Written By: Karla Cortes
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Origins of Salem Witch Trials
Salem, Massachusetts was founded in 1626 by an American Colonist, Roger Conant and his group of settlers from Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Today, Salem is an infamous town known for its history on witchcraft-related hysteria that ensued towards the end of the 17th century.
Belief in witches and the supernatural date back as early as the 14th century throughout Europe and spread to colonial New England. In the 1600s, Salem suffered from the after effects of the British war with France in 1689 and was also battling a recent smallpox epidemic. With these tensions rising, fear of outsiders as well as suspicion towards neighbors of all kinds caused the residents to fuel the beginnings of the Salem Witch trials.
The Salem witch trial events were one of the deadliest witch hunts in all of colonial North America. Sources estimated that over two hundred people were accused of witchcraft and a total of 20 people were found guilty. Nineteen of the twenty, which included fourteen women and five men were executed by hanging while one man was crushed to death. Four other people accused of witchcraft died in prison.
In February of 1692, Abigail Williams, age eleven, and her nine year old cousin Betty Paris were the first to exhibit the signs of “witchcraft”. The girls had unexplained tantrums where they would throw things across the room, scream horrifically, contort their bodies, mumble strange sounds, and crawl under furniture. Minister John Hale of the nearby town Beverly described their fits as “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to affect.” After the girls complained of feeling as though they were being pricked by pins, doctor William Griggs examined the girls and found no physical signs of ailment. It is unclear how the girls died.
Soon after, many young women within the town started to exhibit similar symptoms and behaviors. With no visible reason as to why they were acting this way, town officials quickly turned to the supernatural and became engrossed with the idea of witches poisoning the town.
Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, were later accused of bewitching the four girls. Good was a homeless beggar, Osborne rarely went to church, and Tituba was a South American Indian slave most likely accused for her ethnicity which made these women “typical subjects” for accusations. Good, Osborne, and Tituba were the first out of the many to be accused, each initially being an outcast of some type.
Tituba ended up confessing to have been visited by the devil himself. She described elaborate images of different colored animals and a “black man” who wanted her to sign his book to which she did. She mentioned that there are several other witches within the town looking to destroy the Puritans. Subsequently, in March, Martha Corey, Dorothy Good, and Rebecca Nurse, notable women in Salem, were accused of witchcraft which set off a chaotic spiral within the town.
The first to be executed was Bridget Bishop, who was accused of being a witch for wearing all black clothing, which was against Puritan rules, and for having an awkwardly torn coat while being examined. The jury affirmed Bishop was a witch for her “immoral” lifestyle and went to trial the same day she was convicted. Bishop was executed by hanging on June 10, 1692.
On July 19, 1692, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin and Sarah Wildes, along with Rebecca Nurse were found guilty of being witches and were executed by hanging. On August 19, 1692, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, and John Proctor were executed for witch activity. On September 19, 1692, Giles Corey was crushed to death by being put beneath extremely heavy stones in an attempt to get him to confess to being a witch. On September 22, 1692, eight more people were executed under witchcraft.
Hysteria & Accusations
Historians believe that the first witch accusation made by Ann Putnam Jr. was accounted from a family feud between the Putnams and another family, the Porters. It is believed that this feud was a major cause of the witch trials.
Accusations, even within the initial ones, were getting out of hand and became incredibly chaotic. Husbands, wives, reverends, even children, were all getting accused of practicing witchcraft or bewitching people. People were accusing each other of seeing them sacrifice animals, hex crops, produce potions, or simply acting in strange ways that only a “witch” would act in.
People across all social classes were pouring into the town council and were forced to be examined and tried in front of magistrates. Warrants quickly started to be issued and the number of people in custody rose up to incredibly high numbers. People were becoming imprisoned in large numbers, while the less fortunate ones were getting executed.
The End of the Salem Witch Trials
On October 29, 1692 an order was released by Governor Phips to end executions and drop certain cases. It is believed that the order was made right after Phips’ wife was accused and “called upon”. By May of 1693, Phips released everyone in prisoned that were charged with witchcraft.
The Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting in order to commemorate the tragedy of the Salem witch trials. The court deemed the trials as unlawful, and even had the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologize for his role in the trials. In 1711, the Massachusetts Colony restored the good names of those who fell victims of the trials and provided financial restitution to their heirs. Damages to the community lingered, and the painful legacy of the trials went further into the 20th century.
The Salem witch trials is one of the United States most notorious examples of mass hysteria. Political rhetoric and popular literature have used the trials as examples and cautionary tales that talk about the dangers within extreme religion, accusations, isolationism, and the lack of fair treatment within the judicial system. According to U.S. Historian, George Lincoln Burr, “The Salem witchcraft was the rock on which theocracy shattered” within United States history.
Due to the dark events that happened within Salem and its people, there is no doubt that Salem has a deep energy that one might describe as eerie and unsettling. People from all over have described supernatural events while visiting the town.
It is believed that Salem had been cursed by Giles Corey during his final living moments. With his dying words as he was being crushed to death, he cursed the sheriff and the town of Salem itself. Many believe Giles Corey still plagues Salem to this day. If you are interested in visiting Salem, Massachusetts and seeing the locations of these historics events for yourself, you can check out this site dedicated to all things Salem.
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