The Salem Witch Trial is one of the most bizarre incidents in the history of mankind. It highlights the fact that how easily the human mind loses its ability to use reason and logic in times of crisis. The Salem Witch Trial refers to a string of persecutions of people accused of witchcraft. It took place between February 1692 and May 1693 in a number of counties in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The reason why this ghastly episode occurred could be understood by the conditions that prevailed during those times.
In those days, the new world was being explored. European explorers brought home stories of practices and forms of magic that was strange for their people. Life in the Massachusetts Bay was stressed with economic crisis. Along with all this, fear of attack by warring tribes, rivalry with the nearby Salem Town, belief in the devil, and suffering caused due to a recent smallpox epidemic created a fertile ground for unfounded fear and beliefs in the minds of the people of the Salem Village. They resorted to finding an answer to their misfortunes by blaming their fellow men of witchcraft, and tried to put an end to their sufferings by condemning the 'witches' to the gallows.
It all began in the Salem Village which is the present day town of Danvers. In January of 1692, the daughter, Betty Parris and niece Abigail Williams of the village Minister Reverend Samuel Parris fell ill and could not be cured. The village doctor, William Griggs diagnosed the girls as having been affected by witchcraft. This incident laid the foundation of witchery in the village that claimed the lives of 24 people, both men and women.
Salem Witch Trial Victims
Though not the first individual to have been accused of witchcraft, she was the first of the many more to have been hanged under the accusation of witchery. Bishop was accused not as much for possessing magical powers, as for her flamboyant lifestyle. She dressed up in manner considered being 'showy' in those times. She would entertain guests at her home till late night, drink and play the shovel board, a game that women were forbidden from playing. She was accused of having an immoral character that made her more 'prone' to being possessed by the devil and engage in witchcraft. She was accused of witchcraft in April 1692, and hanged to death in June the same year.
Although Sarah Good was born to a wealthy innkeeper, in the later part of her life she had become a destitute. Buried under huge amounts of debt, her family had to resort to begging. She had become a nuisance to her neighbors as she would constantly beg for charity, and if refused, she would curse them. This picture of hers as the old, ill-tempered and foul-mouthed woman made her a perfect candidate for a witch. What was most damaging was the testimony against her, that of her 6 year old daughter Dorcas Good. Even her husband disowned her for fear of being accused as her accomplice. Till the end, Sarah Good did not accept the accusations made against her. She was finally executed by hanging on July 19, 1692.
Along with Sarah Good and Tituba, the servant at the Parris household, Sarah Osborne was the third woman to have been accused by Betty Parris and Abigail Williams of afflicting them. Sarah Osborne was considered a social outcast as she did not attend church for three years, although due to medical reasons, and had been fighting legal issues with the powerful Putnam family. She was accused of witchcraft by Ann Putnam. Although she was not hanged, Osborne died while she was in prison in Boston.
The victims who were hanged at the Gallow Hills were Bridget Bishop, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good, John Willard, Susannah Martin, Martha Carrier, Sarah Wildes, John Willard, John Proctor, George Jacobs Sr, George Burroughs, Martha Cory, Mary Esty, Alice Parker, Wilmott Redd, Samuel Wardell, Margaret Scott and Mary Parker. Those that died in jail were Sarah Osborne, Ann Foster, Lydia Dastin, Roger Toothaker and the infant of Sarah Good. Giles Cory, an old man died of torture during the investigation.
A close look at the case of the victims show that specific people were targeted by the trials of witchcraft. The accused were usually the poor and weak, who depended on the society for their survival, or those that the society felt threatened by as they did not adhere to the moral and social norms of the times. These trials were also by individuals to settle personal scores. Sometimes, people would accuse each other in order to avoid being caught in the ring of suspicion.
The Salem Witch Trial was short-lived. It ended in May 1693, about a year after it had started. Although four centuries have passed since, even today it is considered a shameful episode as a large number of people were killed using false accusations.