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Everything You Need To Know About The Dark History Behind The Salem Witch Trials

One of the most notorious cases of mass hysteria broke out in Colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. Within just three months, a lot of damage was inflicted on the villagers of Salem Town, so much to the point where the community never really recovered from it. In such a short time, as many as 200 people were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned and a total of 25 innocent lives were taken. Nineteen people were executed, five died in “Witch Jail,” and one man was tortured to death for refusing to give a plea. Here is everything you need to know about the dark history that lurked the grounds of Salem Town. 

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

There’s a lot of factors that went into why the Witch Trials occurred, ranging between racism, lack of medical knowledge, and discrimination due to gender and social status. The biggest reason of them all, however, was due to religion and religious extremists. There’s a lot of in depth information about religion in relation to the Witch Trials, but I’m just going to give a brief summary of what it entailed. The villagers of Salem Town were Puritans, and the Puritan religion started in England as a reformation in attempts to purify the church. Martin Luther and John Calvin created this idea due to not agreeing with the Roman Catholic church. The puritans that didn’t want to live by the way of the Roman Catholic church, most of which were families, left England and made their way over to America and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony and became known as the American Puritans.

The five main beliefs in this religion included: absolute sovereignty, human depravity, predestination, covenant theory, and individualism. Puritans believed that God had the ultimate power and had power over everyone’s lives, and the Puritan Religion revolved around the good nature of God and the wickedness of the devil. They believed that regardless of the amount of power and control that God had over everyone, The Devil still had the ability to control people who were weak and easily manipulated to feed into his evil temptations. The Devil was linked to sin, and anything that brought happiness or pleasure was seen as giving into The Devil’s temptations. The Puritan’s goal was to live a pure life, free from evil and sin, and anyone who was accused of being a witch were linked to feelings such as freedom, hostility, sexuality, and diversity—meaning anyone who had a mind of their own, or had basic human emotions or attractions were evil and therefore a witch. 

“All witches are women, but not every woman is a witch.” 

This religion was also very discriminatory towards women, as around 78% of all accused witches were women. Puritan belief was that women were inherently sinful and had a higher chance of being tempted to damnation as opposed to men. Puritan’s believed that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of The Devil, and women’s souls were seen as unprotected due to their “weak” and “vulnerable” minds and bodies. This belief was further fueled during the Witch Trials due to so many women confessing, however, it’s speculated that the women who confessed either truly believed that they were being taken over by The Devil, or that they confessed to simply save their own lives. One of the wild things about these trials was that most people who confessed were allowed to live. Witches who confessed were then given the chance to reform themselves, while the people who were executed were the ones who refused either to confess or to give a plea at all. 

In Europe during the Witch Trials during the 1500s and 1600s, witches who confessed were also either exiled or fined, but also not normally executed. European Witch Trials were actually far more heinous and brutal than the Salem Witch Trials, with up to 80,000 people executed, 80% of them being women, and most of the accused being over the age of 40. Most of the accused in Salem were actually children and teenagers between the ages of 12-20. Other differences between European and Salem Witch Trials were that NO one was burned at the stake in Salem. Everyone who was executed was executed by hanging and one by crushing with rocks. Executions in Europe ranged anywhere between hanging, burning at the stake, drowning, and guillotine. I’m not sure if this was a thing in Europe, but in Salem, another punishment along with death was that the government would take all of your land and fortune, even if you had a family. This caused some people, like Giles Corey, the man who was pressed to death under torture, to not confess in order to make sure their family kept their inheritance. Torture methods in both Europe and Salem were horrible, normally consisting of burning, dunking, cutting, severe sleep deprivation, pressing, the Heretics Fork, the Pear of Anguish, Iron Maiden, Witches Brittle, The Rack, The Iron Boot, The Scavengers Daughter, The Bastinado, The Jougs, sexual embarrassment, and general restriction and torture. 

THE WITCH TESTS WERE NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO PASS

There were a number of tests that would be conducted to determine whether someone was a witch or not taking place in both Europe and Salem.

The most common test would be The Skin Test: The accused would have to be completely stripped down and checked throughout their entire body for “The Devil’s Mark.” These marks were normally little red or brown bumps and blemishes, typically being things such as moles, birthmarks, scars, freckles, and even extra nipples. Smallpox was also very common during these times, but at the time no one knew what smallpox really was and just assumed it was part of The Devil’s Mark. 

