The Salem witch trials have a deep-rooted history, and are shrouded in both fact and fiction. The facts related to this event will help you understand what led to the unfortunate trials, and also dispel some myths surrounding the same.
The Crucible (1953) by Arthur Miller is an allegorical play based in 1692 Salem, symbolic of the hunt for alleged Communists led by Senator John McCarthy in the 1950s.
It is common to associate Salem with witchcraft because of the infamous witch trials that were conducted there in the year 1692. Though they lasted for a very short time, the event is remembered to this day. Salem witch trials led to the persecution of numerous ‘afflicted’ beings, and the eradication of many from the village in the Massachusetts colony, New England. In the following facts, you will be able to find details about the timeline of the same, and its eventual end. There are also a lot of myths about the trials that have been stated below.
Events Leading to the Salem Witch Trials
In the year 1688, Reverend Samuel Parris was invited to Salem to preach in the local church. In November 1689, after being announced the official Village Minister of Salem, Reverend Parris moved to Salem with his wife, daughter Betty Parris, and niece Abigail Williams. His slave, Tituba, a Native American, was also brought along to Salem. All was well until the year 1692, when Betty (9) started behaving strangely, in that she got fits, stared into space, and hid under furniture. She experienced sharp pains and wailed as they were unbearable. While these may have been symptoms of a medical condition, the doctor, William Griggs, who had been brought to diagnose her, suggested these conditions may have a supernatural origin because he could not pinpoint the actual cause of this condition. This faith was further confirmed when Abigail (11) started behaving in a similar manner.
Having been under English rule at the time, stories of witchcraft that prevailed in Great Britain became popular even in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts. It was believed that witches used little girls as their medium to carry out the devil’s orders. As such, the belief that the two girls were afflicted became stronger. Further, when Ann Putnam (11) started portraying such behavior, it was confirmed that they were witches sent by the devil. The person to afflict them was believed to be Tituba, who would often relate tales of voodoo, omens, and witches to the young girls. On February 29, 1692 the girls were forced to name the persons behind their condition, and Tituba was one of them, along with Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good (women who hadn’t attended the church for over a year). These women were arrested, and thus began the Salem witch trials.
Fact and Fiction
The causes of the trials were many. It is believed that the then prevalent smallpox epidemic, the on and off war with neighboring Native American tribes, rivalry with the neighboring town of Salem, and the British war with France, all contributed to the fear of outsiders and increased suspicion of the villagers. However, it was the aforementioned event that served as the last straw, and eventually led to the mass persecution of several individuals.
Sequence of Events During the Salem Witch Trials
- As soon as the girls pointed fingers at the three women, they were arrested and interrogated.
- After strongly denying any association with witchcraft, Tituba finally confessed her responsibility for the condition of the two girls, after being severely beaten by her master and forced to confess.
- Tituba also confessed to having Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn involved in the process, but they vehemently denied this right until they were executed.
- A man named Giles Corey was forced to death by stoning as he refused to plead guilty to charges of practicing witchcraft.
- Soon, Ann Putnam accused Martha Corey, a staunch church member, to be a witch, while Abigail Williams held Rebecca Nurse responsible for her condition.
- Dorothy Good, Sarah Good’s 4-year-old daughter, was also questioned. Because of her inherent fear while answering the questions, she was considered to be involved and was arrested and jailed for 8 months.
- Because so many fingers were being pointed, everyone was a suspect, and any ‘unusual’ behavior led to the belief that the person was a witch or a wizard. This led to over 200 people being accused of witchcraft.
- A court of Oyer and Terminer was ordered by Governor William Phips, on 27 May, 1692 to hear and decide respectively, the cases that were associated with the Salem witch trials.
- The first person to be brought to this court was Bridget Bishop, who after pleading not guilty, was still accused. She was executed on June 1, 1692 at the Gallows Hill.
- Even ‘spectral evidence’ (dream visitations from witches, and sightings of people engaging in witchcraft in their dreams) was considered as a form of evidence against the accused for some time before it was banished.
- In October 1692, under pressure from minister Cotton Mather, execution on the basis of spectral evidence was prohibited.
- When Governor Phips’ wife was suspected of witchcraft, he agreed with the minister and put a stop to the trials.
- On October 29, 1692, the court of Oyer and Terminer was suspended.
- In May 1693, all accused witches were pardoned and released from prison.
- The trials, however, forced 1 person to death and led to the execution of 19 witches. 200 people were accused, and 4 lost their lives in prison.
Myths of the Salem Witch Trials
Salem Witch Trials Accused & Punishments
Witches in Salem were not burned at the stake as is the common myth. This was a practice in Britain, while in North America, witchcraft was considered felony and punishable by death, which was conducted in the form of hanging. Further, while it was common belief that only young girls were accused of being witches, in fact, men were also accused of being wizards. The aforementioned case of Giles Corey is proof of this fact.
Conclusion of the Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials ended when people realized that too many respectable people were being accused of practicing witchcraft. Those involved, including Judge Samuel Sewall, issued a public apology, confessing error and guilt. The trials were deemed unlawful in 1702, and peace was restored. The credibility of the accused was restored, in 1711, and their heirs were given monetary compensation. In 1957, a formal apology was issued by the government of Massachusetts for the trials and executions.
Unraveling the Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials
Several years later, studies conducted revealed that the unnatural behavior of the girls may have been the result of ergot poisoning. However, shrouded in mystery, and yet to be completely validated, the Salem witch trials have generated a lot of interest worldwide. A Salem Witch Museum was constructed, that houses all important documents pertaining to the trials. A memorial was also built in the year 1992 to honor the victims of the trials.