What were the Salem Witch Trials?

The Salem Witch Trials began in spring 1692 and lasted for seven months, during which more than 150 people where arrested, 19 were hanged and one was tortured to death. Nige Tassell explains how hysteria in the village of Salem, Massachusets, gave rise to a horror that bedazzled the world

Two girls are tried for witchcraft in a courtroom scene

The heat was stifling on a July day in 1692, as five dishevelled and bound women are paraded on a wooden cart through the streets of Salem village in the colony of Massachusetts Bay. As the cart bumps its way towards a hill on the outskirts, the five contemplate their mortality. Within minutes they’re led, hoods drawn over their heads, towards a rudimentary set of gallows, and their imminent executions.

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Who were first Salem witches?

These five women – Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Wildes – were the among the first to be tried and found guilty of witchcraft during a bleak nine-month period of New England history simply recalled as the Salem Witch Trials. As the innocent women approached the gallows, in the last moments of their lives, they continued to protest their innocence. Rev Nicholas Noyes, one of the local clergymen who had vigorously pursued the prosecutions, was the particular focus of Sarah Good’s anger: “You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard. And if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”

What were they accused of?

Good had been among the first local women to be arrested, after several young girls from the village had experienced mysterious afflictions the previous February. One bitterly cold evening, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams – the daughter and niece of the local Puritan minister Samuel Parris – began displaying disturbing behaviour described as being “beyond the power of epileptic fits or natural disease to effect”. They screamed, made unearthly sounds, suffered convulsions and violently threw objects, and themselves, around their homes.

When asked who it was that had afflicted them, they named Good – a homeless woman who had fallen destitute after denying the inheritance of her wealthy father’s estate – as one of the three culprits. The girls’ accusation was that Good had performed witchcraft on them.

The other two accused and arrested at the same time were Sarah Osborne and Tituba, the Parris’s black slave. Both, like Good, were viewed as outcasts by the local community; Tituba for her race and Osborne for the shedding of any religious beliefs she might once have held. They were soft, obvious targets for a mistrustful, God-fearing populace living along strictly defined lines.

What is the context of the Salem Witch Trials?

When it came to religion, Salem Village was as devout as any other settlement in the area; one visitor observed that the residents of New England could “neither drive a bargain, nor make a jest, without a text of Scripture at the end of it”. Indeed, as Stacy Schiff explains in The Witches, her history of the witch trials, “It would have been difficult to find more than a few souls to whom the supernatural was not eminently real, part and parcel of the culture, as was the devil himself”.

Slaves made easy targets for witchcraft accusations. This engraving depicts the enslaved Barbadian woman Tituba, who belonged to the Parris family and was one the first accused during the Salem Witch Trials (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)
Slaves made easy targets for witchcraft accusations. This engraving depicts the enslaved Barbadian woman Tituba, who belonged to the Parris family and was one the first accused during the Salem Witch Trials (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)

While Puritanism in New England demanded rigidly defined behaviour (hymns were the only permissible music, while children’s toys were outlawed), the colony’s geographical isolation increased the insularity of these communities. Hemmed in by the ocean to the east and by an untamed wilderness to the west, settlers were completely disconnected from both the mother country on the other side of the Atlantic and the remainder of the American continent.

And insularity bred paranoia, as Schiff sharply explains. “In isolated settlements, in dim, smoky, firelit homes, New Englanders lived very much in the dark, where one listens more acutely, feels more passionately, imagines most vividly, where the sacred and the occult thrive.” These five executions were not the first in New England for the crime of witchcraft. Between 1647 and 1688, 12 women had been sentenced to death for making covenants with the devil.

But the particular brand of paranoia that was rife in Salem Village – fed by a rivalry with neighbouring Salem Town, ongoing family feuds and attacks by Native Americans – developed into mass hysteria. A flurry of accusations from girls with afflictions similar to those of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams resulted in an avalanche of arrests and prosecutions.