The second most common test was The Pricking and Scratching Test: When no marks could be found on the person’s body, they would normally prick multiple areas of the accused’s body with needles to see if they bled. They believed that a possessed person would either not draw any blood or much blood, so they would constantly prick multiple areas of the body until they got the results they were looking for. Sometimes, they would even have the victims of the accused come in and scratch them. It was believed that the victims would feel relief from their curses if they scratched the person who cursed them, and if they felt relief, that means the accused really was a witch. 

Those tests were very similar to the next common test, The Touch Test: The accused person would simply touch their victims, and if the victims felt any sort of pain, they were deemed to be a witch. In the European 1662 case of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, the two elderly women were charged with cursing two young children. Whenever the accused witches touched the girls, their fists would unclench, signifying that the women were witches. However, the court wanted to make sure their reactions were genuine, so they had the girls blindfolded and touched by other members of the court. The girls STILL proceeded to unclench their fists when touched, which showed the girls were faking. However, that unfortunately didn’t save the two women, and they were executed anyway.

The Incantation Test: The accused witch would verbally order The Devil to leave the victim’s body. If the victim is cured, the accused was deemed to be a witch. There was a famous case in Europe during the 1600s where Alice Samuel, along with her husband and daughter, were accused of cursing five girls from a wealthy family. The judge had the three order each individual girl to be relieved of the demon that possessed them, and when the girls would each suddenly stop throwing a fit and were apparently cured, the three were convicted and executed.

The Prayer Test: The accused witch would be ordered to recite The Lord’s Prayer or a section of a scripture by memory. If they made an error, they were a witch. This test was also heavily used in European countries, and it was a terrible test to use against people who had trouble with their speech. In 1712, Jane Wenham, who was an accused witch, had trouble speaking the words “forgive us our tresspasses” and “lead us not into temptation.” She was assumed to be a witch since she couldn’t flawlessly speak the prayer, thus being possessed by The Devil. However, even speaking the prayer with no trouble at all couldn’t always save you from being executed. During the Salem Witch Trials, George Burroughs spoke the prayer perfectly and he was still convicted, as they believed The Devil could be tricking them.

The Swimming (or Dunking) Test: The accused witches were bound by their wrists and ankles and dropped into a body of water. If the accused floated, they would be deemed a witch. If the accused sank, they were innocent, but often would drown before they could be saved. This particular test was used well before the Salem Witch Trials in European countries, normally against suspected criminals, where they’d be thrown into the water and a higher power would decide their fate. It was banned in many European countries during the middle ages, but was brought back during the 17th century for the infamous Witch Hunts. In 1710, The Swimming Test was used as evidence against a Hungarian woman to convict her of witchcraft. She was later severely beaten and burned at the stake.

The Weight Test: Witches were believed to be very light, and would be weighed against the weight of the bible. If they were lighter than the bible, they were deemed to be a witch. However, this obviously never ever worked, so whenever this test would fail, they’d go off and conduct another test.

The most bizarre test of them all was The Witch Cake Test: A cake would be made with rye flour and the urine of the accused witch, or anyone with the symptoms (psychological behavior) that started the witch hunt to begin with. The cake would then be fed to a dog, and if the dog portrayed the same symptoms as the accused, the accused would be deemed a witch. They also believed that the dog would specifically point out who the witch was. (Speaking of dogs, two dogs were also accused and found guilty of Witchcraft and were also executed). 

SPECTRAL EVIDENCE WAS USED HEAVILY IN COURT

Much of the evidence used against the accused witches was spectral evidence, which was basically images and aspirations of the accused being seen by the afflicted, and the afflicted would claim that this aspiration inflicted a curse upon them. It was believed that only The Devil could allow these aspirations to appear, even in dreams, and the accused witches would’ve needed The Devil’s permission to be seen, therefore they must’ve been a witch. 

THE TIMELINE OF EVENTS

It all started with Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams (ages 9 and 11), the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris. The two children began to have fits described as “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to affect.” The children acted out and would scream, throw things, crawl around the ground and under the furniture, uttered strange sounds and words that no one could understand, and would contort themselves into strange positions. The girls would also complain about pain similar to being pricked with needles. Shortly afterwards two other children, Ann Putnam Jr (aged 12) and Elizabeth Hubbard were also acting in a similar way. 284 years later, it was proposed that the children were exhibiting symptoms of convulsive ergot poisoning. 

