Bernard Rosenthal opens his book on the events in Salem
with the statement that "few topics in American culture have received the
broad attention received by the Salem witch trials," adding that
"Salem has had a powerful hold on American imagination."[i] It began in January or February
1692 in a Salem household and it ended with nineteen people swinging at the end
of a rope in two groups on August 19 and September 22, 1693. The whole affair
therefore lasted a little more than eighteen months.
1. How Salem began
Salem is a small city to the north of Boston in the state of Massachusetts[ii]; it is situated on the coast of the Atlantic and disposes of a good harbour. It was founded in 1630 by a group of English Puritans fleeing persecution in their native country. Their leader was John Winthrop (1587/1588-1649), a visionary man who told his followers that they had to be `as a city on the hill; the eyes of all people are upon us'.[iii] Winthrop was unwittingly being prophetic. He wanted Salem to be a Christian Utopia, but what kept the eyes of posterity riveted on it was something quite else.
The foundation flourished. About 1650 it numbered some eight hundred residents, with their families, many of whom were prosperous. They were merchants, shipwrights, and fishermen; many other families possessed farms more inland. By far the wealthiest class was that of the merchants, who dominated the city politically. The large majority of the inhabitants professed the Puritan religion, but this does not mean that they formed a united, a unanimous body. There was much wrangling and striving among them; factions abounded, and ministers came and went.
2. Problems in Salem Village
This was especially so in an outpost of the town, where the farmers lived, Salem Village. The villagers resented the control of Salem town, the home of the rich merchants."They had found each minister flawed in some way, doctrinally or for other reasons."[iv] "We have had three ministers removed already," complained a parishioner, "and by every removal our differences have been rather aggravated."[v] In 1689 once again a new pastor was appointed, Samuel Parris. He came from London, where he was born in 1653. His father and an uncle set up a sugar plantation in Barbados, in the Caribbean Sea. They did well, and somewhen after 1660 their families joined them.
Samuel, who wanted to be a pastor, went to Harvard in order to study theology, but because of his father's death he was unable to graduate. He did not return to Harvard, but earned his bread as a merchant. Obviously he had a talent for commerce; soon he was financially well off. In 1680 he moved to Boston, but here he was only moderately successful. Salem gave him the chance to begin a new career. There was a vacancy; Samuel tried his luck, preached a sermon that was well received, and got the post in the summer of 1689, after the parish elders had thoroughly fleeced him. The new pastor was married and had two children.
3. Pastor Parris
The parish Parris became pastor of, that of Salem Village, was independent; just before he assumed office, it had severed its bond with the mother Church in Salem town. Parris was a strict Puritan; he firmly intended to upgrade the religious life of his parishioners of which he was not satisfied.[vi] Trouble arose between him and some of his flock. He was accused of being too much concerned with money; his pay was poor indeed, and his salary was not regularly paid. Attendance at the Sunday services diminished. "Some sit before the preacher", said Parris, "as senseless as the seats they sit on, the pillows they lean on, the dead bodies they tread on [in the graves under the floor]".[vii]
Parris felt the opposition painfully; he knew to whom ascribe it. "Christ having begun a new work, it is the main drift of the Devil to pull it all down."[viii] But the elect would triumph. "The Church may meet with storms, but it will never sink. For Christ sits not idle in the Heavens, but takes most faithfully care of his little ship [the Church] bound for the port of Heaven, laden with many gems & jewels, a treasure purchased by his own inestimated blood."[ix] Such was the situation and such was the mood, when, on a cold wintry day of January or February 1691, the event occurred that unleashed the Salem witch crisis.
4. Bewitched girls
Pastor Samuel Parris had a nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, Betty for short. Another member of the household was a niece of the pastor, Abigail Williams, aged eleven. The two girls, wanting to know which kind of men their later husbands would be, resorted to some sort of sorcery with which they were obviously not wholly unacquainted. They used something like a crystal ball, described as `an egg and a glass'. We do not know what it told them, but the experiment had an unfavourable effect on these little girls; they were living in a house that was old and dark, and in which the religious atmosphere was overheated.
A pastor from a nearby parish described what happened. "These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents. Their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any epileptic fits or natural disease to effect. Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move a heart of stone to sympathize with them, with bowels of compassion for them."[x] Because this pastor believed that the fit had a supernatural cause, he excluded the possibility of a physical ailment. Yet the fit has all the appearance of an epileptic attack. The curious thing is that they had it simultaneously. Perhaps one of them had a fit indeed, whereas in the other it was copying behaviour.
