21 November 2015

The witches of Salem Ma were all hanged: 1692

Religious heresy and dis­s­ension raged in late C15th Europe. People knew that witches belonged to a Satanic conspiracy, working to­gether in an organ­ised, murderous cons­pir­acy. In fact the licence given to witchcraft judges came from Inn­ocent VIII via a papal bull in 1484.

In the sol­id­ly Catholic southern countries of Italy and Spain, witch trials were rare-ish. The Sp­an­ish In­quisition was far more interested to rooting out heresy, secret Jewish converts and Is­lam. So after the Protestant Reformation, we can limit large scale witchcraft trials to Protestant northern Eu­r­ope, in countries like Germany and Scotland. Yet even in northern countries with a long hist­ory of witch trials, witch-hunting largely ended in The 30 Year War (1618-48).

Stacy Schiff’s book The Witches: Salem 1692 analyses witchcraft trials in the USA, decades after they had almost disappeared in the rest of the Christian world. Cotton Mather, minister of Boston's Old North church, was a true believer in witchcraft. In 1688 he had investigated the strange beh­aviour of four children of John Good­win, a Boston mason. The children des­cr­ibed sudden pains and convulsions. Rev Mather was convinced that witch­craft was re­sponsible.

 Witch House in Salem

 Salem, a Puritan town close to Boston, had been founded in 1626. In 60 years, Salem had developed a mer­cantile elite amongst the 600 cit­izens and two families were co­mpeting for control of the village and its church. In 1688 Samuel Par­ris, a successful mer­chant in Barb­ados, was invited to become Salem’s min­ister. During the very cold winter of 1692, his daughter Bet­ty Par­ris acted strangely, contorted in pain and fever. Was it ep­ilep­sy, encephalitis or ergot? No, the most popular explanation was witchcraft. Be­t­ty's behaviour was very similar that of the afflicted washer-woman desc­r­ib­ed in Cotton Mather's book only four years earlier. The devil must have been close to Salem in 1692.

Then other girls began to exhibit similar behaviours. When the local doctor could not cure the girls with regular medicine, super­nat­ural cures were sought instead. The Puritan girls, who were normally con­fined to bor­ing, lady-like behaviour started to yell like boys. The girls con­t­ort­ed into grot­esque and decidedly unPuritan behaviours. 

Convulsive behaviour in front of the judges
Salem witch trial early 1692

Betty Parris and her friends named their demons and the witch-hunt began in March 1692. The first three to be accused of witchcraft were black Tituba, social misfit Sarah Good and old Sarah Osborne. The influential Putnam family brought their comp­l­aint against the three women to county magistrates who arranged for the sus­pected witches to be examined in a local inn.

Hearsay, gossip and spectral evidence were accepted in court as proof! The judges requested exam­inat­ions of the women for Witches' Marks i.e moles for their familiars to attach themselves. Worst still, the accused witches had no-one to defend them in court.

The judges asked the same questions of each suspect over and over: Were they witches? Had the seen the Dev­il? If they were not witches, how did they explain the contort­ions caused by their presence? Clearly the judges thought the women were guilty. So the afflicted girls gave increasingly professional performances in front of the judges.

Suspects thought that if they confessed to witchcraft, they would av­oid execution. The Chief Justice, and most influential member of the five judges, was the gung-ho witch hunter, William Stoughton. And three of the judges were friends of Rev Math­er! 

Hanging of the witches
Salem July 1692

The first to be brought to trial was elderly Br­id­get Bis­h­op, owner of a boozy house, critic­al of her neighbours and slow on bill pay­ments. Spe­c­­ial prosecutor Thomas Newton selected Bishop for his first prosec­ut­­ion because she was guilty, without a doubt. At Bish­op's trial in June 1692, Bishop's jury found her guilty. Chief Justice Stough­t­on signed Bish­op's death warrant, and in June 1692, Bishop was hanged. 

More confident now, the special prosecutor sped up his trials and convictions. Rebecca Nu­r­se was a pious, res­p­ected farm worker. The Nurse jury returned a verd­ict of not guilty which Chief Justice Stoughton hated, so he told the jury to go back to the jury room verdict. The jury reconvened, this time finding her guil­ty. In July 1692, Nurse and four other convicted witches were hanged.

