The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials were a series of legal proceedings held in Salem, Massachusetts, in the years 1692-1693, which resulted in the deaths of twenty innocent people accused of witchcraft and the defamation of over two hundred people. Initially the trials were based on the accusations of witchcraft directed by some girls to women, who would have damaged them with their spells. The first accusers were Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams, supported in their statements by Ann Putnam the Younger and Elisabeth Hubbard; once those accusations were made, many other people not only supported the girls, but filed a complaint against their fellow citizens, unleashing a veritable witch hunt in Salem and surrounding communities.

At the center of the trials and subsequent executions were the religion and superstition of colonial America. The Bible, in the Book of Exodus 22:18, states “You will not let a witch live,” and this, like any other biblical injunction, was strictly respected and upheld in the village of Salem by the minister of worship at the time , the reverend. Samuel Parris (1653-1720). Parris was the fourth minister called by the congregation of the village of Salem: the former had left after relatively short stays, and Parris was doing a little better thanks to his ability to mediate in disputes between neighbors, until he concentrated the their energies in accusing each other of witchcraft. The underground tensions of the community found an outlet in the persecution of marginalized members,

As early as 1695 the magistrates of Salem were criticized for the death and persecution of innocent people and later this opinion only gained ground. Between 1700 and 1703 applications were presented for the annulment of the convictions and the rehabilitation of the accused and in 1711 compensation was authorized to the families of those killed unjustly. Since that time the Salem Witch Trials have been referred to simply as “witch trials” or “witch hunts”, and related to any unjustified, unjust and unsubstantiated claims against a person or against the ideals that person represents: in the United States and beyond , the event has been given an iconic role.

The belief in witchcraft in the colonies

Legal documents and documents of the time testify that a number of citizens did not believe in witchcraft, but the majority – in the New England colonies and the Central and Southern English colonies – certainly did. This belief was encouraged by Bible stories such as that of the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28: 3-25) and the aforementioned verse of the Book of Exodus. The Bible was considered the infallible word of God and made it clear that witches were as much a reality as anything else; to question the existence of witches meant to question the divine authority of the Bible.

The belief in witchcraft was encouraged by the need to explain what was apparently incomprehensible.

Faith in witchcraft was encouraged by the need to explain what was apparently incomprehensible. If a pious person, a child or a young bride suddenly fell ill or died, this fact could have been attributed to the mysterious will of God, but it could also be easily explained by witchcraft and the works of the devil. Although it may seem strange and irrational to a modern audience, the belief was also supported by the colonists’ interpretation of everyday experience. If neighbor A borrowed candles from neighbor B and neighbor B refused the request, and then he got sick or his house caught fire or his horse died for no apparent reason,

However, the belief in witches did not originate in the colonies: in fact in England – and throughout Europe – people accused of witchcraft have been persecuted for centuries. One of the most famous witch trials in English history was that of the Pendle Witches, in Lancashire, which in 1612 led to the execution by hanging of ten people convicted of witchcraft. Proceedings were published in 1613 and widely read, and the case was popularized again in 1634 when one of the accusers was accused of witchcraft. The case of 1634 was made even more famous by Thomas Heywood’s play The Lancashire Witches (c. 1570 – 1641) and Richard Brome (c. 1590 – 1652), which ends with the presumption of guilt of the accused.

This was almost always the conclusion of a witchcraft charge, as it was assumed that no one would make such a serious charge on anyone without good reason. It seems that the accusers have always believed that their word and personal testimony were all a court needed to deliver a conviction; While this may have been true of popular opinion, courts sought objective evidence before issuing a conviction, even though the “guilty until proven guilty” paradigm was widely followed. This certainly happened in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693, during which over two hundred people were accused of witchcraft in the village of Salem and in the towns of Salem, Andover, Ipswich and Topsfield;

The social and religious context

By 1692, tensions were already high in both the town of Salem and in the village of Salem, and had been for some time. The villagers of Salem could not stand the city of Salem due to the increased wealth and the claim to control the affairs of the village. The village of Salem had no civil government of its own and was under the jurisdiction of the city. All citizens of both the city and the village were required to participate in Sunday worship services, but the city of Salem did not allow the village to have its own meeting place: therefore the villagers had to go to the city on Sundays, with whatever time, which they couldn’t stand.

