In Part I of The Salem Witch Trials Miniseries, we’re taking a look at:
- European witch hunts
- Events/people before the trials
- The accused
- The accusers
- The judges/magistrates
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A Witch Hunt as Old as Time
Unlike the Salem trials, the witch hunts of Europe, Scotland, and England ended with thousands dead. The worst of the worst definitely took place in Europe. Between 1400 and 1775, about 50,000 people lost their lives. Twice that number were accused and put on trial.
1645-1647, over 100 people were killed after they were declared witches in East Anglia in England. This was out of 250 accused.
In 1626, about 2,000 people died as a result of a ten year long witch hunt in the German Electorate of Cologne. Between 1710 and 1750, around 800 people were killed in Hungary.
In comparison, 25 people died as a result of the Salem Witch Trials, which lasted over one year. In terms of numbers, it’s almost nothing compared to the number of deaths in Europe and Britain.
So what makes Salem one of the most revisited witch hunts? Because it’s so singular, because it’s so small.
A Puritanical Puritan Party
The population of Salem Village, of quite a bit of Massachusetts really, were Puritans. Puritanism smelled more like Calvinism, another sect of Protestansim.
The Puritans started making their way over to the New World, in part because they had to. King James was not a fan of theirs. And King Charles I hated them even more than James did.
So the “Great Migration” began. The Puritans had a doom and gloom outlook on the world. An individual was either good or evil. Like Calvinism, they believed in the idea of predestination – every single person ever conceived had their destiny mapped out for them before they were even born. For them, destiny was all about where they went when they died: heaven or hell.
Since there were so many Puritans, the main religion of Massachusetts was Puritanism. They wore more than black. As in actual colors.
They laughed at things, told jokes, and drank some form of alcohol when they ate. Going to the tavern was okay, getting drunk wasn’t. Everything in moderation.
The Many Lives of Salem
Salem used to cover what is now Peabody, Danvers, Marblehead, Middleton, Beverly, Manchester, Wenham, Topsfield, Swampscott, and the City of Salem. This area was made up of a combination of farms and a centralized village with a meetinghouse in the middle of it all.
The residents of the farming area, known as Salem Village, were beholden to Salem Town’s whims and its meetinghouse. Salem Village wanted to be its own independent town. Salem Town finally gave them the greenlight in 1672. But, Salem Town still held all the power.
Salem Village went through quite a few ministers before Samuel Parris came on the scene. The first minister the village hired was James Bayley. He lasted from 1673 until 1680.
The Reverend George Burroughs came on the scene in 1680. But then, about a year later, Burroughs also got left after the village committee decided they didn’t feel like paying him anymore.
Then came Deodat Lawson in February 1684. And by 1688, Lawson was also gone, after an interesting game of tug of war between two factions of Salem Village. One wanted the village to have a church and Lawson to be fully ordained, the other didn’t.
Reverend Samuel Parris, minister number four, rolled into Salem Village in 1689. They offered him a salary of 60 pounds a year without any raises, same as Lawson received.
Parris eventually accepted but with conditions: he can eventually get a raise once the village starts to make more money, free firewood, and he got to pick the food he was given.
The Putnams and their allies voted to hand over ownership of the parsonage to Parris in October 1689. Almost a year later he became the proud owner of said parsonage.
In addition to this, Salem Town said Parris could be an ordained minister, the first of his kind in Salem Village. Parris became all official on November 16, 1689.
When Parris came to the village he didn’t come alone. His wife, three kids, his niece, and their two Caribbean slaves, a couple by the name of John Indian and Tituba, came with him.
Parris’s 9 year old daughter, Betty, and Abigail Williams, the 11 year old niece, were front and center when the accusations began. They both spent a lot of time with Tituba.
And so it begins…
In January 1692, in the parsonage Samuel Parris and his family lived in, Betty and Abigail became “afflicted”, AKA started acting weird. They were talking nonsense and crawling under chairs.
