged. A brainteaser of a question, it left Burroughs without an answer.

He was equally bewildered when ghosts began to flit about the overcrowded room. Some observers who were not bewitched saw them too. Directly before Burroughs, a girl recoiled from a horrible sight: she explained that she stared into the blood-red faces of his dead wives. The ghosts demanded justice. By no account an agreeable man, Burroughs managed to join abusive behavior at home with miraculous feats abroad. If those in the court did not know already that, as Mather had it, Burroughs “had been famous for the barbarous use of his two late wives, all the country over,” they did soon enough. He monitored their correspondences. He made them swear never to reveal his secrets. He berated them days after they had given birth. All evidence pointed to the same conclusion: he was a bad man but a very good wizard.

At one point, a former brother-in-law testified, Burroughs had vanished in the midst of a strawberry-picking expedition. His companions hollered for him in vain. They rode home to find that he had preceded them, on foot and with a full basket of berries. He had divined as well what was said about him in his absence. The Devil could not know as much, the brother-in-law protested, to which Burroughs replied, “My God makes known your thoughts unto me.” Was it possible, the chief justice suggested, that a devil had fitted Burroughs into some sort of invisibility cloak, so that he might “gratify his own jealous humor, to hear what they said of him”? Burroughs’s answer is lost; Mather deemed it not “worth considering.” The evidence dwarfed the objections. Burroughs does seem to have bungled his defense. He stumbled repeatedly, offering contradictory answers—a luxury afforded only the accusers. As for “his tergiversations, contra-dictions, and falsehoods,” Mather chided, “there never was a prisoner more eminent for them.”

Out of excuses, Burroughs extracted a paper from his pocket. He seemed to believe it a deal-clincher. He did not contest the validity of spectral evidence, as had others who came before the court, who did not care to be convicted for crimes they committed in someone else’s imagination. Instead, Burroughs, reading from the paper, asserted that “there neither are, nor ever were witches, that having made a compact with the Devil can send a Devil to torment other people at a distance.” It was the most objectionable thing he could have suggested. If diabolical compacts did not exist, if the Devil could not subcontract out his work to witches, the Court of Oyer and Terminer had sent six innocents to their deaths.

A tussle ensued. Stoughton—who had graduated from Harvard around the time Burroughs was born—recognized the lines at once. Burroughs had lifted them from the work of Thomas Ady. A leading English skeptic, Ady inveighed against “groundless, fantastical doctrines,” fairy tales and old wives’ tales, the results of middle-of-the-night imaginings, excessive drinking, and blows to the head. Though witches existed, they were rare. The Bible nowhere connected them with murder, or with imps, compacts, or flights through the air.

Ady believed that witches were a convenient excuse for the ignorant physician. He suggested that when misfortune struck we should not struggle to recall who had last come to the door. Burroughs denied having borrowed the passage, then amended his answer. A visitor had passed him the text in manuscript. He had transcribed it. He had already several times agreed with the justices that witches plagued New England. It was too late for such a dangerous gambit.

“When I was your age I was an adult.”

Early on the morning of August 19th, the largest throng to date turned out to inspect the first men whom Massachusetts was to execute for witchcraft. Martha Carrier joined them on the trip to the gallows. As the cart creaked up the hill, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, John Proctor, and John Willard insisted that they had been falsely accused. They hoped that the real witches would soon be revealed. They “declared their wish,” a bystander reported, “that their blood might be the last innocent blood shed upon that account.” They remained “sincere, upright, and sensible of their circumstances, on all accounts.” They forgave their accusers, the justices, the jury; they prayed they might be pardoned for their actual sins. Cotton Mather journeyed to Salem for the execution. Some of the condemned appealed to him in heartrending terms. Would he help them to prepare spiritually for the journey ahead? It is unclear if he did so or if he held the same hard line as the Salem town minister, who did not pray with witches.

Burroughs appears to have climbed the ladder first. With composure, he paused midway to offer what many expected to be a long-delayed confession. A wisp of his former self after fourteen weeks in a dungeon, he remained a contrarian. Perched above a crowd that included his former in-laws and parishioners, a noose around his neck, he delivered an impassioned speech. With his last breaths, Burroughs entrusted himself to the Almighty. Tears rolled down cheeks all around before he concluded with some disquieting lines. “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” Burroughs began, continuing, from the ladder, with a blunder-free recitation of the Lord’s Prayer—an impossible feat for a wizard, one that any number of other suspects had not managed. For a few moments, it seemed as if the crowd would obstruct the execution.

Minutes later, the minister dangled from a roughly finished beam. The life had not gone from his body when Mather, on horseback, pressed forward to smother the sparks of discontent. He reminded the spectators that Burroughs had never been ordained. (That was also true of others on the hill that day, but at least made the dying minister seem unorthodox.) What better disguise might the Devil choose on such an occasion, Mather challenged, than to masquerade as “an angel of light”? To the last, George Burroughs was condemned for his gifts. The protests quieted, as did the minister hanging in midair. He may have heard a portion of Mather’s remarks.

The execution of a beguiling, Scripture-spouting minister, protesting his innocence to the end, created nearly as much disquiet as had the idea that a beguiling, Scripture-spouting minister recruited for the Devil. It raised qualms about the court and on the bench. Several of the justices soon allowed that their methods had been “too violent and not grounded upon a right foundation”; were they to sit again, they would proceed differently. And it sent Cotton Mather to his desk.

On September 2nd, he wrote to the chief justice. Already, Mather claimed, he had done far more behind the scenes than Stoughton could possibly know. He had been fasting almost weekly through the summer for an end to the sulfurous assault. He felt that the Massachusetts ministers ought to support the court in its weighty, worthy task; none had sufficiently done so. He volunteered to step into the breach, to “flatten that fury, which we now much turn upon one another.” He had begun to write up a little something, “to set our calamity in as true a light as I can.” With this new book, he proposed to dispel any doubts that innocents were in danger, a passage he underlined. Mather promised to submit his narrative to Stoughton, so that “there may not be one word out of point.” Might the chief justice and his colleagues sign off on his endeavor, which would remind the people of their duties in such a crisis? In a singular valediction, Mather wished Stoughton “success in your noble encounters with Hell.”

Increase Mather, too, was at work on a book. As father and son wrote, confessions and concerns multiplied. Reports circulated that seven hundred witches preyed on Massachusetts. A prominent Bostonian carried his ailing child the twenty miles to Salem, the Lourdes of New England, to be evaluated by the village girls, incurring the wrath of Increase Mather. Was there “not a God in Boston,” he exploded, “that he should go to the Devil in Salem for advice?” Things were wholly out of hand when a Boston divine was up against an adolescent oracle. On October 4th, for the first time, seven suspects, all under the age of eighteen, went home on bail. Among the eldest was Mary Lacey, Jr., Ann Foster’s headstrong granddaughter.

