A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials

by Jason Milch, age 16
A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials

“The superstitious hysteria of olden times has long intrigued the American public, but from the vast swath of witch hunts past, no other event has captivated our cultural consciousness like the Salem Witch Trials.”

The superstitious hysteria of olden times has long intrigued the American public, but from the vast swath of witch hunts past, no other event has captivated our cultural consciousness like the Salem Witch Trials. The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings, imprisonments, and executions which occurred from June 1692 to May 1693 in Salem Village and Salem Town. As a result of the trials, 19 supposed “witches” were executed. The trials are regarded as an infamous chapter of American history, so much so that even now, they are known as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of unbridled religious belief and mass hysteria.

A subsidiary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Salem Village was a small farming community of approximately 500 inhabitants. Notably, the village was situated close to Salem Town, a wealthy merchant town. Within the small village, there were multiple factors that led to the witch trials. To begin with, the village had a notable economic divide between its poor and wealthy families. The most significant consequence of this divide was a rivalry between the Porter and the Putnam families. The Porters were a relatively wealthy family who favored the village gaining stronger ties with Salem Town. In contrast, the Putnams adhered to strict puritanism, and opposed a stronger connection to the town on religious grounds. Through the Putnams, Samuel Parris was contracted to be the village’s pastor. Notably, Parris brought his daughters, his niece, and a dark-skinned slave named Tituba along with him. As pastor, Parris 1 inundated the village with fierce religious rhetoric, including the condemnation of witchcraft. Parris’s strict religious regulations, coupled with a dispute over his compensation, further increased tensions in the village. The second factor was the village’s strict puritanism. With little variation, the village was composed of devout Puritans who subscribed to a strict interpretation of the Bible. This interpretation included a belief in witches: men and women who sold their souls to the Devil in exchange for exorbitant pleasure. In return, it was believed that at the Devil’s behest, witches would torment the people of a town. To accomplish this mischief, witches would employ multiple supernatural tools, including the use of “specters,” ghosts of the witch who would haunt random victims. In addition, witches could put curses on their victims.

Witches were thought of as unholy beings and, as a result, they were pursued and executed if convicted of witchcraft in court. However, if someone accused of witchcraft confessed before conviction, that person would be spared from execution or other severe punishment, as it was believed that such witches would receive their punishment from God instead. In many cases, the accused would identify other “witches” in the community, so as to try and obtain additional mercy from the court. These Puritan beliefs played a large part in the creation of the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials. Thirdly, the village had recently experienced a smallpox outbreak and was under constant threat of Native American attack. Both of these circumstances severely damaged the village’s morale and created a high stress living environment. As a result of all these factors, the village was ripe for mass hysteria.

Although history of the Salem Witch Trials is complex and convoluted, but there is little subtlety to the catalyst that started them. In January 1692, Parris’s daughter Betty (age 9) and his niece Abigail Williams (age 11) began having violent fits. At random, the girls would scream, contort, throw objects, and complain of biting and pinching sensations, among other symptoms. A local doctor was summoned to examine the girls, but, unable to find anything wrong with them, he diagnosed the girls with what was obviously the only rational alternative: witchcraft. In 2 an attempt to find out who had bewitched the girls, at the suggestion of a neighbor and without first consulting Parris, Tituba concocted a “witchcake.” The witchcake was a cake made with the urine of the victims of witchcraft (in this case the two girls). To find the witch, the cake would be baked and then fed to a dog, who would then point out the witch responsible for the curse. 3 Obviously, the cake did not provide any answers. However, once discovered, the use of the cake outraged Parris, who considered the such folk medicine blasphemous. With the fits continuing and facing mounting pressure from Parris, the girls accused Tituba and two other villagers (both of whom were of low social standing in the community). As a result, the accused were imprisoned and two magistrates from Salem Town were sent to the village to conduct an inquiry. As part of the inquiry, Tituba was questioned. Initially, she asserted her innocence. In 4 response, she was met with fierce and repeated questioning asserting her guilt. In other words, her questioners would not take “no” for an answer. Faced with a badgering examination and diminished credibility as a result of her slave status, eventually Tituba gave her questioners the answer they wanted to hear, and admitted to being a witch. Through three days of vivid testimony, Tituba described her encounters with the Devil, while also implicating the other two women who had been accused. With the presence of witches now apparently confirmed, hysteria surged, resulting in other girls and young women suffering fits. There are many possible explanations for as to why the increasing fear of the village actually materialized into additional psychiatric episodes. Among them is the possibility that a combination of fear and religious teachings subconsciously forced the women to physically manifest symptoms, but there are also political explanations. For example, many of those newly afflicted by “witchcraft” were part of the Putnam family and, in many cases, those they accused were family enemies.

With mounting evidence of widespread witchcraft in Salem Village and multiple accused having already been imprisoned, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony ordered an official court to convene in Salem Town to try the accused. During the trials, the accused were 5 not afforded the right to counsel. At the same time, when the accused attempted to defend themselves, they were pressured by their examiner to admit to their crime, making it seem like the only way to avoid conviction and subsequent execution would be to confess. Most importantly, the court allowed the admission of “spectral evidence,” meaning that witnesses could testify that the specter of the accused had attacked them in their dreams, or through other supernatural methods, thereby depriving the accused any meaningful opportunity to rebut the witnesses’ testimony. And to make matters even worse, during the accused’s testimony, alleged victims in the audience would babble, contort, faint, and scream, so as to imply a demonic presence. Even with such fundamental flaws, the Salem Witch Trials continued without interruption, as there was no way for the public to object, given that those who did so risked being accused of witchcraft themselves. With new witches being continually accused and confessions occurring relatively often, the trials marched forward.

