Salem Village had a turbulent history before 1692. Salem Village was, at that time, still a part of Salem Town. Its 600+ residents were divided into two groups: those who wanted to separate from Salem Town and those who did not. The residents who wanted to separate from Salem Town were farming families located in the western part of Salem Village. Those who wanted to remain a part of Salem Town were mostly located on the eastern side of Salem Village (which was closer to Salem Town); they were economically tied to the thriving, rich harbors of Salem Town.
The Salem Village farming families believed that Salem Town's thriving economy made it too "individualistic." This individualism was in opposition to the communal way of life that Puritanism encouraged. One large farming family who felt this way was the Putnam family.
The Putnams owned more farm land in Salem Village than anyone else. They hoped to encourage people to go along with a separation from Salem Town by establishing a separate church congregation. In 1689, a congregation was formed under the Rev. Samuel Parris, and they began worshipping in the Salem Village Meetinghouse. The congregation represented only a select group, since over half of its members were Putnams. This fact strained the already-weakened relations between the two factions, as did Mr. Parris' contract.
Contracts for ministers during this period usually provided them with a modest salary, use of a house, and free firewood. Parris was given not only a salary and firewood, but the title and deed to the parsonage and its surrounding land. This was an uncommonly generous arrangement, and it angered the residents who wanted to remain a part of Salem Town. The Salem Town supporters showed their opposition by refusing to worship at the Meetinghouse and withholding their local taxes. This latter action was important because the local taxes helped pay the minister's salary.
In October of 1691, a new Salem Village Committee was elected that was comprised mostly of Parris' opponents. This new committee refused to assess local taxes that would pay Parris' salary, and also challenged his ownership of the parsonage property. Parris and his family had to rely solely on voluntary contributions for sustenance. The Putnams were now worried about losing Parris and the independence from Salem Town that the congregation would help bring; Parris himself was concerned about providing for his family.
The Rev. Parris was married and had a nine-year-old daughter, Betty, and a twelve-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, who was an orphan. Abigail had to earn her keep by doing most of the household chores; she also cared for her invalid aunt. Betty's poor health prevented her from helping with the household chores.
After chores were done, there was little entertainment for Betty and Abigail. Salem Town was eight miles away, and Boston was a twenty-mile journey over unforgiving roads. Rev. Parris forbade the girls to play hide-and-seek, tag, and other childhood games because he believed that playing was a sign of idleness, and idleness allowed the Devil to work his mischief.
Reading was a popular pastime during the winter months. There was an interest in books about prophecy and fortune-telling throughout New England during the winter of 1691-92, especially among young girls. In Essex County, girls formed small informal circles to practice the divinations and fortune-telling they learned from their reading to help pass the cold months.
Betty Parris, her cousin Abigail Williams, and two other friends formed such a circle. Tituba, Rev. Parris' slave whom he bought while on a trip to Barbados, would often participate in the circle. She would entertain the girls with stories of witchcraft, demons, and mystical animals. Other girls soon joined their circle in the evenings to listen to Tituba's tales and to participate in fortune-telling experiments. They would drop an egg white into a glass of water and then interpret the shape that it formed.
At one of these sessions, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams became upset and frightened with the results. This, coupled with the family financial and social difficulties, likely caused the two girls to exhibit unusual physical expressions. Samuel Parris thought the girls were ill, and asked Salem Village's physician, William Griggs, to examine them. He did not find any physical cause for their strange behavior, and concluded that the girls were "bewitched."
Puritans believed in witches and their ability to cause harm. They defined witchcraft as entering into a compact with the devil in exchange for the power to do evil. Witchcraft was considered to be a sin and a crime. Therefore, in any case when witchcraft was suspected, it was important that it be investigated thoroughly and that the tormentor(s) be identified and judged. Unknown to Samuel Parris, Mary Sibley ordered Tituba and her husband, John Indian, to bake a "witch cake" in order to help the girls name their tormentors. A witch cake is composed of rye meal mixed with urine from the afflicted; it is fed to a dog. The sick person is considered bewitched if the dog displays symptoms similar to those exhibited by the "afflicted" person.
The girls were at first hesitant to speak out, but Betty eventually accused Tituba of witchcraft. The other girls named Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good.
All three women were prime candidates for the accusations of witchcraft. Sarah Osborne was an elderly lady who had not gone to church in over a year, and poor church attendance was considered to be a sin. Sarah Good was a homeless woman who begged from door to door. If she was refused, she would utter strange words before she left. Residents would later attribute her visits to calamities such as the death of livestock. They believed that the mumbled words she spoke under her breath were curses against them for not showing charity. Since Tituba was Parris' slave and well known to Betty and Abigail, it is no surprise that her name was the first to be called out by Betty. The bad reputations and low social standing of these three women made them easy scapegoats.