“I found this province miserably harassed with a most horrible witchcraft,” Governor Phips wrote on October 12th, in his first report to London on the supernatural plague. He sounded as if he were writing from Sweden rather than from Boston, borrowing Mather’s details of that infestation. Grappling with the future of the court, which was scheduled to reconvene in two weeks, he insisted that the justices had always ruled with empirical evidence, but admitted that many now condemned their work. He placed a ban on witchcraft books. “I saw a likelihood of kindling an inextinguishable flame if I should admit any public and open contests,” Phips explained. That ban applied only to volumes that did not bear the name Mather on the cover. “The Wonders of the Invisible World” soon slipped into print, followed by Increase Mather’s “Cases of Conscience,” both artfully postdated to 1693.

“The Wonders of the Invisible World” was America’s first instant book. Garlanded in credentials, it advertised itself as having been “published by the special command of his Excellency the Governor.” Stoughton prefaced the volume, professing himself mildly surprised but immensely gratified by the work. What a timely account, so carefully and moderately composed! The chief justice was particularly grateful for Mather’s painstaking efforts, “considering the place that I hold in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, still laboring and proceeding in the trial of the persons accused and convicted for witchcraft.” Cotton Mather introduced the text with a tribute to his own courage. It was crucial that proper use be made of the “stupendous and prodigious things that are happening among us.” He did so only, he professed, because no one else volunteered. Weeks earlier, he had promised that his work would in no way interfere with that of two colleagues, whom he effectively cut off at the pass.

What constituted sufficient proof of witchcraft? Father and son disagreed. Fifty-three-year-old Increase explained in “Cases” that a “free and voluntary confession” remained the gold standard. When credible men and women could attest to these things, the evidence was sound. He had no patience for mewling teen-age girls. One did not accept testimony from “a distracted person or of a possessed person in a case of murder, theft, felony of any sort, then neither may we do it in the case of witchcraft.” He cast a vote for clemency: “I would rather,” he wrote, “judge a witch to be an honest woman than judge an honest woman as a witch.”

“Hey Sisyphus when youve got a minute Id like to discuss this progress report with you.”

Cotton Mather worried less about condemning an innocent than about allowing a witch to walk free. In “Wonders,” he set out “to countermine the whole plot of the devil against New England.” He would not be surprised if the witchcraft reached even farther than was suspected, folding into his volume an account of a celebrated thirty-year-old English case, similar to Salem’s, except perhaps for a combusting toad. He chose that trial with reason: it was one in which spectral evidence had served to convict. Mather seems occasionally to have embroidered on court reports with details that appear nowhere in the surviving pages: the smell of brimstone, money raining down, a corner of a sheet ripped from a spectre. He otherwise adhered closely to the evidence while working some magic with his pages; no witnesses for the defense or petitions on their behalf appear in “Wonders.” Mather included all the crowd-pleasing spectral stories, while issuing regular reminders that flights and pacts played only supporting roles in the convictions.

He expressed his fervent hope that some of the witches in custody might prove innocent. They deserve “our most compassionate pity, till there be fuller evidences that they are less worthy of it.” Twenty pages later, he wrote of George Burroughs, “Glad I should have been if I had never known the name of this man.” His very initials revolted Mather. He wrote up five trial accounts in all; Burroughs alone was so powerful a wizard that he could not be named.

As quickly as Mather worked, “The Wonders of the Invisible World” arrived as a case of too much too late. Conceived as a justification, billed as a felicitous accident, advertised in the author’s own words, the volume read as a full-throated apologia. Governor Phips disbanded the witchcraft court at the end of October. Days after the book’s publication, Mather wailed to his Plymouth-based uncle. A cataract of “unkindness, abuse, and reproach” roared his way. People said lovely things to his face and hideous things behind his back. He meant only to tamp down dissent at a critical time. He found himself under fire for another infraction as well: filial disrespect. He had not endorsed his father’s volume. (Nor had his father endorsed his.) Among all the freewheeling accusations in 1692, not once had a father accused a son or a son implicated a father. He could see little to do but die.

The new administration could ill afford a rift at this juncture; Increase Mather added a postscript to his pages. He remained convinced that witches roamed the land. He meant not to deny witchcraft but to make its prosecution more exact. He had declined to endorse his son’s volume only out of an aversion to nepotism; he was most grateful to him for having established that no one had been convicted purely on spectral evidence. He too made a point of including Burroughs, who had, Increase Mather assured his readers, accomplished things that no one who “has not a devil to be his familiar could perform.” Burroughs had deserved to hang. As Cotton Mather saw it, he had made a case for prosecuting the guilty, his father for protecting the innocent. Were they not saying the same thing? An early death no longer appealed.

Ayear after the trials, Cotton Mather treated two newly afflicted girls. A seventeen-year-old servant began to convulse after insulting a woman who had been imprisoned in 1692. The girl interrupted sermons and fell into trances. She went twelve days without food. She discoursed with spectres who tempted her with diabolical pacts; she shrieked so loudly that well-wishers fled the room; she tore a leaf from Mather’s Bible. He followed the same protocol he had with the Goodwins, four years and nineteen executions earlier, assembling groups to pray and to sing Psalms at her bedside.

Both girls eventually recovered. Mather devoted thirty-eight pages to the initial case but left them unpublished. Given the tenor of the times, he wrote, “No man in his wits would fully expose his thoughts unto them, till the charms which enrage the people are a little better dissipated.” He did not care in 1693 to cultivate what, centuries later, would be termed the paranoid strain in American politics, with its “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Political stability remained paramount. Mather did, however, retail the teen-ager’s report that Frenchmen and Indians—“horrid sorcerers and hellish conjurers”—had colluded in Salem witchcraft. He insisted on it for years.

“There is no public calamity,” Mather noted, in “Wonders,” “but some ill people will serve themselves of the sad providence, and make use of it for their own ends, as thieves when a house or town is on fire, will steal what they can.” Twenty-eight years later, a smallpox epidemic raged through Boston. Cotton Mather faced down the entire medical establishment to advocate something that seemed every bit as dubious as spectral evidence: inoculation. He had studied medicine at Harvard. Over the decades, he had come better to understand infectious disease. Moving from imps and witches to germs and viruses, he at last located the devils we inhale with every breath. The battle turned so vitriolic that it dragged Salem out of hiding; Mather was bludgeoned for lunacy on two counts. Yet again, Massachusetts seemed to be in the grip of distemper. The people talked, he huffed in his diary, “not only like idiots but also like fanaticks.” He remained as steadfast on the subject of inoculation as he had been equivocal on witchcraft. In November, 1721, a homemade bomb came sailing in his window at 3 a.m . His reputation never recovered. ♦

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Witch hunts

Setting the scene, fits and contortions, three witches.