The village of Salem eventually hired its own minister but refused to pay him, and so he left. The second minister, George Burroughs, had the same problems and resigned, but remained to live in the village. A third minister also resigned, and this contributed to the reputation for quarreling and meanness of the village of Salem, a reputation held by the city of Salem. The fourth minister was Samuel Parris, a failed merchant who had attended Harvard University but never completed his course of study. It seems that a career as a minister was a second choice for him. In 1689 the village of Salem was allowed to have its own church, with Parris as pastor. Scholar Brian P. Levack comments:

Parris turned out to be an unfortunate choice: he was a failed and embittered trader, who envied those who were successful in the world of commerce and who fueled local hostilities. Parris delivered a series of fiery sermons that translated the division of factions into a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. In the minds of his supporters, the city of Salem became the symbol of an alien, corrupt and even diabolical world, which threatened the well-being of the village of Salem. As supporters of Samuel Parris perceived their enemies as evil, it was a short step until they became convinced that supporters of the city and his interests were Satan’s servants. (403)

Tensions increased further with the arrival in the area of ​​immigrants belonging to minority Christian sects, such as the Quakers, considered a threat to the Puritan vision of the Salem community. The perennial fear of an invisible and unexpected danger has been present in communities since the outbreak of the War of King Philip (1675-1678), when King Philip (also known as Metacomet, 1638-1676), of the Wampanoag Native American Confederation, had attacked New England settlements, destroying a number of them and killing hundreds of people.

Amidst these various tensions, in February 1692, Samuel Parris’ daughter Betty and granddaughter Abigail Williams began to exhibit strange behavior: crawling on the floor, hiding under furniture, writhing, screaming and throwing objects. These behaviors, devoid of any other explanation after a doctor’s examination, were attributed to witchcraft. Shortly thereafter, Ann Putnam the Younger and Elizabeth Hubbard began to show the same signs, then Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren – all friends of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. When Samuel Parris asked his daughter and granddaughter who had done the spell that tormented them, they named three women – Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba,

The Salem Witch Trials

Sarah Good was a homeless woman who often asked for charity and was welcomed by Samuel Parris for a short time, until he kicked her out for “malicious behavior” and ingratitude. Sarah Osborne was a wealthy landowner who hadn’t attended church for more than three years, under the guise of recurring illness, which made her just as outcast as Sarah Good. Tituba was possibly an Arawak of Caribbean descent who had been kidnapped, enslaved and sold in Barbados to Samuel Parris, whose family had a plantation there. She was the domestic slave of the family and she took care of the children, often entertaining them with ghost stories and tales of demons and magic.

Tituba confessed (she later revealed that the confession had been extracted from her by Samuel Parris), supporting the accusation the girls had leveled against Good and Osborne. Good, as noted above, was already despised by the Parris family, and Osborne with his real estate business had damaged the finances of Ann Putnam the Younger’s father. Tituba popularized the idea of ​​witches riding broomsticks and conversing with “familiars” – spirits in animal form – as well as associating with demonic figures and casting evil spells. Sarah Osborne was hanged as a witch in May and Sarah Good in July 1692, both proclaiming their innocence to the end; Tituba remained in jail from the moment she confessed, because Parris refused to pay taxes for her release.

However, the accusations against these three marginalized women in February 1692 were only the beginning, as more people were accused in March. Two of them, Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse, were full members of the Church. Corey had questioned the validity of the girls’ allegations, implying that they lied for personal reasons, and so she was accused of being a witch for denying the existence of witches. Nurse was accused by the Putnas, who claimed that her “specter” was harassing them. The use of “ghostly evidence” was admissible in court because the concept was supported by the respected Puritan theologian Cotton Mather (1663-1728), whose works were particularly popular among the inhabitants of Massachusetts.