5. A well-known story
Stories of witches and witchcraft were quite common at the time. Instances were related with gusto and went from mouth to mouth. It is therefore important to add what the aforementioned pastor added. "I will not enlarge on their cruel sufferings, because they were in all things afflicted as bad as John Goodwin's children at Boston in the year 1689."[xi] In the Goodwin case a woman, called Glover, was accused of having bewitched the children; she had confessed and was hanged. This story was well-known in Massachusetts; it is not inconceivable that the Parris children had heard it.[xii] The general atmosphere will undoubtedly have been suggestive.[xiii]
6. Investigation by experts
Acting as a dutiful father, Samuel Parris invoked the assistance of his confrères and of a physician. One of the pastors was John Hale, who had ample experience with cases of witchcraft. The experts soon reached a unanimous conclusion, namely, that the symptoms "were preternatural and [they] feared that the hand of Satan was in them."[xiv]
An aunt of the family, Mary Sibley, knew what to do: black magic must be countered with white magic. She sought the help of a man, a certain John Indian, and of a woman, Tituba, both slaves of the Parris family. They were obviously knowledgeable in this field; they knew a means to find out what was behind the fits. They baked a cake consisting of urine of the girls and of rye meal and gave this tasty food to a dog, a dog of the family probably. I have no idea what this was supposed to prove, but actually it proved nothing.[xv]
As Rosenthal writes, "Tituba [who was married to John Indian] appears in the overwhelming number of narrations as the central figure in the genesis of the witch trials."[xvi] The poor woman was the usual suspect. She was supposed to be half black, half Indian, or, still worse, wholly black, `the dark woman, the alien, who enters the Puritan world and plunges it into chaos.'[xvii] Later she was accused of having become acquainted with voodoo practices in Barbados and of having assembled a circle of girls, including Betty and Abigail, telling them weird stories of witchery. However, none of the contemporary witnesses mentioned anything of this kind.[xviii]
The two children themselves believed to have been bewitched; they accused Tituba that "she did pinch, prick, and grievously torment them." When interrogated, the woman admitted that she had helped to bake the cake. Yet she denied that she herself was a witch; in Barbados she had been servant to a witch, a good one, for from her she had learned to discover a (bad) witch and how to prevent bewitching.[xix]
What had happened in the Parris household proved to be contagious. By February there were six similar cases in three different Salem households; the victims were girls from twelve to twenty years old, all either daughters or servant girls of these families.[xx] Two other girls having fits were Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard, the ages of whom were sixteen, seventeen or eighteen. These hysterical girls obviously loved to be the centre of so much attention.[xxi] They accused two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, of torturing them.
8. The Sarahs questioned
The moment had come that the yeomen of the village, the authorities, of whom Samuel Parris was one, decided to take action. On February 29 Tituba and the two Sarahs were arrested. The next day, March 1, they were transferred to the house of Nathanael Ingesoll to be examined by two magistrates, Jonatha Corwin and John Hathorne.
Sarah Good was a woman rather to be pitied than accused. She was probably somewhat disturbed and given to muttering. After having been widowed, she had married William Good; the couple was poor and unable to pay their debts.[xxii] She was questioned by Hathorne who started from the premiss that she was guilty. He asked her: "Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you been familiarizing with?"; she denied having been familiar with an evil spirit or being one. She also denied having harmed whomsoever. Then all the four children accused her of having "dreadfully tortured and tormented [them] for a short space of time." Hathorne then asked her: "Do you now see what you have done? Why do you not tell us the truth, why do you torment these poor children?" He took without questioning what the children said at its face value. In her distress the woman said that not she but Sarah Osborne was the culprit.
It seems as though there was a conspiracy to send Sarah Good to the gallows (she was hanged indeed). She had a little daughter - six years old! - who testified that her mother had three `familiars', namely, `three birds, black and yellow, and that these birds hurt the children and afflicted persons'. Even her husband William pushed her deeper down. He said that she was `an enemy to all good', and also that he had seen a `witch's teat' on her body. More witnesses came forward testifying that she had made their cows die.[xxiii] Right from the beginning Sarah's case was a lost one. The credulous and biased authorities were ready to be believe the weirdest stories.
Sarah Osborne, a married woman of sixty, was not poor, for she possessed landed property. She denied being a witch. In this case too her own husband, Alexander Osborne, made her plight worse by telling the judges that his wife had not seen the inside of a church for fourteen months.[xxiv]
9. Tituba questioned
Let the reader imagine these scenes. To the villagers who had free entry and some of whom were heard as witnesses, it was sheer entertainment. The climax came when Tituba was heard for hours on end. This woman obviously had a fertile fantasy and was quite ready to give the judges (and the public) what they wanted. At first, she denied being a witch and accused the two Sarahs instead. Then she changed tack and began to tell the most lurid stories, keeping the public spellbound. She had seen the strangest things: a hog, a black dog, a man with a yellow bird, a red rat, a black rat, a wolf, a being on two legs with a woman's head and wings. Sometimes one of the children tuned in to state that she had also seen something of this kind.[xxv]
Tituba admitted that the Devil had appeared to her and forced her to serve him; she had pinched the children, but Good and Osborne had done the same. She also told the judges that she had ridden witch-like through the air on a stick or pole, in company of the two Sarahs.[xxvi] It will not have pleased her master, the Reverend Parris, that she confessed to have conducted occult sessions in his house. During the next days the women were again examined, with Tituba adding some more details. The proceedings in Salem now having been completed, the magistrates sent the three women to Boston to be locked up in the jail.