This went on for weeks before Reverend John Hale came over from Beverly to take a look.
The girls’ fits became more violent, sometimes they vomitted words nonstop, other times they were sitting around staring off into space. By the end of February, Parris wondered if it was…witches!
Mary Sibley came up with the hairbrained idea of a witch cake. Mary Sibley got a very public verbal smack for her efforts from Parris. Magic was magic, didn’t matter if it was being used for good or bad.
Eventually Betty and Abigail named Tituba as their witchy torturer. Poor Tituba was the first to be accused of witchcraft.
At this point it was only Abigail and Betty who were having strange fits. Next up on the docket were Ann Putnam, daughter of Thomas Putnam and Ann Carr Putnam. She was twelve and lived about a mile away.
There was also Elizabeth Hubbard, a 17 year old who lived with her aunt and uncle – Mary and Dr. William Griggs – right outside of Salem Village. Elizabeth was actually employed by her aunt as a maid.
Ann and Elizabeth were also being tortured by witches. It was slowly becoming an epidemic. According to Ann, Sarah Good suddenly decided she needed to pinch her and convert her to Satanism.
As for Elizabeth, Sarah Good may have had her eye on Elizabeth, but it was Sarah Osborne who decided Elizabeth was the perfect victim.
If You’re Afflicted and You Know It, Scream and Shout
Next Mary Walcott and Mercy Lewis joined in the fun. They, along with Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard, claimed to have gone blind and deaf.
They were screaming about Tituba, of course. The woman was causing the girls pain. Tituba staunchly denied this. She refused to confess, even when she was beaten.
Unfortunately, everyone has their breaking point. She admitted she was a witch. But that wasn’t enough for Paris. There had to be other witches, so he wanted Tituba to give them up. This time, though, Tituba stayed mum.
That didn’t hinder things for a second. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne already fit the bill. They fell under the umbrella of the stereotypical idea of a witch.
They weren’t demure and submissive to the men folk. They weren’t young spring chickens, they said what they wanted to say, and weren’t about to win any popularity contests.
Let’s officially meet Sarah Good. After her father committed suicide and her mother married a man who made sure Sarah never saw a penny of the money left to her.
Sarah ended up married to a lazy bum, and eventually ended up with a bunch of kids she couldn’t feed. The only way she could was by relying on the kindness of others. But the problem was Sarah didn’t do kindness.
Then there was Sarah Osborne. She had scandal written all over her. She was, once upon a time, married to a guy who was super well off. Owned lots of farmland.
When he died, she bought herself an indentured servant by the name of Alexander Osborne and then married him. Pretty much everyone believed they were having sex before they got married. Big no-no.
Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the local magistrates, showed up on February 29 to start examinations on the three already accused witches — Tituba, Good, and Osborne.
Corwin and Hathorne weren’t really lawyers. They were rich men who usually only had to deal with small crimes. Witches were definitely a first for them.
The first thing they did when they arrived was issue arrest warrants for Tituba, Good, and Osborne. Examinations would begin the very next day, March 1 at 10 am, at Ingersoll’s Ordinary, a local tavern.
When the time finally came for the examinations to start, everyone had to be moved to a larger location since way too many people showed up.
Sarah Good was the first of the accused to take the stand. Lucky her. When it came to the questioning, Hathorne took the reins and went full-speed ahead.
There was only one way the examination was going to end. It didn’t matter how many times Good said she wasn’t a witch, Hathorne continued trying to get her to confess.
When Ann Putnam Jr., Elizabeth Hubbard, Abigail Williams, and Betty Parris had conveniently timed fits, the magistrates had confirmation: Sarah Good was definitely one of the witches. The more Good said no, the louder the girls got.
Unfortunately, Good eventually named Sarah Osborne as a witch. Good would stay in custody until an official trial was held.
Sarah Osborne was the next to be questioned. Sarah wouldn’t confess. Too bad for Osborne, the girls stood up and confirmed she was a witch.
