This month we celebrate Women’s
History Month. For
some of us, we also remember that it is the anniversary of The Salem Witch
Trials, of one the darker times in our country’s history. Our country has had
many and it looks like we are entering another.
What we need to remember, is that 24 innocent people
died. Why did they die? Mass hysteria/fear? Greed? Misogyny? Child Molestation
manifesting in bad behavior? Plain stupidity/ignorance of science/reality? What
we do know is that it lasted for over a year. It is chilling and can easily
happen again as it did during the McCarthy hearings given the current
administration wanting to ban a group of people due to their religion.
Before I go further, I want to make a few things
very clear: 1.) NO ONE WAS BURNED AT THE STAKE! They were all hung except for
Giles Corey who was crushed to death, 4 who had died in jail, and 2 dogs were
shot. 2.) None of the people who were accused were witches. NONE of the
evidence given supports this. 3.) In full disclosure, one of my ancestors was a
magistrate of the trials, Bartholomew Gedney.
It started in mid-February, 1692, when Betty Parris
became strangely ill. She dashed about, hid under furniture, contorted in pain
and complained of fever. Today we would look for medical and/or behavioral
reasons behind this behavior like combinations of stress, asthma, guilt,
boredom, child abuse, epilepsy or delusional psychosis.
It has been put forth that it could have been
caused by a disease called “convulsive erotism” brought on by ingesting rye
infected with ergot, a fungus that grows on kernels of rye grain, especially
under warm and damp conditions. The kind that existed at the time of the rye
harvest in Salem. This convulsive ergotism causes violent fits, a crawling
sensation on the skin, vomiting, choking, and interestingly, hallucinations!
The hallucinogenic LSD is a derivative of ergot. While the symptoms of
convulsive ergotism seem to mirror those of Betty Parris there is no way of
really knowing if that is what she suffered from.
At the time, though, Cotton Mather had heard of a
case describing suspected witchcraft of an Irish washerwoman in Boston of which
he had written a book called “Memorable Providences” that was widely read and
discussed. Betty’s behavior seemed to
resemble that case so, in 1692 Salem, with an Indian war less than 70 miles
away, it was obvious that the Devil was close at hand.
When other playmates of Betty’s, Ann Putnam,
Lewis and Mary Walcott began to display similar behavior the talk of witchcraft
increased and spread. When the local
doctor, couldn’t cure them, another doctor, William Griggs was called in to
examine the girls and he suggested a possible supernatural origin. Under the
advice of a neighbor, Mary Sibley, a form of counter magic was proposed to
Tituba the house slave of the Parris’. She told Tituba to bake a rye cake with
the urine of the sick girl and feed it to a dog.
This made Tituba an obvious scapegoat. It was
believed that for some time she had been telling the girls tales of omens,
voodoo, and witchcraft from her native folklore. And the number of afflicted
girls grew. Rising to seven to include Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah
Sheldon and Mary Warren. They all contorted into grotesque poses, fell into
frozen postures, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. In a time
when everyone believed in a Devil that was not only real but acted in the real
world, these girls and their antics became an obsession with the people.
Thus, it began. The girls named their tormentors
and their stories were so consistent, it was obvious they colluded together on
them. Soon all were seeing witches flying! The Putnam’s put pressure on the
prosecutions. Arrest warrants went out and 3 people were accused. Tituba, Sarah
Good, and Sarah Osborn. Tituba for the obvious reasons, Sarah Good was a beggar
and social pariah who lived where she could, Osborn was a cranky old woman who
had not gone to church in over a year. All perfectly sound pieces of evidence
of witchcraft wouldn’t you say?
These brats, (I’m sorry, but I can think of nothing
else to call them) at the trials went even further in their tales of attacks
followed by their perfected performances of contortions whenever the suspects
were near them. They were joined by other villagers with stories of cheese,
butter, milk suddenly having gone bad and animals being born with deformities
after being visited by one of the accused. Each of the magistrates would ask
the accused, “Were they witches?” “Had they seen Satan?” “Why do the victims
act so in their presence?” You could tell by the questions asked, that the
magistrates thought the women were guilty.
The women all pled innocent for the longest time,
until Tituba, thinking perhaps if she confessed would receive immunity from the
magistrates. She gave her confession to being a witch, that she had ritual
meetings with the other women and the Devil. Said she signed his book and
agreed to do his bidding. Her confession transformed her from scapegoat to
chief witness and expanded the investigations and prosecutions. It silenced
most skeptics and the witch hunt was on!
