Hello everyone! It’s been a while. I have been very busy, and haven’t been able to edit and post the back log of episodes from earlier in quarantine, but rest assured, they will get there. I have been very fortunate to have been busy, as I know many others are hurting right now, in multitudes of ways. That being said, one of the most exciting things happening lately, is that I have gotten the opportunity to speak at some wonderful events, including the Peabody Essex Museum’s panel titled, “Witch Trials and Salem: Then and Now,” which was a panel with some other community members here in Salem, where we opened up dialogue about the trials history, and Salem’s identity as a haven for modern practitioners, and how the two are a symbiotic relationship. I’ll include a link to watch the panel below. It was an incredibly productive and important discussion, and I was thrilled to be asked on as a moderator, and to help plan content for the opening remarks! The other panelists involved absolutely humbled me, and we all discussed not only the history of the Witch Trials themselves, but how they continue to impact the community, and can continue to inform the legacy of Salem both as a place, but as a cultural and spiritual marker and gathering spot for people from all walks of life. This all being said, one of the things we did was to come up with a primer for people where they could explore primary resources, and a list of suggested secondary sources so that people who wished to learn more could read from the experts on the topic. So, since I just got done speaking at another event about Salem history, I figured I would put my primer on here for you all to use! Please note that this is a BRIEF primer, and that the resources out there for the study of the Salem Witch Trials are endless, and more work continues to be done as I write this very blog post. But, hopefully we can spread this around, dispel some misconceptions about there “not being documents,” (true story, I read that in an article once) and make this history a bit more accessible!

Link to PEM panel (primer below video):

What

The Salem Witch Trials were a series of court proceedings in which over 200 people across Salem, and at least two dozen other towns in Massachusetts Bay Colony were accused of the crime of witchcraft. Beginning in the home of Samuel Parris with his daughter Elizabeth Parris and his niece, Abigail Williams, a group of people who came to be known as the afflicted accused people from their community of spectral attacks, threats, physical harm, and practicing sundry acts of witchcraft. 

By 17th century standards, witchcraft was viewed as the act of signing oneself into service of the Devil in a direct act of opposition to the church (different from the folk and counter-magical practice that was widely used and normalized in 17th century Anglo cultural practice). 

Over the course of the trials, the Court of Oyer and Terminer, specially appointed to handle the magnitude of witchcraft accusations, the size and scope of which in a short period of time that exceeded the likes that New England had ever seen, relied on the use of spectral evidence. The use of this type of evidence, although cautioned against both in law and practice during witchcraft trials, became the main form of evidence used in Salem. The court consisted of a combination of 9 judges and magistrates, 5 of whom were required at each formal trial. As a result, of the 200+ people accused, 20 people would be executed; 19 by hanging, and one by being pressed to death, in the only illegal execution to take place over the course of events. 

Witchcraft was seen by English law as a capital crime, and not a crime against the church (although the context was religious in nature) the punishment was execution by hanging upon a guilty verdict. 5 others would perish in jail due to harsh conditions. Over 55 people confessed to the crime of witchcraft, believing they would be spared, although law dictated that you would only receive a stay of execution while you were able to give sufficient evidence against other accused witches (after which, anyone who openly confessed would eventually be executed). 

Of those executed, 14 were women, 6 were men, and when looking at the accusations, the split was even between men and women. After the Salem trials, no one was convicted of witchcraft in New England. During the Salem trials, more people were accused and executed than in all the previous witchcraft trials in New England. None of the people accused, who confessed, or who were executed were guilty of witchcraft, nor were any of them practicing witches, as we understand it in the modern era. All those involved were Puritans, (and a few Quaker accusers) who followed the Christian faith.

When

The period that has now come to be widely known as the Salem Witch Trials took place roughly between January/February of 1692 and May of 1693, with the first “afflictions” and accusations beginning in January/February of 1692. The court proceedings themselves began on March 1 with the preliminary examinations of Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn, and Tituba, an enslaved woman of indigenous descent living in the home of Rev. Samuel Parris. Tituba confessed to the crime of witchcraft, and accused others, believing that she could spare herself (in reality, Tituba would have eventually been executed once her testimony against others was no longer useful). 

The greater trials began in June of 1692 after the new Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Phips, issued a commission for a Court of Oyer and Terminer (latin for “to hear and to determine”) and appointed as judges John Hathorne, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, and Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton. This was a special case court enacted simply to examine the accusations of witchcraft in Salem. 

Due to mismanagement and unlawful and excessive use of spectral evidence, the court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved by Gov. Phips on October 29. Some of the accused were released, and a new court – the Superior Court of Judicature – was established on November 25 to try the remaining people in jail. By May of 1693, grand juries rejected charges against all those remaining in jail, including those who had confessed, and the Witch Trials period effectively came to a close.

Where

Accusations began in Salem Village, the rural area outside of the main town, also known as Salem Farms. The trials themselves and several examinations took place in Salem Town proper. Although accusations certainly did start in the rural village, and a majority of those initially accused were from the village, because Salem Town was the high judiciary seat of Essex County, the trials themselves were held there. The court house would have stood on what today is Washington St., while the Salem Town meeting house would have stood roughly on the corner of Essex and Washington Streets in downtown Salem. Today, the site is occupied by a restaurant called Rockafella’s. 