According to Parris, Osborne hadn’t been to a sermon in a little over a year because she was sick. All this added up to her guilt. Osborne, like Good, would be held for trial.
The final woman to be brought in was Tituba, the first to be accused. She flat out confessed that a man-shaped-thing came to her and she agreed to do whatever he told her to do.
She confessed that not only herself, but Good, Osborne, and three others from Boston were the ones behind Ann, Elizabeth, Betty, and Abigail’s torments.
Tituba’s examination was spread out over a couple of days. On March 2, she coughed up some dirt on the devil’s book.
She signed it in blood, but so had Good and Osborn. And so did 7 other witches. These witches were gathering right under the nose of Parris, who was none the wiser.
Ann Putnam Jr. didn’t tell this story until a bit later, but she said that on March 3, Elizabeth Proctor’s spirit attacked her. But Proctor wasn’t alone. There were three other witches with her.
It wasn’t until March 6 that Ann made the connection between the spirit she saw and the living breathing form of Goody Proctor in the meetinghouse — Ann never met her before.
Elizabeth Proctor was married to John Proctor, a farmer who made a pretty good living as a farmer and business owner. The couple didn’t even live in Salem Village. They lived on the outskirts of Salem Town.
The examinations ended on March 5, but Good, Osborne, and Tituba weren’t transferred to Boston Jail until March 7.
Samuel Parris and his wife moved their daughter Betty to Salem Town to live with Stephen Sewall. Once Betty was removed from the Salem Village, her affliction came to an end. The symptoms didn’t disappear immediately, but they did subside over time.
You’re a Witch, and You’re a Witch, and You’re a Witch
Ann Putnam Jr. named two more witches. One was Dorothy Good, the 4 year old daughter of Sarah Good and the other was Martha Cory.
Ann claimed Dorothy’s specter attacked her. There was biting and pinching involved, all in an effort to get Ann to sign the devil’s book. Yes, a four-year-old was doing all of these things.
As for 65 year old Martha, she was a relatively new member to the church, only having joined in 1690. Her husband was Giles Cory. He was well-off, but not necessarily well-liked.
So Edward Putnam the paternal uncle of Ann Putnam Jr., had a visit with Martha. He, along with court reporter Ezekiel Cheever, showed up on Martha’s doorstep on March 12.
Martha knew exactly why they showed up at her house. She couldn’t control if people were talking about her or what they were saying. She was a member of the church and couldn’t be a witch as a result. She loved God. Unfortunately for her, that didn’t actually disqualify her from the witchhunt.
On March 14, Martha went over to the Putnams to see Ann. Ann and Mercy Lewis, the Putnams’ servant, started freaking out. A few days later the other Ann Putnam, AKA mother dear, claimed Martha’s spirit came to her and tried to kill her. According to her, she was terrified and almost died.
On March 19, an arrest warrant was issued for Martha Cory. Her accusers: Edward Putnam and his buddy Henry Kenny, on behalf of Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard.
The warrant didn’t stop more accusations from coming in. Mary Warren, who worked for John and Elizabeth Proctor, revealed that she too was being hurt by Martha Cory.
But lucky Martha had a day’s reprieve from being arrested since the warrant was issued on the Sabbath. She used the day to go to services.
Her attendance at the meetinghouse didn’t go over well since some of the girls burst into fits just because Martha was sitting in the building.
On March 20 her examination began. Hathorne asked her the same exact questions Good and Osborne were asked.
All Martha wanted to do was pray. Hathorne wouldn’t let her, so she was left with her only other option — repeatedly insisting she was innocent and a God-fearing woman. And then, she said a prayer anyway.
Even her husband, Giles Cory, spoke against her. He never outright said she was a witch but what else was everyone going to think after hearing from him?
Martha swore up and down that she was innocent. No matter how many times Hathorne told her to confess, she wouldn’t. Martha was sent to Salem prison.