  • Aftermath and legacy


What caused the Salem witch trials?

How did the salem witch trials end, what is the legacy of the salem witch trials.

Salem Witch Trials. Photogravure after the painting by Walter McEwen titled - The Witches - circa 1890s.

Salem witch trials

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  • Bill of Rights Institute - The Salem Witch Trials
  • American History Central - Salem Witch Trials — the Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692
  • World History Encyclopedia - Salem Witch Trials
  • Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University - Salem Witch Trials
  • GlobalSecurity.org - 1692 - The Witches of Salem
  • The National Endowment for the Humanities - The Salem Witch Trials According to the Historical Records
  • Ancient Origins - Salem Witch Trial hysteria and the courageous stance of Giles Corey
  • Famous Trials - Salem Witchcraft Trials
  • Salem Witch Trials - Children's Encyclopedia (Ages 8-11)
  • Salem witch trials - Student Encyclopedia (Ages 11 and up)
  • Table Of Contents


In the late 1600s the Salem Village community in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (now Danvers, Massachusetts) was fairly small and undergoing a period of turmoil with little political guidance. There was a social divide between the leading families as well as a split between factions that were for and against the village’s new pastor, Samuel Parris. After some young girls of the village (two of them relatives of Parris) started demonstrating strange behaviours and fits, they were urged to identify the person who had bewitched them. Their initial accusations gave way to trials, hysteria, and a frenzy that resulted in further accusations, often between the differing factions.

How many people were killed during the Salem witch trials?

By the end of the Salem witch trials, 19 people had been hanged and 5 others had died in custody. Additionally, a man was pressed beneath heavy stones until he died.

After weeks of informal hearings, Sir William Phips, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony , interceded to add some formality to the proceedings. Over the following year many trials were held and many people imprisoned. As the trials continued, accusations extended beyond Salem Village to surrounding communities. After Governor Phips’s wife was accused, he again interceded and ordered that a new court be established that would not allow so-called spectral evidence. By May 1693 everyone in custody under conviction or suspicion of witchcraft had been pardoned by Phips.

The haphazard fashion in which the Salem witch trials were conducted contributed to changes in U.S. court procedures, including rights to legal representation and cross-examination of accusers as well as the presumption that one is innocent until proven guilty. The Salem trials also went on to become a powerful metaphor for the anticommunist hearings led by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s, famously in the form of Arthur Miller ’s allegorical play The Crucible (1953).

Salem witch trials , (June 1692–May 1693), in American history, a series of investigations and persecutions that caused 19 convicted “witches” to be hanged and many other suspects to be imprisoned in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (now Danvers , Massachusetts).

The events in Salem in 1692 were but one chapter in a long story of witch hunts that began in Europe between 1300 and 1330 and ended in the late 18th century (with the last known execution for witchcraft taking place in Switzerland in 1782). The Salem trials occurred late in the sequence, after the abatement of the European witch-hunt fervour, which peaked from the 1580s and ’90s to the 1630s and ’40s. Some three-fourths of those European witch hunts took place in western Germany , the Low Countries , France , northern Italy , and Switzerland. The number of trials and executions varied according to time and place, but it is generally believed that some 110,000 persons in total were tried for witchcraft and between 40,000 to 60,000 were executed.

The “hunts” were efforts to identify witches rather than pursuits of individuals who were already thought to be witches. Witches were considered to be followers of Satan who had traded their souls for his assistance. It was believed that they employed demons to accomplish magical deeds, that they changed from human to animal form or from one human form to another, that animals acted as their “familiar spirits,” and that they rode through the air at night to secret meetings and orgies. There is little doubt that some individuals did worship the devil and attempt to practice sorcery with harmful intent. However, no one ever embodied the concept of a “witch” as previously described.

The process of identifying witches began with suspicions or rumours. Accusations followed, often escalating to convictions and executions. The Salem witch trials and executions came about as the result of a combination of church politics, family feuds, and hysterical children, all of which unfolded in a vacuum of political authority.

Salem Witch Trials. A women protests as one of her accusers, a young girl, appears to have convulsions. A small group of women were the source of accusations, testimony, and dramatic demonstrations.

There were two Salems in the late 17th century: a bustling commerce-oriented port community on Massachusetts Bay known as Salem Town, which would evolve into modern Salem , and, roughly 10 miles (16 km) inland from it, a smaller, poorer farming community of some 500 persons known as Salem Village. The village itself had a noticeable social divide that was exacerbated by a rivalry between its two leading families—the well-heeled Porters, who had strong connections with Salem Town’s wealthy merchants, and the Putnams , who sought greater autonomy for the village and were the standard-bearers for the less-prosperous farm families. Squabbles over property were commonplace, and litigiousness was rampant.

What sparked the Salem witch trials?

In 1689, through the influence of the Putnams, Samuel Parris , a merchant from Boston by way of Barbados , became the pastor of the village’s Congregational church. Parris, whose largely theological studies at Harvard College (now Harvard University ) had been interrupted before he could graduate, was in the process of changing careers from business to the ministry. He brought to Salem Village his wife, their three children, a niece, and two slaves who were originally from Barbados—John Indian, a man, and Tituba , a woman. (There is uncertainty regarding the relationship between the slaves and their ethnic origins. Some scholars believe that they were of African heritage, while others think that they may have been of Caribbean Native American heritage.)

Parris had shrewdly negotiated his contract with the congregation, but relatively early in his tenure he sought greater compensation, including ownership of the parsonage, which did not sit well with many members of the congregation. Parris’s orthodox Puritan theology and preaching also divided the congregation, a split that became demonstrably visible when he routinely insisted that nonmembers of the congregation leave before communion was celebrated. In the process Salem divided into pro- and anti-Parris factions.

Probably stimulated by voodoo tales told to them by Tituba , Parris’s daughter Betty (age 9), his niece Abigail Williams (age 11), and their friend Ann Putnam, Jr. (about age 12), began indulging in fortune-telling. In January 1692 Betty’s and Abigail’s increasingly strange behaviour (described by at least one historian as juvenile deliquency) came to include fits. They screamed, made odd sounds, threw things, contorted their bodies, and complained of biting and pinching sensations.

