While the term ‘witch-hunt’ has become part of our common vocabulary, it has roots in the hysteria that befell Salem Village, Massachusetts, at the close of the seventeenth century. Develop an understanding of the Salem witch trials and test your knowledge with a short quiz.
A Puritan Background
Puritans, or religious exiles from the Church of England who moved to the colonies with a hope of returning to England to ‘purify’ the Church, settled most of the Massachusetts colony. Puritan leaders had hoped their colony would serve as a ‘city on a hill’ for all those around the world to take note of. They believed it would be a righteous utopia where the citizens held a focus on God, showed deference to church leaders, and attended church.
By the end of the seventeenth century, New England towns maintained much of the Puritan vision, while at the same time growing rapidly and developing a shopkeeper middle class. While religious dissidents did, at times, threaten the Puritan utopia, more damaging was the increasing worldliness church leaders saw at the end of the century. Such worldliness placed growing strains on church discipline. A further blow to Puritan control came in 1691 when the Massachusetts royal charter required toleration of religious dissenters and based the right to vote in public elections on property rather than church membership.
The Devil in New England
The strains of moving from a Puritan utopia to a royal colony further played out in the witchcraft hysteria that hit the coastal town of Salem Village (now the town of Danvers, MA) in 1692. Belief in witchcraft was widespread throughout Europe and New England in the seventeenth century. Before the dramatic episode in Salem, almost three hundred (mostly middle aged women) had been accused of being witches and more than thirty of them were hanged.
Still, the outbreak and fervor in Salem was distinctive in its scope and intensity. Salem Village was about eight miles from the larger Salem Town, which was a thriving port at the time. Salem Village had always worked hard to free itself from the influence and the taxes of larger Salem Town. These different loyalties apparently created tensions and made the residents particularly susceptible to the idea that the devil was at work in the village.
During the winter of 1691-92, several adolescent girls began meeting in the home of the town minister, Pastor Samuel Parris. There in the kitchen they paid particular attention to the stories of voodoo told by Tituba, the Parris’ West Indian slave. They also tried to envision their future husbands through a fortune telling ritual that involved dropping an egg into a glass of water and analyzing the shape it took.
As the days passed, the girls began to behave oddly. They reportedly shouted, groveled, and even barked at folks in the village. There were additional reports of the girls twitching for no apparent reason. A doctor examined the girls and determined they were bewitched. Their parents and other adults questioned the girls, asking them who had done this to them. The girls replied that Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne were agents of the devil.
Authorities arrested the three women based on the accusations of the young girls. At a special hearing before magistrates, the ‘afflicted’ girls are said to have rolled on the floor, having convulsive fits as the accused women were questioned. During the hearing, Tituba shocked listeners by not only confessing to the charge but also divulging the names of many others in the community who she claimed were also performing the devil’s work. Soon after, dozens of girls began to experience the same violent contortions. Accusations of witchcraft spread throughout the community. Within just a few months, the Salem Village jail was filled with townspeople. This included men, women, and children, all accused of practicing witchcraft. The villagers panicked as word spread that Satan was in their midst.
A few months later, authorities arrested Martha Carrier. A farmer had testified that several of his cattle suffered strange deaths soon after he and Carrier had an argument. Little Phoebe Chandler added that she had been stricken with horrible stomach pains soon after she heard Carrier’s voice telling her she was going to be poisoned. Even Carrier’s own children testified against her. They reported that their mother tried to recruit them as witches. But several young girls provided the most damming testimony. When they were brought into the hearing room, they began shouting out in pain at the sight of Carrier. They claimed they could see the devil whispering into Carrier’s ear. The magistrate found this evidence very compelling, and a few days later, she was hanged. A couple of months later, seventy-one year old matriarch Rebecca Nurse went to the gallows. George Jacobs, whose servant girl accused him of witchcraft, was also hanged a month after that.
But as the accusations spread wider, extending beyond Salem, leaders in the Massachusetts Bay colony began to worry that the witch-hunts were out of control. When afflicted girls accused Samuel Willard, the president of Harvard and a distinguished minister, the stunned magistrates had seen enough. The governor intervened when his own wife was accused. He disbanded the special court in Salem and ordered all remaining suspects be released. A year after it had begun, the event was finally over. Nineteen people, including the husbands of some of those convicted, had been hanged and one hundred others were jailed. Nearly all responsible for the Salem executions later recanted, and nothing quite like it ever occurred in the colonies again.
What explains the hysteria at Salem? Some have argued that it may have represented nothing more than an example of adolescent imagination, intended to enliven the dreary routine of everyday life. Yet it was adults who pressed the formal charges against the accused and provided most of the testimony. This has led many historians to speculate that local feuds and property disputes may have triggered the prosecutions. One of the leaders of the young girls, for instance, was 12-year-old Ann Putnam, whose older relatives pressed many of the complaints. The Putnams were landowners whose power was declining, and their pursuit of witches might have served as a means to restore their standing in society.
More recently, historians have focused on the most interesting fact about the accused witches. Almost all of them were women. Many of the accused women, it turns out, had in some way defied the traditional roles assigned to females at the time. Some had engaged in business transactions outside the home; others did not attend church; some were said to have had grumpy personalities. Most of them were middle aged or older and without sons or brothers. In turn, they stood to inherit property and live as independent women. The concept of autonomous spinsters flew in the face of prevailing conventions.
Whatever the precise cause, there is little doubt that the witchcraft hysteria reflected the social dynamics of the Salem community at the time. A local citizen recounted that in late 1692, in the nearby town of Ipswich, a group of young ‘afflicted’ girls were traveling through when they encountered an old woman on a bridge. The girls yelled ‘witch!’ They then began writhing on the ground. Apparently the people of Ipswich were unimpressed, showing no interest. Unable to generate sympathy, the girls picked themselves up and went on their way.
After this lesson, you should be able to:
- Summarize the historical context that led to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692
- Recall Tituba’s role in the events that occurred during this time period
- Describe the accusations, trials, and hangings that occurred
- Identify the theories that attempt to explain why the Salem Witch Trials happened