When you grow up in and around Salem, witches are everywhere. We all read The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter. Stories surrounding the Salem Witch Trials have seeped into pop culture. Field trips to The Witch Museum and The Witch Dungeon are common occurrences ... as long as it is not October. I actually had a man get off the T (the local train service) and walk up to me in his big ten gallon hat and, in his best drawl, ask me if I knew “where all them thar witches live”. Salem makes millions each year by marketing its sordid history (which is interesting, considering most of what happened didn't take place in modern day Salem. It took place in what is now Danvers). Underneath all of the tourism and fun we need to realize: these stories were not mere folklore to a group of people. These are the horrifying and tragic stories behind New England’s darkest moments. These are people who were falsely accused, ostracized, tortured, and who suffered unthinkable ends as a result of a region’s hysteria.
The Salem Witch Trials
Before we begin discussing the victims of the Salem witch trials, here is a bit of backstory:
Colonial Massachusetts was an inhospitable environment back in 1692. The coldest of the three established colonies, summers were short and winters long, cold, and dark. During this time, Europe was in the throes of “The Little Ice Age”, a period that lasted nearly 500 years between the 14th and 19th Centuries. There is evidence that, although Europe the region most affected, New England may not have been spared. Research shows arguments taking place over resources such as wood used for cooking and heating.
The deeply religious community was also home to social unrest. Salem was growing. In 1692, Salem was divided into Salem Town and Salem Village.
Salem Village was a farming community, while Salem Town was a bustling port. The economic effects of the time can still be seen today. Modern day Salem still has a few large homes left that stand as reminders of the port’s previous posterity, while nearby Danvers (which was part of Salem Village) has many remaining smaller, more modest, farmhouses. The two communities were divided by economic, resource, and religious issues. Farmers living in Salem Village faced a three hour walk to get to Salem Town. Further division existed within Salem Village, itself. Those living near the border with Salem Town became merchants and service providers and, thus, prospered along with Salem Town. Puritan Farmers living further away from the border saw this as the work of the devil. The social tensions began to build. A 1682 letter written by a local villager described the discord as:
"Brother is against brother and neighbors against neighbors, all quarreling and smiting one another."
Due, in part, to the three hour walk villagers had to make to get to Salem Town, those in the Village fought to get their own church. This finally happened in 1674. The church went through three ministers until, in 1688, John Putnam, an influential force in Salem, brought Samuel Parris to Salem to preach. In 1689, Parris officially became the minister and was given a generous salary -- which included free firewood. Accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, his six-year-old daughter Betty, niece Abigail Williams, and his Indian slave Tituba, Parris moved to Salem Village, and, thus, the stage is set.
The last person to be hanged in Boston as a witch was laundry maid Ann Glover. She was thought to have bewitched 13 year-old Martha Goodwin after the two had quarreled. Ann was hanged in 1688. In Salem, the hysteria was quietly beginning.
The Victims Of The Salem Witch Trials
On January 20, 1692, Elizabeth "Betty" Parris and Abigail Williams began acting strangely. They began having episodes of screaming, trances, and fits. Because doctors could find no reason for the behaviors, the episodes were deemed a result of witchcraft.
Soon, other girls in Salem would start exhibiting similar "symptoms". Along with Elizabeth Booth, Sarah Churchill, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mercy Lewis, Ann Putnam Jr., Susanna Sheldon, Mary Walcott, Mary Warren, they collectively became known as "The Afflicted Girls". This group of girls was instrumental in the tragic events that became known as The Salem Witch Trials.
By the end, 140-150 people were arrested for witchcraft. Of those arrested or accused:
- 20 were put to death
- 10 were pardoned
- Four died in prison
- 10 escaped prison
- 13 were accused but never indicted
- Two evaded arrest
- Two dogs were accused of witchcraft and put to death
The first of the arrest warrants were issued in February 1692 for Parris's slave Tutiuba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osburn. Tituba was among those never indicted, and Sara Osburn died in prison in Boston Massachusetts. Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, and Abigail Williams were all accused of witchcraft by Putnam's niece Abigail and Mary Walcott. All four were hanged on the same day on Gallows Hill in Salem Town.
Hanged on June 10, 1692
Although she was not the first to be accused, Bridget Bishop was the first execution that would take place as a result of the blossoming hysteria. She also has the distinction of having been accused by the most people. She outlived two husbands and was married her third, Edward Bishop, at the time of her death. She was a member in good standing of a church in Beverly but was known for her quick wit, over-the-top style, and as a cog in the gossip wheel. She ended up in court on several occasions due to "violent quarreling with her husband". Bridget was also known to stay up late drinking and playing illegal games. Along with the afflicted girls, her list of accusers included her brother-in-law.