The next person accused was Rebecca Nurse, which should come as a shock to the village since she was considered the epitome of all that was good. This unassuming and pious old woman lived with her husband, Francis, on the Townsend Bishop Farm.
According to Ann Putnam Jr., Rebecca Nurse’s spirit started tormenting her when Martha Cory was safely locked away in prison. Rebecca tried to get Ann to sign her name in the devil’s book. Ann refused, so Rebecca continued to torture her all day.
Rebecca Nurse’s examination was a riot. No matter what Rebecca did, the girls continued to scream and cry. She insisted she was innocent, but Hathorne asked the same questions he used on the others.
Rebecca reminded everyone that the week before, she was holed up at home sick as a dog. But that didn’t matter since her spirit could be out and about doing evil things while she sat under a blanket in front of a fire or in her bed.
The other person questioned that day was Dorcas Good, also known as Dorothy. The girls wouldn’t stop screaming whenever Dorothy looked at them.
This four-year-old was quite the little witch. A few days later in Salem prison, Dorothy confessed to Hathorne and Corwin that she had a snake that suckled from her finger. Like the others, Dorothy and Rebecca won themselves a trip to Salem prison.
Mary Warren, who worked for the Proctors, was one of the girls plagued by witches. But John Proctor remedied that when he threatened to beat her affliction out of her.
However, that didn’t stop others from pointing fingers at the Proctors. Mercy Lewis, who worked for the Putnams, accused Elizabeth Proctor. But it wasn’t until over one week later that any complaints were filed against her and Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca Nurse’s sister.
Visions of Elizabeth and Sarah continued to torment not only the girls but also John Indian, Tituba’s husband, until April 11 when the examination for the two women began.
Their examination was a little bit different because Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and his assistants made a special appearance.
Instead of taking place in Salem Village, this examination took place at the Salem Town meetinghouse. Danforth asked the questions, and he made sure to stress what was done to the girls so all could hear just how much they suffered.
When Sarah was identified as a witch, she passed out. This sent the girls into hysterics, some of them unable to speak.
It took a moment before they could confirm that Elizabeth Proctor was also a witch. In the same breath, they then threw John Proctor’s name into the ring.
The following day, John Proctor joined the accused and was questioned alongside his wife and Sarah Cloyce. At the end of it all, they were sent to Boston Jail. And then Rebecca Nurse and Dorothy Good were transferred from Salem Prison to Boston Jail as well.
On April 19, four more people were brought in for questioning: Bridget Bishop, Giles Cory, the smarmy husband of Martha Cory, Abigail Hobbs, and Mary Warren.
Hathorne wanted to know how and why Warren switched sides. This was when it came out that John Proctor hadn’t just threatened to beat Mary for accusing people, but he actually went through with it. It was then that Mary realized she’d made an oopsie by pointing her finger at people.
When Mary was being questioned the girls broke out into fits. And then Mary had fits too. There would be no more questioning her that day. But Mary confessed the next day that the Proctors were somehow able to con her into signing the devil’s book.
But that wasn’t enough, she accused others of being witches too. She did refuse to give up John Proctor’s name, even when she was in prison, but she didn’t seem to have had an issue giving up Elizabeth.
On April 19, Giles Cory was also examined. He was 80 years old and like Martha, denied he was a witch. After Cory, 14 year old Abigail Hobbs was up.
She confessed. She had no qualms telling everyone that she took pleasure in disobeying her father and doing what she wanted. Making a deal with the devil was practically a badge of honor.
Abigail’s examination came to a rather abrupt halt when, out of the blue, she became couldn’t hear a word Hathorne said. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were responsible, of course. With Abigail absolutely useless, she was removed from the meetinghouse.
Then there was Bridget Bishop. She made a rather easy target seeing as how she was accused of witchcraft once before. Although it ended with her declared innocent, people had heard about it. She was known for it. So another accusation? Why not.
Richard Coman and John Louder testified that Bridget sat on their chest, kept them pinned down, and choked them.
