What were the Salem Witch Trials and why are they so famous? Also known as "the Salem Witchcraft Trials," these legal proceedings in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, resulted in 20 people, mostly women, being hanged for witchcraft. The accused were prosecuted and executed for allegedly practicing witchcraft, when little to no evidence of it existed. Many consider these trials one of the most tragic series of events in the history of the United States as well as in the history of the Christian faith.
Why were they so controversial? Many historians believe that the trials, and eventual executions, were the products of mass hysteria, characterized in this time and place by satanic and demonic activity. Fueled by rumors and hearsay - and sometimes out of mere personal dislike - neighbors accused neighbors, even church members accused other church members, of witchcraft, like black magic, allegations that were mostly based on "spectral evidence" (see below). The community of Salem became paralyzed with fear, believing that demons were at work among them, and perhaps even Satan himself, and that the remedy to all of this was killing the possessed.
The Salem Witchcraft Trials: worldviews and context
"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them." ~ C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
What was the worldview of locals at this time? The people of Salem were Puritan Christians. Like Christians throughout the ages, they believed in the existence of Satan, yet unlike many Christians throughout the ages they held that Satan was directly responsible for every bad thing that happened in life. Historically, Puritans, for the most part, whether in Europe or America, were not so hypersensitive to Satan and demons as those in Salem were.
The Puritans were Calvinists. Did their theology somehow encourage these events? It's difficult to make that case. As previously mentioned, not all Puritans, or other expressions of Calvinism (i.e. adherents of the theology of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin), harbored such extreme fascination with Satan and demons. No other events like the Salem Witchcraft Trials occurred in Europe or America where Calvinism was dominant. The theological errors in Salem at this time cannot easily be blamed on either the Christian or Reformed wordlview.
The hysteria begins: Cotton Mather, Satan, and unexplained convulsions
How did it all begin? Cotton Mather, a minister at North Church in Boston, Massachusetts, fixated upon spiritual warfare (i.e. the believer's ongoing struggle against Satan and demons) in his ministry. Whether this made locals overly sensitive to the devil's work is debatable; nevertheless, rumors of witchcraft were present. When the children of a Boston-area mason named John Goodwin stole linens from a local woman named Mary Glover, Mather blamed Satan. Yet Glover's husband also accused his wife of witchcraft and she was subsequently blamed for casting spells on the children with black magic. Then something strange happened to the Goodwin children.
What happened to the Goodwin children? Four of the six children started having "fits," as they were called, which had many physical symptoms. The children had neck pain, back pain, jerks and movements (that may be described as muscle spasms or something similar), and they cried out, sometimes in pain, but at other times the reasons were unknown.
It was also said that the children flapped their arms like they were birds pretending to fly. There were also reports that they attempted to hurt themselves as well as others.
Importantly, locals would come to associate these physical abnormalities with witchcraft. But could the symptoms be explained another way? Many historians today say, yes.
What theories are there for what happened to the children and others who showed similar symptoms? While no one can know for sure, explanations range from the onset of psychological abnormalities to the onset physical abnormalities. For example, some believe that locals were psychologically traumatized by having their lives in constant danger from Indian attacks; others believe the physical symptoms are consistent with eating bad rye bread, which may have been laced with a fungus called Claviceps purpurea, from which the hallucinogenic drug LCD is derived. Still others simply believe the accusations, trials, and executions were motivated by grudges, hate, and other ill-wills, and that these sicknesses were ultimately unrelated to the ensuing trials. Whatever the cause was exactly, hysteria in Salem was rapidly gaining momentum.
The hysteria spreads: the pastor's children, Tituba, and morphing into a dog
What happened to the Parris children? In 1692, Betty, age 9 (and daughter of Rev. Samuel Parris) and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, began to have "fits." Observers said the physical symptoms were beyond the power of natural causes. The children reportedly contorted their bodies and cried out for no apparent reason, like the Goodwin children. The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. Then other girls, Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard, began to display similar symptoms. When a preacher came to Salem, his message was interrupted several times by the girls' cries.
Who was Tituba? Tituba was one of three women the girls accused of afflicting them, along with Sarah Good (a homeless beggar) and Sarah Osborne (who rarely attended the church in town and whose personal life was greatly disapproved of by locals). Tituba was a slave of Rev. Parris. Her ethnicity is unknown - some speculate that she had African heritage, others think Native American - but it's certain that she was not Caucasian. Tituba was accused of teaching the children demonology and other occult subject matter.
What happened if the girls' accusations were doubted? Martha Corey, a member in good standing of the church in Salem Village, expressed her reluctance to believe the girls' accusations. As a result, Corey was soon accused of witchcraft herself. Also, Rebecca Nurse, a member of the Church in Salem Town, expressed skepticism, and she was accused of witchcraft in turn. At this point, some locals came to a conclusion that horrified them - Satan hadn't only infiltrated the village, but the the church, too.
