Salem Witch Trials

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Salem, Massachusetts, lies just 16 miles north of Boston. Originally named lukeag (meaning “eel land” in Native Indian), Salem was founded by Roger Conant in the mid 1620’s. In 1629 the settlers renamed the village Salem for the Hebrew word Shalom and Arabic Salaam, meaning peace. There they hoped to start a new life where they could farm the fertile land and fish at the mouth of the river.

Seventy years passed. Salem was no longer an idyllic haven. A witchcraft hysteria gripped the village, pitting neighbor against neighbor and turning family members against each other. Between June and September 1692 nineteen people (14 women and 5 men) from Salem were found guilty of engaging in witchcraft and were hung from the gallows on a barren slope near the village. An eighty year old man died after he was crushed to death under heavy stones upon his refusal to stand trial for wizardry. In all, about 200 people, a majority of whom were women, were accused of practicing witchcraft. While other cases of witch hysteria occurred earlier throughout New England, the Salem Witch Trials became the most infamous and well-researched. Cotton Mather. a Harvard graduate and Puritan minister, wrote the first book on the subject, The Wonders of the Invisible World, in 1693 for the literate public.

What were the circumstances behind the witch craze? The immediate catalyst for the events that ensued was the sudden and inexplicable illness of Betty Parris. Betty was the young daughter of the Reverend Samuel Parris. who moved with his family, niece and Indian slave, Tituba, to Salem in 1689 upon the invitation of the influential village elder, John Putnam, to assume the position of village minister. When friends of Betty also began to display unusual behavior and after the village physician, William Griggs, was unable to diagnose the girls’ afflictions, talk of witchcraft began to spread throughout Salem. Focus turned to Tituba, the Indian slave, who, it was said, often spoke to the girls about the occult. Sometime between the 25th and 29th of February Betty and her cousin, Abigail Williams, accused Tituba and two other women of bewitching them. Shortly thereafter individuals reported seeing witches flying in the air. And so the witchcraft hysteria began.

The individuals subsequently accused of witchcraft came from different social backgrounds. Those executed after facing trial included two outspoken tavern owners — a sixty year old female and a male critic of the trials — the latter immortalized in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, and the village’s former minister. William Phips, the first Governor of Massachusetts, established a Court of Oyer and Terminer (to hear and determine) and appointed a number of judges, including a chief justice, who had no legal education, to hear the evidence against the accused witches. The court allowed for “spectral evidence” or testimony in which a “victim” charged that the accused witch’s spirit (spectre) appeared before them in a dream or vision and abused them either physically or spiritually. When the number of respectable villagers accused of being bewitchers increased (and included his own wife), Governor Phips demanded changes in the way in which evidence for the accused was presented. As a result, spectral evidence was no longer admitted as evidence in court, and the majority of people accused of witchcraft were acquitted. In May 1693 all remaining accused or convicted witches were released from prison.

Read Governor Phips’ own thoughts about the trials as reprinted from:

Letter of Governor Phips dated February 21 1692/3 [Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum eds., The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692 (New Yori: Da Capo, 1977) pp. 863-864

