When the devil stalked Salem: the story of the Salem witch trials

Why were 19 people hanged for practising dark magic in 17th-century New England? Ellie Cawthorne, presenter of a new HistoryExtra podcast series on the events of 1692–93, examines six causes of the Salem witch trials

A scene from the Salem witch trials, depicted in a 19th-century lithograph

During the freezing January of 1692, unsettling incidents began to occur in the parsonage of Salem. The Reverend Samuel Parris’s 11-year-old niece and nine-year-old daughter – usually well-behaved girls – began to shudder and shake, shrieking, wailing and barking like dogs. A local physician was called in and delivered a damning diagnosis that the girls were not suffering from any standard medical issue, but rather an “evil hand” was at work. By that, the physician meant an agent of the devil. That diagnosis would result in one of the darkest and most bizarre episodes in the early history of the United States.

Keen to discover the perpetrator, a local woman, Mary Sibley, encouraged the parsonage girls to bake a “witchcake”. Soaked in urine and fed to a dog, this folk practice was designed to reveal the identity of the malevolent force behind the young girls’ afflictions. Parris was furious when he learnt of its concoction, later railing at his congregation: “By this means, it seems the devil has been raised amongst us and his rage is vehement and terrible, and when he shall be silenced, the Lord only knows.”

His declaration was to prove eerily prescient. A few days after baking the witchcake, the girls did indeed identify three witches masquerading as marginalised members of their community. News of the outbreak of bad magic spread across the small New England settlement, and so too did seemingly supernatural incidents. More girls suffered from similar fits and convulsions, while others encountered hairy beasts at their firesides or felt themselves pinched and pricked by invisible hands.

The exposed and isolated colonial settings only intensified threats posed by poor weather

The settlers’ firm belief that they were being plagued by agents of Satan was swiftly followed by a desire to root out those responsible and hold them to account. In May 1692, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony established a special Court of Oyer and Terminer – meaning “to hear and to determine” – in Salem. Those gathered in the courtroom listened rapt to testimonies that told of flying witches, supernatural beasts and satanic Sabbaths. Suspected witches confessed to eye-raising sins, and named neighbours and family members also in league with the devil. Chaos unfolded in the courtroom as accusers shrieked and moaned, and declared themselves to be tormented or choked by the malign spirits of those on trial.

As the trials progressed, the contagion spread to Salem’s neighbouring communities, but as accusations multiplied into the hundreds, and even the governor’s wife became implicated, those in charge began to have doubts. Could there really be that many witches in New England? By the time the Court of Oyer and Terminer was finally disbanded and the trials fizzled out, the spectacle had dragged on for more than a year. Nineteen “witches” had been hanged, at least five others had died in jail, and one man had been pressed to death with stones for refusing to enter a plea. Dozens more were accused, interrogated and imprisoned.

Salem Square

So how did the strange behaviour of a couple of young girls escalate into a community-wide panic that led to the deaths of 25 people? That’s the subject of our new podcast series, Salem: Investigating the Witch Trials. With expert help, I have been uncovering a range of factors that helped fuel an outbreak of paranoia that had deadly consequences – six of which I explore overleaf. From social tensions and religious fervour to a chaotic justice system, they can help us move towards an understanding of why these seemingly inexplicable events took place.


1

Salem’s siege mentality

The perils of indigenous violence and bad harvests fostered a climate of intense paranoia

A good place to start when looking for reasons to explain how and why the Salem witch trials happened is the settlement of Salem itself. “This was a precarious society that felt very much under siege,” says Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches: Salem, 1692. “Every settlement in New England had its encounters with the howling wilderness. Whether wolves, Native Americans or the threat of starvation, they were always sensitive to the dangers looming close to their edges.”

The Salemites had justification to feel this way. “The recent history had been one of serious trauma,” says Schiff. From 1675–76, a bitter conflict between settlers and the indigenous population, known as King Philip’s or Metacom’s War, had claimed the lives of around 10 per cent of New England’s adult men. As Schiff puts it: “Almost everyone had known casualties, and society was still bearing scars from those years.”

Raids from local Native American tribes (who themselves felt under threat from the colonists) remained a danger to colonial settlements, the fear of which is hinted at in the court records from the witch trials. Under interrogation, suspected witch Mary Toothaker admitted that following nightmares about a Native American attack, she had been seduced into doing a deal with the devil because he promised to “deliver her from the Indians”.