The girls who made the accusations with such
success, knew no boundaries then. They began accusing others. Martha Corey,
Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Cloyce and Mary Easty. Some of the mothers of these awful
girls would join in on their ridiculous behavior. I know I’m speaking harshly
of people who may have been ill. But all evidence points to nothing more than a
group of bored young women who found they had power over an entire Village with
their behavior and others who had nothing better to do than behave beastly
towards their fellow human beings.
They went so far as to accuse the 4-year-old
daughter of Sarah Good to be a witch. This baby was arrested and put in jail for
8 months and then watched her mother get carried to the gallows to be hung. All
the while the accusers were adding to their repertoire, the new act of being
unable to speak impressing their audience further to believing them. At this
point, however, no one had been executed. They had all been put in jail. At the
rate the girls were accusing people, the jails were filling up fast.
The Governor decided to create a new court, the
“court of oyer and terminer” to hear the witchcraft cases. He appointed 5 judges,
including 3 close friends of Cotton Mather. The Chief Justice and probably the
most influential member of the court was a gung-ho witch hunter William
Stoughton. Mather himself advised the court to credit confessions and admit
“special evidence” such as spectral visitations, the touching test, the
“witches’ mark” (moles or a birthmark where a witch’s familiar could suckle).
Because the judges had no training in the supernatural, they turned to the
ministers for guidance on witchcraft. Guess where the Ministers turned? To one
of the oldest books on witch hunting, The Malleus Malleficarum, (The Witches
The degree that a defendant could take advantage of
their modest protections varied considerably depending on their own knowledge
and standing in the village. This was before our country had declared its
independence so the evidence that would be excluded in today’s courtroom was
allowed, hearsay, gossip, stories (true or not), unsupported assertions,
surmises, were admitted. The protections we enjoy today as a defendant were not
yet allowed. So, while the defendants could speak for the themselves, produce
evidence and ask questions of their accusers, they had no legal counsel, could
not have witnesses testify on their behalf, and no formal avenue of appeal. Due
process had yet to be born.
It was no wonder that the first accused witch
brought to trial, Bridget Bishop was found guilty and hung. A tavern owner
where even on the Sabbath she was open for business! She was mean to her
neighbors and slow in paying her bills. She gossiped and was promiscuous as
well! It’s believed that the special prosecutor chose her first because the
stronger case could be made against her than the others! In addition to the
above mention crimes, she was accused of stealing eggs and turning herself into
a cat by a field worker. Deliverance Hobbs, who they say may have been insane
by that time from her incarceration, and Mary Warren both testified that Bishop
was one of them.
A villager, Samuel Grey said that she visited him
in his bed at night and tormented him. Her body was examined and it was
reported that an “abnormal growth or
increase of flesh” was found. I’m not sure what this
means exactly. Was she fat or had a goiter? More than half of the USA suffers
from that and must be Witches! Of course, there were the additional tales of
bad luck, spectral visits, and once during her being taken from the jail to the
court, she looked at a building and caused part of it to fall to the ground. No
mention of how old the building was made however. And don’t forget the girls
flopping around in their contortions. Bishop was found guilty. Judge Nathaniel
Saltonstall, was so sickened by the conduct at the trial that he resigned from
the court. Chief Justice Stoughton signed the Death Warrant and on June 10,
1692, Bridget Bishop was taken to Gallows Hill and hung.
After the first trial was over, things picked up
speed. The court had developed its proficiency at hearing testimony, finding
the person guilty, then hanging them. Most of them pled their innocence. Some
hoping to delay their execution, would confess, but it only delayed the
Then Rebecca Nurse was accused. Nurse was a pious,
respected woman, who attended services religiously. She was highly thought of
and a member of the Topsfield family. Her two sisters were accused as well.
What is interesting to note is that the Topsfield family had a long-standing
quarrel with the Putnam family. Ann Putnam, one of the accusing girls, claimed
that Nurse attacked her in mid-March and Ann’s Mother testified that she
demanded that Ann Sr. sign the Devil’s book, then pinched her. The only other
evidence offered against Rebecca Nurse was that she told Benjamin Houlton to
stop letting his pig root in her garden. Shortly after that, Houlton died. It
was at this point in the hysteria, that the people began to wonder at if the
trials weren’t less than they seemed to be. Rebecca Nurse could not be a witch
and no one could imagine her doing the things she was accused of. In fact, she
was so highly regarded, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict.
This upset the accusers so much they brought on
their fits with absolute perfection with extra flourishes and would not stop
until the Chief Justice instructed the jury to go back and consider again a
statement of Nurse’s that could be an admission of guilt. As Nurse was old and
nearly deaf, she probably didn’t understand or had been confused by the
question. But back they came with a verdict of guilty and on July 19, 1692, she
rode to Gallows Hill with 4 others and was hung.
Anyone could be accused at any time. People began
to live in fear. Church attendance increased greatly. If there were any
practicing witches in Salem, they kept it to themselves and besides, there is
nothing that keeps a witch from being able to do their work as it is not evil
but that of the earth. They had more to fear by unintentionally offending the
revered accusers than they did of continuing to plant their gardens, harvesting
and healing as they always had done. For no real witch knew anything of the
They accused their ex-Minister George Burroughs as
being the ring leader of the witches by claiming he cast a spell on the
soldiers in the war against the Wabanakis tribe. The fact that he recited the
Lord’s Prayer, a thing they believed a witch incapable of doing and moved many,
caused Cotton Mather to intervene and say that he had his day in court and lost
and so the crowd who believed Cotton Mather to be the final arbiter on such
things allowed his execution.
The tide though continued to turn against the
trials however. When Martha Corey was accused for witchcraft because she
publicly questioned the sincerity of the accusers, her 80-year-old husband,
Giles, stood firm in his defense of her and denial of such nonsense. Naturally,
he too was accused of witchcraft by the girls. Giles however, in his contempt
of the proceedings, refused to stand for trial. In those days, you literally
stood during your trial. He hoped that by refusing to stand, he would avoid conviction
and his farms would go to his sons in law instead of the state. The penalty for
refusing was peine et fort, or pressing which is putting a board plank on an
individual and placing stones on it until the person is crushed to death. It’s
said that the only words he would say during this time was “More weight!” and
so on September 19th Giles Corey passed away.
It was a gruesome death and one never imposed again
in Massachusetts’s. His public death played a significant role in building
public opposition to the trials. He was viewed as a martyr who gave back
courage rather than spite. The doubts
continued to grow. How could the Devil be so entrenched in one area? How could
so many respectable people be guilty? Cotton Mather’s own father, Increase,
argued that it was better to have 10 suspected witches go free than one
innocent person be condemned. Soon the educated elite of the colony began
efforts to end the witch hunting hysteria that taken over Salem.
With all this pressure and the fact that the Governor’s
wife became questioned on suspicion of witchcraft the trials came to an end. He
had eventually pardoned all who were in prison on witchcraft charges by May of
1693. But great damage had been done: 19 were hung on Gallows Hill, an
80-year-old man had been pressed to death, 4 died in jail and 200 people
overall had been accused.
What we know, is that the accusers came from the
northern part of Salem, were lesser educated and of a lower income. The accused
were from the southern part of Salem, better educated and of a middle income. The
women accused, were poor, homeless, old, sick; some were loud, gossips,
promiscuous and slow to pay bills. Some were good, god-fearing women who went
to church. We know all but 2 were women. We know that the accusers disliked the
ex-Minister and the accused liked him and that there had been a schism within
the church over him.
We know that there is the possibility of ergot
poisoning. Though I question this one personally. I truly believe that the
girls behavior reflects something more because we know of one “feud” between
one accuser’s family and one accused’s family. What else do we not know that
happened between the accusers and the accused?
Most importantly, we know that the accused had
little in the way of adequate defense. In fact, in most cases, no defense. The
accused were considered guilty unless they proved otherwise and even in those
instances, it wasn’t good enough. It was often dismissed. There were no laws
protecting the people who were being accused of witchcraft. The mere
questioning of the trials was enough to get you arrested. It was the old “if
you’re not with us, you’re against us” type thing. We eliminate anyone who
doesn’t think like we do. Sound familiar?
The girls who began the witch trials were given a
great deal of power. They held the power of life and death in their hands. As
Lord Acton said, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely”. Who knows why these girls began this? To get out of being punished
for listening to Tituba’s words of voodoo? Once it took hold they felt they had
to see it out?
Can it happen again? It already has. When
McCarthyism ran rampant through our country people saw a communist everywhere.
If you were not like everyone else, you had to be a communist. Could it happen
again? Are you Muslim? Are you an illegal immigrant? If the current
administration succeeds in ridding America of certain laws that obstruct them
of achieving their goals, then of the laws that would protect people they
consider undesirable, then rid America of those ‘Undesirables’ who will be
next? A real witch like me?