The Salem witch hysteria occurred in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 to 1693. A total of 141 people were arrested, 19 were hanged and one was crushed to death. The beginning of the problem can probably be traced to Rev. Samual Parris who before becoming a minister worked as a merchant in Barbados. Upon his return to Massachusetts he brought back two slaves. One of the slaves “Tituba” cared for his nine year old daughter “Elizabeth” called Betty and his 11 year old niece “Abigail”. Tituba passed on stories to the girls about voodoo. The girls were fascinated with voodoo and soon started playing with it. They were soon joined by other girls in the village and started telling each others fortune. One of their methods was to float an egg white in a glass of water and predict their future husbands. For reasons that no one is sure the girls started having fits, making strange noises and contorting their bodies.
It is hard to say whether the girls believed they were possessed or whether the whole thing started as an act which got out of control. It could have all been an act which got beyond the girls control and was fueled by fanatical adults. Rev. Parris brought in Dr. William Griggs who could diagnose no medical condition for the girls so he diagnosed bewitchment. It has been speculated also that the girls had eaten bread made with yeast that had turned bad..causing a condition to appear not unlike that produced by the drug LSD. The 17th century Puritans believed in witchcraft as a cause of sickness and death. Because they believed that witches gained their power from the Devil it was decided to find the witches responsible and kill them. The girls were then placed under enormous pressure to name names.
Rather then admit to what probably started out as a game the girls were caught up in a wave of religious fanatics. The first accused were the slave Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Warrants for their arrest were issued. All three appeared in the house of Nathaniel Ingersoll before Salem Town Magistrates John Hawthorne and Jonathan Corwin. As each women stood to testify the girls fell into fits claiming the woman’s specter was biting them, pinching them and roaming the room appearing as a animal or bird. After being beaten earlier and under pressure the slave Tituba admitted to being a witch. She stated that a black dog had threatened her and ordered her to hurt the girls. She also said that she had ridden through the air on a pole to witches meetings with the other two accused. Tituba then claimed that there were more witches, about six in number, led by a tall, white haired man. All three women were taken to a prison in Boston. Goode and Osborne were put in heavy iron chains, with Osborne dying there.
An all out hunt began for more witches. The girls were placed under more pressure to name more witches. Ann Putman Jr. with the help of a vengeful mother named Martha Corey. Martha Corey was a member of the Salem Village congregation.
Martha maintained her innocence in court but the girls fits of torment and anguish in court convinced the magistrates she was a witch. Even her husband testified against her. The next woman to be named was Rebecca Nurse. She was a church member and an outstanding member of the community. By now the magistrates and everyone else believed whatever the girls said. Ann Putman Sr. was Rebecca’s accuser, apparently now she had joined the ranks of the afflicted.
Following Rebecca Nurse was four year old Dorcas Good. Good, although only a child was sent to prison and placed in chains. The next victims were the local tavern owners John and Elizabeth Proctor. They had both been vocal opponents of the trials. It seemed the girls were eager to do away with anybody who disputed them. Sarah Cloyse, the sister of Rebbecca Nurse was also named by the girls when she tried to oppose what was happening. All three faced trial. Also arrested were Mary Warren, Giles Corey, Bridget Bishop and Abigail Hobbs.
Abigail Hobbs was already mentally unbalanced and as such was only to happy to testify that she was a witch. Instead of dismissing her as an insane person the magistrates believed every word. Then on April 21 nine more people were arrested on the lies of Abigail Hobbs. These included Nehemiah Abbot, William and Deliverence Hobbs, Sarah and Edward Bishop, Mary Ester, Mary Black, Sarah Wilds and Mary English. Up until now the accused had only come from the Salem area. But five of these accused were from Topsfield.
Eventually the hysteria spread to 22 other communities.
For the first time however the girls recanted their accusations on one of their victims, Nehemiah Abbot. The rest were not so lucky and went to prison. By April 30 six more people were arrested. These included Sarah Morey, Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, Dorcas Hoar, Philip English and Rev. George Burroughs who was eventually acquitted. Philip English and his wife fled to Boston. They eventually returned when the hysteria passed but in the meantime lost most of their property.
Rev. Burroughs was the minister at Salem before and had created some enemies. These included Ann Putmann Sr.
Rev. Burroughs was accused of being the coven leader. More arrests followed including John Willard, Geaorge Jacobs and Margerat Jacobs. Because Massachusetts had no formal charter all the accused had to be held in prison until a new charter was obtained. In 1692 the new governor Sir William Phips arrived with the new charter.
Governor Phips had no interest in the witch hysteria and so established a Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the witch trials. Sitting on the new court were Lt. Governor William Stoughton, Bartholomew Gedney, John Hathorne, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Peter Sergeant, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards and Samual Sewall.
By the end of May almost 100 people were imprisoned on charges of being witches. On June 2 the court had its first sitting . The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop who was found guilty. Chief Justice Stoughton signed her death warrant and she was hanged on June 10. The body was placed in a shallow grave on Salem’s Gallows Hill. Justice Saltonstall resigned from the court and questioned the whole affair. As a result he was also accused of witchcraft. Next to appear were Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse and Susannah Martin. All three were eventually condemned.
The next to be convicted were Sarah Wilds and Elizabeth How. During the course of the trial a Rev. Samual Willard was accused of being a witch. But because he was friends with three of the Justices he was protected by the court. This is also an indication the Justices of the court may have known that the people who were sent to their death were also innocent. By now the girls had become sort of celebrities in the colony. The girls now traveled to other towns in search of witches. They went to Andover were more prominent people were named including a very smart man who turned the tables and issued a warrant for their arrest for slander. The girls quickly fled town indicating even further they were liars.
Next to be convicted were John and Elizabeth Proctor, George Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs and Martha Carrier. Because Elizabeth Proctor was pregnant she was given a stay of execution which ended up saving her life. They were executed on August 19 and buried on Gallows Hill. Fifteen more people were convicted in September of which eight were executed and the other seven either escaped or were pregnant. On September 1 Giles Corey was crushed to death by rocks when he refused to recognize the courts authority to try him.
Finally the colonies ministers took a stand against what was happening. The girl accusers who had gone mad with power had accused the Governors wife, Lady Phips of witchcraft. In response on October 29, Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The Governor then asked the General Court to establish a Superior court to finish the business. Juries ended up acquitting most of those accused. Only three were convicted but they were reprieved by the Governor. The witchcraft hysteria was finally over. Those who had participated in the hysteria including the accusers, clergy and magistrates all suffered from illness or problems in the following years.
In 1703 the Massachusetts colonial legislature began granting retroactive amnesties to the convicted and executed.