Looking back with the perspective provided by modern science, some scholars have speculated that the strange behaviour may have resulted from some combination of asthma , encephalitis , Lyme disease , epilepsy , child abuse , delusional psychosis, or convulsive ergotism—the last a disease caused by eating bread or cereal made of rye that has been infected with the fungus ergot , which can elicit vomiting, choking, fits, hallucinations, and the sense of something crawling on one’s skin. (The hallucinogen LSD is a derivative of ergot.) Given the subsequent spread of the strange behaviour to other girls and young women in the community and the timing of its display, however, those physiological and psychological explanations are not very convincing. The litany of odd behaviour also mirrored that of the children of a Boston family who in 1688 were believed to have been bewitched, a description of which had been provided by Congregational minister Cotton Mather in his book Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689) and which may have been known by the girls in Salem Village. In February, unable to account for their behaviour medically, the local doctor, William Griggs, put the blame on the supernatural. At the suggestion of a neighbour, a “witch cake” (made with the urine of the victims) was baked by Tituba to try to ferret out the supernatural perpetrator of the girls’ illness. Although it provided no answers, its baking outraged Parris, who saw it as a blasphemous act.

Pressured by Parris to identify their tormentor, Betty and Abigail claimed to have been bewitched by Tituba and two other marginalized members of the community, neither of whom attended church regularly: Sarah Good , an irascible beggar, and Sarah Osborn (also spelled Osborne), an elderly bed-ridden woman who was scorned for her romantic involvement with an indentured servant . On March 1 two magistrates from Salem Town, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, went to the village to conduct a public inquiry. Both Good and Osborn protested their own innocence, though Good accused Osborn. Initially, Tituba also claimed to be blameless, but after being repeatedly badgered (and undoubtedly fearful owing to her vulnerable status as a slave), she told the magistrates what they apparently wanted to hear—that she had been visited by the devil and made a deal with him. In three days of vivid testimony, she described encounters with Satan’s animal familiars and with a tall, dark man from Boston who had called upon her to sign the devil’s book, in which she saw the names of Good and Osborn along with those of seven others that she could not read.

thesis for salem witch trials

The magistrates then had not only a confession but also what they accepted as evidence of the presence of more witches in the community, and hysteria mounted. Other girls and young women began experiencing fits, among them Ann Putnam, Jr. ; her mother; her cousin, Mary Walcott; and the Putnams’s servant, Mercy Lewis. Significantly, those that they began identifying as other witches were no longer just outsiders and outcasts but rather upstanding members of the community, beginning with Rebecca Nurse , a mature woman of some prominence. As the weeks passed, many of the accused proved to be enemies of the Putnams , and Putnam family members and in-laws would end up being the accusers in dozens of cases.

The Salem Witch Trials: A Time of Fear Thesis

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Salem witch trials, explanation, works cited.

The most distinctive features of Modernism could be enumerated as Universality, development of Political thought, advent of technology and science, different inventions, approach towards Arts, literature, Specified Cultures, distinctive warfare and industry. There are several social and economic factors that make the Modern society different from the Pre Modern Society. Modernism a complex and intricate civilization but the Pre Modern society lacked all these elements and the major aspect of the society and religion was mostly superstition. The aspects of superstition, juxtaposed with entail of religion, was instrumental in every walks of life and this was an alter existence against clear thought process and science. (Knott, 188-9) This was the time in early American history when the fearsome cases of witch-hunt took place and one of the most terrifying incidents was the Salem Witch Trials.

In 1692 in the counties of the English ruled Massachusetts there were conducted a series of trials which meant to prosecute persons accused of practicing witchcraft in these areas. The outbreak began with the sudden and rather unusual illness of the daughter (Betty) and niece (Abigail) of the local Reverend Samuel Parris. Betty, aged 9 was the first to be affected and displayed what we would today call ‘hysterical’ behavior, often screaming and convulsing with pain, throwing things about and crawling around her room. She has also famously been quoted to have felt “pinched and pricked with pins”. To relive her of her strange affliction reverend Parris soon summoned the local doctor, (supposedly) William Griggs who sowed the first seed of trouble by suggesting that her illness was less physiological and more ‘supernatural’. (Kumar, 334)

Abigail Williams, 11, Parris’ orphaned niece complained of similar symptoms soon after Betty and promptly a handful of other girls all over the village displayed the same antics as Betty and Abigail. The people of the village of Salem were famous for their strict Puritanism. The neighboring revolutionary war (to which the Salem residents apparently contributed and war refugees from which probably took shelter in Salem) had left them even more attached to their faith. Death, war and a frantic return to religion provided a fertile ground for the re-emergence of some time tested superstitions. The timely intervention of the young girl’s ailment was exactly the sort of thing that would set a quiet village like Salem on fire.

Given their interest in the subject village girls often coupled together to ‘tell’ fortunes and practice divinations just to keep themselves busy during long idle evenings. Tituba, a young slave girl Parris had acquired from Barbados proved popular at such congregations due to her stock of mystical stories. Occasionally, she was also reported to have ‘told’ fortunes. Following Griggs’ ‘diagnosis’ the village quickly decided that Betty, Abigail and the other girl’s suffering was surely a result of witchcraft being practiced in the village. Residents quickly justified this allegation by referring to the recent loss of cattle and other such similar misfortunes and before long almost all the villagers were sure about witches inhabiting the same space as them.

Tituba was, predictably enough, the first person to be accused of practicing witchcraft. It could be stated that her sex, social status, proximity to the ‘victims’ and most importantly her ethnicity, though unfortunate, left her particularly vulnerable to the allegations. After her two other women Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, both social outcasts and unpopular were similarly accused of being witches. Ironically, while the two Sarah’s never accepted the allegations as true, Tituba soon confessed to being a witch. Sarah Osbourne later died in prison, the other two were later hanged to death. (Tyerman, 233-37)

Human Beings are naturally expressionistic. Thus, if repressed they consciously or subconsciously search for methods of self-expression. In an atmosphere as that of Salem in 1692 women were allowed little or no room to articulate their personal desires, as a result they remained eager to find means to attract attention and establish their existence. The unexplained affliction of the women in Salem has occupied much academic space. In the absence of any real medical evidence for this sort of collective suffering, most academicians and medical practitioners have time and again suggested that the symptoms exhibited by the girls were, in all probability an ‘act’, which the girls used to attract attention.