Yet ever more pe­o­ple displayed signs of affliction. Thus accusat­ions and arrests for witchcraft continued to grow. By mid 1692, 200 people had been charged with witchcraft, based largely on spectral evidence.

Any outspoken opponent of the Salem witchcraft trials risked being hanged. Local tavern owner John Proctor accus­ed the judges of bias and corruption, so he was hanged. Wife Elizabeth, also con­victed of witchcraft, avoided execution only because she was pregnant. Seeing how unjust the trials were, an elderly Giles Corey would not cooperate with the trials and was pressed to death under boulders. Soon af­ter Corey's death, in Sept 1692, eight more convicted witches were hanged. They were Salem’s last victims.

By late 1692, Salem's passion for locating and eradicating witch­craft was diminishing. How could so many respect­able people be guilty, especially in such a small town? Cotton’s father, Increase Mather, published Am­­erica's first tract on evidence, Cases of Consc­ien­ce, and insisted that spectral evidence be excluded. 

Cotton Mather's book
Wonders of the Invisible World,  l693

Governor Phips ordered all future trials to exclude spectral evid­ence, and to requ­ire proof of guilt by proper, verifiable ev­idence. Thus most of the last 33 trials ended in acq­u­ittals. Phips dis­solved the Court and rel­eased all remain­ing acc­used witches. Witch-fever, which started with Cotton Math­er’s first case in 1688, disapp­ear­ed by Oct 1692. 19 convicted witches were killed, 4 accused witches died in prison, 1 man had been pres­sed to death. 200 others arres­ted. 

The New York Times noted something an Australian would not have understood. The irony that the Puritans had come to the New World to escape an interfering civil authority was lost on the colonists, who unleashed on one another the kind of abuse they had deplored in royal officials. So was the fact that the embrace of faith, meant to buttress the church, would tear it irrevocably apart. And tear the Puritan town against itself.

The parts of this book dealing with the terrible miscarriage of justice are the most significant. But what happened in Salem after the trials were over and the injustice ended? Cotton Mather was giv­en the official records of the Salem trials to prepare a book that would look on the judges’ role in the tragic affair sympathetically. His book Wonders of the Invisible World: An Account of the Tryals of the Several Witches Lately Exec­uted in New-England l693, vigorously defended the judges’ verdicts, especially Mather's. Governor Phips blamed it all on William St­oughton who re­fus­ed to apologise and who became the next governor of Massachusetts! Did the good citizens of Salem learn nothing?

A few places should be visited. Modern visitors still stand in awe of the memorial that reminds us of those miserable, 1692 victims. Trial relics and documents can also be found in Salem’s Peabody Essex Mus­eum. Witch House, the one house still standing in Salem with direct ties to the Witch Trials, opened with a new museum after WW2. And the historically-minded tourist can still locate John Ward’s house, built for an English tanner in 1684, and the old bakery, built 1682.

I suppose we can be grateful that no one ever died as a convicted witch in the USA again. But could such mass insanity ever happen again? Of course! It may happen as soon as young people break out of their usual powerless role and a community has no proper way of handling divisive clashes. Australians need think no further back than the Cronulla Riots of 2005.


Charlotte Observer said...

Why did the courts focus on weak, vulnerable women like Tibula? It was a time when female servants suffered regular physical and verbal abuse behind the closed doors of a wealthy family’s home. The servants tried to achieve a tiny bit of revenge by raiding the cellar, stealing the kettle or planting stones in the master’s bed. As a result, such women were “fair game” for accusations of all sorts of crime.

Charlotte Observer
24th July 2015

Hels said...

Thank you. I think the reason people were shocked by the mass hysteria and horrific hangings of women in Salem was because we normally think of Puritanism as moral. Naturally, since the Puritan lifestyle was directed by the church and Christian beliefs.

