The Salem witch trials were the result of a period of Puritan paranoia which led to the deaths of at least twenty-five people and the imprisonment of scores more.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Why did the hysteria happen?
3 The Beginning
4 The Ending
5 References
6 External links


In 1692, in Salem Village, (now Danvers, Massachusetts), a number of young girls, particularly Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, accused other townsfolk of magically possessing them, and therefore of being witches or warlocks. The community, besieged by Indians and dispossessed of their charter, the only form of government they had, believed the accusations, and sentenced these people to either confess they were witches or be hanged. The accusations spread quickly, and within only a couple of months had involved the neighboring communities of Andover, Amesbury, Salisbury, Haverhill, Topsfield, Ipswich, Rowley, Gloucester, Manchester, Maldon, Charleston, Billerica, Beverly, Reading, Woburn, Lynn, Marblehead, and Boston.

Why did the hysteria happen?

There are various theories as to why the community of Salem Village exploded into delusions of witchcraft and demonic interference. The most common one is that the Puritans, who governed Massachusetts Bay Colony with little royal intervention from its settlement in 1630 until the new Charter was installed in 1692, went through mass religion-induced hysterical delusion. Most modern experts view that as too simplistic an explanation. Other theories include child abuse, fortunetelling experiments gone amok, ergot-related paranoid fantasies (ergot is a fungus that grows on damp barley, producing a substance very similar to D-lysergic acid; in a pre-industrial society, it is easy to accidentally ingest it), conspiracy by the Putnam family to destroy the rival Porter family, and societal victimization of women.

There was also great stress within the Puritan community. They had lost their charter in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and in the spring of 1692 still did not know what their future would be. They were under constant Indian attack and could not depend on England at all for support; their militia came from the ranks of their young men, and in 1675's King Philip's War their entire population had been decimated: one of ten European settlers in New England was killed by Indian attacks. Though that war was over, Indian raids and skirmishes were a constant hazard. More and more, New England was becoming a mercantile colony, and Puritans and non-Puritans alike were making a lot of money, which the Puritans saw as both necessary and sinful. And as the merchant class rose in status, the ministerial class declined.

Perhaps the most compelling new theory is that of Mary Beth Norton, who wrote In The Devil's Snare. Her thesis: that any or all of the above explanations likely played an important role, but Salem and the rest of New England, and particularly the north and northwest areas, were besieged by frequent Indian attacks, which created an atmosphere of fear that contributed greatly to the hysteria. Her evidence: most of the accused witches and most of the afflicted girls had strong societal or personal ties to Indian attacks over the preceding fifteen years. The accusers frequently referenced a "black man," discussed joint meetings between the alleged witches and Indians in sabbats, and described images of torture taken directly from tales of Indian captivity. In addition, Puritan clergy had, since King Philip's War in 1675, frequently referred to Indians as being of the devil, had associated them with witchcraft and, in pulpit-pounding sermons that lasted as long as five hours, expounded repeatedly about Satan and his devils besieging the Puritans, who were seen as the army of God. In short, the Indian had been associated in the New England Puritan mind as the Devil. Therefore, concerted Indian attacks were the Devil trying to bring down the Puritan society, and one should expect attacks from within as well as without. By 1691, Puritans were primed for witchcraft hysteria.

Salem Village itself was a microcosm of Puritan stress. Half the Village were farmers and supported the minister, Samuel Parris, and breaking away from Salem Town to form their own distinct township; the other half of the Village wanted to remain part of Salem Town, retain the merchant ties, and refused to contribute to the maintenance of Parris and his family. In addition, a number of refugees from recent Indian attacks in the Maine and New Hampshire regions had taken shelter with relatives in Salem, bringing tales of horror with them. As a result, by 1691 Salem Village was a powder keg, and the spreading possession of young girls was the spark that set it off.

The Beginning

In the cold winter of 1691/2, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, the daughter and ward of Reverend Samuel Parris, began to act peculiar, speaking oddly, hiding under things and creeping on the floor. No doctor Rev. Parris could bring forth could tell what ailed the girls, and at last one concluded that it was the hand of the Devil on them; in other words, they were possessed. Parris and other upstanding citizens began urging Betty and Abigail, and then new possessed children Ann Putnam, Betty Hubbard, Mercy Lewis, Susannah Sheldon, Mercy Short, and Mary Warren, to name those who afflicted them. At last the girls began to blurt out names.

The first three women to be accused were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, and Tituba. Sarah Good was the town beggar, dispossessed daughter of a French innkeeper (who committed suicide when Sarah was a teenager), who often "went away muttering" whether she was given sustenance or not. Sarah Osborn was a bedridden elderly woman who had gotten on the wrong side of the Putnams when she cheated her first husband's children out of their inheritance, giving it to her new husband. Tituba was the Carib Indian slave of Samuel Parris; though she is very often referred to as black in modern historical and fictional interpretations of the trials, there is no evidence that she was anything but Indian.