Apparently Bridget was also killing children and even killed her first husband with witchcraft. Bridget did not confess, said she was innocent. Bridget was sent off to join the rest of the accused in jail.
Two days later, Ann Putnam Jr. came face to face with two specters. This time it was Abigail Hobbs and a new player — Reverend George Burroughs. The very reverend who once worked in Salem. Why did he appear with Abigail? Because both were from the Casco Bay area.
Geroge’s spirit told Ann that he was a murderer. He offed his first two wives, but he didn’t stop there. He then went after Deodat Lawson. Killed the man’s wife and kid.
On May 4, Geroge Burroughs was arrested all the way in Maine. On May 9, his examination began in Salem.
George’s examination was different. The magistrates didn’t want any of the girls screaming and getting in the way of their questions, so George was kept away from the crowd.
During the initial questioning, the good reverend revealed he hadn’t taken part in the sacrament lately. Only his oldest kid was baptised. And Burroughs admitted his property had toads. Toads were considered the devil’s minions.
After the initial questioning, the moment George entered the tavern, the girls went wild. George was shocked. The girls shouted that his dead wives were in the meetinghouse and accusing him of murder.
The girls couldn’t read their testimonies without falling over in some sort of fit. It got to the point that the girls had to be taken out – they were causing too much of a ruckus.
After that, witnesses came forward in droves. George Burroughs went to witch gatherings. He put a hex on one guy. He was incredibly strong, abnormally so. And he bullied his second wife.
In the end, George Burroughs, a woman named Sarah Churchwell, and three women from Woburn were sent to jail to wait for the trials to begin.
Things only got worse the next day. Sarah Osborne, one of the first women accused, who was also bedridden due to her health, died on May 10 after spending nine weeks in the disgusting excuse for a jail.
Back in 1688 John Dunton described Boston Jail as “the suburbs of Hell.” (Per the A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson Baker).The fact that Osborne lasted just over two months, considering her health, was a miracle.
Then two days later, after keeping her lips shut to that point, Mary Warren finally gave up John Proctor’s name as one of the witches. And then she added some more to sweeten the load.
By the middle of May, thanks in part to Mary Warren, there were 36 people in total rotting in jail.
But it wasn’t all her doing, she had some help. There were new accusers on the scene. One of them was 20 year old Sarah Churchill. She worked for George Jacobs, a fella over the age of 70.
Sarah accused both George, as well as his granddaughter, 16 year old Margaret Jacobs. During Geroge’s examination on June 1, he was quite direct. He didn’t believe a lick of what the girls were saying. He was innocent and there was nothing more to say.
Margaret, on the other hand, confessed. She did what she had to do to live another day, though the cost was very high. She ended up accusing her grandfather as well as George Burroughs. We’re all witches! But worry not. She had a change of heart later on and recanted the entire thing.
John Alden, a seventy year old mariner from Boston and son of the co-founder of Plymouth Colony (one of the Mayflower people), was accused of witchcraft on May 28. His examination, like all the ones before him, was a joke.
The girls cried, screamed, and then John asked a very important and legitimate question: why would he take time out of his day to come to Salem and torture people he didn’t even know?! No one had an answer so that was promptly ignored.
John had a reputation as a good and honest man, but that reputation was now in tatters. He managed to escape before the trials ever began.
Unfortunately, he was caught and had to come back to Boston to face trial, but that wasn’t until everything was basically over and done with. Charges dropped. He was a free man again.
Some of the others accused before the trials began were Job Tookey from Beverly, Elizabeth Howe from Topsfield, Martha Carrier from Andover and a slave named Candy from Salem Town.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer
Back on May 14, the brand new Massachusetts Governor William Phips arrived back in Boston from England with a new charter. Basically, all the old laws were out and new ones needed to be made, ones that made England happy.
Even though the General Court could get together to start to make things happen in regards to the witch trials, they weren’t set to meet until the second week of June.