Young girls such as Abigail and Betty, who remain confined to their home doing little besides household chores such as sewing, cooking etc. crave the merriment of youth and the spotlight attached to it. Puritans however maintain that kids ‘should be seen and not heard’, and hence their values are often completely contradictory to what children usually want. Given the constant lack of attention received children often resort to tactics to attract the sort of attention they want. This tactics may be the sort that we are used to such as tantrums, crying, throwing things, holding their breath etc. or under certain circumstances it may also be what we otherwise call ‘pretension’ or ‘play acting’. (Prawer, 227-229)

The young girls in Salem were engaged, in all probability in such a mass play acting practice. It possibly began as an accident with Betty, but once she and those around her discovered the potential of being afflicted they too jumped into the bandwagon one by one. Each emulated the other and while in public eye used their sudden position of power to cause harm to and accuse everyone and anyone they despised or disliked in the most juvenile manner. It was a power play of the most childish kind, only it ended with about 19 innocent people being killed unnecessarily. (Powell, 49)

The witch hunt in Salem enflamed further with a sudden outbreak of a small pox epidemic, which many believed was the witches doing. As a result of these minor events the accusations flew till even the most unlikely of people came to be accused of being a witch. And then suddenly in 1693 the witch hunt died down much in the same way as it had begun, without a band but with a whimper. All those accused of practicing witchcraft were pronounced innocent (although this proclamation continued till early 20th century, until when the descendants of the accused fought to clear their ancestors’ name). Many of them were even accepted back within the folds of everyday life in Salem. Many others left forever and never returned to the place which maligned their reputation forever. (Manning, 115)

Not much is known of the Parris household except that they moved and that Abigail Williams never recovered from her affliction and died soon after. It can also be stated that the fact that Parris’ young son too died young and of insanity perhaps indicated a seed of lunacy which remained sown in the family. Academicians, psychologists and descendants of the accused and the victims have never quite figured out what happened during that rather eventful year in 1692 in the somnolent village of Salem. Even today it continues to intrigue people from all over the world like an unsolved mystery in the pages of time. (Powell, 53-55)

Knott, Paul. Development of Science: 15th C-17th C . Dakha: Dasgupta & Chatterjee, 1979.

Kumar, Hiranarayan. Power of Opportunity: Win Some, Lose None . Sydney: HBT & Brooks Ltd, 1988.

Manning, Charles. Principals and Practices: Human History . Wellington: National Book Trust, 1989.

Powell, Mark. Anatomy of Witch Hunts . Dunedin: ABP Ltd, 1991.

Prawer, Ali. Superstition’s Kingdom . Auckland: Allied Publishers, 2004.

Tyerman, John. Invention of the Crusades . Auckland: Allied Publications, 2001.

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The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is lined with the pleas of the victims. Photo by Charlie Weber

Community , Social Justice

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial: Finding Humanity in Tragedy

It was during the exceedingly hot summer of 1692 when Puritan judges in Salem, an English settlement in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, condemned twenty people of witchcraft and publicly executed them.

Now, 330 years later, visitors to this seaside city will find a simple, peaceful memorial next to an aged colonial graveyard and hear, in the near distance, the occasional sound of church bells. Entering a rectangular space bordered by rough stone walls and shaded by towering locust trees, one crosses a wide threshold inscribed with the words of the victims, their protestations of innocence and pleas to God clipped by the memorial walls, symbolizing the community’s indifference to their plight. Twenty granite benches jut from the walls, each bearing the name of a person unjustly accused and killed.

Erected in 1992, this was Salem’s first public monument to those tragic events. As we mark the memorial’s thirtieth anniversary, it is perhaps more important than ever to remember the lessons of these injustices.

Salem’s witch trials were the largest and deadliest in North American history. Over the course of a year and a half, nineteen people were hanged and one man was brutally tortured to death. Though popularly referred to as “the Salem witch trials,” accusations had spread throughout Essex County and beyond. In total, between 150 and 200 people were imprisoned, ranging in age from four to eighty-one years old. At least five died in jail, including the infant daughter of convicted Sarah Good.

Old ink illustration of a group of colonial-era men forcing an old woman down a dirt road. Small text on bottom: Arresting a Witch. Handwritten: HM, July 1893, New England.

None of the accused were “witches,” defined in the seventeenth century as one who had sold their soul to the devil. Instead, it was a crime often lodged against social outsiders within a community.

Each of the twenty victims have their own heartbreaking story that can only be pieced together from fleeting comments in the records. Take for example the story of Ipswich’s Elizabeth How, a hardworking, fifty-five-year-old wife and mother executed July 19, 1692. A decade previous, she found herself in a heated conflict with a neighbor who accused her of bewitching a child to death. “Everything that happened amiss to anyone was laid at her door,” wrote Charles Upham, a nineteenth-century historian. It was no surprise that Elizabeth once again became a target in 1692.

The brief recorded references to the devotion of Elizabeth’s family are deeply moving. In his testimony, her ninety-four-year-old father-in-law, James How Sr., commenting on the thirty years he had known her, said, “as a wife to my son, [she is] very careful, loving, obedient, and kind, considering his want of eyesight, tenderly leading him about by the hand.” While jailed in Boston, a full day’s journey from Ipswich, Elizabeth was visited twice a week by her blind husband James Jr., guided by one of their daughters. Despite testimony given on her behalf, she was executed on that July day along with four other innocent women.

Though small compared to the European witch hunts , which took the lives of approximately 45,000 people over the span of 300 years, Salem became infamous. Witchcraft suspicions were common, but executions were rare in the “New World.” Immediately after the Salem trials were over, there was a sense that something had gone terribly wrong. In 1697, one magistrate and twelve jurists apologized for their part in these events, as did one accuser almost a decade later.

The growing recognition of this injustice made Salem a common cultural reference as early as the eighteenth century. Noted by Founding Fathers during the American Revolution, included in early school books as an example of a moral failing, and invoked as a metaphor for contemporary scapegoating in the twentieth century, the tragedies of Salem have never left public memory.

The curious have traveled to Salem for centuries, drawn by the city’s macabre history. While visiting the area in 1766, future president John Adams listed in his diary a visit to “Witchcraft Hill”—thought to be the site of the executions. In 1895, a Salem visitors’ guide noted, “The Witchcraft Delusion, which caused many to flee from Salem for their lives two centuries ago, now brings thousands of visitors to Salem each year.”

Gray flagstone jutting out from a stone wall, with words etched in: John Proctor, hanged August 19, 1692. Above the lettering, white and orange cut flowers.

Confronting our dark heritage can prove difficult. The reality behind witchcraft trials is often challenging for a modern audience to comprehend, as the word “witch” typically evokes a folkloric or popular culture figure, rather than a real human being. Only in the last half-century has the world seen an increase in the establishment of witch trials memorials, ranging in size from small plaques and simple markers, like the Brechin Memorial in Scotland , to larger memorial stones, such as those set in Torsåker Parish, Sweden , and enormous structures, like the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, Norway . Each of these memorials is both an effort to remember the victims, many of whom have living descendants, and to educate people in hopes of preventing similar acts of hysteria and scapegoating.

Limited memorialization efforts of the Salem victims began in the late 1880s, driven largely by descendants. The first honored Rebecca Nurse, a seventy-one-year-old beloved mother, church member, and respected neighbor. Her hanging on July 19, 1692 had shocked the community. Family legend holds that her remains were retrieved from the hanging site and buried in an unmarked grave on the Nurse property.