The first of the trials’ victim was Bridget Bishop who was convicted and hung on June 19th in Salem Village. Five others were convicted and hung until a man named George 6 Burroughs was convicted for being the witches’ ringleader. As Burroughs was about to be hung, from atop the gallows and to great dramatic effect, he flawlessly recited the Lord’s Prayer in a last ditch effort to prove his innocence. In spite of this seemingly impossible feat, he was still 7 hung. However, his death was not in vain, as his execution began to turn public sentiment against the trials. Subsequently, on September 22nd, eight more condemned prisoners were hung. But more significantly, the husband of one of those hung, Giles Corey, an 80-year-old farmer, was also accused of witchcraft, but refused to enter a plea. In an attempt to force a plea, Corey was 8 tortured by having a wooden frame placed on top of him while he lay on the ground, as stones were continually piled up on the frame. Reportedly, when a sheriff came to ask Corey for a plea, he responded with “More weight.” After two days of torture, Corey succumbed to his torment and was crushed to death. His brutal murder has come to represent the barbaric nature of the 9 Salem Witch Trials. In addition, Corey’s death further strengthened public opposition to the trials and, gradually, the trials slowed down. Although there were a few more accusations and executions, as public support dwindled, and after the Governor’s wife was accused, the proceedings came to an end when the Governor ordered the court dissolved. All in all, nineteen 10 people were hung, five more died in custody awaiting trial, many more had been imprisoned, and Giles Corey had been crushed to death.

Over time, the Salem Witch Trials have become a quintessential example of an investigation based on mass hysteria, so much so that they are commonly used as a metaphor to describe an investigation that is supposedly baseless. The trials have inspired multiple fiction works, most notably The Crucible, a play about the trials written by Arthur Miller. Interestingly enough, it was Miller who helped turn the trials into the colloquial metaphor they are today, by publishing The Crucible in 1953 to criticize McCarthyism. In addition to these cultural effects, the Salem Witch Trials helped develop the idea of due process. The trials demonstrated that fairness in the judicial process was not just a right, but also a tool to help ensure the accuracy of 11 the judicial proceedings. Perhaps most importantly, the trials inspired Increase Mather (the father of the President of Harvard at the time) to issue the dictum: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.” This dictum, albeit in a slightly different form, still guides American jurisprudence to this day. On a final note, the 12 Salem Witch Trials are now more relevant than ever. The recent Kavanaugh hearings have drawn huge parallels to the Trials, as they have acted to remind us of the havoc that unsubstantiated accusations (even if the allegations are potentially true) can cause in a civilized society. In an even more direct allusion, President Donald Trump consistently calls the Russia investigation a “witch hunt.” Regardless of what one thinks of the President’s characterization, there is no doubt that the potency of his dismissal of the probe comes from a reference to a powerful, albeit tragic, piece of history.

Endnotes

1. It is disputed whether Tituba was of Caribbean or African descent.

2. There are many theories regarding what caused the fits to occur. Among them are delusional psychosis, epilepsy, and ergot poisoning (Ergot is a fungus which can cause hallucinations. In fact, one of ergot’s derivatives is LSD). It is also possible that the girls, having been inspired by intense religious rhetoric, were simply seeking attention.

3. It is unclear how the dog was supposed to make this indication.

4. Notably, the inquiry was purely investigative in nature and, as such, the inquiry did not possess the power to convict those it investigated.

5. Known as a “Court of Oyer and Terminer.”

6. Twelve years prior, Bishop had been tried and acquitted of witchcraft.

7. It was believed at the time that it was physically impossible for a witch to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

8. By refusing to enter a plea, Corey was subject to peine forte et dure (strong and hard punishment). Corey likely sought this status for inheritance purposes.

9. Even with brutal execution methods such as these, contrary to popular belief, no one was burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials.

10. There were a few more proceedings after that order, but every person either convicted or imprisoned during those proceedings was pardoned.

11. The Trials helped demonstrate the need for rights such as the right to counsel and the right to remain silent. Unsurprisingly, both of those rights were eventually codified in the Bill of Rights.

12. This maxim of judicial equity has been echoed by some of the most influential figures in United States legal history, including William Blackstone (a legal scholar who played a substantial role in the development of English common law) and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin.

Works Consulted

D, Elbert. “The Death of Giles Corey.” The Salem Journal, University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, https://people.ucls.uchicago.edu/~snekros/Salem%20Journal/People/ElbertD.html.

D, Elbert, and Luke R. “Puritans Face Defeat.” The Salem Journal , University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, https://people.ucls.uchicago.edu/~snekros/Salem%20Journal/Hysteria/ElbertDLukeR.htm

Szendy, Peter, and Gil Anidjar. “Spectral Evidence.” Prophecies of Leviathan: Reading Past

Melville, Fordham University, 2010, pp. 70–74. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13wzvj2.24.

Wallenfeldt, Jeff. “Salem Witch Trials.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Nov. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/Salem-witch-trials.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.