Considering everything that was happening in Salem and the surrounding towns, Phips didn’t want to wait. So on May 27, he established a Court of Oyer and Terminer, which translates to “to hear and determine.”
Regarding the people who had a seat in this court, some of the names should sound familiar. The head honcho was deputy governor William Stoughton.
The other guys were Bartholomew Gedney, John Richards, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Wait Winthrop, Samuel Sewall, John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, and Peter Sergeant. These guys, while the creme de la creme of Massachusetts, none of them had any legal schooling.
The judges all sorted out, Phips had one last move to make before the power was completely in the hands of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. He had to decide on a prosecuting attorney, and he chose Thomas Newton.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer could now get down to business. Their first move was to gather a grand jury of 18 men. These men had to be free men who could vote.
Before the new charter, only freemen who were Puritan church members could vote. But the new charter removed the need to be a Puritan. Now they only needed to be landowning freemen.
The second task before the Court of Oyer and Terminer was probably the hardest. Since the new charter got rid of all the old laws, they needed to decide what kind of evidence and testimonies were valid and invalid.
Two forms of evidence that would be admitted during the Salem trials were spectral evidence and the touch test.
Richards wasn’t sure how to deal with the evidence permitted by the court, so he wrote to his minister Cotton Mather, son of Minister Increase Mather, asking for his advice. Cotton told him not to rely on spectral evidence.
Bridget Bishop’s Short Drop and Sudden Stop
Thomas Newton had Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, John Willard, John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, Susannah Martin, Bridget Bishop, Alice Parker, and Tituba brought to Salem from Boston jail on May 31. On June 2, the trials finally began.
The first to stand trial would be Bridget Bishop. Her case was the easiest to try since that wasn’t her first time as an accused witch. She escaped the noose once, but Newton would try and make sure she wouldn’t get free a second time.
Bridget Bishop had a rather iffy past. She’d been married twice and widowed twice. Domestic violence was as common in the home as air during her second marriage. She was grumpy and unhappy and didn’t pretend that life was just a bed of roses. So obviously, she was a witch.
When it came time for people to share their evidence against her, Bridget was revealed to be quite the busy little witchy bee. She tried to force the girls to sign the devil’s book, even going so far as telling one of the girls she’d drown her if she didn’t sign.
When the girls tried to speak out, Bridget’s spirit made quick work of tormenting the girls some more.
People came out of the woodwork all the way back 20 or so years to stand and testify against Bridget. They said she murdered people and summoned creatures.
Then there were John and William Bly. A father and son duo who had done some work on Bishop’s house back in 1685. According to them, they found voodoo dolls stuffed into the cellar wall.
Did they have these poppets? Nope. The word of these two men from something they saw years ago was good enough.
Dr. John Barton had looked over Bridget’s body so he could find a devil’s mark, also known as a witch’s teat. He found one.
He testified that it was between her genitals and anus. But when they took a look again for confirmation, it was gone. That must have looked even worse.
Probably evidence of black magic in their minds. And what a thing to have to suffer through.
Bridget Bishop was found guilty. Her sentence: death by hanging. One week later, on June 10, Bridget Bishop was taken to a place that would eventually be called Gallows Hill, and her sentence was carried out.
We can only hope that it was a quick death. But in all likelihood, it probably wasn’t.
The drop probably didn’t kill her because it was a short drop instead of a long one. There wasn’t enough force to break her neck, which meant that she would have been strangled by the rope until she died.
A gruesome, horrific, agonizing, and drawn out way to go. Unfortunately, her execution was only the first. Cranky or not, she didn’t deserve the end she got. We hope she rests in peace.
*Photos: All photos used in this post are taken from Wikimedia Commons and are in the Public Domain. To learn more, click here.
*Music: Initial classical piece that’s a part of the intro is Concerto for 2 Oboes in F Major Op9 no3, 3 Allegro by Advent Chamber Orchestra under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.*