The ghostly evidence consisted simply of accepting an accuser’s word over that of the defendant, as in the case of Martha Corey, when the girls shouted in court that her ghost was haunting them and that a yellow bird, invisible to all but to them, he was feeding from his hand. Nurse and Corey, both in their seventies, were hanged. Their condemnation further increased the hysteria as if two elderly women, who went to church, could be witches, anyone could be. Martha Corey’s husband, Giles, was also accused when he stood up for her. He refused to be tried and was executed by suffocation – crushed by weights to death – in order to extort a confession of guilt from him. Since he never confessed and was never condemned,

Although ghostly evidence was allowed in court primarily due to the weight of Mather’s reputation, eventually he too began to recognize that it was going too far and in May 1692 he wrote to one of the judges that they shouldn’t give the ghostly evidence. more credit than was reasonable. According to the biblical book of John, I, 4: 1, all spirits had to be tested to see if they came from God or the devil and it was possible that the evil spirits were prompting the accusers to condemn innocent Christians. Many of the accused confessed to being witches in hopes of gaining leniency, in accordance with James 5:16, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for each other that you may be healed”, but those who were not hanged or died in prison later retracted, explaining that they had confessed only for this purpose and that they had never really been witches. Levack notes:

Once the ghostly testimony was attacked and those who had confessed began to retract, the court found itself in an extremely embarrassing position … As the court’s eagerness to convict clashed with a growing chorus of opposition to its prosecution, the governor felt he had no choice and suspended trials to reassess the situation. (407)

The trials were interrupted and in May 1693 a pardon was issued for those still in prison. Although it is well documented that nineteen people were hanged and that Giles Corey was crushed to death, others died in prison awaiting trial and over two hundred people had their reputations damaged, if not irremediably ruined. The accusers were never called to account for their work because none of the subjects involved doubted the reality of witches and their power to harm, nor the reality of Satan and his ability to deceive in order to destroy. After the hysteria subsided, the accusers continued their lives as before.


Those who had been accused and forgiven, as already written, were not so lucky and lived with the stigma of the event or moved elsewhere. Three years later, in 1696, the court ordered a day of fasting and repentance for the trials of January 14, 1697. The judges who had taken part in the trials publicly repented and asked forgiveness from the community. Beginning in the 1700s, family members petitioned the Massachusetts colonial government to lift the sentences, and in 1711 twenty-two people were acquitted and financial compensation was authorized. This was repeated over the next ten years, but even then not everyone who had been convicted was cleared. In fact, the names of all the people sentenced were not deleted until 2001.

From the time of writing about it, that is from around 1700 to today, the Salem Witch Trials, as the best known event of its kind, has created a number of myths. Among the most persistent is the claim that “witches” were burned in Salem, although there is no evidence to support this claim. No “witch” was burned in Salem; they were all hanged. Until recently, the condemned were thought to have been hanged on Gallows Hill, and this evoked images of a grim death march up the hill to the place of execution, but in 2017 the Gallows Hill Project debunked this myth, establishing that the hangings took place at the foot of the hill, in a much less spectacular setting known as Proctor’s Ledge.

It was also claimed that most of the accused were poor and marginalized women, but this too was challenged and denied. People from all walks of life, women and men – and even two dogs – were accused and convicted for all sorts of reasons. George Burroughs, the second Salem Village Minister to step down, was charged and convicted because he appeared to possess unnatural strength; a woman was sentenced because she was able to walk the dusty streets of Salem village without getting her clothes dirty, and Martha Corey, as already written, was executed as a witch for denying the existence of witchcraft.

Over the years, many theories have been suggested to explain the Salem witch hysteria and the trials. One theory, which became popular in the 1970s, is that in 1692 the colonists were poisoned during the rye harvest by the ergot fungus, which caused them to hallucinate; but this does not explain how the hysteria continued throughout 1693, nor the fact that many later still believed in witches and fairness of judgment. Witch trials had been held even before 1692, and others would be conducted later in all the colonies. The social frictions between the village and the town of Salem have also been cited as a possible cause, but although they added to the tensions of the time, they were not actually the source of the hysteria.

The most likely cause of the witch hysteria of 1692-1693 in Salem was religious faith, coupled with social tensions. No one will ever know what prompted the girls to make the accusations that sparked the panic; once made, the accusations confirmed what the colonists already believed. The play The Crucible, by American playwright Arthur Miller, presents the Salem Witch Trials as an allegory of McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, which sought to eradicate communism from the United States. In this work Miller drew attention to the dangers posed by ideologies that exploit confirmation bias to thrive. In both cases, the accusers operated on the belief that they were threatening people who were in their midst and from whom they had to defend themselves.

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