The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials

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The Salem Witch Trials

Why do you hurt these children? I do not hurt them. I scorn it. Have you made no contract with the devil? No!

Mr. John Hathorn, a Judge involved in the witchcraft case of Sarah Good, then asked all of the afflicted children to look upon her and see if this was the person that had hurt them so. They all gazed at Goody Good and said that this was the person that tormented them-presently they were all tormented.

Puritanical beliefs had all of Salem truly believing that witches rode on broomsticks across the sky every night alongside the devil himself. They believed that these mere humans could send their "specter" out and haunt the children of their town. Proof of their belief follows, in an excerpt from Cotton Mather's Memorable Providences:
Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches; and that tho those night-birds least appear where the Day-light of the Gospel comes, yet New-Engl. has had Exemples of their Existence and Operation; and that no only the Wigwams of Indians, where the pagan Powaws often raise their masters, in the shapes of Bears and Snakes and Fires, but the House of Christians, where our God has had his constant Worship, have undergone the Annoyance of Evil spirits. Go tell the world, What Prays can do beyond all Devils and Witches, and What it is that these Monsters love to do; and through the Demons in the Audience of several standers-by threatned much disgrace to thy Author, if he let thee come abroad, yet venture That, and in this way seek a just Revenge on Them for the Disturbance they have given to such as have called on the Name of God.

Rebecca Nurse Goody Nurse was a highly regarded, pious pillar of the community who unfortunately could not withstand the power of hysteria. There were many reasons that Rebecca was accused, but it was mostly the hatred exhibited towards her by the Putnam family. She was against Samuel Parris as Reverend of the Salem Town Church, while the Putnam family was his friend, and her husband was at war with the Putnam family estate over some land. Rebecca exuded a saint-like presence over the dark days of the witch-hunt. After her accusation, thirty-nine of the most prominent leaders of the community signed a petition attesting to Rebecca's goodness of heart. Even one of her original accusers, Jonathan Putnam, put his name to the appeal.

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During her trial, Sarah Holton testified that Goody Nurse killed her husband, Benjamin, because she found his pigs in her field. In actuality, Benjamin Holton died of a heart attack three years after the pig incident. In further evidence against Nurse, Ann Putnam, Sr., whom we have already established as being unfairly biased, testified before the court. She claimed that apparitions of Goody Nurse came to her and choked her in the night while the spirit proclaimed all of the people she had killed (the list incidentally included Benjamin Holton).

Fortunately, the speculative evidence against Rebecca Nurse was not substantial enough to convict her; on June 30, the jury came back with a verdict of not guilty. The afflicted children broke out in tantrums and hideous screaming fits and Chief Justice Stoughton urged the jury to reconsider. They came back with a decision of guilty. As if this was not punishment enough, Nurse was excommunicated from her church on July 3. This proved to be most devastating to a God-fearing, pious woman. Goody Nurse, at age 71, was executed on July 19, 1692.

Sarah Good Sarah Good fit the ultimate stereotype of a witch: the lonely beggar, fed up with society, arguing with anyone that would not give his or her charity. She was destined to be accused; it was only a matter of time before an accused witch, Tituba, would sacrifice her soul for her life. Tituba confessed to being a witch and named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne as fellow witches.

During her trial, as can be imagined many people came forward to testify against Good. Seven people testified against her general attitude; however, the most detrimental to Good was the examination of her own daughter, who confessed herself and mother as being witches. Susannah Sheldon testified as to "apparitions" that were seen of Mrs. Good. The following was taken, verbatim, from the original court document of her deposition:
Sarah Good most violently pulled down my head behind a Cheast and tyed my hands together with a whele band & allmost Choaked me to death and also severall times sence the Apperistion of Sarah good has most greviously tortored me by biting pinching and almost Chaoking me to death: also William Battin and Thomas Buffincgont Juner ware forced to cutt the whele band from afe my hands for they could not unty it.

Perhaps the most peculiar was the testimony of Good's own husband, William. He inertly suggested to the jury that his wife was a witch without ever forthrightly accusing her. He told them that prior to the night his wife was examined, he noticed a wart beneath her right shoulder. This simple implication was one of many that led the jury to convict Sarah Good of witchcraft.

On the day of her hanging, Good was still not remorseful for being in connection with the devil. She continued to spew hate-filled remarks at the crowd, which fully convinced them that a woman that would not pray before death must automatically be a witch. Goody Good, at age 37, was executed with Rebecca Nurse on July 19, 1692.