Warrants were issued by the dozen, sometimes for the arrest of the most unlikely suspects. Among those detained in March 1692 were Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse, upstanding members of the local churches in Salem Village and Salem Town respectively. Corey, a woman who, in her own words, “had made a profession of Christ and rejoiced to go and hear the word of God”, had drawn the attention of the prosecutors by offering the opinion that the accusers were just “poor, distracted children”.

The hysteria gripping Salem – a settlement resonating with the incessant sound of accusation and counteraccusation – showed that no-one was exempt from suspicion. Even Sarah Good’s four-year-old daughter Dorothy was arrested and interrogated by the magistrates.

How did the Salem Witch Trials begin?

By the end of May, more than 60 people were in custody; the vast majority were women, but a handful of men were also detained. On 2 June, the specially convened Court of Oyer and Terminer (‘oyer’ meaning ‘to hear’, ‘terminer’  meaning ‘to decide’) sat for the first time, presided over by William Stoughton, the newly appointed lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. As chief justice, Stoughton believed that spectral evidence presented to the court – that is, evidence gathered from dreams and visions – would form a central plank of the prosecutions. At the same time, the accused would be denied legal representation.

Two days before the court convened, a Puritan minister from Boston named Cotton Mather wrote to one of the judges expressing his concern over the admissibility of such evidence.

A prolific pamphleteer railing against the spread of witchcraft (or “molestations from the invisible world”), Mather was nonetheless keen for due diligence to occur inside the courtroom. “Do not lay more stress on pure spectral evidence than it will bear,” he cautioned.

Who was the first witch of Salem to be executed?

The first case brought before the grand jury was that of Bridget Bishop, a woman around the age of 60 who faced a plethora of accusations: that she could pass through doors and windows without opening them; that she had made holes in the road suddenly open up, into which carts would fall before the holes would instantly disappear; that she had summoned a “black pig” with the body of a monkey and the feet of a cockerel.

A large proportion of the case against Bishop also focused on her lifestyle, especially her rumoured promiscuity and un-Puritan ways. Tried and found guilty within the course of a single day, Bishop was hanged a week later on 10 June, the first execution of the trials.

Bridget Bishop is hanged from a tree for witchcraft
Bridget Bishop, a woman of 60, was the first ‘witch’ to be executed during the trials. She was tried and hung on the very first day ((Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

After Bishop’s execution – and the court’s endorsement of the indictments against Rebecca Nurse and John Willard, a local constable who, doubting the allegations, refused to bring the accused to court – the grand jury adjourned for almost three weeks. They did so in order to gather the observations of the colony’s most senior ministers, to hear their reflections “upon the state of things as they then stood”.

The eight-point response, penned by Cotton Mather, advised prudence when it came to procedure, cautioning that hastiness shouldn’t overwhelm lawfulness. However, the subtlety of the ministers’ response was largely sidelined by the grand jury, who drew their energy from one particular concluding line from Mather: “we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government, the speedy and vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious.” In possession of such a mandate, the trials moved up a gear.

In early July, Sarah Good and her four co-accused were tried and found guilty of bewitchment, making that journey to the gallows on that wooden cart a few days later. The indictments then came thick and fast. Another five were executed exactly a month later on 19 August, four of whom were men. One of them, George Burroughs, protested his innocence as the noose was readied.

He is recorded to have recited a prayer “uttered with such composedness from many, so that it seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution”. Only the intervention of Cotton Mather – whonappeased the crowd with the observation that “the devil had often been transformed into the Angel of Light” – ensured that the hangings continued as scheduled.

In mid-September, a further group went to the gallows – “Eight Firebrands of Hell” in the words of Rev Noyes. Three days earlier, the death of another of the accused had occurred. Giles Corey, the husband of Martha Corey, refused to enter a plea and was subjected to a particularly gruesome form of torture where the accused is crushed under heavy stones until they either respond or die – a tactic known as peine forte et dure, (‘until he either answered or died’). Corey still refused to offer a plea and paid with his life. By now, seven months on from the arrest of Sarah Good, the hysteria was decelerating.

When did the Salem Witch Trials end?

