Salem Witch Trials
The events that transpired in Salem, Massachusetts occurred between the years of 1688 and 1693 constituted the most significant witchcraft outbreak in the history of the New England colonies. The entire event was quickly labeled as “colossal mistake” by the government after they had passed.(Ray, 2010) With this in mind the question remains; how did it get started and how did it get out of hand so quickly?
Salem is a town in Massachusetts that has unfortunately earned its reputation from these trials. It was founded in 1626 when settlers led by Roger Conant settled in Naumkeag after a failed attempt in 1623 to create a fishing settlement at Cape Ann. (Salem, a brief history, n.d.) Its name was Christianized to Salem in 1629. The land within the boundaries of Salem was not fertile however which led the residents to expansion in order to obtain more fertile lands to produce crops. Some of the basic themes of the village of Salem were, therefore the Puritan church which was allowed to function independently, the need to expand to produce crops and political tensions with the crown and commonwealth in regards to their charter. Factors like these led to political tension that are attributed to creating the events that would eventually culminate into the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
In 1688 Rev. Samuel Parris preached for the first time in the village and became the officially hired as the village minister the following year. Samuel was the minister during the Witch Trials of which he was a driving force. The religious hysteria began with and was led by this man.
In January 1692 the daughter and the niece of Rev. Samuel Parris.(Salem's Most Visited Museum, n.d.) When they failed to improve in a reasonable amount of time they were seem by the doctor, William Griggs, who was able to provide a diagnosis for both of these girls. His opinion was that both of the girls were the victims of bewitchment. When this factor is taken into account combined with a belief in the Devil and the previous misfortune that had befallen on the town, you have a recipe for hysteria. A town will begin to look for answers and this case they decided they would find the guilty party at any cost.
The residents of the village of Salem have what they believe is definitive and irrefutable proof that someone is bewitching these children and perhaps even the town itself. For them the question is not if it is happening but who is doing it. This was on the tail end of the Witchcraft craze that was sweeping through Europe where thousands of women accused of witchcraft were put to death because they were believed to be agents of the Devil causing harm to others through supernatural means. The craze started in the 1300’s and ended in the late 1600’s.(Blumberg, 2007) Even though overseas this was winding down, local events caused it to flourish.
In 1689, William and Mary, the rulers of England, began a war with France that was fought on the soil of the colonies. The battles were being fought In New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec. The refugees from the fighting into areas such as Essex county, including the village of Salem which already had trouble obtaining resources. This introduced more strain in the area, along with newcomers who could be under greater suspicion of these bewitchments.
The girls who were diagnosed with bewitchment were encouraged or even coerced into implicating three women of afflicting them. Their names were Tituba, a Caribean slave, Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman. These three women on March 1, 1692 were brought before magistrates and interrogated for days. Good and Osborne both denied any involvement in the events. Tituba, on the other hand confessed to the crime and described in great detail how the devil came to her. She also confessed that there were several other witches who wished to destroy the Puritan community.
The community was hysterical with accusations everywhere. An accusation against Martha Corey, a loyal church member was particularly troubling because if she could be a witch, anyone could. Dozens of people were brought forth for questioning. Sarah Good’s 4 year-old daughter was questioned at one point, and her timid confused answers were misconstrued as a confession.
Governor William Phipps ordered the establishment of a special court or Oyer(to hear) and Terminer(to decide) for Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties. Bridget Bishop was the first case and even though she claimed to be as innocent as “a child unborn” she was found guilty and hanged.
Minister Cotton Mather wrote a letter imploring the court not to allow spectral evidence such as dreams and visions to be allowed. Increase Mather, President of Harvard also came out against the use of this evidence in October, stating; "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.” As a result of these pleas, combined with the accusation of his own wife, Governor Phipps dissolved the courts, prohibited the arrest of any other accused witches and banned the use of the evidence that was used against 3 of 56 accused. In 1693 all in prison were pardoned. Of the over 200 people accused, 19 we hanged on Gallows Hill, a 71 year old man was crushed to death with rocks as a means of questioning, and several people died in jail.
Blumberg, Jess. "A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials." History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. N.p., 23 Oct. 2007. Web. 23 May 2014. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/?page=1>.
Ray B. "The Salem witch mania": recent scholarship and American history textbooks. Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion [serial online]. March 1, 2010;78(1):40-64. Available from: ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, Ipswich, MA. Accessed May 25, 2014.
"Salem, a brief history."Salem, a brief history. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2014. http://catholic-resources.org/Millennium/Salem/3History.html.
"Salem's Most Visited Museum." Salem Witch Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2014. <http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/education/>.
"Salem Witch Trials."Timeline. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 May 2014. <http://www.salemwitchtrials.com/timeline.html>.