So I'm sure at this point just about anyone who has ever watched the History channel or picked up a basic American History book knows that the Salem Witch Trials were based completely on fear and there were no actual Witches involved - or at the very least, not in the context of the word for which they were burned... Whether or not a victim or two would be technically categorized as witches by our usage of the word today is still up for some debate, and frankly will never be answered.
I think the first thing which should be addressed when talking about the happenings in Salem is the mindset of those living there at that time. Today, it's hard for us, even for conservative Christians in most cases, to understand the beliefs of the Puritans. Puritan beliefs were very different from what we know today. Their basic belief was that everyone's fate was predetermined and at your time of birth God decided whether or not you would go to Heaven or Hell. There for your actions didn't really matter when determining your fate. On the other hand, if you didn't live a life as close to perfect as possible it was clear that you weren't going to go to Heaven. So Puritan life was full of questions and no answers.
Their time was spent trying to live up to perfection in an attempt to prove to themselves and others that they had their name in the "book of life." Everything they did would be judged, not only by themselves, but by others because in the Puritan society, how others saw you mattered as much, if not more, as how God saw you.
Women were expected to be in the home, cooking, cleaning, bearing children, silent... They had no power, no control, no say in their own lives beyond to be a good daughter, good wife and good mother. Women were believed to be sinful and evil by nature and therefore less likely to be good Christians and less likely to be included in that small amount of souls which would be accepted in to Heaven. It is for this reason that women were not permitted to preach, enter the priesthood or participate in religious activities. It's also for this reason that it was believed women were more likely to follow the devil and become a part of his ministry.
Salem Village and the lifestyle that filled it was, believe it or not, not even typical of that day and age. So it's easy to see how it's nearly impossible for us to imagine today. Salem Village was a small land locked village about 6 miles from Salem Town which was a prosperous shipping and fishing city. Salem Town was much closer to what we today consider a "small town" but at that point it was a thriving economy full of people with different beliefs, backgrounds and convictions. For Puritans this society was simply to individualistic and to "un-Godly." Because of this the people of Salem town were majorly those who chose to separate from the more liberal Salem Town - HOWEVER, there were those who were there (mostly along the Easter cusp) who were NOT conservative Puritans and who had other reasons for living there.
It is this strict system of beliefs in combination with this minority of more liberal inhabitants that caused the unhealthy and unsteady society that birthed the trials in the first place. The Puritans of Salem were constantly looking for REASONS behind their flaws, because they all wanted to believe (of course) that they had their name in the Book of Life. So, when they sinned, they needed reasons, and as always, it's easier to blame personal flaws on the devil and witches than it is to simply admit we aren't perfect (hmm, I guess not everything has changed).
In many ways, I see this type of society almost like a balloon... Pressure builds and builds and eventually the balloon pops, scares the baby and the whole house is in an uproar... Not that that is any excuse, just that it's easy to see why and how it happens... When people are under pressure, they lash out. And not wanting to find fault in themselves, it's nearly impossible to lash out on anyone besides those minorities and outsiders of our society - this, unfortunately, is a phenomenon we continue to see today.
So, what is the story of Salem itself? What actually happened?
Well, it's really not as fantastic a story as Hollywood has made it out to be. I've heard things on movies and television stating that HUNDREDS of witches were burned in Salem, or that it was an early Wiccan Coven that was hung... All of these untruths are just that... UNTRUE! In fact the real story is simply sad, it's simply the depressing truth of what happens when superstition, strict religion and politics are allowed to run hand in hand and take over the sanity of generally good people.
It all started in 1648 in a near by town of Joanstown when the first "Witch" was sentenced to death on what is now US territories. This case, although a singular event, laid down the foundation for a great many cases to come - including the case of Salem.
Durring the winter of 1961-62, the wheels were set in motion and the Salem Witch Craze. Rev. Samuel Parris had a relatively small family for the time. He had just one daughter, Betty (9), who was of poor health, and an orphaned niece, Abigail (12), who was expected to earn her keep by caring for Better, her disabled aunt (the Rev.'s wife) and the house.
Besides housework there was little entertainment available for young Betty and Abigail. Salem Town & Boston, the closest "cities" were quite a trek over rather unforgiving roads. Because of this Samuel Parris was rarely away from town unless business absolutely required it. He did however, as any good Reverend would, leave the girls in order to visit local parishioners. Samuel was highly opposed to children's games such as hide & seek, tag and other games because he believed that playing was a sign of idleness and "An Idle Hand is the Devils Plaything."
Reading became a very popular past time through the winter months for these and other children. There was a great interest in books about prophecy and fortune telling especially among your girls and adolescents. Local girls formed small, informal circles in which to practice divination and fortune telling that they had learned through these readings as a way to pass the time through the cold months of winter.
Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail, and two other friends had formed such a circle. Tituba, the Rev. Parris' slave whom he bought while in Barbados, would often sit in and participate in such circles. She would regal the young women with stories of witches, demons and mystical animals. Soon, other girls joined the circle to listen in to Tituba's tales and participate in their fortune telling experiments.