Puritan laws being extremely rigid worked both ways, I suppose. One on hand we might not expect wealthy Puritan families to abuse their female servants physically and verbally. And we might not expect one Puritan to viciously turn on another Puritan, whenever the community had a serious issue to deal with. On the other hand, Puritans believed strongly in the wrath of God, as divined by their ministers.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Overall, I think that the witch-trial episodes eroded the power of the Puritans and especially the prestige of Cotton Mather and the Mather dynasty that was behind him.

It is amazing that these grim trials were going on at the same time that Restoration authors such as Dryden and Shadwell were writing with such characteristic wit, urbanity and often irreverence.

I don't know its popularity in Australia, but in the U.S. everyone reads Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, about the Salem events, but tacitly referencing the disgraceful McCarthy Communist 'witch hunts' that took place in the 1950's.

Hels said...


It is so sad that the witch trials actually eroded the power of the Puritan church and community, rather than what was intended - to strengthen them. And it is ironic too, since those were the very colonists who had left England seeking religious tolerance.

Re the McCarthy witch hunts, I feel even sicker about those victims than I did about the poor women who were hanged in Salem. McCarthy's victims were caught up in the same mass hysteria, but now the full force of government was gunning for them, rather than just the ministers and magistrates in a small part of Massachusetts.

Dr. F said...


The witch trials did not take place in the USA. They took place in the Massachusetts colony almost 100 years before the foundation of the USA. Also, though there is no justification for the treatment and execution of these poor women, it does appear that they thought that they were witches. I had a friend whose Sicilian mother believed that she was a witch although a "white witch" with healing powers. In the same way, many of those hunted by McCarthy turned out to be Communist sympathizers of Stalin.


Deb said...

There was a kindergarten sexual abuse case in California where the owners of the kindergarten were charged with constant sexual abuse of the toddlers in their care. Unlike Salem, this case took forever. Discovered in 1983, charges were laid and trials run until 1990. Finally sanity prevailed and all the "perpetrators" were released.

What distressed child care workers the most were the hysterical fervour that was whipped up. The witches travelled in a hot-air balloon and the toddlers were held in underground tunnels during Satanic ritual abuse. This was not 1692.

Hels said...

Dr F

I changed the USA straight away, thanks.

There is no doubt that many of the Salem population truly thought the condemned women were witches, including the ministers and the judges who should have known better. But the epidemic of witchly affliction only lasted from March 1692 until October of that same year. What was the urgency in having all those people tried, found guilty and hanged in such a short time?

Hels said...


The New York Times (2001) wrote: When you once believed something that now strikes you as absurd, even unhinged, it can be almost impossible to summon that feeling of credulity again. Maybe that is why it is easier for most of us to forget, rather than to try and explain, the Satanic-abuse scare that gripped this country in the early 80s — the myth that Devil-worshippers had set up shop in our day-care centres, where their clever adepts were raping and sodomising children, practising ritual sacrifice, shedding their clothes, drinking blood and eating faeces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbours and the authorities.


The comparison to Salem is not as far fetched as I had first thought.

Dr. F said...


My point was not the population thought the condemned women were witches, but that the condemned women believed that they themselves were witches. If I recall correctly, this was the point of Esther Forbes, "A Mirror for Witches." To give another example, my Italian born grandmother believed that some people could give the "evil eye." I would bet that there are still those who believe they have the power. Actually, here in the USA I believe there is even an organized group of witches who practice Wicca, they probably have their own website.

I don't know about the urgency but it would appear that witch hunting was an exception to the norm in Puritan New England. As you point out, it seems to have been restricted to one time and place.


Hels said...

Dr F

I really would feel better about this tragedy if you were correct and Schiff was wrong. The fact that a few women sitting in a miserable gaol cell "owned up" to being witches was because they thought they would be spared. Or because they were going insane. If the judges allowed neighbourly gossip, school girl whispers and spectral evidence in court as proof of witchcraft, what chance did any normal woman have?

I also think if a perfectly respectable minister's wife had not been caught up in the mass hysteria and charged with witchcraft, the insane accusations might have continued longer.

jeronimus said...

Interesting post, and the parallels to the Red Scare are salient.

