A Brief History of the Salem Witchcraft Trials

Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving by William A. Crafts, 1876.
Witchcraft at Salem Village. Engraving by William A. Crafts, 1876. Public Domain

Salem Village was a farming community that was situated approximately five to seven miles to the north of Salem Town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the 1670s, Salem Village requested permission to establish it own church due to the distance to Town’s church.  After some time, Salem Town reluctantly granted Salem Village’s request for a church.

In November 1689, Salem Village hired its first ordained minister – the Reverend Samuel Parris – and finally Salem Village had a church for itself.

Having this church gave them some degree of independence from Salem Town, which in turn created some animosity.

While Reverend Parris was initially welcomed with open arms by the residents of the Village, his teaching and leadership style divided the Church members.  The relationship became so strained that by the fall of 1691, there was talk amongst some church members of discontinuing Reverend Parris’ salary or even providing him and his family with firewood during the upcoming winter months.

In January 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter, 9-year-old Elizabeth, and niece, 11-year-old Abigail Williams, became quite sick. When the children’s conditions worsened, they were seen by a physician named William Griggs, who diagnosed them both with bewitchment. Then several other young girls from Salem Village also displayed similar symptoms, including Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott and Mary Warren.

  

These young girls were observed having fits, which included throwing themselves on the ground, violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming and/or crying almost as if they were possessed by demons inside.

By late February 1692, local authorities had issued an arrest warrant for the Reverend Parris’ slave, Tituba.

  Additional warrants were issued two other women that these sick young girls accused of bewitching them, Sarah Good, who was homeless, and Sarah Osborn, who was quite elderly.

The three accused witches were arrested and then brought before magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin to be questioned about the witchcraft allegations.  With the accusers were displaying their fits in open court, both Good and Osborn continually denied any guilt whatsoever.   However, Tituba confessed. She claimed that she was being assisted by other witches who were serving Satan in bringing down the Puritans.

Tibuta’s confession brought mass hysteria not only in the surrounding Salem but throughout all of Massachusetts.  Within short order, others were being accused, including two upstanding church members Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse, as well as Sarah Good’s four-year-old daughter.

A number of other accused witches followed Tibuta in confessing and they, in turn, named others.  Like a domino effect, the witch trials began to take over the local courts.  In May 1692, two new courts were established to help ease the strain on the judicial system:  the Court of Oyer, which means to hear; and the Court of Terminer, which means to decide.

These courts had jurisdiction over all the witchcraft cases for Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk counties.  

On June 2, 1962, Bridget Bishop became the first ‘witch’ to be convicted, and she was executed eight days later by hanging. The hanging took place in Salem Town on what would be called Gallows Hill. Over the next three months, eighteen more would be hanged.  Further, several more would die jail while awaiting trial.

In October 1692, the Governor of Massachusetts closed the Courts of Oyer and Terminer due to questions that were arising about the propriety of the trials as well as declining public interest.  A major problem with these prosecutions was that the only evidence against most of the ‘witches’ was spectre evidence – which was that the accused’s spirit had come to the witness in a vision or a dream.

In May 1693, the Governor pardoned all witches and ordered their release from prison.

Between February 1692 and May 1693 when this hysteria ended, more than two hundred people had been accused of practicing witchcraft and approximately twenty were executed.