It's unclear whether Tituba or one of their books suggested using an egg suspended in water as a form of divination, but this was how the young girls were "telling their fortunes." Knowing these types of behaviors were quite forbidden the girls were forced to keep their activities a secret. However, both Betty and Abigail began to become upset by their fortunes and frightened with the results of such sessions. Over a rather short period of time their dislike of the sessions, coupled with their guilt over being involved and their fear of being caught built up. As a result, in January 1692, the girls began acting out, throwing "fits," experiencing "trances," refused to listen to the reading of the Bible and even attempted suicide. These original two girls were joined in their actions by other young girls by the end of the month.
Concerned, the Rev. Samuel Parris called in the Salem Village physician, Dr. William Griggs to examine the girls. When no physical reasons were found as to why the girls were acting out in these ways it was determined that the girls had been "under the evil hand of witchcraft." In an effort to discover the identity of the witch, Mary Sibley advises Tituba and her husband to bake a "witches cake" and feed it to the girls. On February 25th, this is done and on February 29th, after relentless questioning by Parris, the girls named Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.
Tituba had been the most obvious suspect as she was a slave with no one to stand up for her name or reputation. She would have been seen in that society as "less than" a citizen and this would have made her an easy target. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, had already been "marked women" because of their low status in society, their unusual physical appearance and because neither of them attended church. All three women were arrested for the crime of Witchcraft.
A preliminary hearing was held on March first. Testimony was heard first from the young girls and then the accused were interrogated. Both Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne denied all involvement in witchcraft. However, with each denial the "afflicted girls" would only become more disturbed, screaming, throwing fits and even claiming that the "specters" of these women were attacking them right in the courtroom. This, in itself, I suspect would have been enough to damn the women and find them guilty of their crimes. However, this was not the only evidence against them.
Tituba, confessed to witchcraft just about immediately. She spends three full days spinning tales of her involvement with talking animals, moon lite broom stick flights, and spectral visits intended to cause harm to these children. She also testifies that a tall man from Boston bade her to sign the devils book in blood. When asked how many names were in the book she stated hers, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and six others which she could not see. It is unclear why she confesses to these crimes however, speculation around the matter tends to end in the belief that she simply wanted the trials to be over and told the interrogators what she believed they wanted to hear.
It is Tituba's confession however that sets the Salem Trials apart from earlier New England Witch Trials because unlike those previous trials which simply tried the accused and were over, her confession forces this small minded overly religious and fearful community to begin LOOKING for witches. The common belief was if Tituba could be living with a Reverend and practicing witchcraft, how could anyone be considered innocent. This combined with the already strict lifestyle and the idea that "you are what your neighbors think you are" created a wild fire which could only end badly...
The more people looked for witches the more they found. Next to be arrested were Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca Nurse unlike the others, was not the "usual suspect" she was seen as an upstanding older woman. Her arrest split the town with those more liberal citizens of the East supporting her and the poorer, more religiously devout and conservative farmers in the West, calling for her to be found guilty. Thirty-nine people signed a petition accounting for Rebecca Nurse's moral integrity.
By the Spring of 1692, more than 100 men and women from Salem to Boston, twenty miles away, had been arrested on a charge of Witchcraft. Even being a family member of an accused was enough to be accused yourself. The youngest of which was four year old Dorcus Good, daughter of Sarah Good. It's generally believed that Dorcus confessed in order to be with her mother, whom she no doubt missed greatly. Her size proved to be a challenge for jailers, who were forced to make a new set of chains for her tiny wrists and ankles which simply were to small for normal irons. Both of Rebecca Nurse's sisters had both been arrested and jailed. As the number of those in prison grew, simply speaking out against the ordeal was enough to earn one suspicion. Even Rev. George Burrows, the former Salem Minister who now lived in Maine, was held for trial. It seemed no one was exempt from suspicion!
As the number of accused and jailed continued to swell, it became clear that something had to be done. On June 2, 1692, the witch hunt formally moved from a series of depositions, inquires and statements against the accused to an official trial. At this point the Massachusetts Governor convened the court of Oyer and Terminer. Made up of seven judges and 12 jurors called Bridget Bishop as their first official defendant. Bridget being a female land owner was an easy target as she didn't fit in to that "ideal woman" mold with Puritan society looked for. But the most damning evidence in her case was that she had been accused of witchcraft in the past. She was found guilty that same day. Her sentence of "Death by hanging" was carried out only eight days later on Gallows hill.
The trials that followed basically repeated the informal hearings which had preceded them through March and April. Testimony and spectral evidence gathered during these original hearings were now accepted as fact and were used as evidence against the accused. As with the original hearings, when the accused witches would testify to their innocence the "afflicted" girls would act wildly throwing fits, screaming and crying out as if in pain. Documentation suggests that the girls would play a "game of copy cat" when the accused were on the stand. If the accused would role their eyes, so did the girls, if the accused would throw their hands in the air, so did the girls "proving" the control that these said witches had over them. This only added pressure to the accused to simply confess, because once a confession was heard, the girls were "cured" of all symptoms.