The first three women who were accused and arrested of witchcraft, who were allegedly the witches responsible for afflicting the children, were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Tituba was the very first person who was accused of witchcraft by Ann Putnam Jr. Historians believed that a major cause of the Witch Trials were due to a huge family feud between the Putnam and Porter families. Other villagers would get into heated arguments which would often turn physical simply over their opinions regarding the feud. 

All three of these women were some kind of outcast within their community. Tituba was an enslaved South American Indian woman from the West Indies who most likely became a target due to her ethnic differences compared to most of the other villagers. She was accused of attracting young girls with her stories of enchantment, regarding tales about sexual encounters with demons, swaying the minds of men, and fortune telling. Sarah Good was accused due to her reputation of scolding children too harshly and often muttering angrily under her breath. Sarah Osborne was accused due to hardly attending church and was seen as actively rejecting her religion. She was also accused of having her own self-interests after getting remarried and trying to gain control over her son’s inheritance from her first marriage. 

Others were accused of witchcraft in March: Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, Rachel Clinton, and Dorothy Good, the four year old child of Sarah Good. Martha Corey is one of the most famous victims in the Witch Trials due to being such a prominent woman in the local community. She was also a very active member of their children and was very well-liked and respected. She never supported the Witch Trials, as she didn’t believe that witches, warlocks, or magic ever existed. She and her husband Giles Corey sat in on the Witch Trials a few times, and Martha expressed her skepticism of the trials and tried to defend the women who were accused, saying she did not believe they were witches. The next time her husband wanted to attend a meeting, she said no and neither of them went. This caused her to be accused of not only conspiring with the witches but also of being a witch herself. This shocked many people in the village, because if someone like Martha could be a witch, then anyone could be a witch. The community were also deeply troubled by the accusations against Rebecca Nurse, as she was also a devoted member of the church in Salem Town. Sarah Good, even though she was a 4 year old child, was also interrogated and her answers seemed to have suggested that she was in cahoots with her mother in witchcraft. Rachel Clinton was arrested due to offenses unrelated to the girls in Salem Village. 

In April, Sarah Cloyce (Rebecca’s sister) and Elizabeth Proctor were arrested. The two women were brought in for a meeting and examination with John Hathorne and Jonathon Corwin. During the proceedings, Elizabeth’s Husband, John Proctor, stepped in to defend her, which led to his arrest that same day. Within the next week, Giles Corey, Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Mary Warren, and Deliverance Hobbs (stepmother of Abigail Hobbs) were all arrested and examined. Abigail, Deliverance, and Mary all confessed and started making accusations against other alleged accomplices, which caused the arrests of Sarah Wildes, William Hobbs (Father of Abigail and husband of Deliverance), Nehemiah Abbott Jr, Mary Eastey (sister of Cloyce and Nurse), Mary English, Edward Bishop Jr, and his wife, Sarah Bishop. On April 30th, George Burroughs, Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, Dorcas Hoar, Sarah Morey, and Phillip English (Mayr’s husband) were arrested. Nehemiah Abbott Jr was released after the person who accused him withdrew their accusation. In May, John Willard and Elizabeth Colson were arrested. More and more accusations were made, but many of the accused witches were able to evade getting caught. 

Arrest warrants were sent out for 36 more people, while examinations for the following people were continuing in Salem Village: Sarah Dustina (Lydia Dustin’s daughter), Anne Sears, Bethiah Carter Sr and her daughter Bethiah Carter Jr, George Jacobs Sr, his grandaughter Margaret Jacobs, John Willard, Alice Parker, Anne Pudeator, Abigail Soames, George Jacobs Jr (son of George Jacobs Sr, and father of Margaret), Daniel Andrew, Rebecca Jacobs (wife of George Jacobs Jr, sister of Daniel), Sarah Buckley, and her daughter Mary Witheridge. This list could go on and on, there were a total of 62 people in custody at this time. 

EXECUTIONS AND DEATHS

June 10th, 1692: 

Bridget Bishop (around age 60): The first to be tried and executed.

July 19th, 1692: 

Rebecca Nurse (age 71): Highly respected by the community. In an attempt to defend her, there was a petition made with 39 signatures.

Sarah Good (age 41): Homeless beggar known for scolding children and had a temper.

Elizabeth Howe (age late 50s): Accused of cursing her neighbor and their live-stock and was Nurse’s Sister-In-Law.

