Mass Hysteria In A Puritan Village: The Salem Witch Trials Of 1692

Please note that these trials took place in 1692 and 1693 when they didn’t have cameras, tape recorders, and other modern devices (obviously). All information is taken from witnesses at the trials and books that were published by main players after the fact. So, not all the facts might be accurate. Which is not surprising since historians and other researchers have been combing through artifacts from 328 years ago.

Any one of us can run outside right now, stand in the street, and scream at the top of our lungs that we’re a witch. We can run around telling different people that we can conjure up beings, cast spells, put curses on people, and see into the future. And do you know what would happen to us? Not a damn thing. We would not get thrown in jail, we would get put on trial, and we would not get sentenced to death. We might get an awkward glance from one or two people but that’s about it. In 1692 Salem Village, Massachusetts (modern day Danvers) things were very different and approximately twenty-five people lost their lives by simple accusations made by young girls claiming that they were in cahoots with the devil. Nineteen were hanged, five died while in custody, and one was pressed to death.


Just to be clear the accused lived in Salem Village where the trials took place at the meeting house. The condemned were hanged in Salem Town, now simply known as Salem. Although, a few examinations took place there as well. Also, France burned witches at the stake. In America we hanged them.

Think about when you get bored and try to find something to do to pass the time. Now think about getting bored on a cold winter night in 1692 and trying to find something to do to pass the time. That’s exactly what Reverend Samuel Parris’ nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth “Betty” Parris and his niece eleven-year-old Abigail Williams did in late January 1692. They didn’t even have electricity those hundreds of years ago, so, they had to get very creative. Think about how bored you are when the power goes out in your home. You feel like the torture will never end. Although, having no electricity was all people of that time knew so being bored most likely had nothing to do with that but you get what I’m saying!

Although, the girls knew that any kind of witchcraft or workings of the devil was forbidden they decided to play with a ‘venus glass’ to cure their case of boredom. You would use a ‘venus glass’ to tell the future. It works by cracking an egg into a bowl of water, said egg is then supposed to take shapes of future events. It’s claimed that the girls were trying to find out what their social status would be in the future and who they would end up marrying. It was all going well until the egg took the shape of a coffin. Both girls quickly freaked out, stopped messing with the ‘venus glass’, and went to bed very spooked that night.

A few days later Betty Parris started suffering from unusual afflictions. She became forgetful while running errands, could not seem to concentrate on a single thing, and was overcome by a secret preoccupation. Soon her afflictions became worse. Her inability to concentrate began affecting her prayers during church and would bark like a dog when her father tried to rebuke her. I must admit that I am not a religious person so I had to look up what that meant because I got very confused. Anyway, she began screaming wildly whenever she heard the “Our Father” prayer and once chucked a bible across the room. After these episodes, she would sob uncontrollably and would talk about being ‘damned’. She felt her damnation was inevitable because she dabbled in fortune-telling. Her father, the ever-devout Reverend believed prayer could cure her afflictions. Spoiler alert, it didn’t work.

Shortly after Abigail Williams became suffering from the same afflictions. Eventually, both girls would start having fits that John Hale, the minister in the nearby town of Beverly, described as “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect”. Former Salem Village minister described witnessing the girls screaming, throwing things about the room, uttering strange sounds, crawling under furniture, and contorting themselves into peculiar positions. Both girls eventually started to complain about being pricked with pins on and off throughout the day. Samuel Parris eventually calls on a doctor believed to be William Griggs. But he could find nothing physically wrong with either of the girls. Soon other girls in the village began to suffer the same afflictions as Elizabeth and Abigail.

Shortly after Abigail Williams became suffering from the same afflictions. Eventually, both girls would start having fits that John Hale, the minister in the nearby town of Beverly, described as “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect.” Former Salem Village minister described witnessing the girls screaming, throwing things about the room, uttering strange sounds, crawling under furniture, and contorting themselves into peculiar positions. Both girls eventually started to complain about being pricked with pins on and off throughout the day. Samuel Parris eventually calls on a doctor believed to be William Griggs. But he could find nothing physically wrong with either of the girls. Soon other girls in the village began to suffer the same afflictions as Elizabeth and Abigail. When Reverend Lawson preached as a guest at the Salem Village meeting house, he was interrupted many times by outbursts from the afflicted.

