The phenomenon usually known as “The Salem Witch Trials” didn’t actually begin in Salem (nor, for that matter, in Colonial America as we shall also see). Still, it represents a brief chapter in our history worth the retelling.
If there is a starting point, it would probably be the village of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1662, just forty years after the arrival of the Pilgrims and the founding of the Plymouth Colony. There, an eight-year-old girl named Elizabeth Kelly began to be tormented by visions and hallucinations. She accused her neighbor, Goodwife Ayers of bewitching her. Ayer’s husband responded to this accusation by pointing the finger of blame at another neighbor, Rebecca Greensmith who, in turn said the real culprit was her husband, who was eventually executed for “having carnal relations with the Devil”, who “works in mysterious ways” the jury explained.
As far-fetched as these stories may seem in the light of present times, they are representative of a mindset which was spawned by the very real fears of a time and place filled with a religious fervor on one hand, and a perceived state of threat and menace in every corner on the other. The “fundamentalist” faith of the Puritans made other versions of reformed Christianity – such as Congregationalism – seem dangerous, with Quakers trying to separate themselves from both. And historians are agreed that the practice of Roman Catholicism or any hint of it was cause enough for suspicion in Colonial Boston.
The Salem “outbreak” seems to have followed the arrival of an unpopular minister, Reverend Samuel Parris, when, in 1692, three girls aged 9, 11 and 12, all related to Parris report being “visited” and tormented by specters. They began leveling charges against several neighborhood women, including a bedridden widow. These people accused still others, and before the initial spiraling of events was over, more than 150 people are in jail as witches. One way to avoid execution is to confess, and better yet, to name co-conspirators.
One of those who refused to either “confess” or “cooperate” was the unfortunate Giles Corey, whose wife had also been accused, and in whose defense he had testified. (Big mistake in Salem!) To encourage a confession, the elderly man was laid on a stone wall with two wooden planks on his chest upon which heavy stones were placed, one by one while members of the court stood by looking on. It took two days for him to die, his lips still sealed against anything like a “confession”.
Before the 1692 outbreak was over, 200 people were convicted and in prison as witches, and 19 were executed on Gallows Hill. Others died in prison or as a result of their imprisonment, and on March 23rd, 1692 Salem Marshal Deputy Samuel Brabrook even arrested four-year-old Dorcas Good, proving that age alone was no defense in Salem that year.
While the belief in and fear of witchcraft was a reality here as it had been in Europe (*) since the 1500s, there is no doubt that some pragmatic factors were also in play. Inheritance laws might have led some landowners to see this as a way to remove a spousal obstacle to the “oldest son” option. Then too divorce was almost impossible in the colonies, and so a witchcraft charge was a swift and legal way of getting rid of an offensive (or inconvenient) mate. Property ownership was probably a leading motive.
Perhaps the unhappiest truth revealed by the Salem experience was the questionable practice of allowing –even seeking -- the testimony of easily-influenced children in capital court cases. (Just revisit the outbreak of charges against Day Care operators in the 1980s of our own day for a recent example!)
The Salem colony eventually tried to erase the error of their ways by paying financial damages to the affected families, finally changing the name of their community from Salem to Danvers.
(*) Between the years 1500 and 1660, at least 50,000 and as many as 80,000 suspected witches were executed across Europe, with Germany taking the lead with 26,000 and France a close second with 10,000. 80% of these cases involved women. In Europe they were usually burned at the stake. The last witchcraft outbreak in England took place at North Berwick around 1591. Everything from ship sinkings at sea and damaging storms ashore were blamed on witchcraft, which was seen as such a danger to humankind that defendants’ rights and ordinary legal protections were set aside in the interest of stamping out this crime. This was not a medieval practice, but a modern-age phenomenon.
The classical artist Thompkins H. Matteson attempted to capture the trial of Salem resident George Jacobs Sr. which took place August 5th, 1692 following charges brought by his granddaughter Margaret. He was found guilty and hanged on August 19th. Margaret recanted her testimony on August 20th.