In 1692, tragedy occurred in America, the “Salem Witch Trials” had begun (Lebeau). During the 17th century, people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be arrested and accused of having beliefs in the devil. From the first arrest warrants issued on February 29, 1692 to the last executions on September 22, 1962 over 150 people were accused and jailed on suspicion of witchcraft. Four people plus 1 infant died in prison, 18 people were executed by hanging, 1 person was pressed to death and 2 dogs were also hanged.
“The incidents began when two girls, nine year old Elizabeth Parris and eleven year old Abigail Williams had begun to exhibit unusual behavior, they crawled under tables, uttered weird sounds, and screamed that they were being tortured” (Starkey). Within a short time, several other girls began to exhibit similar behavior. After the fasting and prayer that had been recommended by Cotton Mather, a leading Puritan minister of the time, (Mather who had treated bewitched children in this way before) Samuel Parris one of the girls father, along with other ministers of the time, had failed to exorcise the demons. The suspicion of witchcraft soon led to the arrest of three women, women who happened to be at odds in some way with Parris (Starkey).
The first of the women suspected and accused of witchcraft were: Tituba, a West Indian woman and conjurer who had been giving palmistry lessons to the girls, who also happened to be Parris’s slave. Rebecca Nurse, a deaf old woman whose family had been disputing with the Puritans in a fight for land for many years prior. Sarah Good was a destitute, shriveled, pipe smoking hag who had professed her innocence. Sarah Osborne was suspected of immorality and had never attended church that much. At one point, Tituba had confessed of once having had seen the devil who had appeared to her ” sometimes like a hog, and sometimes like a great dog”(Lebeau). Tituba had also testified that there was a conspiracy of witches at work in the town of Salem.
Over the next several weeks, other townspeople had come forward and testified that they too, had been harmed by or had seen strange traits of some of the community members. As the witch-hunt continued, accusations were levied against many people, frequently denounced were women whose behavior or economic circumstances were somehow disturbing to the social order and conventions of the time. “Some historians believed that a dispute with a local minister, Samuel Parris, led to the witch hunt. Parris received much of his support from the poorer farmers of Salem Village. To them, Parris and the village church represented stability and traditional values. The poorer farmers saw Salem, with its increasingly important merchants, as a threat to their way of life. Parris and his supporters helped lead the witch-hunt. Many villagers who opposed Parris or had links with Salem were arrested as witches”(Starkey).
Sir William Phips, then appointed Governor of New England, established a special “Court of Oyer and Terminer”, comprising of seven Judges, to hear testimony and other issues of witchcraft. These Magistrates based their judgments and evaluations on various kinds of intangible evidence, including but not limited to: indirect confessions, supernatural attributes, and the reactions of the afflicted girls. Spectral evidence; “The assumption that the devil could assume the “specter” of an innocent person” was even relied upon despite it’s controversial nature (Starkey). The chained defendants had no opportunity for counsel; the accused never had a chance to prove they weren’t conspiring with Satan. Those accused could only plead guilty, and be released, only to be banned from the community; or plead innocence, and hanged in a community showing.
man, Giles Cory, was pressed to death with large stones for refusing to enter a plea of innocent or guilty to the witchcraft charge (Starkey). Shortly after Bishop’s and Cory’s hanging, Salem Court Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned from the Court stating that “he was dissatisfied with the proceedings” (Lebeau). A brief delay in the proceedings came to an end when several leading
ministers had advised the Court that spectral evidence could be used with “exquisite caution” (Starkey).
Soon prisons would be filled with more than 250 men and women from Salem and other surrounding towns. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death, accused of the practice of witchcraft. Eventually, a hundred people, eighty percent of which were women, would be arrested, tortured, put to trial and prosecuted as witches. Four people were convicted during the month of August, followed by an additional eight more people during the month of September. To this point in time, the court had tried and convicted a total of twenty-seven people, of them, nineteen people and two dogs had been executed, the others waited their time in dungeons. During the hysteria, fifty people had confessed, eleven more were in prison awaiting trials and accusations had reached another 200 people.
Finally, during the month of October, people had started wondering if they were doing the right thing. In all, a total of twenty people lost their lives to the executioner in the aftermath of the Salem Witch-Hunt. Some people through their concern for the lives of those being accused, wrote the Court, asking the Court if what they were doing was right. One letter, written by businessman Thomas Brattle, had great impact on then Governor Phips, who soon ordered that “reliance on spectral and intangible evidence was no longer permitted in trials”. The trials stopped soon after Cotton Mather had delivered a sermon arguing against the mass conviction and some of the clergy began to openly criticize spectral evidence (Starkey). Governor Phips, ordered free all those imprisoned, then ordered the executions halted. Finally after eight months of terror, the nightmares of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were over.
intent on ridding the town of the town’s outspoken individuals, and those he considered undesirable’s”(Starkey).
The closing of the Court of Oyer and Terminer in October did not end the trials, but instead, moved them to the higher court. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts was to convene in January 1693 to try the remaining cases. Those accused on special or “other” evidence were released from jail on bond. Of the 52 persons tried, 49 were cleared of the accusations and 3 were found guilty (Lebeau).
The last sitting of the court was held in Boston on May 1693. By this time, the Governor issued a proclamation that pardoned everyone and granted amnesty to those who fled to escape persecution. By the end of the trials, some of Massachusetts’s most important citizens would be accused of witchcraft, including the wife of Governor Phipps. A few years later, the girls who started the hysteria as well as many of the accusers who took part in the accusations asked for forgiveness for their actions.
On October 17, 1711, an Act of the colonial legislature returned all property taken from the victims and paid their families compensation for their losses. This ended all official acts relating to the trials of 1692. However, in Salem Village, resentment would be felt for generations to come (Starkey).