10. A general craze
It seemed as though the whole town was suffering from hallucinations; the craze was obviously contagious. Although the suspects were out of the way now, the children continued to be convulsive; the pastors fasted and prayed, but to no avail. Betty declared that "the great black man came to her and told her that, if she would be ruled by him, she would have whatsoever she desired and go to a Golden City." There were villagers who declared that they had seen the three women accompanied by a strange beast. Another man had seen a large grey cat in his bedroom; the animal had come in, although the door was locked.[xxvii]
All these occurrences convinced the villagers that there must be more witches around. Ann Putnam, one of the four girls accused Martha Cory on March 11 of having pinched and hurt her. Martha was a farmer's wife, a respected member of the local Church. Two magistrates visited the twelve-year-old Ann, asking her which clothes the spectre that had assaulted her had worn. The child answered that she had not seen them, because Martha Corey had blinded her. The two men then went to Corey's farm. Martha received them with a smile. "I know what you are come for; you are come to talk with me about a witch, but I am none. I cannot help people's talking of me." Martha did not believe that she might come to grief; she was financially well-off and socially secure as a regular church-goer. Yet she experienced a bad shock, when another of the children, Abigail Williams, also accused her.
In an attempt to defuse the tension Martha went to the Putnam house, wanting to pacify little Ann. But her coming led to a crazy scene. Ann fell down, screamed that she was blinded and made convulsive movements, all the while pointing to Martha and yelling that she was the culprit. Later she stated blandly that she had seen the Corey woman roasting a man at a spit on the fireplace. Then the maid of the Putnams, Mercy Lewis, also became hysterical. The family bade Martha to go, but the next morning the Lewis girl said that during the previous evening she was "drawn towards the fire by unseen hands as she sat in a chair with two women taking hold of it. Yet she and the chair moved towards the fire though they labored to the contrary." With the utmost exertion she was saved from being pushed into the fire; this distress held until eleven o'clock in the night."[xxviii] The most insane is that all this was believed as Gospel truth; nobody poured pails of cold water over these girls' heads.
11. Martha Corey examined
Instead, the Putnams filed a complaint; in consequence, the judges ordered Martha before them. The examination took place on Monday, March 21. On the previous Sunday, the 20th, Martha, still not suspecting that she would end on the gallows, went to church, only to witness that the afflicted girls disturbed the service. The pastor could hardly go on with his sermon. Ann Putnam said that she saw a yellow bird perched on the pastor's hat "as it hung on the pin in the pulpit." Not wanting to stay behind, Abigail Williams screamed: "Look how the good wife [Corey] sits on the beam suckling her yellow bird between her fingers."[xxix]
All this caused an enormous consternation. The culprits of the disturbance were not the girls, but, it goes without saying, poor Martha. On that morning of the 21th nobody did a stroke of work; hundreds of villagers came to be present at the examination, which had to be transferred to a larger locality. Martha denied all the charges, but sometimes vacillated under the relentless questioning, so that her answers became vague and contradictory. She realized that everyone in the hall of the meeting house believed that she was guilty. Even her husband Giles turned against her, relating incidents which had made him think that his wife was `dabbling in the occult." Martha began to feel that she was lost. "If you will all go hang me, how can I help it?" After an extremely long examination she was locked up in the local jail.[xxx]
During the next days two other women, Rebecca Nurse and Dorca Good, whose names had been mentioned by the afflicted girls, were examined and committed to Salem jail. By the 24th there were six women in custody, three in Boston prison and three in Salem jail.
12. Pastor Parris preaching
On Sunday the 27th Samuel Parris preached, on what else than on the subject of witchcraft, on the occurrence of witchcraft in his own parish. There were flowers in his garden, but also weeds. The public sinners were not the worst, because everybody knew them. No, the worst were the hypocrites, posing as saints, but in reality `dissembling Judases'. The Satan made use of such people. Parris's sermon made an already fraught mental situation still worse: from now on everyone, even the most respected parishioners might be suspected of being a witch.