Sepia-toned photo of dozens of people sitting and standing around a white stone memorial column.

In 1885, more than 600 people, many of them descendants, gathered at the Nurse homestead in Danvers (formerly Salem Village) to attend the unveiling of a granite obelisk, inscribed with a John Greenleaf Whittier poem. Two other early memorials were erected: a plaque in Amesbury for Susannah Martin placed by the Amesbury Improvement Association in 1894 and another for John Proctor in Peabody placed by his descendants in 1902.

It would take almost a century more for memorialization discussions to continue in Salem. In 1986, the mayor’s office established an advisory committee to discuss how to commemorate the upcoming 300th anniversary of the witch trials. While “a firm and strong foundation” was built over the next few years, according to Tercentenary executive director Linda McConchie, progress was slow and met with obstacles.

As noted in the early Salem visitor guides, the witch trials long held a fascination for those outside the community. Some locals, however, were reluctant to acknowledge this dark heritage. The trials saw neighbors turn against neighbors and held a legacy of shame and embarrassment, a feeling that lasted generations. One former Danvers resident, who grew up in the 1960s, recalled being told in his youth, “in polite society, you don’t talk about divorce and you don’t talk about the witch trials.”

The New York Times reported in 1988 a proposed statue by Beverly, Massachusetts, sculptor Yiannis Stefanakis, a memorial depicting the three accused Towne sisters: the executed Rebecca (Towne) Nurse and Mary (Towne) Esty and survivor Sarah (Towne) Cloyce. The funds were privately raised, with no public call for design. An uproar ensued. Salem’s First Church pastor John Szala, who at the time chaired the mayor’s advisory committee, said, “[Stefanakis] took this to the City Council, and it was rushed through without a hearing and without the public being alerted to what he was doing. The community is divided as a result.”

In discussing support for the project, Stefanakis said, “I’ve got a pile of letters from across the country. However, I’ve received very, very few letters and money from Salem. I don’t think they were ready for this despite 300 years.”

This comment recalls a story shared by Danvers town archivist Richard Trask. In 1970, he led the effort to uncover the parsonage foundation in Salem Village, significant to the witch trials as the site where the trouble began and escalated. Trask recalls neighbors’ complaints. “Leave it alone,” they said. “Why do you have to bring this up?”

Two women smile from a construction site outdoors. A gravestone is in the foreground.

As the city’s witch-related tourism had grown in the latter half of the twentieth century, some felt Salem’s sad history was being disrespected and the human story behind the witch trials forgotten. “The goal of the [Tercentenary] was to reclaim the historical importance and significance of this tragic event,” McConchie says. The Tercentenary Committee—led by McConchie plus Patty MacLeod and Alison D’Amario of the Salem Witch Museum —planned a year-long commemoration with two key elements in mind: the construction of a public memorial and a lasting way to honor the innocent victims. They achieved the latter through the creation of the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice.

With an estimated budget of $100,000 and an available piece of land in downtown Salem selected, the committee issued a public call for designs. They received close to 250 entries, which were judged by an expert panel of artists, architects, and museum professionals.

In November 1991, playwright Arthur Miller unveiled the winning design created by Maggie Smith and James Cutler. The Tercentenary Committee Final Report describes the memorial:

“Striking in its simplicity, the Memorial is surrounded on three sides by a handcrafted granite dry wall. Inscribed in the stone threshold are the victims’ protests of innocence. These protests are interrupted mid-sentence, symbolizing society’s indifference to oppression. Six locust trees, the last to flower and the first to shed their leaves, represent the stark injustice of the Trials. At the rear of the Memorial, visitors view the tombstones of the adjacent 17th century Charter Street Burying Point, a reminder of all who stood in mute witness to the tragedy. Cantilevered stone benches within the Memorial perimeter bear the names of each of the twenty victims, creating a quiet, contemplative environment in which to evoke the spirit and strength of those who chose to die rather than compromise their personal truths.”

These twenty innocent individuals refused to confess to witchcraft and were murdered as a result.

Black and white concept drawing of a low stone wall surrounding a courtyard with bare trees.

The dedication of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial was the centerpiece of the Tercentenary year. On August 5, 1992, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel gave a special address, speaking eloquently about his lifelong commitment to end hate and human suffering.

“In times of inhumanity, humanity is still possible,” he urged. “It is because people were fanatic that Salem was possible…. And fanaticism is the greatest evil that faces us today. For today, too, there are Salems.”

That same day, the committee presented its first Salem Award to Gregory Alan Williams, a hero of the Los Angeles riots which had erupted earlier that year, after the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. MacLeod reflects, “We wanted the award to be a lasting teaching tool.” The Salem Award Committee, now known as Voices Against Injustice, presents the Salem Award annually.

Throughout 1992, Tercentenary programming focused on the enduring lessons of the witch trials, encouraging people to reflect on the dangers of scapegoating during times of great fear and uncertainty. At the Tercentenary inauguration on March 1, Joshua Rubenstein of Amnesty International used the trials as a point of reference by which to examine human rights violations throughout history and today.

Despite the efforts of countless people to make the Salem Witch Trials Memorial a reality, less than twenty years later, the structure located in the heart of downtown Salem had fallen into disrepair. The problem was twofold: first, it was never clear who was responsible for the memorial’s upkeep.

Secondly, the original design called for the stones to be loosely laid, with no supporting mortar. People began to take pieces of it away as souvenirs, and it was frequently used during the geocaching craze in the early 2000s. Yet another fundraising effort was undertaken to refurbish this important site.

Corner of a low stone wall, bordering a graveyard. The stone have no mortar and are falling down.

The structure was reinforced and rededicated on September 9, 2012. Today, the memorial is well-maintained by the Peabody Essex Museum, the City of Salem, and Voices Against Injustice.

Like so much about our venerable city, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial means different things to different people. For modern witches, it is affirming. For descendants, emotional. For tourists, an essential stop. Conversely, when asked about the memorial, several longtime residents stated they never visit nor do they have a strong opinion about the site.

Many self-identified witches have moved to Salem over the past half-century. Modern witchcraft means something different to each individual, though it can broadly be described as a sense of spiritual contentment and personal empowerment derived from the long and complex history of the witch.

Margaret McGilvray, a practicing witch and founder of The Witchery, an art and performance space in Salem, reflects, “When I am at the Witch Trials Memorial, I am not analyzing from a historical perspective. I’m feeling it. And that is why it is such a powerful memorial. It allows me to feel.”

Teri Kalgren, a member of the Witches Education League and owner of Artemisia Botanicals, who has lived and worked in Salem since the late 1980s, noted that while she wishes there was more interpretive signage at the memorial, it is “beautiful and very solemn to walk through. As a witch, I see [the witch trials] as something that could possibly happen again. It shows man’s inhumanity to man.”