The only remaining site in Salem Town with a direct connection to the Witch Trials is the Witch House, former home of Jonathan Corwin, one of the magistrates on the Court of Oyer and Terminer. As the trials progressed, accusations would spread to over two dozen towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For a detailed map of accusations visit here: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/maps/accusationMaps/index.html

For more on sites associated with the Witch Trials, visit here:

Why

The stressors that caused the Salem trials were a complicated mix of socioeconomic changes in Salem Town proper, changes in church dogma, traumatic conflicts with Indigenous groups in New England, extreme weather, a changeover of government policy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, conflicts in the rural Salem Village over various disagreements between Samuel Parris and other groups in the village, and a plethora of other community changes, and cannot be defined by any single cause. Ergot theory, which was a popular theory in the 1970s that claimed the accusers were hallucinating from moldy grain, and coming on the cusp of research into psychotropic drug use and mental health, has been debunked by modern science and historians. The Witch Trials were a result of a perfect storm of events, and a spark at just the right moment, that inflamed communities across Massachusetts.

More resources and reading list

Online Resources

Burns, Margo (editor, Records of the Salem Witch Hunt by Bernard Rosenthal). 17th Century Colonial New England: with emphasis on the Essex County Witch Hunt of 1692.

http://17thc.us

Calef, Robert. More Wonders of the Invisible World  https://archive.org/details/morewondersofinv01cale/page/n6/mode/2up

Hale, John. A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft https://archive.org/details/AModestEnquiryIntoTheNatureOfWitchcraft/mode/2up

Linder, Douglas O. Famous American Trials: The Salem Witchcraft Trials (1692)

https://famous-trials.com/salem

Mather, Cotton. The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England https://archive.org/details/wondersinvisibl00mathgoog/page/n10/mode/2up

Mather, Increase. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in Such as are Accused with the Crime. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/speccol/mather/mather.html

University of Virginia. Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project

**note: some narrative histories were compiled by undergraduate students at the University of Virginia, and may contain outdated information

http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html

Reading List

Moderator’s favorites in bold!

  • Baker, Emerson. A Storm of Witchcraft
  • Baker, Emerson and John G. Reid. The New England Knight
  • Breslaw, Elaine. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem
  • Demos, John. Entertaining Satan 
  • Hall, David D. Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England
  • LaPlante, Eve. Salem Witch Judge            
  • Norton, Mary Beth. In The Devil’s Snare
  • Ray, Benjamin C. Satan & Salem
  • Roach, Marilynne. The Salem Witch Trials, A Day-by-Day Chronicle
  • Roach, Marilynne. Six Women of Salem
  • Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story
  • Rosenthal, Bernard, ed. The Records of the Salem Witch Hunt
  • Trask, Richard, ed. The Devil Hath Been Raised
  • Upham, Charles. Salem Witchcraft
  • Weisman, Richard. Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th Century New England

In Memory

We recognize and remember the 25 victims of the Salem witch trials. This memorial list begins with the first person who died and includes each victim’s name, hometown, life dates, and cause of death.

Join us in paying tribute to the innocent people lost as a result of the witch trials and reflecting on injustices—perpetrated then and now—as a result of ignorance, intolerance, and fear.

May 10, 1692

Sarah Osburn

Born about 1643 

Lived in Salem Village

Died in prison 

June 10, 1692

Bridget Bishop

Born about 1632

Lived in Salem

Hanged 

June 16, 1692

Roger Toothaker

Born about 1634

Lived in Billerica

Died in prison 

Before July 19, 1692

“Infant daughter” Good

Born December 1691

Lived in Salem Village

Died in prison 

July 19, 1692

Sarah Good

Born about 1654

Lived in Salem Village

Hanged 

Elizabeth How

Born about 1637

Lived in Topsfield

Hanged 

Susannah Martin

Born about 1621

Lived in Amesbury

Hanged 

Rebecca Nurse

Born about 1621

Lived in Salem Village

Hanged 

Sarah Wilds

Born about 1627

Lived in Topsfield

Hanged 

August 19, 1692

George Burroughs

Born about 1650

Lived in Wells, Maine

(Formerly of Salem Village)

Hanged 

Martha Carrier

Born about 1650

Lived in Andover

Hanged 

George Jacobs Sr. 

Born about 1609

Lived in Salem

Hanged 

John Proctor Sr. 

Born about 1632

Lived in Salem Farms

Hanged 

John Willard 

Born about 1657

Lived in Salem Village

Hanged 

September 19, 1692

Giles Cory 

Born 1611

Lived in Salem Farms

Pressed to death 

September 22, 1692

Martha Cory 

Born 1619 or 1620

Lived in Salem Farms

Hanged 

Mary Esty 

Born about 1634

Lived in Topsfield

Hanged 

Alice Parker 

Birth date unknown

Lived in Salem

Hanged 

Mary Parker 

Born about 1631

Lived in Andover

Hanged 

Ann Pudeator 

Born about 1621

Lived in Salem

Hanged 

Wilmot Redd 

Birth date unknown

Lived in Marblehead

Hanged 

Margaret Scott 

Born about 1616

Lived in Rowley

Hanged 

Samuel Wardwell Sr. 

Born 1643

Lived in Andover

Hanged 

December 3, 1692

Ann Foster 

Born about 1617

Lived in Andover

Died in prison 

March 10, 1693

Lydia Dustin 

Born about 1613

Lived in Reading

Died in prison 

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