As it turned out, a confession was the one sure way to escape further persecution. For according to Puritan beliefs, once a person confessed it was up to God to judge their sins, not mortal man. At least 55 of the nearly 200 accused took this route and confessed to involvement with witchcraft and the devil.
This did nothing to stop the girls from continuing to accuse more and more people. In fact, once they ran low on people to accuse locally, they reached further, accusing people from at least 10 other areas outside of the Salem Village.
It's easy for me to understand WHY these girls kept up their charade the way they did. In their day women and young girls were to raised and expected to be silent help mates. These girls were able to not only gain the attention of those in their own town but they had gained an almost "rock star" status in their own time. To go from being expected to sit and listen to all of a sudden having priests, judges and other powerful men in the community not only paying attention by taking note and recording your words as fact would have been the ultimate power trip for these girls. We see similar actions today when young small town men and women become over night celebrities and the fame and power goes to their head... Their actions soon turn negative. And frankly, there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to human nature.
On June 29th, 1692 the trial for Sarah Good, Sarah Wilds, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin and Rebecca Nurse began. ALL five women were found to be guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. On July 19, they were hanged on Gallows Hill as Bridget Bishop had been before them.
Sarah Good used her last words to "curse" Judge Nicolas Noyes saying "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard. And if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink." As it turns out, Sarah's "curse" may have come true. 25 years later, as Noise lay on his death bed, he apparently choked on his own blood and expired...
On August 19th, five more people, including the former Salem Reverend, George Burroughs are added to the list of those hanged. Rev. George Burroughs, stood at the gallows and recited, to the letter, the Lords Prayer before his death. Witches it was thought could not even bare to hear the prayer, let alone have the ability to say it properly, as it was thought to be holy. This act may have gone a long way in ending the madness. However, on September 22nd, another eight people were hanged. These eight however, were the last to die at Gallows Hill.
Throughout the entire ordeal, more than 200 persons were accused, arrested and imprisoned as witches. Twenty-four lost their lives, 19 were hanged, 4 died in prison, and one, Giles Cory, was pressed to death.
Giles Cory knew that the court could not proceed to trial without his entry of a Guilty or Not Guilty Plea, so he simply refused to enter one. In an effort to force him to enter a plea the authorities used a technique, which was common in England at the time, where large stones were placed on top of a person in an effort to "press the truth out of them." He was laid on the ground, a board was placed atop him and a large stone placed atop the board. He was asked to enter a plea, when he refused to speak, a second stone was placed... More and more stones were added until at the very end all he would say was "MORE WEIGHT." Eventually, his chest simply gave way and he died.
Come the fall of 1692 the patients of the towns people and the Judges with the girls is being tested. The girls begin to accuse those who are not as easily seen as witches - Men, Children, and the "upper class." When rumors arise that the wives of the Governor and another local Reverend are next to be accused, that patients is officially gone!
The Governor dissolves the Court of Oyer and Terminer on October 29th and moves the remaining cases to Superior Court for trial. It is at this point, when the Spectral evidence, which had served such to be the deciding factor in ALL previous trials, was no longer accepted. This was due in part to the actions of Increase Mather, father of Cotton Mather, who upon visiting the prisons on October 19 found that a great many of the confessors had since recanted their confessions. He stated: "Tis better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned." As a result 49 of the 52 remaining prisoners were acquitted and released from prison. The final 3 remained in prison until the spring of 1693 when they were officially pardoned. Tituba was sold back in to slavery in order to pay for her expenses.
Five years later, the Salem Community finally started to see the error of their ways. On January 16th, 1697 a day of public fasting was held at Salem in order to ask God to forgive their past sins. Judge Samuel Sewall and all 12 of the Jurors who had been involved in the condemnation of the accused witches would sign a petition, as a public show of their repentance. Over the following years, the majority of the Judges involved would also make acts of appology. However, of the original girls, only ONE, Anne Puttnam, would ever apologize for her actions. At age 27, she blamed the Devil for having deluded her and causing her to take innocent lives.
In 1711, the Commonwealth of Mass. officially reversed the verdicts of 22 of the 31 convicted of witchcraft and the State paid the survivors and their families 600 British Pounds each as restitution. In 1957, the guilty sentence of the remaining nine would be reversed as well. **Yes, it seriously took nearly 250 years!**
Various theories abound as to WHY these girls did what they did. Nearly 300 years later, there is still speculation and no answers. Many simply buy in to the belief that these girls started their charade in an effort to get out of trouble and once they discovered fame, they were simply having to much fun to stop... While others believe these girls honestly believed these people were witches, having been influenced by the accusations and thinking of their parents and those around them. And there is also the idea that these trials were a money making scheme... In those days when you were accused of a crime of this level, your estate was taken and belongings were auctioned off as a way to pay for your trial, jail time and in some cases execution. In the end, we have no idea.
It is worth noting however, that there was ONE positive outcome of these trials. As the court system discovered the flaws behind these trials, this was to be the last notable time when a person's guilt was automatically assumed by the courts (officially anyways) and the new system of "innocent until PROVEN guilty" was born from this fault. This is also the last documented case where "spectral" or similar forms of evidence were permitted...