It was not only human forces that may have exacerbated stress levels in Salem, but environmental ones too. The witch trials came at the tail end of an especially cold period of the Little Ice Age, characterised by freezing winters and cool wet summers that led to bad harvests. Some historians have linked the hardships this caused to the explosion of witch trials in Europe. The exposed colonial settings only intensified threats posed by poor weather, and colonists would surely have been aware of other settlements suffering badly from shortages of food and resources.

While these pressures cannot explain why Salemites’ fears fixated on witchcraft, they can help us understand some of the underlying anxieties that may have made the community more susceptible to escalating paranoia when the first accusations emerged.

2

The mania for spiritual purity

It was the duty of all good Puritans to eliminate threats

First established by religious radicals in search of a New Jerusalem, Salem was a settlement founded on strong Puritan ideals. According to Professor Ronald Hutton, author of The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present, Puritanism offered “exceptionally fertile soil for witchcraft beliefs to sprout and flourish”. One aspect of its theology that played a role here was its emphasis on biblical literalism. The command in the Book of Exodus: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” was taken as a death sentence for suspected witches, and enshrined in the Massachusetts legal code set down in 1641.

The title page of former Salem minister Deodat Lawson’s 1692 pamphlet on the witchcraft accusations
The title page of former Salem minister Deodat Lawson’s 1692 pamphlet on the witchcraft accusations, in which he warns: “Christ’s kingdom may be divided against itself, and so be weakened”. (Image by Alamy)

The Puritans’ origin story was one of persecution. By the 1690s, they still felt under threat as French Catholics encroached ever closer to Puritan settlements and the religious zeal of the initial settlers had become diluted by generational change. It was part of a good Puritan’s duty to seek out and eliminate threats to the spiritual purity of the community, whether external or internal. “They believed that God wanted them to root out people who were rotten and get rid of them,” says Professor Marion Gibson, author of the upcoming Witchcraft: A History in 13 Trials (due 2023). “You were either with God or against him. It was a very binary way of thinking.”

Each church member was expected to pursue an austere lifestyle founded on moral rigour, creating an atmosphere of heightened moral awareness in which the need to monitor and police the behaviours of neighbours increased. “You were not only expected to follow the rules to the letter, but even to think the right thoughts,” says Gibson. “This was a community founded on conformity, and it does seem that a number of the accused were known to the community as people who weren’t living well in Puritan terms.”

3

Personal grudges turning deadly

Neighbourly disputes may have led to life-threatening accusations

Many of those hauled up before the Court of Oyer and Terminer were already well-versed in the workings of the legal system. Salem’s colourful history of personal disputes, land battles and litigiousness may help explain why neighbours were so quick to turn on each other. “Salem was made up of fractious, hard-headed individuals who liked to argue,” says Professor Marion Gibson. “They had travelled all the way around the world to run their own affairs, so it’s fair to say they were pretty strong minded. And an entire community of people who all hold their own really strong opinions and aren’t shy about expressing them doesn’t always lead to happiness.”

Indeed, several of those executed had been involved in previous conflicts and legal proceedings. Giles Corey – who would end up being pressed to death by stones – had beaten a farmhand to death, while Bridget Bishop, the first to hang, had previously been in court on charges of theft and witchcraft. George Burroughs had made his fair share of enemies during his three-year tenure as Salem’s minister, failing to repay loans and gaining a reputation for cruelty and domestic violence. The mud clearly stuck. Although Burroughs had not lived in the settlement for nine years by the time that accusations erupted in 1692, 30 people testified at his trial, denouncing him as a wife-murderer who presided over satanic baptisms.

Yet not everyone accused matched the profile of neighbourhood antagonist – some were well-respected members of the community. Magistrates reportedly expressed surprise when the god-fearing Martha Corey was named as a suspect, and several people signed a petition in defence of the elderly Rebecca Nurse, refusing to believe that the matriarch from a prosperous family could possibly be an agent of Satan. Neither was saved from the gallows.

While it’s difficult to pin down the extent to which existing grievances were recycled through the witch trials, this was a clearly a community ready to fracture when the opportunity arose.

4

A vendetta against women?

The trials unfolded in a highly patriarchal community

Of the 19 people hanged for witchcraft in Salem, 14 were women. As such, the witch hunt has sometimes been framed as a way for the community to root out difficult women. Some of the accused could be seen to fit into this mould, such as the homeless Sarah Good, who was said to have cursed those who did not help her when she came begging, and Sarah Osborne, who made enemies through legal disputes. Bridget Bishop, on top of charges of theft and witchcraft, had also been suspected of murdering her first husband.