These women were put in prison, and other accusations followed: Dorcas Good, four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good; Rebecca Nurse, a bedridden grandmother of saintly disposition; Abigail Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, Martha Cory, Elizabeth and John Proctor. As the number of accusations grew, the jail populations of Salem, Boston, and surrounding areas swelled, and a new problem surfaced: without a legitimate form of government, there was no way to try these women. None of them was tried until late May, when Governor Phips arrived and instituted a Court of Oyer and Terminer (to "hear and determine"). By then, both Sarah Osborn had died in jail without a trial, as had Sarah Good's newborn baby girl, and many others were ill; there were perhaps eighty people in jail awaiting trial.

Over the summer, the Court heard cases approximately once per month, at mid-month. Of the accused, only one was released when the girls recanted their identification of him. All cases which were heard were condemned to death for witchcraft; no one was found innocent. Only those who pled guilty to witchcraft and supplied other names to the court were spared execution. Elizabeth Proctor and at least one other women were given respite "for the belly," because they were pregnant. Though convicted, they would not be hung until they had given birth. A series of four executions over the summer saw nineteen people hung, including a respected minister; a former constable who refused to arrest more accused witches; and at least three people of some wealth. Six of the nineteen were men; most of the rest were impoverished women beyond childbearing age.

Only one execution was not by hanging. Giles Cory, an eighty-year-old farmer from the southeast end of Salem, refused to enter a plea. The law provided for an application of a form of torture called peine fort et dure, in which the victim was slowly crushed by piling stones on him; after three days of excrutiating pain, Cory died without entering a plea. Though his refusal to plea is often explained as a way of preventing his possessions from being confiscated by the state, this is not true; the possessions of convicted witches were often not confiscated, and possessions of persons accused but not convicted were often confiscated before a trial, as in the case of Cory's neighbor John Proctor and the wealthy Englishes of Salem Town. Some historians hypothesize that his personal character, a stubborn and lawsuit-prone old man who knew he was going to be convicted regardless, led to his recalcitrance.

The land suffered along with the people. Crops went untended, cattle uncared for. Often, accused people who had not yet been arrested gathered up their most portable belongings and fled to New York or beyond. Sawmills, their owners missing or distracted, their workers arrested or gawking at the spectacles at the jails or in the meetinghouses, sat idle. Commerce ground to, if not a halt, at least a snail's pace. And there was news of further Indian unrest to the west.

The Ending

The witch trials ended in October 1692, although people already jailed for witchcraft were not all released until the next spring. Officially, the royal appointed governor of Massachusetts, Sir William Phips, ended them after an appeal by Boston-area clergy headed by Increase Mather, "Cases of Conscience," published October 3, 1692. In it, Increase Mather stated "it is better that a hundred guilty witches go free than that one innocent person is hung." Echoes of this phrase can be found in our innocent-until-proven-guilty judicial system of today.

This incident was so profound that it helped end the influence of the Puritan faith on the governing of New England, and led indirectly to the founding principles of the United States of America.

Clergical participants and commentators

Presiding officials

Presiding officials, Court of Oyer and Terminer
  • Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Chief Magistrate

Associate Magistrates

  • John Hathorn
  • Samuel Sewall
  • Thomas Danforth
  • Bartholomew Gedney
  • John Richards
  • Nathaniel Saltonstall
  • Peter Sargent
  • Stephen Sewall, Clerk
  • Wait Still Winthrop


Those who complained of bewitchment:
  • Sarah Bibber
  • Elizabeth Booth
  • Sarah Churchill
  • Martha Goodwin
  • Elizabeth Hubbard
  • Mary Lacey (also an accused witch)
  • Mercy Lewis
  • Elizabeth "Betty" Parris
  • Bethshaa Pope
  • Ann Putnam, Jr.
  • Susanna Sheldon
  • Mercy Short
  • Mary Walcott
  • Mary Warren (was accused of witchcraft when she recanted and said the girls "did but dissemble")
  • Abigail Williams


This is not a complete list; there were anywhere from 150 to 300 accused recorded, and there may have been many more not imprisoned:
  • Capt. John Alden Jr
  • Daniel Andrew
  • Sarah Bassett
  • Edward Bishop
  • Sarah Bishop
  • Mary Black
  • Dudley Bradstreet
  • John Bradstreet
  • Sarah Buckley
  • Richard Carrier
  • Candy, a slave from Salem
  • Mary Clarke
  • Sarah Easty Cloyce
  • Sarah Cole
  • Giles Cory
  • Mary Bassett DeRich
  • Ann Dolliver
  • Rebecca Eames
  • Mary English
  • Philip English
  • Abigail Faulkner
  • Ann Foster
  • Dorcas Hoar
  • Abigail Hobbs
  • Deliverance Hobbs
  • Elizabeth Howe
  • Mary Ireson
  • George Jacobs, Jr.
  • Margaret Jacobs
  • Elizabeth Johnson
  • Mary Lacey (also an afflicted child)
  • Sarah Osborne
  • Lady Phips, wife of Governor Phips
  • Susannah Post
  • Elizabeth Bassett Proctor
  • Tituba
  • Job Tookey
  • Hezekiah Usher
  • Mary Withridge


Died in Jail

  • Sarah Osburn
  • "Dr." Roger Toothaker
  • Ann Foster
  • Lydia Dustin
  • infant daughter of Sarah Good


External links