Salem Witch Trials

the causes, controversy, and conclusions made.


The Salem Witch Trials were a disturbing event in the history of this nation. They took place in Salem in Colonial Massachusetts. They occurred right after the Witch Hunt in Europe, so between the years of 1692 and 1693. In Massachusetts only 20 people were killed and 200 were accused.

Causes of Accusations:

Many historians believed that due to Salem being on the edge of the settled universe, surrounded by dark woods with the threat of death by disease, exposure and savages, colonists had anxiety. The colonist believed that devil and Native Americans were allied and their settlement was crumbling. Another theory was the fear of women and their independence. The colonists started acting differently after settling, the girls started to behave in ways that many men and women felt threatened. Also a war was brought about in the Americans colonies. Refugees from King Williams’s war fled to Salem, stressing Salem's resources. This aggravated an existing feud between families who were tied with Port Salem's wealth (which still relied on agriculture). Controversy already surrounded Salem's supposed greedy and rigid first ordained minister Reverend Samuel Parris. People believed that these arguments were bringing about the devil in their lives.

The Accusations:

The first accusers were young girls; specifically Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Parris. They all were relative in age and all had the same symptom of breaking out into "fits." They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions. The local doctor believed the fits to be caused by the supernatural. And the accusing began. Many of the supposed witches were people who were vulnerable in the community and older women. Under pressure from magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the three girls (Ann, Abigail, and Elizabeth) accused three women of afflicting them. They were: Tituba, the Parris' Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman. Starting on March 1, 1692, the three women were tried. Osborne and Good claimed innocence, while Tituba plead guilty. She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a "black man" who wanted her to sign his book. She admitted to signing the book and said there were several other witches looking to destroy the Puritans. All three of the women were put in jail.

These actions just lead to the accusations of many more witches. Martha Corey, a loyal member of the Church in Salem Village was accused along with Sarah Good's 4 year old daughter. Her timid answers served as a confession in the court. Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity, was accused also. She became the first to be hanged on Gallows Hill.

Twenty accused witches died. 19 were hung on Gallows Hill, and a man named Giles Corey was crushed to death.

The Trials:

During the trials, the accused witches fought for their innocence. The court did their own investigating as well. They used "witch cake", spectral evidence, eye witness testimonials, examinations for witch's teat, artifacts, the Lord's Prayer test, touch test, forced confession by dunking, pressing and bound submission. Witch cake was cake made of rye meal and urine from the afflicted girls. The cakes were fed to dogs to see if they would be overtaken by particles of the witch. Spectral and Eye witness evidence was based on seeing the accused witch in their dreams (spectral) and actually seeing the witch practicing their black magic. Witches teat, was just a blemish or mole that any person would have, they pricked it with a needle to prove they had no feeling in it. If any artifacts were found in their house that resembled use for witch craft, it served as evidence to condemn them. The Lord's Prayer test had the accused witch read from the bible and recite the prayer without stuttering, stammering or spasming; they had to do it in pure perfection because back then mistakes were unacceptable in God's eyes. The touch test was having the witch touch the afflicted person while they have their fit, and if they stop the witch is deemed guilty. Dunking and bound submission were very alike in some ways. Dunking repeatedly put the accused person under water until they confessed, and in bound submission they tied the accused persons hands and feet to a rock and threw them in a lake. If their body floated to the top they were a witch, but either way they died. Pressing used rocks. The rocks were placed upon the accused's chest and would crush them if they would not confess.

Unanswered Questions:

What were the real causes for the girl’s behaviors?

There are many theories to why the girls acted the way they did, but Chadwick Hansen says that many of the symptoms the girls had are almost identical to the symptoms of hysteria. Another theory is that the girls physiologically conjured up the fits. The placebo effect as in this case they believed they were under the spell of a witch, so they acted as a "bewitched" person would.

When did the phase end? What caused it to end?

By September 1692, the phase began to abate and the public turned on the trails. The Massachusetts General Court annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families. The bitterness still lingered in the Salem community and the legacy continued for centuries.

Lindsey Kramer


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