Hanged on July 19, 1692
Sarah Good was the daughter of an innkeeper from Wenham, Massachusetts. At 17, she lost her father to suicide. She was one of nine children, seven of whom were girls. She was married to Daniel Poole, a former indentured servant. When he passed away, Sarah was left in debt. She later married William Good. They were held responsible for the debt from her first marriage and, as a result, were homeless and beggars when Sarah went to trial. Her four year old daughter, Dorcas, was arrested, as well. Spectral Evidence (evidence that the spirit or specter of the accused appeared to a witness whilst the accused's body was in another location) was used in Good's trial. Despite much of it proving false, she was still convicted and hanged at the age of 39.
Rebecca Nurse was married to a respected man named Isaac Easty and had eight children. She was 71 at the time of her trial. She was, herself, a respected member of the community and known for her piety. She also was engaged in a land dispute with the Putnams and objected Samuel Parris's appointment as pastor. The Putnams were some of her most vocal accusers. On June 30, the jury in her trial found Nurse "Not Guilty". Girls she was accused of bewitching and many others in the courtroom created such an outcry that the jury was urged to "reconsider" the verdict. Comments made by Nurse were brought to the jury's attention:
"When Hobbs had accused Nurse, Nurse had said "What do you bring her? She is one of us." Nurse had only meant that Hobbs was a fellow prisoner. Nurse, however, was old, partially hard of hearing, and exhausted from the day in court. When Nurse was asked to explain her words "she is one of us," she did not hear the question. The jury took her silence as an indication of guilt."
The partially deaf and exhausted old woman misunderstood a question and was found guilty after a second deliberation by the jury because of it.
Susannah Martin and her husband George were two of the first settlers of Amesbury, Massachusetts. They were loving parents. Known as being an outspoken, temperamental woman, Susannah was easy fodder during this tumultuous time. She had been accused of witchcraft a total of three times in her life.
Elizabeth How(e), (the family's name appear spelled both How and Howe in documents) was the wife of farmer James How(e) and mother to six children. Her husband went blind at the age of 50, and life was not easy for the family after this point. Like Susannah, Elizabeth had been accused of witchcraft more than once. After a dispute with the Perley family, the Perley's daughter began suffering from "fits" and other symptoms. How(e) was accused of bewitching the child. Documents show that, prior to this incident, Elizabeth was a respected member of the community. Despite this, she would never escape the accusations. Her attempts to join a new church were blocked by Samuel Perley and Isaac Foster. The rumors escalated to the point where she was accused of bewitching livestock. Ten years later, she was swept into the fracas that surrounded Nurse, Good and Martin. She was tried and convicted of witchcraft at the hands of the same girls and hanged at the age of 71.
Sarah Wildes was the wife of a judge and lived in Topsfield, Massachusetts. She was no stranger to controversy. She is claimed to have had sex out of wedlock, to wear silk scarves, and to have had more than one run-in with the law. She married her husband John Wildes in 1663. Relatives of John's deceased wife, feeling a great deal of animosity toward Sarah, began spreading rumors about her being a witch. Sarah became so fed up that, one day, she physically attacked Mary Gould Reddington, the sister of her husband's deceased wife. Unfortunately for Sarah, the Goulds were friends with the Putnams. Even after Mary's death, the harassment continued finally resulting in Sarah's arrest in 1692.
As time wore on, the number of people accused rapidly increased as the hysteria grew.
Hanged on August 19, 1692
George Jacobs Sr. was very outspoken against the Salem Witch Trials and not often seen at church. The farmer was among those accused by Mary Walcott, and the Putnams testified against him in court. Even his own family testified against him:
"His granddaughter Margaret Jacobs, herself a confessed witch, named her grandfather as a co-conspirator."
It wasn't until her grandfather was sentenced to death that Margaret retracted her statements against him and confessed that she was guilty. She was forgiven by George when she told him how much she regretted her actions.
Martha Carrier was married to Thomas Carrier, and the couple had four children, one of whom was born before the couple married. A member of one of the families that founded Andover, Massachusetts, she was first accused of witchcraft after a her neighbor (with whom she was engaged in a land dispute) got sick following an argument. Carrier had left Andover for a time, and her return to town coincided with smallpox outbreak in the town. She was accused of killing 13 people, and their ghosts were said to have crowded the courtroom. Cotton Mather referred to Martha as "the Queen of Hell" and a "rampant hag". Once again, a Putnam was among the accusers.
George Burroughs was a non-ordained minister, originally from the south. He ended up in Salem after the town in which he was preaching, part of modern day Portland which was then known as Casco, Maine, was raided by Indians. He borrowed money from the Putnams, and a feud erupted when he could not pay back the loan. While this resulted in his return to southern Maine, his troubles followed. On May 4, he was in the middle of dinner when he was arrested and taken back to Salem. Just prior to his execution, he recited The Lord's Prayer perfectly. Despite the prevailing thought that a witch or wizard would be unable to perform that feat, he was still hanged.