Susannah Martin (age 70): Was an impoverished widow and was accused and exonerated of witchcraft previously.

Sarah Wildes (age 65): Previously charged on occasions of adultery and wearing a silk scarf. Had a long running feud with the family of her first husband. 

August 19th, 1692:

George Burroughs (age early 40s): Previously the minister of Salem Village, arrested in Maine and brought back to Salem for trial. 

George Jacobs Sr. (age early 70s): Arrested along with his granddaughter, who was spared after accusing him. 

Martha Carrier (age 38): Previously accused of witchcraft and was exonerated. Was accused of taking the title “Queen of Hell.” 

John Proctor (age 60): Made his skepticism of the trials known. Arrested after defending his wife, Elizabeth Proctor.

John Willard (age 35): Deputy constable, arrested after refusing to arrest people he believed were innocent.

September 19th, 1692

Giles Corey (age 60): WAS NOT EXECUTED. Giles, the husband of highly respected Martha Corey, was being tortured into giving a confession. Giles refused to give a plea in order to stand his ground and to keep his land and fortune within his family instead of letting the government seize it after his death. For two days, Giles was pressed with rocks, more and more until his chest was crushed and he finally stopped breathing. Giles’ famous last words were: “More rocks!” 

September 22nd, 1692:

Martha Corey (age 72): Highly respected woman of the community. Arrested for speaking out against the trials and defending the accused.

Mary Eastey (age 58): Sister of Rebecca Nurse. Arrested due to her ghost apparently visiting her accuser.

Mary Parker (age unknown): Claims to have been arrested due to mistaken identity. Not much information about her.

Alice Parker (age unknown): Accused by Mary Warren of killing her mother.

Ann Pudeator (age 70’s): Worked as a midwife, accused of killing 5 people.

Wilmot Redd (age 70’s): Known to be an irritable woman. Mother-In-Law of George Burroughs.

Margaret Scott (age late 70s): A widow who begged to support herself and lost several children during infancy. 

Samuel Wardwell Sr (age 49): Arrested with his wife and daughter and was executed after recanting a forced confession.

DIED IN “WITCH JAIL”

Lydia Dustin (late 60s): Widowed. Exonerated but kept in jail due to being unable to pay off her jail fees.

Ann Foster (age 75): Confessed after being accused by her daughter, who was also accused. She likely died by being tortured. 

Sarah Osborne (age 49): One of the first three people accused, Sarah died before her trial could even take place. She refused to confess or to implicate anyone else and was also in a legal battle with her children over their father’s estate.

Roger Toothaker (age 57): Farmer who also worked as a healer (doctor) was also likely tortured to death.

Infant Daughter of Sarah Good: Born in jail, died before her mother was executed.

All other people who were either waiting for their executions or in prison waiting for their trial were ultimately let go after the trials came to a permanent stop when Governor William Phipps’ wife was accused. Of course the Governor only decided to end the trials when it was someone he loved going to the hanging tree. 

Elizabeth Proctor was supposed to be executed along with her husband, John Proctor, but was ultimately delayed and kept in prison so she could give birth to her baby. By the time the baby was born, the trials had been put to an end. Her baby saved Elizabeth’s life. 

Sarah Good’s four-year-old daughter, Dorothy Good, who was accused of witchcraft was also spared. She was never charged, but was kept in prison for nearly nine months and was so traumatized by what she experienced that she was never able to fully recover and was never able to go off and live a normal life. She was unable to care for herself for the rest of her life.

Martha Carrier also had two children that she was forced to leave behind: Thomas 10, and Sarah 8. 

IN THE END… 

Some historians believe that the horrific events that occurred in Salem Town left a good message upon the world. They argue that the trials left a taboo mark in America about mixing religion with the government. They also said that this left a constant reminder in our minds about the importance of due process in the legal system, and the dangerous effects of premature panic and overreaction to mass hysteria situations. Researchers also recently found the execution site for the trials in 2016. Gallows Hill was discovered on a rocky outcropping located near a Walgreens in Salem. In November 2001, after the 300th anniversary of the trials, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act exonerating all who had been convicted and naming each of the innocent,with the exception of Elizabeth Johnson, who was cleared by the Massachusetts Senate on 26 May 2022, the last conviction to be reversed after pressure from schoolchildren who discovered the anomaly.