Not sure it was such an isolated phenomenon. According to Wikipedia. the executions at Salem were not the first of their kind in the American colonies, nor even in New England. Of course, Salem was on a much larger scale. They were not unique, but simply an American example of the much broader phenomenon of witch trials in the Early Modern period. Also, rumours of witchcraft in neighbouring towns probably sparked events. It seems they didn't erupt from nothing.

Not only was it insanity, but very sexist insanity.

Hels said...


Thank you. I had no idea that witchcraft was one of 12 capital crimes decreed by Connecticut’s colonial government in 1642. The legal precedent cited by the devoutly Puritan colonists was of a divinely higher order, using biblical passages in the legislation. I found the cases you mentioned. One woman was hanged in Hartford Connecticut in 1647. Then a witch hunt in the same town in 1662 led to seven trials and four hangings. Connecticut held its final witch trial in 1697. Not a happy history!

And now it suggests something else to me. Be­t­ty Parris' behaviour, and the town's responses, were very similar to that of the afflicted washer-woman desc­r­ib­ed in Cotton Mather's book in 1688. But what happens to our understanding of Salem if the Puritans there knew of a long history of witchcraft events, dating back before 1642?

Another Student of History said...

Arthur Miller (The Crucible) said Rebecca Nurse was elderly (70) and had lived an indisputably pious life. But because hysteria had quickly spread, even blameless Rebecca fell prey. Rebecca Nurse had been one of the midwives when Goody Putnam's seven children had died to illness. Putnam decided that Rebecca Nurse was at fault, and that the devil helped her kill the children.

Hels said...


The Crucible is a dramatic play about communal desperation. So even if Miller's details weren't exactly the same as the original Salem events, it doesn't matter. Did Goody Putnam really have seven children? Did they all die in infancy? Was Rebecca Nurse actually a midwife? Was the midwife responsible for all the deaths?

In the Puritan town of Salem, where Christian morals were supposed to be paramount, communal trust had irretrievably broke down and innocent citizens were hanged. Yet Rebecca Nurse stayed true to her Christian beliefs.... and paid a great price. If Miller wrote the play as an allegory of McCarthyism, the Salem witch hysteria was an apt model.

BBC History Magazine, Dec 2015 said...

Schiff had said "The population of New England at that time would fit into Yankee Stadium today. Nearly to a person, they were Puritans". I disagree, at least if Puritan meant a covenanted church member, proven a saint according to Calvinist theology. That was true of only one fifth of the population. This matters because the divisiveness of congregationalism encouraged thoughts of witchcraft. If you were out rather than in, it was easy to feel a failure in the pursuit of grace, vulnerable to Satan's blandishments.

Malcolm Gaskill
BBC History Magazine
Dec 2015

Hels said...


Thank you.

Are census data available for the late 17th century? If the Puritans were only a small minority of the population, some of what the historians say about witch mania in Salem might need to be rethought.

Willow Winsham said...

Note that the events moved with startling speed during the Salem trials.

In Jan 1692 the girls fell victim to a strange illness.
By March, the first three witches were arrested.
In April, more Salem residents were named as the witchcraft fear spread.
In May, the newly arrived Gov Phips ordered a court to try the accused witches.
In June, July and August 1692, all 19 hangings took place.
In Jan 1693, the new Superior Court dismissed or pardoned the remaining cases. The Salem witchcraft madness was spent.

Hels said...


Thank you for pointing out the extraordinary speed with which the Salem Trials moved, from first illness to the final hangings. Justice may be blind-ish and move slowly; injustice, on the other hand, seemed to have moved with obscene speed. The word "epidemic" comes to mind.

invenitmundo said...

The story of the last wich ( Enriqueta Martí 1913 ) killed at least 40 children and drink their blood. More than that using human fat, blood, hair and bones of victims to make magic potions. invenitmundo.blogspot.com

Hels said...


Thank you.

I agree totally that there must have been many such tragic cases throughout history - mass murderers, or psychotics who took out entire families or towns. And I agree that Enriqueta Martí 1913 may well have loved to eat human fat etc. What I am not at all clear about was these murders being explained by witchcraft.

Self defined earth-based religions were practised in many communities, according to local beliefs. Witchcraft came into the minds/dreams of powerful men, usually not in Catholic communities and almost always against vulnerable women.