“Women in Puritan society were disempowered in all sorts of ways,” says Professor Marion Gibson. “When they were denied power by the usual means, people imagined they would seek it in other ways, such as magic.”

Added to this, in the Puritan mindset, women were deemed to be more susceptible to seduction by the devil, according to Gibson. “Witchcraft accusations and demonology books talked a lot about women being weak-willed and having loose tongues, which is a trait associated with Satan. He was known as a silver-tongued wordsmith, dropping words in your ear to make you do bad things.”

In the Puritan mindset, women were deemed to be more susceptible to seduction by the devil

Dig a little deeper, though, and the association between witchcraft and women is not so clear cut. “The idea that witch hunting was essentially ‘woman hunting’ – a mechanism used by a male-dominated society to terrify and subdue independent-minded women – has bitten the dust more recently,” says Professor Ronald Hutton. “Because, despite what you might assume, women haven’t always been viewed as the primary creators of dark magic.”

Accusations of witchcraft in places such as Iceland and Normandy overwhelmingly focused on men. Indeed, five of those hanged at Salem were men, and the person deemed the ringleader was the town’s former minister George Burroughs. Even in the subverted world of devil worship, Salem’s women found themselves subjected to a man.

A credulous judge

As accusations multiplied at an alarming rate, William Phips, the newly appointed governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, decided that urgent action was needed to tackle the crisis. On 27 May 1692, he established the Court of Oyer and Terminer, assembling seven “persons of the best prudence and figure that could then be pitched upon” to preside over proceedings, led by head judge, Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton.

From relying on the testimony of children to the use of intimidation and possibly even torture, the list of criticisms that could be levelled at the court is substantial. One of the most damning is that Stoughton admitted “spectral evidence”: testimonies by the victims of torment perpetrated by the accused in a vision or dream. In one such testimony, teenager Mercy Lewis claimed she “saw the apparition of Giles Corey come and afflict me… by times beating me and almost breaking my back”.

During other trials, chaos broke out as accusers declared themselves being choked, bitten or pinched without ever having been touched. By the time that Governor Phips banned spectral evidence in October 1692, the court had already sentenced 19 people to hang, many on the basis of such testimonies.

A late 19th-century engraving showing how trial proceedings could descend into hysteria
A late 19th-century engraving showing how trial proceedings could descend into hysteria, thanks in part to chief magistrate William Stoughton (below) accepting visions and dreams as “spectral evidence”. (Image by Alamy)

One of the difficult things to explain about Salem is the number of people who confessed to witchcraft – and this points to another of the justice system’s critical failings. “Salem was most unusual in that, if people confessed and named others, they were regarded as having to some extent expiated their crime,” says Professor Ronald Hutton. “The court looked more favourably upon them, whereas those who held resiliently to a not-guilty plea were much more likely to be hanged. That’s a poignant situation because it means that those who are most brave are the ones who die.”

 

5

Fear of the supernatural

Witch trials were powered by terrifying ideas about dark magic

Environmental pressures, social tensions and judicial failings all help explain how and why an outbreak of anxiety erupted, and escalated, but not the shape that it took. Why did Salemites’ fears fixate on finding witches within their own community?

While it may seem obvious to say that a belief in the supernatural played a major role in the witch trials, the significance and depth of those beliefs should not be underestimated, according to author Stacy Schiff. “It may seem preposterous and far-fetched to us, but for the Salemites in 1692, witchcraft was real. It was a fact of life,” she says.

The accusations, trials and executions in Salem came at the end of an era of increased witchcraft persecutions across Europe and North America, leaving the villagers with a melting pot of lurid ideas and imagery to draw on. “When you look at the intellectual, social and cultural world of the 17th century, witchcraft made perfect sense,” says Professor Owen Davies, author of America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem. “Although events at Salem are often described as hysteria, this wasn’t madness, or insanity. The greatest thinkers of the day believed in witchcraft and tried to make sense of how it happened.”

A belief in witchcraft offered the people of Salem an outlet for all sorts of anxieties. It was an instant explanation for a wide range of problems, from troublesome neighbours to the threats facing the religious order. And if there’s one thing that speaks to the power of these supernatural beliefs at Salem, it’s their ability to outlive the trials themselves. “Everyone was willing to believe that they may have indeed condemned innocents,” says Davies. “But no one was willing to entirely let go of the idea of witchcraft for quite some time. The trials may have ended, but the fundamental beliefs in witches endured.”

This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

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