Having initially set up the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Governor William Phips – having returned from fighting in King Philip’s War in Maine – voiced concerns about “what danger some of [his] innocent subjects might be exposed to” and dissolved the court, in the process pardoning those remaining in custody. Not that the prosecutions were concluded even then. Fresh witchcraft cases continued to come before the new Superior Court of Judicature that, while again presided over by William Stoughton, was ordered not to accept spectral evidence. Even when the court ordered further executions, Phips wisely issued pardons to those convicted.

The Salem Witch Trials offered a salutary lesson not only to the colony of Massachusetts Bay but also to the new nation that would be forged in the following century. Through the loss of 20 lives, the episode continues to warn of the dangers of insularity and isolationism, of intolerance, of religious extremism. The less-than-thorough procedures of the Salem courtroom also prompted tighter, more rational legal processes that would later be enshrined in the US Constitution.

Of course, remembering the events of 1692 can still act as a brake when contemporary events take a sinister downturn. This was no more notable than when playwright Arthur Miller chose to dramatise the trials in his 1953 play The Crucible. An allegory of the intolerant McCarthyism discolouring the nation at the time – Miller would himself be called before the Committee on Un-American Activities three years later – the parallels were undeniable.

Despite its power as a cautionary tale, Salem remains an enigma that continues to fascinate and beguile more than three centuries later.

What caused the outbreak of hysteria in Salem?

In the 300 years since the Salem Witch Trials, experts have gone to great lengths to offer explanations for the young Salem girls’ afflictions of a somewhat more rational nature than the ‘witchcraft’ diagnosed at the time.

A 1976 study, printed in the journal Science, attributed the girls’ hysterical and possibly hallucinogenic behaviour to the ingestion of rye bread made with grain infected with ergot of rye.

Ergot contains lysergic acid, a precursor for synthesis of LSD; certainly the visions of shape-shifting devils reported by the afflicted might be consistent with the experiences of an acid trip. Other medical explanations have included encephalitis lethargica, a disease carried by birds and animals, and Lyme disease, an infection that produces skin rashes similar to those believed to have been administered by the Salem ‘witches’.

Other diagnoses have focused more on the mental wellbeing of the Salem girls. Psychosomatic disorders have been suggested as the root of the hysteria, most notably the societal strains placed on them in a strict, deeply religious adult world that made no contingency for the developmental needs of children. The hysterical behaviour was an unconscious outlet for rebellion, a release valve for the pressure that the threat of eternal damnation put them under.

And, of course, there’s the theory that it was all down to good old fashioned spite. In an insular society like Salem, where anyone straying from the norm was immediately criticised or condemned, accusations of witchcraft were a method of self-defence, of keeping the more undesirable elements of the local community at arm’s length, if not removing them completely.

Witchcraft in England

While Salem has, in the English-speaking world at least, become the byword for witch-hunts, a very similar episode occurred in Lancashire in 1612, some 80 years before the panic in New England – the case of the Pendle Hill witches.

Witchcraft had been made illegal during Henry VIII’s reign, with subsequent legislation passed under Elizabeth I further outlawing “conjurations” and “enchantments”. When a young Lancastrian woman called Alison Device asked for a pin from a travelling peddler but was denied, the peddler apparently became immediately paralysed down his left side. Device reportedly admitted an act of bewitchment, as well as accusing another woman of undertaking similar practices.

In pre-echoes of what would later occur in Salem, panic took hold of the local community, with accusations flying in all directions. More significant were admissions of attending a witches’ meeting on Pendle Hill. Ultimately, eight women and two men were tried and found guilty of attending the gathering. With a 1562 act now permitting the death penalty for acts of witchcraft, they were hanged.

The other most notorious case of witchcraft in England came during the British Civil Wars when Matthew Hopkins – the son of a Puritan clergyman and the self-styled ‘Witch Finder General’ – scoured East Anglia in search those suspected of making covenants with the Devil. Hopkins’ crusade was at its most virulent between 1644 and 1646. Estimates suggest that over 200 women were executed during this period as a direct result of the investigations of Hopkins and his associates.

The English laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, after which incidents of suspected bewitchment, by now very isolated, were dealt with by mob rule rather than by a clear legal framework.


Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history

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This content first appeared in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed