Most people have heard of the Salem witch trials. But what exactly happened? This Halloween, let’s delve into this sinister bit of history.
It all began in the rural American village of Salem (what is now Danvers), Massachusetts in the late 1600s. The residents of Salem had recently suffered a smallpox epidemic and there was rivalry between Salem Village and the neighbouring, more affluent Salem Town. To top it off, this tension was intensified by fears of attacks from nearby Native American tribes. All of this, together with a widespread belief in the supernatural, led the largely Puritan community of Salem to be fearful and suspicious of outsiders, and many believed that the village’s problems were the work of the devil.
In January 1692, two young girls, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece of Salem village’s minister, suddenly began having fits together with outbursts of screaming. A local doctor diagnosed the girls with bewitchment, and it wasn’t long before other girls in the village began to exhibit similar symptoms. The girls, claiming to be possessed by the devil, accused a number of women from the village of witchcraft and in February Sarah Good, a homeless beggar, Sarah Osborn, a destitute elderly woman, and the African-Caribbean slave of the Parris family, Tituba, were arrested. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn denied the charges against them. Tituba, perhaps in an attempt to save herself from conviction, confessed, disclosing the names of other “witches” who were working with her. This included the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good. The ladies were all sent to jail to await trial whilst some of the other arrested “witches” also confessed, accusing others of the crime in the process. Over the next few months over 150 men, women and children were accused of witchcraft and this soon began to overwhelm the Salem justice system with overcrowded jails and a backlog of trials.
In June that year, Bridget Bishop was the first person to be convicted of witchcraft. She was hung at what became known as Gallows Hill. Thirteen more women and five men would befall the same fate that year whilst seven other accused witches died in jail. One male accused, Giles Corey, whose wife Martha was also accused, was pressed to death by stones after he refused to enter a plea.
Disapproving of the way that the trials were being handled, particularly how witness testimony about dreams and visions was considered legitimate evidence used to convict defendants, father and son Increase and Cotton Mather campaigned for the standards of evidence in witchcraft cases to be the same as for any other crime. This, together with the public’s increasing ambivalence towards the proceedings, helped curb the momentum of the trials by the autumn. Trials of “witches” continued until early 1693 but in the May of that year the Governor of Massachusetts pardoned and released all those in jail awaiting trial and there were no more hangings.
The Salem witch hangings were the last executions of accused witches in the United States and in 1697 the trials were ruled as being unlawful. In 1711, financial restitution was granted to the successors of those who had been wrongly convicted and executed.