Who was Rachel Clinton? Rachel Clinton, who lived in the neighboring town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, was also accused of witchcraft at this time. After going through a divorce, where rumors of adultery were whispered amongst the town folk, Clinton experienced financial hardship and eventually became a beggar. Locals accused her of extreme forms of witchcraft, such as killing a woman simply by walking by her on the road. One man even claimed that she could even shift shapes and turn into a dog.
The hysteria in the court: the Lord's prayer, spectral evidence, and "witch cake"
How bad did the accusations get? In May 1692, depositions resulted in more arrests as people increasingly blamed others of witchcraft. At one point 62 people were in custody. (At the time, Salem Village was home to 500-600 people with as many as 2,000 in the wider area.) Others were accused, but fled the area before they could be arrested. During this time Sarah Osbourne, one the first accused, died in jail. At this time, Mather wrote to Judge John Richards to be careful as he presided over the trials because "the Devils have sometimes represented the Shapes of persons not only innocent, but also very virtuous."
Who was George Burroughs? On August 19, 1692, four of the accused were executed, including George Burroughs, who was a former pastor and graduate of Harvard College. The evidence against Burroughs was that he displayed enormous feats of strength, which some believed couldn't be done without Satan's help. Moments before his execution, Burroughs recited the Lord's Prayer. This was a monumental surprise to the gathered crowd because it was believed that people who practiced witchcraft were unable to recite that prayer. Burroughs was then hanged with a rope. Mather then told the assembled people that in the person of Burroughs, Satan had disguised himself as an angel of light. More executions followed in September.
What was "spectral" evidence? The word "spectral" means "resembling a specter; ghostly" (American Heritage Dictionary). As it relates to the Salem Witchcraft Trials, spectral evidence refers to when an afflicted person supposedly saw the "shape" or "apparition" of the person afflicting them. This wasn't visual confirmation, but something closer to a vision. The vast majority of the evidence against the accused was based on spectral evidence. The legal - and theological - question people were debating at the time is whether or not an afflicted person, through their own sinfulness, had to somehow give "permission" to Satan to experience affliction.
What was "witch cake"? Before the legal proceedings began, a friend of Rev. Parris named Mary Sibly, told one of the reverend's slaves (i.e. the husband of Tituba) to make a "witch cake" to ascertain the identities of all the witches in Salem. The ingredients included rye and urine from the afflicted girls. The girls' urine was included because it was believed that trace physical elements of the afflicting persons could be found in it. So when the cake was fed to a dog all the true witches in Salem would cry out in great pain because part of them was being chewed by a canine, and all the guilty people would be exposed. Rev. Parris reprimanded Sibly and she publicly acknowledged wrongdoing.
What was the "touch test"? The touch test was one means to determine the guilt of an accused person. It was used prior to the beginning of the trials. It was believed that if a suspected witch touched a person who was having a "fit," it meant that the accused person was responsible for the symptoms. In some cases, the accused would be blindfolded and led into a room where a person was having a fit, and if the symptomatic person's fit stopped when the accused touch them, the accused was considered guilty.
The hysteria: the aftermath
How did the trials end? When William Phips, the governor of Massachusetts at the time, learned of the trials, he called for a special court session to hear the evidence against the accused. The special session found many gross errors, from admitting spectral evidence to denying legal counsel for the accused. Nevertheless, trials continued for a time and Phips' wife was even accused by some of witchcraft. Phips was eventually able to end the trials, and the final group of accused people was freed from jail in May, 1693.
What happened after the trials were over? Within a few years, the world outside Salem began to denounce the trials. In 1695, Quaker Thomas Maule, criticized the trials stating, "it were better that one hundred Witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a witch, which is not a Witch". Throughout the 1690's various jurors involved in the legal proceedings asked for forgiveness for their role in the tragedy. John Hale, a nearby minister who had a role in the trials, later wrote a book expressing regret. in February 1703, Martha Covey's excommunication was reversed by a vote of the congregation at the Salem Village Church. Rebecca Nurse's membership wasn't reinstated until 1712.
What happened to Ann Putnam? In August 1706, Ann Putnam, who was 12-years old in 1692, asked for forgiveness for the role she had in accusing the first three women. Ironically, she blamed the devil:
I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father's family in the year about ninety-two; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several people for grievous crimes, whereby their lives was taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though, what was said or done by me against any person, I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.
Putnam is buried in Salem, now Danvers, Massachusetts, in an unmarked grave.
How were the victims, or their relatives, compensated? In 1709 the formerly accused who were still living, and the relatives of the deceased, were given 578 pounds 12 shillings to be divided among them.
What are examples of the present fascination with the Trials? There have been many books that have used the Salem Witchcraft Trials in their plots lines and themes, from Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" (i.e. play, book, and movie) to Kathleen Kent's "The Heretic's Daughter." There have been many movies based on the trials, from "Maid of Salem" (1937) to "The Lords of Salem" (2012). The trials have also been depicted on many televisions shows from The Simpsons to documentaries on The History Channel and The Discovery Channel.
1. The Salem Witch Trials by Marilynee K. Roach. Taylor Trade. 2002
2. In the Devil's Snare by Mary Beth Norton Knopf Press. 2003.
3. Salem Witch Trials - Documentary Archive and Transcription project