John Proctor moved to Salem in 1666. He began his life in town as a farmer but gained his wealth when he opened a tavern in 1668. Proctor spoke out against the Salem witch trials and, at one point, even wrote letters to clergymen in Boston imploring them to intervene. Additionally, he made no secret of the fact that he thought the afflicted girls to be liars and, during his trial, called attention to the validity of spectral evidence. Eventually, his entire family was accused of witchcraft. None of his attempts to put the breaks on the events unfolding in the community worked in time to save his life. Rumor has it that his body was retrieved after his hanging and buried somewhere on his farm.
John Willard was actually a deputy constable when the hysteria began. Like Proctor, he spoke out against the Salem witch trials and was, himself, accused of witchcraft after refusing to arrest accused he felt were innocent. He eventually left his job because so many innocent people were being arrested. Like some of the other victims, he was accused by Ann Putnam Jr. and a relative: his wife's grandfather, Bray Wilkins. Ann accused him not just of witchcraft but of killing her baby sister, as well. Wilkins' grandson was found dead and beaten, and Willard was accused of that crime, as well. He fled Salem before he could be arrested under the first warrant, but another was issued. He was finally found in Nashua, New Hampshire and brought back to Salem. The ghosts of those he was accused of killing were reportedly seen in the courtroom.
Killed on September 19, 1692
The story of Giles Corey captivated the minds of Arthur Miller and Longfellow and fueled the public outcry against the trials. The 80 year-old Corey, although convicted of murder in the past, was an active member of the church. His wife Martha publicly questioned the validity of the Salem witch trials and, thus, also ended up being accused of witchcraft. What makes his story unique is that, after he pleaded "not guilty", he refused to be tried by the court and refused to stand for trial. The penalty for his actions was death by pressing (also known as peine forte et dure or death by crushing), which was illegal.
During his pressing, Corey was said to have asked for more weight to be piled on him so that his death might come faster. After his gruesome public death, he was buried on Gallows Hill in an unmarked grave.
Hanged on September 22, 1692
Like her husband Giles, Martha Corey was a member of the church and had some skeletons in her closet. It was well known that, in the 1670s, she bore a child out of wedlock. Reports of her husband's view on her guilt are conflicting. Some say he was convinced of Martha's innocence, while others say he testified against her during her trial. Either way, she was found guilty and died just three days after her husband.
Margaret Scott was from Rowley, Massachusetts. Scott was a widower who was forced to beg after the death of her husband. Court documents show she was accused of bewitching livestock as well as members of the Wicom and Nelson families.
Mary Easty was the mother of seven and sister to Rebecca Nurse and accused witch Sarah Cloyse. Another victim of the afflicted girls, she was imprisoned for a time and, then, released. After her release, the afflicted girls, again, started having fits, and Sarah was imprisoned once again. While on the gallows, she pleaded not for her life but for an end to the madness. Unfortunately, the Salem witch trials continued.
Alice Parker was married to a fisherman and known to have powers of clairvoyance. She was accused by Mary Warren of drowning many men while they were away at sea.
Ann Pudeator was a nurse and midwife in Salem. She was known to be quarrelsome with neighbors. Some speculate that she was accused, in part, because she defied female cultural norms. Many of her medical supplies were used as evidence against her.
Wilmot Redd was the wife of a Marblehead fisherman. As with many others accused of witchcraft, she was known for having a quarrelsome personality. Although she was accused by the afflicted girls, prior to her trial, she had never met them.
Samuel Wardwell was married to the widow Sarah Hawkes. Originally from Boston, the Quaker moved to Andover in search of work as a carpenter. He and his wife had seven children together. He originally confessed to the charges against him, in hopes that it would save his life, but later recanted. It is known that he did engage in fortune-telling, and it is believed that this played a part in his being charged and executed for witchcraft.
Like several of the others executed for witchcraft, Mary Parker was from Andover. There is not much information available about Mary and why she was accused. During her trial, she maintained her innocence. She claims she was mistaken for another and is quoted as saying:
"There is another woman of the same name in Andover."
And then it was over...
On October 8, a man named Thomas Brattle wrote a letter that made its way to Governor Phips. The letter, which spoke against the madness taking place in Salem, moved the Governor to make spectral evidence not admissible. On October 29, he officially dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the court where all of the trials took place. A Superior Court was created and heard the remaining witchcraft cases. No more people were convicted. The Salem witch trials, as they would become known, had ended.
Those are the victims, the people behind the myths and legends -- the wives, mothers, fathers, and husbands. They were all human and, thus, led imperfect lives, just like the rest of us. Over the centuries, restitution has been paid to the families and descendants of those executed, and a city in Massachusetts continues to keep the memories of these victims alive. There have been numerous theories as to why the hysteria came about. The Little Ice Age and the fungus Ergot have both been blamed, but it doesn't really matter, does it? At the end of the day, the fact that families and neighbors were pitted against one another and people innocent of the crime for which they were charged were killed remains, no matter what the cause. Should your Halloween adventures take you to Salem, take a short drive. Beyond the tourist center of Salem's Essex Street lie the real stories and the real truth behind The Salem Witch Trials.