On February 29, 1692 three of the afflicted girls; Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, twelve-year-old Ann Putnum Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard were put under questioning. They named Tituba (the Pariss’ indentured servant), Sarah Osbourne, and Sarah Good as their tormentors. Some historians believe that The Putman family had an ongoing feud with one of the accused and that is why Ann Jr. Pointed a finger at them. This led some people to believe that this family feud is what started the Salem witch hunt and subsequent trials. Talk about the height of pettiness. Good was a destitute woman who was struggling to survive. She often could not afford food and clothing for herself and her daughter. She would have to depend on the kindness of neighbors (or lack thereof) as a means to get by. Many people thought she was accused of witchcraft based on her reputation. She would often skip church because she would have nothing suitable to wear for attending a service. Sarah Osbourne rarely attended church services as well due to illness. Puritans believed Osbourne had her own self-interests in mind following her remarriage to an indentured servant.

Samuel Parris brought Tituba to America after he made a trip to the West Indies. She likely became an easy target due to her ethnic differences from the other villagers. She was accused of attracting young girls with stories of enchantment from “Malleus Maleficarum” (often translated to Hammer of Witches). This book includes tales of sexual encounters with demons, swaying the minds of men, and fortune-telling was said to stimulate the imaginations of girls. Each of these women was considered outcasts and displayed characteristic typical of the “usual suspects”. On March 1, 1692, the first of the three women was brought in front of the magistrate on the complaint of witchcraft. They were left to fend for themselves and were interrogated for several days each of the women was subsequently sent to jail.

Before being accused Martha Corey expressed skepticism about the credibility of the girls making the accusations. Many feel this brought her to the afflicted girl’s attention, therefore, resulting in her being named.

The accusations against Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey troubled the village as both women were well-respected members of the church. If such high regarded members of the community could be witches, then anybody could be a witch and church membership was no guaranteed protection from being accused. Even though Dorothy Good was only four years old she was not exempt from questioning by the magistrate. Her innocent answers were constructed as a confession that implicated her mother being a witch. Rachel Clinton was arrested in Ipswich at the end of March for witchcraft. Her charges were not related to the affliction of the girls in Salem Village.

Mrs. Parris was worried about the health of her daughter and became concerned that she would end up being used as a witchfinder. At the end of March, Betty was sent to live with Reverend Samuel Parris’ distant cousin, Stephen Sewall, in Salem Town. It is claimed that once Betty was removed from the Village her afflictions eventually went away. In April 1693, Sarah Cloyce, sister of Rebecca Nurse along with Elizabeth Proctor were arrested, both women were brought before John Hawthorne and Jonathan Corwin during a meeting in Salem Town. The men were members of the locale magistrate as well as the Governor’s Council. Also present for the meeting were Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, and his assistants Samuel Sewall, Samuel Appleton, James Russell, and Isaac Addington. During the proceeding, Elizabeth Proctor’s husband John made objections about his wife’s guilt. This resulted in his arrest later that day.

A drawing of Bridget Bishop’s execution. She was the first to be hanged on June 10, 1692
A portrait of Reverend Samuel Parris. A key player in the trials and father of one of the first accusers.

Within a week, Giles Corey (Martha’s husband and a covenanted church member in Salem Town), Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Mary Warren (a servant in the Proctor household and sometimes accuser), and Deliverance Hobbs (stepmother of Abigail Hobbs), were arrested and examined. Damn they just accusing everybody up in here. Like, you get an accusation, you get an accusation, you get an accusation, EVERYBODY GETS AN ACCUSATION! People soon realized that you might have a chance of getting out of the sticky situation if you just confess to being a witch. So, that’s exactly what Abigail Hobbs, Mary Warren, and Deliverance Hobbs did. They also named others in the town as being fellow witches. Oh, I should mention that in the very beginning when Tituba was arrested, she also confessed to being a witch and claimed there were nine others in the villages, which could also have been a driving force in starting up the hunt. More arrested soon followed. Sarah Wildes, William Hobbs (husband of Deliverance and father of Abigail), Nehemiah Abbott Jr., Mary Eastey (sister of Sarah Cloyce and Rebecca Nurse), Edward Bishop, Jr., his wife Sarah Bishop, and Mary English were all taken into custody.

