Rev. George Burroughs and the Salem Witch Trials

Salem Witch Trial

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George Burroughs was the only minister executed as part of the Salem Witch Trials on August 19, 1692. He was about 42 years of age. 

Before the Salem Witch Trials

George Burroughs, a 1670 Harvard graduate, grew up in Roxbury, MA; his mother returned to England, leaving him in Massachusetts. His first wife was Hannah Fisher; they had nine children. He served as a minister in Portland, Maine, for two years, surviving King Philip's War and joining other refugees in moving farther south for safety.

He took a job as minister of the Salem Village Church in 1680 and his contract was renewed the next year. There was no parsonage yet, so George and Hannah Burroughs moved into the home of John Putnam and his wife Rebecca.

Hannah died in childbirth in 1681, leaving George Burroughs with a newborn and two other children. He had to borrow money for his wife's funeral. Not surprisingly, he remarried soon. His second wife was Sarah Ruck Hathorne, and they had four children.

As had happened with his predecessor, the first minister to serve Salem Villages separately from Salem Town, the church would not ordain him and he left in a bitter salary fight, at one point being arrested for debt, though members of the congregation paid his bail. He left in 1683, moving back to Falmouth. John Hathorne served on the church committee to find Burroughs' replacement.

George Burroughs moved to Maine, to serve the church in Wells. This was near enough the border with French Canada that the threat of French and Indian war parties was real. Mercy Lewis, who lost relatives in one of the attacks on Falmouth, fled to Casco Bay, with a group that included Burroughs and her parents. The Lewis family then moved to Salem, and when Falmouth seemed safe, moved back. In 1689, George Burroughs and his family survived another raid, but Mercy Lewis' parents were killed and she began to work as a servant for George Burroughs's family. One theory is that she saw her parents killed. Mercy Lewis later moved to Salem Village from Maine, joining many other refugees, and became a servant with the Putnams of Salem Village.

Sarah died in 1689, probably also in childbirth, and Burroughs moved with his family to Wells, Maine. He married a third time; with this wife, Mary, he had a daughter.

Burroughs was apparently familiar with some works of Thomas Ady, critical of witchcraft prosecutions, whom he later quoted at his trial: "A Candle in the Dark", 1656; "A Perfect Discovery of Witches", 1661; and "The Doctrine of Devils", 1676.

The Salem Witch Trials

On April 30, 1692, several of the girls of Salem leveled accusations of witchcraft at George Burroughs. He was arrested on May 4 in Maine — family legend says while he was eating dinner with his family — and was forcibly returned to Salem, to be jailed there on May 7. He was accused of such acts as lifting weights beyond what would be humanly possible to lift. Some in town thought he might be the "dark man" spoken of in many of the accusations.

On May 9, George Burroughs was examined by magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne; Sarah Churchill was examined the same day. His treatment of his first two wives was one subject of the interrogation; another was his supposed unnatural strength. The girls testifying against him said that his first two wives and the wife and child of his successor at Salem Church visited as specters and accused Burroughs of killing them. He was accused of not baptizing most of his children. He protested his innocence.

Burroughs was moved to Boston jail. The next day, Margaret Jacobs was examined, and she implicated George Burroughs.

On August 2, the Court of Oyer and Terminer heard the case against Burroughs, as well as cases against John and Elizabeth Proctor, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, Sr. and John Willard. On August 5, George Burroughs was indicted by a grand jury; then a trial jury found him and five others guilty of witchcraft. Thirty-five citizens of Salem Village signed a petition to the court, but it did not move the court. The six, including Burroughs, were sentenced to death.

After the Trials

On August 19, Burroughs was taken to Gallows Hill to be executed. Though there was a widely held belief that a true witch could not recite the Lord's Prayer, Burroughs did so, astounding the crowd. After Boston minister Cotton Mather reassured the crowd that his execution was the result of a court decision, Burroughs was hanged.

George Burroughs was hanged the same day as were John Proctor, George Jacobs, Sr., John Willard and Martha Carrier. The next day, Margaret Jacobs recanted her testimony against both Burroughs and her grandfather, George Jacobs, Sr.

As with the others executed, he was cast into a common, unmarked grave. Robert Calef later said that he had been buried so poorly that his chin and hand protruded from the ground.

In 1711, the legislature of the Province of Massachusetts Bay restored all rights to those who had been accused in the 1692 witch trials. Included were George Burroughs, John Proctor, George Jacob, John Willard, Giles, and Martha CoreyRebecca NurseSarah Good, Elizabeth How, Mary Easty, Sarah Wilds, Abigail Hobbs, Samuel Wardell, Mary Parker, Martha Carrier, Abigail Faulkner, Anne (Ann) Foster, Rebecca Eames, Mary Post, Mary Lacey, Mary Bradbury, and Dorcas Hoar.

The legislature also gave compensation to the heirs of 23 of those convicted, in the amount of £600. George Burrough's children were among those.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Rev. George Burroughs and the Salem Witch Trials." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, July 31). Rev. George Burroughs and the Salem Witch Trials. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Rev. George Burroughs and the Salem Witch Trials." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).