Tituba The first witch accused was an Indian slave named Tituba. Samuel Parris, a merchant from Salem, brought her from Barbados between the ages of 12 and 17. She maintained the Parris household with daily chores, etc. Betty, Samuel's daughter, thought she had become afflicted from the wrath of a witch so she made Tituba help her in preparing a "witchcake" which was simply rye and Betty's urine. This cake was then fed to a dog in hopes of learning the identity of the person tormenting Betty. Sooner or later, Samuel got wind of the use of witchcraft in his household and became enraged. He beat Tituba until she confessed that she indeed was a slave and was teaching Betty her ways.
Tituba was the first to confess for one reason: to avoid further punishment. By admitting her guilt, Tituba could then name other witches, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, and come away from Salem with her neck intact. She spent thirteen more months in prison until an anonymous person paid her bail and bought her. There has been no record of her existence since.

Cotton Mather A religious leader of New England and authentic follower of witchcraft, Cotton Mather led the army of righteous judges to convict dozens of innocent people of something they only read about. It seemed extremely convenient that three of the five judges on the court of oyer (to hear) and terminer (to decide) were Cotton's friends. He wrote letters telling how evidence should be weighed and basically ran the trials from his own home.

Giles Cory Of the witches accused in Salem, Giles Cory is the only one to refuse to stand trial. Unfortunately, this determination cost him his life. Of all of the witches, his punishment seemed most cruel and unusual.

Giles Cory was a well-to-do farmer in Salem. Some reasons that are now accepted as to why Cory was accused are his ties with the Porter family (who was against the Putnam faction), and his stubborn attitude when it came to proceedings such as the Salem Witch Trials. When accused, Cory refused to go to his own trial because he knew he faced conviction and execution. By avoiding conviction, it became more likely that his farm, which Corey recently deeded to his two sons-in-law, would not become property of the state upon his death. Mr. Giles Cory, at age 80, was executed by being pressed to death on September 19, 1692.

Samuel Parris Having nothing to do with the actual proceedings, Samuel Parris most likely started the whole fiasco by beating Tituba into confessing witchcraft and fanning the flames of accusation from his pulpit. Parris organized fasts and daily prayer meetings to help the afflicted children, at the center of who were his own daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail.

A wealthy merchant's life was not adequate for Samuel Parris so he began as the town's new minister in July of 1689. He kept two slaves, one of whom was Tituba, and he had three children, Thomas, Betty, and Susahannah. Betty and Cousin Abigail Williams began dabbling in witchcraft activities, however, these games were most accurately described as non-Puritan activities. Fearing the repercussions of their actions, Betty began showing signs of being afflicted. Daddy came to the rescue and set out on a Salem-wide hunt for the person who was harming his little girl.

Sarah Osborne Frequently denounced were women whose behavior or economic circumstances were somehow disturbing to the social order and conventions of the time. This was the case of Ms. Sarah Osborne. Being singled out from the very beginning because of her social status, Osborne had the seal of fate stamped on her forehead. It was only a matter of time until someone, like Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, and Tituba, accused her of witchcraft. She was found guilty of the charge on March 1. Goody Osborne died in a Boston prison on May 10, 1692.

Speculations on the Cause of Trial Most historical scholars agree that the fall of Salem was induced by mass hysteria caused by many factors; however, it is the uniqueness of this hysteria that has some historians baffled. By understanding the underlying causes of the Salem witch trials, we can better comprehend the society of a people verging on the beginning of the eighteenth century. For example, in Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum contend that the witchcraft hysteria registered the strains attending the emergence of a commercial economy in Salem. In their view, what prompted accusations of witchcraft were the anxieties and resentments festering among some Salem Village families who were faltering and falling behind in a society being rapidly transformed by the quest for profit and material comforts. By contrast, in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Carol Karlsen argues that accusations of witchcraft both in Salem Village and elsewhere in New England, which targeted in disproportionate numbers those women who stood to inherit property, reflected the depth of misogyny within this Puritan culture.


Witchcraft in Salem Village: Intersections of Religion and Society. Ed. Christine Heyrman. 1997. National Humanities Center. 20 Feb. 2000.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials. Ed. Douglas Linder. 1998. University of Missouri at Kansas City. 18 Feb. 2000.
Mather, Cotton. Memorable Providences. Boston, 1689. The Salem Witchcraft Trials. Ed. Douglas Linder. 1998. UMKC. 19 Feb. 2000.
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