On April 30, 1692, Reverend George Burroughs, Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, Dorcas Hoar, Sarah Morey, and Philip English (Mary’s husband) were arrested. Reverend Burroughs was arrested because Abigail Williams claimed that she saw him all dressed in black leading a dark ritual outdoors with hundreds of witches. He was thought to be the ‘man in black, the one who ruled over all the witches. Basically, he was the top dog of witches. Mary Eastey was released a few days after her arrest because her accusers failed to confirm that she was the one that afflicted them but she was arrested again after the accused girls reconsidered their claims. As April turned into May the accusations picked up tenfold but by now the villagers had wised up and were learning how to evade capture. Multiple warrants were issued before John Willard and Elizabeth Colson were apprehended; George Jacobs, Jr. and Daniel Andrews but none were ever caught. May 27, 1692, William Phips ordered the establishment of a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer for Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties to prosecute the cases of those in jail.

As the trials got ready to start more warrants were issued for thirty-six more people. Sarah Osbourne, one of the first three women to be accused of witchcraft, died in jail on May 10, 1692, she never got the chance to face a jury. Sarah Dustin, Ann Sears, Bethiah Carter Sr. and her daughter Bethiah Carter Jr., George Jacobs, Sr. and his granddaughter Margaret Jacobs, John Willard, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Abigail Soames, George Jacobs, Jr. (son of George Jacobs, Sr. and father of Margaret Jacobs), Daniel Andrew, Rebecca Jacobs (wife of George Jacobs, Jr. and sister of Daniel Andrew), Sarah Buckley, her daughter Mary Witheridge, Elizabeth Colson, Elizabeth Hart, Thomas Farrar, Sr., Roger Toothaker, Sarah Proctor (daughter of John and Elizabeth Proctor), Sarah Bassett (sister-in-law of Elizabeth Proctor), Susannah Roots, Mary DeRich (another sister-in-law of Elizabeth Proctor), Sarah Pease, Elizabeth Cary, Martha Carrier, Elizabeth Fosdick, Wilmot Redd, Sarah Rice, Elizabeth Howe, Captain John Alden, William Proctor (son of John and Elizabeth Proctor), John Flood, Mary Toothaker, her daughter Margaret Toothaker, and Arthur Abbott were all arrested and brought in front of the magistrate for questioning. By the end of May 1692, sixty-two people were sitting in Salem jail awaiting trial.

The court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Village on June 2, 1692. William Stoughton, the new Lieutenant Governor, as Chief Magistrate, Thomas Newton as the Crown’s Attorney prosecuting the cases, and Stephen Sewall as the clerk. Bridget Bishop was the first to be brought to trial. She was described as not following the Puritan lifestyle since she wore black clothing and ‘odd’ costumes, which went against the Puritan code. Her ‘immoral’ lifestyle affirmed to the jury that Bridget Bishop was in fact a witch. She was sentenced to death by hanging that same day. On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop was brought to Gallows Hill (present day Proctors Ledge) where she was hanged. After the hanging, the court adjourned for twenty days while the magistrate sought advice from New England’s most influential ministers. On June 15, 1692, they received a collective response penned by Cotton Mather. Following this response more people were accused, arrested, and examined but not in Salem Village, in Salem Town, by former local magistrates John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, and Bartholomew Gedney, who had become judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

Suspect Roger Toothaker passed away in prison on June 16, 1692, From June 30th to mid-July Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, and Sarah Wildes, along with Rebecca Nurse, all went to trial. They were found guilty. All five women were executed by hanging as a group on July 19, 1692. During this time, the constable in Andover invited the afflicted girls from Salem Village to visit with his wife to try to determine who was causing her afflictions. Ann Foster, her daughter Mary Lacey Sr., and granddaughter Mary Lacey Jr. Were named and all confessed to being witches. Anthony Checkley was appointed by Governor Phips to replace Thomas Newton as the Crown’s Attorney after Newton moved to New Hampshire. In August, George Burroughs, Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, and George Jacobs, Sr., and others were brought in front of a jury. Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, Elizabeth Proctor, and John Proctor were all convicted. However, Elizabeth Proctor was given a temporary stay of execution because she was pregnant. On August 19, 1692, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, and John Proctor were executed. George Burroughs was the only minister to be executed for witchcraft.