In recent years, as genealogical research has become more accessible, there has been an increase in descendants arriving in Salem. According to the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 15 million Americans can trace an ancestral connection to the witch trials. For many, traveling to Salem is an important pilgrimage. It is a misconception that the witch trial victims were prohibited from interment in cemeteries. Ongoing research suggests the remains of some of these individuals were retrieved from the hanging site and quietly buried at their family homesteads. Because definitive grave sites for the victims remain unconfirmed, the memorial has become a primary place to pay respects.

On a gray stone, a drying flower bouquet, a clam shell, and a laminated handwritten note: To 9th Great Aunt Sarah, victim of injustice: a silk scarf to celebrate your approach to life; flowers, to wish you peace; our presence, to bear witness to your strength in the face of cruelty, falsehood, and shocking injustice. Your descendants, Lorri from Maryland. Jerri from Arizona. August 9, 2021.

Throughout the year, and particularly on the anniversaries of the hanging dates (June 10, July 19, August 19, and September 22), visitors leave flowers, coins, and small objects on these stones. The memorial gives descendants a physical place to leave personal notes, many heartfelt.

Thousands of tourists visit the memorial each year. While most treat the space with reverence, some, particularly during the Halloween season, fail to appreciate the weight of this tragic history. Perhaps that is the reality of any public memorial dedicated to such distant events.

As the meaning of the word “witch” continues to change, so too does Salem. Navigating the spectrum of popular interest is no simple task. Salem’s heritage encompasses colonial history, the persecution of innocent people, beloved fictional witches, spooky Halloween fun, and modern magick . The Salem Witch Trials Memorial stands today in the center of it all, publicly reminding thousands of visitors of the city’s darkest chapter.

This permanent memorial is not only an interesting place to visit but an essential statement, one which speaks to the humanity involved in such a tragedy. The tendency to blame “the other” during times of uncertainty and fear is an enduring human behavior. Whether the fatal sickness of a child is blamed on an argument with a neighbor in the seventeenth century or an entire race for the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to find scapegoats.

By memorializing witch trials, in Salem and around the world, modern communities are beginning the difficult process of reckoning with their own darkest tendencies.

One side of the stone wall memorial, with a person standing at each stone bench  jutting out.

Rachel Christ-Doan is the director of education at the Salem Witch Museum, where she engages in research, works with students and teachers, oversees curation and exhibition development, and creates educational programming.

Jill Christiansen is the assistant director of education at the Salem Witch Museum, specializing in Salem witch trials research and acting as the book buyer for the museum store.

The authors wish to acknowledge the contributions of the many dedicated people who were involved in this project, particularly the trio of Patty MacLeod, Alison D’Amario, and Linda McConchie, who led the two-year effort to create the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Salem Award, and year of Tercentenary programming. 

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The Salem Witch Trials: A legal bibliography

The Salem Martyr by Noble

The law of the Salem Witch Trials is a fascinating mix of biblical passages and colonial statutes.  According to Mark Podvia (see Timeline , PDF), the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted the following statute in 1641:  “If any man or woman be a WITCH, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death. Exod . 22. 18. Levit . 20. 27. Deut . 18. 10. 11.”  The statute encompasses passages from the Bible written circa 700 B.C. Exodus states:  “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.” Leviticus prescribes the punishment.  Witches and wizards “shall surely be put to death:  they shall stone them with stones:   their blood shall be upon them.”  And Deuteronomy states:  “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.  Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.”

In Salem, the accusers and alleged victims came from a small group of girls aged nine to 19, including Betty Parris and Abigail Williams.  In January 1692, Betty and Abigail had strange fits. Rumors spread through the village attributing the fits to the devil and the work of his evil hands.  The accusers claimed the witchcraft came mostly from women, with the notable exception of four-year old Dorcas Good.

The colony created the Court of Oyer and Terminer especially for the witchcraft trials.  The law did not then use the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” – if you made it to trial, the law presumed guilt.  If the colony imprisoned you, you had to pay for your stay.  Courts relied on three kinds of evidence:  1) confession, 2) testimony of two eyewitnesses to acts of witchcraft, or  3) spectral evidence (when the afflicted girls were having their fits, they would interact with an unseen assailant – the apparition of the witch tormenting them).  According to Wendel Craker, no court ever convicted an accused of witchcraft on the basis of spectral evidence alone, but other forms of evidence were needed to corroborate the charge of witchcraft. Courts allowed “causal relationship” evidence, for example, to prove that the accused possessed or controlled an afflicted girl.  Prior conflicts, bad acts by the accused, possession of materials used in spells, greater than average strength, and witch’s marks also counted as evidence of witchcraft.  If the accused was female, a jury of women examined her body for “witch’s marks” which supposedly showed that a familiar had bitten or fed on the accused.  Other evidence included the “touching test” (afficted girls tortured by fits became calm after touching the accused).  Courts could not base convictions on confessions obtained through torture unless the accused reaffirmed the confession afterward, but if the accused recanted the confession, authorities usually tortured the accused further to obtain the confession again.  If you recited the Lord’s Prayer, you were not a witch.   The colony did not burn witches, it hanged them.

The Salem Witch Trials divided the community.  Neighbor testified against neighbor.  Children against parents.  Husband against wife.  Children died in prisons.  Familes were destroyed.  Churches removed from their congregations some of the persons accused of witchcraft.  After the Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved, the Superior Court of Judicature took over the witchcraft cases.  They disallowed spectral evidence.  Most accusations of witchcraft then resulted in acquittals.  An essay by Increase Mather, a prominent minister, may have helped stop the witch trials craze in Salem.

Researching the Salem Witch Trials is easier than it used to be.  Most of the primary source materials (statutes, transcripts of court records, contemporary accounts) are available electronically.  Useful databases include HeinOnline Legal Classics Library (see  Trials for Witchcraft before the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, Salem, Massachusetts, 1692 ;   The Salem Witchcraft  (Clair, Henry St., 1840); and “ Witch Trials ,”  1 Curious Cases and Amusing Actions at Law including Some Trials of Witches in the Seventeenth Century (1916) ), HeinOnline World Trials Library, HeinOnline Law Journal Library (also JSTOR, America:  History & Life, Google Scholar, and the LexisNexis and Westlaw journal databases),  Gale Encyclopedia of American Law (“ Salem Witch Trials “), Google Books, Hathi Trust, and the Internet Archive.  For books and articles on the Salem Witch Trials and witchcraft and the law generally, Library of Congress subject headings include:

  • Trials (Witchcraft) — History
  • Trials (Witchcraft) — Massachusetts — Salem
  • Witch hunting — Massachusetts — Salem
  • Witchcraft — Massachusetts — Salem — History — 17th century
  • Witchcraft — New England
  • Witches — Crimes against

Matteson - witch marks

  • Salem Witch Trials:  Documentary Archive & Transcription Project (University of Virginia)(includes online searchable text of the transcription of court records as published in Boyer/Nissenbaum’s The Salem Witchcraft Papers , revised 2011, and e-versions of contemporary books)
  • Famous American Trials:  Salem Witch Trials, 1692 (Prof. Douglas O. Linder, University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School)


Adams, Gretchen A. The Specter of Salem:  Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, BF1576.A33 2008).