This sermon made one Sarah Cloyce so angry that she noisily walked out and slammed the door. This behaviour may be explained by the fact that she was a sister of Rebecca Nurse.[xxxi] It was a hazardous thing to do. The afflicted children began to claim that Sarah's spectre was harming them; they had seen her in the company of other witches, eating and drinking with them. There was no end of accusing. Together with `Goody Cloyce', Elizabeth Proctor and her husband John (the first man to be involved) were indicted and examined on April 11; they were all people of good standing in the village and the parish. With the three detainees in Salem jail these people were sent to Boston prison, which now housed nine citizens from Salem.[xxxii]
13. The craze spreading
The craze spread like wildfire, from Salem through all Massachusetts. By June 2 charges had been levelled against seventy people in nineteen towns and villages, half of them in Salem Town and Salem Village. Of these seventy only six were men.[xxxiii] We may be certain that accusing a troublesome neighbour or an undesirable member of the family was a convenient means of getting him or her out of the way. As the weeks passed, more and more accused were delivered to Boston prison, which soon became overcrowded. The help of other towns was invoked; accused were locked up in Boston, Salem, Ipswich, Cambrigde, and elsewehere. Towards the end of August there were almost one hundred and fifty detainees. Terms of imprisonment differed considerably; some were released within weeks, whereas other stayed in a cell for a year. The average term was four and a half months.[xxxiv]
Even today American prisons, overcrowded as they are, do not enjoy a reputation for comfort. In 1692 it was no better. The husband of an arrested wife wrote to the General Court, indignantly speaking of his wife's prison as a `stinking jail'. Some did not survive the harsh regime; several deaths occurred. Sarah Good had a baby while in prison, but the child died in her cell. Many prisoners lay in chains; yet a few managed to escape.[xxxv]
14. The trials
The trials of the accused all took place in Salem on four different occasions, on June 30, August 5, September 9 and September 17. Scores of people appeared before the judges and the juries. There were no acquittals; the jurors almost automatically pronounced the `guilty'. Not all of them were executed, many had to spend some time in prison or were punished with the confiscation of their goods. There were no beheadings. In all eighteen people were hanged, respectively on July 19, August 19, and September 22. Four people died in prison. Some people confessed; other obdurately maintained that they were innocent. Standing at the foot of the gallows, Sarah Good, who was a hardheaded woman, was implored by a clergyman to confess, but she retorted: "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard."[xxxvi]
15. All over now?
Towards the end of September the proceedings ended. It was all over. Or was it? "The residents of Massachussets found it difficult to put the year of afflictions, accusations, examinations, incarcerations, convictions, confiscations, and executions behind them so easily as the governor and the judges ended the legal proceedings. Bitterness and outrage prevented a rapid reconciliation of those divided by the events of 1692."[xxxvii] It is not hard to imagine how the people of Salem Village, where it all began, would be looking at each other. "I fear ... that God hath a controversy with us about what was done in the time of the witchcraft. I fear that innocent blood hath been shed & that many had their hands defiled therewith," this wrote a certain Michael Wigglesworth in 1704, twelve years after the witchcraze.[xxxviii]
Nobody else but the Salem people were guilty of this defilement. People had accused each other; husbands had even testified against their wives. Families will have been torn apart, friendships severed, neighbours estranged. "Most of the individuals whose actions contributed to the incarceration and conviction of the accused - the afflicted, clergymen, judges and jurors - could never bring themselves to admit publicly that they had been mistaken in their campaign against the forces of evil. Yet over time, some came forward and admitted error. In so doing they began a process of healing."[xxxix]
It all began with four children having `fits'. Had they been spanked and told `Beware that you do not come along with this nonsense again!', the Salem witch crisis would have been nipped in the bud. Yet they were believed, and it became a sad, even tragic story, taking a number of lives and destroying the happiness of many others. Why were they believed? It seems as though it were a message for which Salem had been waiting.
The Salem witch crisis occurred at at time, when in Europe the rage was already past its climax; across the ocean more and more voices became loud against it. Yet in an isolated community as Salem, without intellectual contacts with Europe, the air was still rife with stories of witchcraft. Everybody believed that witches existed indeed, and that certain people - even people they knew - might be witches. None of the accused said: "Stop it! I am not a witch, for the very simple reason that witches do not exist." It happened that they accused one other of being a witch. Add to this that Salem was a small community in which vilifying rumours reverberated.
It was also a Puritan community, with the strictest rules of life, leaving not much room for entertainment. As in all small communities gossiping was fun. Then there was a firm belief in Satan; he could be active even in a God-fearing community, trying to lure the faithful from the ways of God, making them his tools. All this means that a community like Salem was a fertile ground for a witchcraze. Once it had got beyond the first obstacle - that of preventing the four children from attracting attention -, there was no stopping it. It gathered evermore force and began to live a life of its own. No one could or even would stop it. And thus it ended as it ended.
GRAGG, Larry, The Salem Witch Crisis. New York, 1992.
ROSENTHAL, Bernard, Salem Story. Reading the Witch Trials of 1697. Series: Studies in American Literature and Culture. Cambridge University Press (1993).