Mr. Burroughs was carried in a Cart with others, through the streets of Salem, to Execution. When he was upon the Ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer) [as witches were not supposed to be able to recite] was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness as such fervency of spirit, as was very Affecting, and drew Tears from many, so that if seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution. The accusers said the black Man [Devil] stood and dictated to him. As soon as he was turned off [hanged], Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a Horse, addressed himself to the People, partly to declare that he [Mr. Burroughs] was no ordained Minister, partly to possess the People of his guilt, saying that the devil often had been transformed into the Angel of Light. And this did somewhat appease the People, and the Executions went on; when he [Mr. Burroughs] was cut down, he was dragged by a Halter to a Hole, or Grave, between the Rocks, about two feet deep; his Shirt and Breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of Trousers of one Executed put on his lower parts: he was so put in, together with Willard and Carrier, that one of his Hands, and his Chin, and a Foot of one of them, was left uncovered. — Robert Calef, “More Wonders of the Invisible World”

On September 17, 1692, Giles Corey refused to plead at his arraignment and was killed by ‘peine forte et dure’, a form of torture in which a person is pressed beneath an increasingly heavy load of stones, in an attempt to make him enter a plea. Giles Corey was asked three times to enter a plea to which he replied “more weight” each time, he died on September 19, 1692. Some claim that “more weight” was also Corey’s last words while others claim they heard him say “more rocks”. On September 22, 1692, eight more people were hanged. In January 1693, the new Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Gaol [Jail] Delivery convened in Salem, Essex County, again headed by William Stoughton, as Chief Justice, with Anthony Checkley continuing as the Attorney General, and Jonathan Elatson as Clerk of the Court. The first five cases tried in January 1693 were of the five people who had been indicted but not tried in September: Sarah Buckley, Margaret Jacobs, Rebecca Jacobs, Mary Whittredge, and Job Tookey. All of them were found not guilty.

A drawing of Susannah Martin awaiting trial in Salem Jail AKA Old Witch Jail

Grand juries would go on to be held for many of those remaining in jail. Charges were dismissed against many, but sixteen more people were indicted and tried, three of whom were found guilty: Elizabeth Johnson Jr., Sarah Wardwell, and Mary Post. When William Stoughton wrote the warrants for the execution of the three convicted and others remaining from the previous court, Governor Phips issued pardons, sparing their lives. I’m not really sure why, maybe he started to realize that the witch hunt had been one big lie. Who knows? In late January/early February 1693, five more of the accused were tried: Sarah Cole, Lydia Dustin, Sarah Dustin, Mary Taylor, and Mary Toothaker. All were found not guilty but were not released until they paid their jail fees. Lydia Dustin had been unable to pay them and died in jail on March 10, 1693. That sucks like they were held for all this time on bogus charges and were still expected to pay jail fees, ain’t that some bullshit.  

At the end of April 1693, the Court convened in Boston, Suffolk County, and cleared Captain John Alden by proclamation. In May, the Court convened in Ipswich, Essex County, and held a variety of grand juries. Charges were dropped against all but five people. Susannah Post, Eunice Frye, Mary Bridges Jr., Mary Barker, and William Barker Jr. were all found not guilty at trial, finally putting an end to the series of trials and executions. Some say the trials ended because wives of members of the magistrate were starting to be named which freaked them the hell out. Others say the hysteria that gripped Salem Village had simply just dissipated causing people to question the validity of the afflicted girl’s claims.

Allow me to explain a little bit about how this process worked. After a person concluded that a loss, illness, or death had been a result of witchcraft, the accuser would file a complaint against the suspected witch with the local magistrates. If the magistrates deemed that the complaint was credible the accused person was then arrested and brought to the meeting house for a public examination, which was a severe interrogation where the magistrates would try to get the accused to confess. During this interrogation, the magistrates would try to decide if further action should be taken upon the accused or if they should be turned free. If the accused were not turned free (which I don’t think they ever were) the magistrate handed them over to the superior court. The next was to summon witnesses to speak before a grand jury. A person could be indicted on charges of afflicting with witchcraft, or for making an unlawful covenant with the Devil. Once indicted, the accused went to trial, sometimes on the same day, as in the case of Bridget Bishop who was both indicted and tried on June 2, 1692.

