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Salem Witch Trials

RWC tutor Jannette Rodriguez includes background and insight on the Salem Witch trials.

In colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft; 19 were found guilty and executed.

Historical Context

During this time, many religions, including Christianity, taught that the Devil could give people, known as witches, powers to hurt others as a means of proving their loyalty. Between the 1300s and the 1600s, there was witch hysteria throughout Europe, resulting in tens of thousands of accused, primarily women, being executed.The Salem Witch Trials occurred as the European craze was dying out. In 1689, Salem Village suffered the after-effects of a British war with France in the American Colonies, including a smallpox epidemic. The village people also feared attacks from neighboring Native American tribes. These tensions fueled what would come to be known as the Salem Witch Trials.

In January of 1692, the Salem Village prime minister, Samuel Parris’ niece, Abigail Williams, and daughter, Elizabeth Parris, began having fits that included violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming. When the local doctor was called, he diagnosed the girls with bewitchment. Later, other girls in the village started having the same symptoms. The Salem Witch Trials began in March of 1692, where Parris’ Caribbean slave, Tituba, and Sarah Good (a homeless beggar) and Sarah Osborne(a poor, elderly woman) would be the first to be called to trial. The younger girls had accused the three women of bewitching them. On trial, Good and Osborne denied the allegations, but Tituba had confessed the Devil made her sign his book and admitted she wasn’t the only one. This streamed a wave of paranoia. People were accusing anyone. Martha Corey, a loyal Church member, was charged, and the Village people questioned Good’s 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy. In April, the trials became even more severe when the colony’s deputy governor, Thomas Danforth, began attending the hearings. Several dozens of people from Salem Village and other neighboring Massachusetts villages were brought in for questioning. In May 1692, Governor William Phips ordered a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer for Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties. In June, Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her promiscuity, was the first accused witch brought in front of the special court. She was found guilty, although she told the court she was innocent. She hung eight days later in Gallows Hill. Minister Cotton Mather wrote to the court not to allow spectral evidence. However, they ignored his request and sentenced five more people to be hanged in July. Following were five more in August and eight in September.

In October, Mather’s son, Increase Mather, denounced the use of spectral evidence. After Phips’ wife was accused, he prohibited further arrests and released many accused witches. He eliminated the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer in late October, replacing it with the Superior Court of Judicature, where spectral evidence was not allowed. Only three out of fifty-six defendants were found guilty by this newly appointed Court. By May of 1693, Phips had pardoned the remainder of the imprisoned witches, but nineteen people had already been hung. In September 1692, Giles Corey, Martha’s husband, was pressed to death by stones after refusing to attend his court hearing. At least five people had died in jail, and even two dogs suffered the causalities with the colonists killing them after accusing them of being linked to the Devil.

Restoring Reputations

In the years after the trials, Samuel Sewall and accuser Ann Putnam made a public confession to guilt and error. On January 14, 1697, the Massachusetts General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching after the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials. In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful; and in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the names of those accused and compensating the families. However, it was not until 1957 that the state of Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of the Salem Witch Trials. In July of 2022, with the help of a Junior high class, the last accused witch, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., was exonerated. During the height of the witch trials, Johnson was scheduled for a hanging but fortunately for her, Phips had already dismembered the Court, so her sentence wasn’t carried out. However, when they passed the bill to restore the accused witches’ names, Johnson’s was never cleared. After 329 years, an 8th grade civics class, learned about Johnson and the Salem Witch Trials, and wanted to set the record straight. They started emailing and writing to the Massachusetts Legislature. Senator Diana DiZoglio, got ahold of Johnson’s case and began legislation to exonerate her. It cleared with the Senate and Johnson’s name was officially cleared.

Salem Witch Museum

The Salem Witch Museum was founded in 1972 in commemoration of the horrific Salem Witch Trials. They offer two historical presentations in the museum. One retells the story of the trials in a large auditorium with life-sized sets and a narrator that helps capture the 17th century Salem. The other exhibit: Witches: Evolving Perceptions, examines the European witchcraft trials, the evolution of “witches,” and comprehending how triggers and fears lead to scapegoats, such as in the case of the Salem Witch Trials, that began with fears of witchcraft and the lack of comprehension lead to paranoia and hysteria that resulted in twenty deaths. To learn more, visit the Salem Witch Museum website or the actual museum in Salem, MA.

Heated Debates

There are many hypotheses of what made the girls of Salem behave in such a way. During that time, there were a lot of sicknesses, including ergotism, a condition caused by eating foods contaminated with the fungus ergot. Some symptoms include muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. The accused witches would experience these symptoms, so this theory is not so far-fetched. Other ideas of what happened include a combination of church politics, family feuds and hysterical children. Truth is nobody knows what exactly the cause was but the trials should have never been taken to such extremities.

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