Boyer, Paul & Stephen Nissenbaum, eds. The Salem Witchcraft Papers:  Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692  (Da Capo Press, XXKFM2478.8.W5S240 1977 )( digital edition , revised and augmented, 2011).  3v.

___________________________. Salem Possessed:  The Social Origins of Witchcraf t (Harvard University Press, BF1576.B79 1974 ).  See especially pages 1-59.

___________________________, eds. Salem Village Witchcraft:  A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England  (Wadsworth Pub. Co., KA653.B75 1972 LawAnxS ).

Brown, David C.  “The Case of Giles Corey.” EIHC ( Essex Institute Historical Collections , F72.E7E81 ) 121 (1985): 282-299.

___________.  “ The Forfeitures of Salem, 1692 .” The William and Mary Quarterly 50 (1993): 85-111.

Burns, William E. Witch Hunts in Europe and America:  An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, BF1584.E9B87 2003 ).  Includes a Chronology (1307-1793), “Salem Witch Trials” at pages 257-261, and a bibliography at pages 333-347.

Burr, George Lincoln. Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706 (Barnes & Noble, BF1573.B6901 1963 ).

Calef, Robert. More Wonders of the Invisible World (1700).

Craker, Wendel D.  “Spectral Evidence, Non-Spectral Acts of Witchcraft, and Confession at Salem in 1692. ” Historical Journal 40 (1997):  331-358.

Demos, John. Entertaining Satan:  Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (Oxford University Press, BF1576.D38 1982 ).

Francis, Richard. Judge Sewall’s Apology:  The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of the American Conscience (Fourth Estate, F67.S525 2005 ).

Godbeer, Richard. The Salem Witch Hunt:  A Brief History with Documents (Bedford/St. Martin’s, XXKFM2478.8.W5G63 2011 ).

Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem (G. Braziller, BF1576.H25 1969 ).

Hill, Frances. The Salem Witch Trials Reader (Da Capo Press, BF1576.H55 2000 ).

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials:  A Legal History (University Press of Kansas, XXKFM2478.8.W5H645 1997 )(Landmark Law Cases & American Society).

______________. The Devil’s Disciples:  Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials (Johns Hopkins University Press, XXKFM2478.8.W5H646 1996 ).

Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman:  Witchcraft in Colonial New England (Norton, BF1576.K370 1987 ).

Le Beau, Bryan F. The Story of the Salem Witch Trials:  “We Walked in Clouds and We Could Not See Our Way” (Prentice Hall, 2d ed., XXKFM2478.8.W5L43 2010 )(DLL has 1998).

Levin, David. What Happened in Salem? (2d ed.  Harcourt, Brace & Co. BF1575.L40 1960 ) (Documents Pertaining to the Seventeenth-Century Witchcraft Trials).  Compiles trial evidence documents, contemporary comments, and legal redress.

Mather, Cotton. The Wonders of the Invisible World:  Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New England, and Of Several Remarkable Curiosities Therein Occurring (1693) .

Mather, Increase. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in Such As Are Accused with That Crime  (1693).

Nevins, Winfield S. Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692 (North Shore Pub. Co., BF1576.N5 1892 ).

Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil’s Snare:  The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692  ( BF1575.N67 2002 )(legal analysis, with appendixes).

Powers, Edwin. Crime and Punishment in Early Massachusetts, 1620-1692  A Documentary History (Beacon Press, KB4537.P39C8 1966 LawAnxN ).

Rosenthal, Bernard ed. Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (Cambridge University Press, XXKFM2478.8.W5R43 2009 )(includes Richard B. Trask, “Legal Procedures Used During the Salem Witch Trials and a Brief History of the Published Versions of the Records” at pages 44-63).

Ross, Lawrence J., Mark W. Podvia, & Karen Wahl. The Law of the Salem Witch Trials .  American Association of Law Library, Annual Meeting, Boston, Massachusetts, July 23, 2012 (AALL2go – password needed to access .mp3 and program handout).

Starkey, Marion. The Devil in Massachusetts:  A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (A.A. Knopf, XXKFM2478.8.W5S73 1949 ).

Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft:  with an Account of Salem Village and a History of Witchcraft and Opinions on Kindred Subjects   (Wiggin & Lunt, 1867).  2v.

Weisman, Richard. Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th-Century Massachusetts (The University of Massachusetts Press, XXKFM2478.8.W5W4440 1984 ).  Includes a chapter on “The Crime of Witchcraft in Massachusetts Bay  Historical Background and Pattern of Prosecution.”  Appendixes includes lists of legal actions against witchcraft prior to the Salem prosecutions, Massachusetts Bay witchcraft defamation suits, persons accused of witchcraft in Salem, confessors, allegations of ordinary witchcrafts by case, afflicted persons.

Young, Martha M.  “ The Salem Witch Trials 300 Years Later:  How Far Has the American Legal System Come?  How Much Further Does It Need to Go? ”   Tulane Law Review 64 (1989): 235-258.

General Resources

Mackay, Christopher S., trans. & ed.   The Hammer of Witches:  A Complete Translation of the Malleus Maleficarum (authored by Heinrich Institoris & Jacobus Sprenger in 1487 – Dominican friars, who were both Inquistors and professors of theology at the University of Cologne)(Cambridge University Press, BF1569.M33 2009 ).  This medieval text ( Der Hexenhammer in German) prescribes judicial procedures in cases of alleged witchcraft.  In question-and-answer format.  The judge should appoint as an advocate for the accused “an upright person who is not suspected of being fussy about legal niceties” as opposed to appointing “a litigious, evil-spirited person who could easily be corrupted by money” (p. 530).

“Judgment of a Witch.” The Fugger News-Letters 259-262 (The Bodley Head, Ltd., 1924).  Also reprinted in The Portable Renaissance Reader .

Pagel, Scott B. The Literature of Witchcraft Trials:  Books & Manuscripts from the Jacob Burns Law Library (University of Texas at Austin, BF1566.P243 2008 ) (Tarlton Law Library, Legal History Series, No. 9).

Witchcraft and the Law:  A Selected Bibliography of Recent Publications (Christine Corcos, LSU Law)(includes mostly pre-2000 works).

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