“You’re a liar! I’m no more a witch than you are a wizard! If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink!” ~Sarah Good, shortly before she was executed for witchcraft, July 19, 1692.
There are those who speak with the Lord’s name on their tongue and have nothing but evil intent. They may even fool themselves into believing that they are doing God’s work, and committing the most heinous of deeds can be justified if it is done in the name of a deity. More often than not, the deeds are born out of a selfish need for power or property, with the conviction that God wants them to have these things at any cost. Such is the case of 20 murders that took place over three hundred years ago in the name of preserving the righteous. In actuality, it was the end result of family rivalries and town politics that spiraled from rumors and gossip to hunting down innocent citizens so they could be tried for the crime of witchcraft. These events live forever in history as the Salem Witch Trials.
Danvers Massachusetts is the present day location of what was Salem Village 300 years ago. Salem Village was largely made up of Puritan farmers who had separated themselves from the eastern section of the settlement which was closer to Salem Town (the present day Salem Massachusetts.) Most of Salem Village attended the same church and were of the same Puritan belief system. Tensions between two families in particular, the Putnams and the Porters were brewing due to competing for religious leadership of the town. Putnam sought to increase his popularity with the village by seeking out a minister for the Salem Meetinghouse for church services. This man, by the last name of Parris, brought with him his wife and daughter as well as his niece and Tituba, a servant of indeterminate origin. Tituba, because of her unorthodox beliefs and foreign birth, became a convenient scapegoat for what would later transpire.
The subject of “witchcraft” had been a source of paranoia for years, not only in the colonies, but also throughout Europe. Other trials had been held in England and Scotland throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, and it was not unheard of to target anyone who showed an inkling of having unusual beliefs or did not adhere to the Christian doctrine and label them a witch. The Witchcraft Acts of England in the Middle Ages were merciless in their punishments for those accused of this “crime”, and as it turned out–Colonial America would follow in the footsteps of the mother country.
It has been said that the words of one person can change destinies. This point could certainly be argued in the case of Reverend Cotton Mather. Rev. Mather was a Puritan New England minister whose family had long devoted its sons to the service of God. Many believe that Cotton Mather was largely responsible for creating the perfect storm of paranoia and fear that would be the Salem Witch Trials. He wrote many published works, among which was Remarkable Providences (1684). This described the events of the Goodwin family in Boston, particularly the daughter Martha. Mather was personally involved in the case and had deemed it a possession due to the practice of witchcraft.
This work was highly regarded by other Puritan ministers as well as laymen, and it is most likely that many of the residents of Salem Village had heard of Mather’s accounts when the strange events took place that set a mass hysteria in motion. In the end, he would also receive much of the blame when history tried to rectify the horror of executing twenty people needlessly just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It began in January of 1692 when Reverend Parris reported his daughter and niece were having fits of bizarre behavior where they began to throw things, speak with fearsome inflections in their tone, and contort themselves in grotesque positions. Another girl, Anne Putnam, began exhibiting the same behavior. The girls were between the ages of 9-11, and were immediately pressured by their parents and the local magistrate to tell them who had taught them these wicked things. The names they gave were the servant Tituba, a free-spirited homeless woman named Sarah Good, and an extremely poor elderly woman, Sarah Osbourne. They were all arrested and interrogated for hours, with Good and Osbourne maintaining their innocence throughout. Tituba however, whether she had actually taught the girls something from her own beliefs or if she was simply worn down from intense questioning, did confess to doing the “devil’s work”.
The Putnam’s association with Parris as well as the rivalries in the town turned citizens against each other and it literally became a “witch hunt”. The mass hysteria grew until over 200 people were sitting in jails throughout Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex counties in Massachusetts. A majority of the trials were held in Salem Town (present day Salem), which is how they became synonymous. A series of bizarre tests were conducted to test ones innocence or guilt including the “touch” test, where accused witches were blindfolded while people were brought before them in the throes of hysterical fits. The accused were then forced to touch these people who would, in turn, stop throwing the fit. The accused who had actually done the touching would be deemed the one who had afflicted the person and would in turn, be found guilty.
There were also humiliating examinations where the accused would be stripped down to be leered at by the magistrates and ministers, looking for any “marks of the devil”. Often, any strange birthmark would become a mark of a witch. Cotton Mather, who found it necessary to put his two cents in did caution against “spectral” evidence, or testimony that was based on dreams or “feelings” and visions. However he also condoned the trials themselves, and the arrests continued.
From June 10 to September 22 of 1692, twenty people were executed for witchcraft. Nineteen were hung and one male was pressed to death with stones. The first was Bridget Bishop, hung on June 10 on the place now known as Gallows Hill. There were no crimes committed in these cases, and yet they were killed. The facts showed that much of this was due to either overactive imaginations or the medical possibility of fungus in the grain causing hallucinations. They were murdered, and the most heinous part of all was that they were murdered in God’s name.
The trials and paranoia continued even after the executions stopped and eventually the hysteria died down. Restitutions were made, however it was too little too late. Many of the executed were excommunicated from their churches and not given proper burials. Many died in prison, including Sarah Osbourne, the elderly woman who was one of the first accused. It wasn’t until 1957 that the state of Massachusetts made a formal apology for the actions of the villagers and magistrates in Salem Village all those years ago.
In the name of justice that can truly never be served in this case–here are the names of the dead. Mass hysteria is a condition that is easily caused and we are, in today’s society, no way immune to its effects. Remember the names, because those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Hung: Bridget Bishop, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susanna Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Wildes, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Jacobs Sr., John Proctor, Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Ann Pudeator, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardell.
Crushed with stones when he refused to confess on September 19: Giles Corey
Died in prison: Sarah Osbourne, Roger Toothaker, Lyndia Dustin, Ann Foster. **Note: The numbers conflict as to how many actually died in prison. The official number is four known, although it is largely accepted that many others (at least thirteen) whose names have been lost to time died in prison as well.