. . . [A]tt my arrival here I found the Prisons full of people committed upon suspition of witchcraft and that continuall complaints were made to me that many persons were grievously tormented by witches and that they cryed out upon severall persons by name, as the cause of their torments. The number of these complaints increasing every day, . . . I gave a Commission of Oyer and Terminer to try the suspected witches and at that time the generality of the people represented to me as reall witchcraft and gave very strange instances of the same. The first in Commission was the Lieut. Govr. and the rest persons of the best prudence and figure t hat could then be pitched upon and I depended upon the Court for a right method of proceeding in cases of witchcraft. At that time I went to command the army at the Eastern part of the Province, for the French and Indians had made an attack upon some of our Fronteer Towns. I continued there for some time but when I returned I found people much disatisfied at the proceedings of the Court, for about Twenty persons were condemned and executed of which number some were thought by many persons to be innocent. The Court still proceeded in the same method of trying them, which was by the evidence of the afflicted persons who when they were brought into the Court as soon as the suspected witches looked upon them instantly fell to the ground in strange agonies and grievous torments, but when touched by them upon the arme or some other part of their flesh they immediately revived and came to themselves, upon [which] they made oath that the Prisoner at the Bar did afflict them and that they saw their shape or spectre come from their bodies which put them to such paines and torments: When I enquired into the matter I was enformed by the Judges that they begun with this, but had humane testimony against such were condemned and undoubted proof of their being witches, but at length I found that the Devill did take upon him the shape of Innocent persons and some were accused of whose innocency I was well assured and many considerable persons of unblameable life and conversation were cried out upon as witches and wizards. The Deputy Govr. notwithstanding persisted vigorously in the same method, to the great disatisfaction and disturbance of the people, untill I put an end to the C ourt and stopped the proceedings, which I did because I saw many innocent persons might otherwise perish and at that I thought it my duty . . . hoping that for the better ordering thereof the Judges learned in the law in England might give such rules and directions as have been practized in England for proceedings in so difficult . . . a point; When I put an end to the Court there ware at least fifty persons in prison in great misery by reason of the extream cold and their poverty, most of them having only spectre evidence against them . . . I caused some of them to be lettt out upon bayle and put the Judges upon considering of a way to reliefe others and prevent them from perishing in prison, upon which some of them were convinced and acknowledged that their former proceedings were too violent and not grounded upon a right foundation. . . [The Judges] did give it as their Judgment that the Devill might afflict in the shape of an innocent person and that the look and touch of the suspected persons was not sufficient proofe against them . . . offers The Salem Massachusetts Postcard Tour, 44 postcard images of historic Salem, including historic houses and paintings depicting the trials. Well-worth a look.

Playwright Arthur Miller offered his interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials in his famous work, The Crucible, written during the early 1950s and amidst the spectre of McCarthyism.

WEBSITES: [a guide to the events held during October in Salem] [Cornell University Library Witchcraft Collection] [National Geographic Salem Witchcraft Hysteria — a narrative about the
trials] [check out the Haunted Neighborhood festivities held throughout October] [salem witch trials]

Books for Children and Young Adults:
Jane Yolen, The Salem Witch Trials: An Unsolved Mystery from
History (Simon & Schuster, 2004) [for grades 4-6]
Marc Aronson, Witch Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials
(for teens)

Books for Adults:
Paul Boyer & Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social
Origins of Witchcraft (Harvard UP, 1974)
John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the
Culture of Early New England (Oxford UP, 2004) [updated
Marion Gibson ed., Witchcraft & Society in England & America
1550-1750 (Cornell UP, 2003)[collection of primary source
David Goss, Daily Life During the Salem Witch Trials (Greenwood Press, 2012)
Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft
in Colonial New England (W.W. Norton, 1998) [new edition]
Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (Addison-
Wesley, 2006) [reprint]
Keith Thomas, Religion & the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular
Beliefs in Sixteenth & Seventeenth-Century England
(Oxford UP, 1997) [reprint]

For Your Listening Pleasure:
There are a number of classical compositions which seek to evoke the chilling horror we associate with Halloween. Among the better known are Paul Dukas’ The Sorceror’s Apprentice (familiar to anyone who has seen Disney’s Fantasia), Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald (Bare) Mountain and Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (which includes a fourth movement “March to the Scaffold” and fifth movement “Witches’ Sabbath”).

Prospective listeners will find all of these conveniently collected on a single RCA CD (61238) entitled, Classics from the Crypt. James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic contribute a fine performance of the Dukas (DG 4196172), while a stunning Mussorgsky (coupled with the same composer’s Pictures at an Exhibition) can be found on Fritz Reiner’s RCA Living Stereo disc with the Chicago Symphony (61394).

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