There were four different, with one person executed on June 10, 1692 (Bridget Bishop), five executed on July 19, 1692 (Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes), another five executed on August 19, 1692 (Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr., and John Proctor), and eight on September 22, 1692 (Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, Ann Pudeator, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret Scott). Several other of the accused, including Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Faulkner, were convicted but given temporary reprieves because they were pregnant. Five other women were convicted in 1692, but the death sentence was never carried out: Mary Bradbury, Ann Foster (who later died in prison), Mary Lacey Sr., Dorcas Hoar, and Abigail Hobbs. As convicted witches, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey had been excommunicated from their churches and denied proper burials. As soon as the bodies of the accused were cut down from the trees, they were thrown into a shallow grave, and the crowd began to leave. It’s claimed that some families of the accused would go back after dark to retrieve the body of their loved ones and bury them in an unmarked grave somewhere on their property.

Most, but not all, of the evidence used against the accused, was spectral evidence, or the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition or the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. This is more or less the hearsay that is not admissible in court today. The whole he said she said thing. Some ministers including Cotton Mather would go on to speak out against using spectral evidence during the trials. The most infamous test used during the trials and examinations to prove an accused was a witch was the touch test. If the accused witch touched the victim while the victim was having a fit, and the fit stopped, observers believed that meant the accused was the person who had afflicted the victim. For unknown reasons, Samuel Parris had explicitly warned his congregation against using this test during examinations.

Several of the accused later recounted their experiences saying; “we were blindfolded, and our hands were laid upon the afflicted persons, they being in their fits and falling into their fits at our coming into their presence, as they said. Some led us and laid our hands upon them, and then they said they were well and that we were guilty of afflicting them; whereupon we were all seized, as prisoners, by a warrant from the justice of the peace and forthwith carried to Salem.”

 Reverend John Hale also explained how the test supposedly worked: “the Witch by the cast of her eye sends forth a Malefick Venome into the Bewitched to cast him into a fit, and therefore the touch of the hand doth by sympathy cause that venome to return into the Body of the Witch again”

Other evidence included the confessions of the accused; testimony by a confessed witch who identified others as witches; the discovery of poppets, books of palmistry and horoscopes, or pots of ointments in the possession or home of the accused; and observation of what were called witch’s teats on the body of the accused. A witch’s teat was said to be a mole or blemish somewhere on the body that was insensitive to touch; discovery of such insensitive areas was considered definitive evidence of witchcraft.

Although the very last trial was held in May 1693, public response to the events continued. In the decades following the trials, survivors, family members, and their supporters fought to establish the innocence of the individuals who were convicted. In the following centuries, the descendants of those unjustly accused and condemned have fought to honor their memories. Events in Salem and Danvers in 1992 were used to commemorate the trials. In November 2001, years after the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the trials, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act exonerating all who had been convicted and naming each of the innocent. The trials have been explored in numerous works of art, literature, and film. There are now memorials dedicated to the victims in both Danvers and Salem. Including one at Proctor’s ledge (Gallows Hill) where so many senselessly lost their lives.

To explain by scientific means the strange afflictions suffered by those 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.

There you go folks, one of the darkest times in American history. It’s not something that many of us are proud of but it did happen and nobody can change that. It’s crazy to think how one girl got others to form this pact mentality and create mass hysteria that resulted in death. The scary thing is the same hysteria can still happen today. It takes one person to recruit others and convince them to join in on their little charade. After all, many people do things in a group that they wouldn’t do as an individual.


In my opinion, the most tragic thing of all is that the hunt, the trials, and the deaths were all for not. As the years passed some of the girls went on to admit that they had lied about everything. About the afflictions, the specters, the witchcraft, the devil, all of it. One of the accusers visited Reverend George Burroughs in jail on the eve of his death and told him that everything was one big lie. Instead of getting mad at her and the others, he forgave them and even prayed for their souls and safe entry into heaven. Talk about being the bigger man in this situation, shit. Do I believe they confessed because they were remorseful? Maybe some of them were but I think most confessed in an attempt to seek forgiveness, and save themselves from the eternal damnation they so deeply feared.

Sources:

“Salem Witch Trials” – History

“History of the Salem Witch Trials” – Smithsonian

“Salem Witches” – Documentary

“Elizabeth Parris” – Sarah-Nell Walsh

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