A formal investigation of the charges was required. Two magistrates from Salem Town, John Hathorne, the great-grandfather of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (Nathaniel added the "w" to his last name to help dissociate himself from this particular ancestor) and Jonathan Corwin came to town to investigate the witches. During the questioning of the three accused women, Betty, Abigail, and six other girls would scream and tumble on the floor of the meetinghouse. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne maintained their innocence. Tituba, however, confessed after three days.
Tituba's confession contained accounts of red rats, talking cats, and a tall man dressed in black. She said that the man clothed in black made her sign a book, and that Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and others whose names she could not read had also signed this book. It is not clear why she confessed to witchcraft. She might have thought that she was guilty since she practiced fortune-telling, or perhaps thought that the judges would be lenient if she confessed. She may have simply enjoyed the attention. Her confession was probably NOT obtained from her by torture. Although physical torture was employed in Europe to elicit confessions from accused witches, there are no confirmed cases of it being used in Colonial America. When Tituba finished her lengthy confession, she, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne were taken to the Boston jail. Sarah Osborne would later become the first victim of the Salem witch trials when she died in jail two months later of natural causes.
The accusations continued. A smallpox outbreak, the revocation of the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter by Charles II, and the constant fear of Indian attacks created anxiety among the early Puritans, and a belief that God was punishing them.
In March of 1692, Ann Putnam accused Martha Corey of afflicting her. Even though Mrs. Corey attended church regularly, she was not well-liked in the community. She was outspoken and opinionated, and she had borne an illegitimate mulatto child who lived with her and her second husband, Giles Corey.
Rebecca Nurse was the next to be accused. The 71-year-old woman did not make for a likely witch. She was a kind and generous lady who was well-liked by the community. Ann Putnam and the other girls testified that her specter would float into their rooms at night, pinching and torturing them. When Rebecca heard the charges, she said, "What sin has God found in me unrepented of that He should lay such an affliction upon me in my old age?" She had at one time disputed with the Rev. James Allen over the boundary of their neighboring properties, and often did not respond when spoken to because of her poor hearing.
As the accusations continued, some began to doubt the truthfulness of the afflicted girls. One such person was John Proctor, a 60-year-old farmer and tavern owner from Salem Town. When his maidservant, Mary Warren, began to display the same odd behavior as the afflicted girls, he threatened to beat her. This threat temporarily cured her afflictions! He believed the afflicted girls would "make devils of us all" and that their behavior could easily be corrected with harsh discipline. Soon Proctor and his wife Elizabeth - whose grandmother Ann B. Lynn had once been suspected of witchcraft - were jailed in Boston, charged with witchcraft.
Ann Putnam accused the former Salem Village minister, George Burroughs, of being the master of all witches in Massachusetts. He was also identified by the afflicted girls as the "Black Minister" and leader of the Salem Coven. Burroughs did not have a good reputation. He had left Salem Village after serving as its minister from 1680-1682 due to a dispute over his salary. He was widowed three times, and was rumored to have mistreated his wives. Also, when he was angry, he sometimes would brag about having occult powers.
By the end of May 1692, about 200 people were jailed under the charges of witchcraft - fully 1/3 of the population of Salem Village - most of them as a result of "spectral evidence." Cotton Mather, son of the famed minister and Harvard President Increase Mather, spoke out against spectral evidence. He said that it was unreliable because the Devil could take the form of an innocent person to do his evil deeds. Royal Governor William Phips established a Court of Oyer and Terminer to investigate the allegations of witchcraft at Salem Village.
The first to be tried under the newly-formed court, on June 2, 1692, was Bridget Bishop. Twelve years earlier, in 1680, she had also been tried for witchcraft, but was acquitted. When work was being done on her cellar, "poppets" were found in the walls by the workers. It was testified that the poppets were stuck with pins, and some had missing heads. This evidence helped confirm the suspicions that she was indeed a practicing witch.
Bridget Bishop was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged on June 10, 1692 on Gallows Hill.
The cases of Sarah Good, Sarah Wilds, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin, and Rebecca Nurse were heard by the court on June 29, 1692. Unlike Bridget Bishop's trial, spectral evidence was a key in the conviction of four of these women. Only Rebecca Nurse escaped a guilty verdict; however, when the jurors announced "not guilty," the afflicted girls howled, thrashed about, and rolled around on the floor. With the courtroom in an uproar, the judges asked the jury to reconsider its decision. They did so, and brought back a guilty verdict.
Rebecca Nurse, along with the other four convicted women, was hanged July 19, 1692 on Gallows Hill. At the hangings, the Rev. Nicholas Noyes asked Sarah Good to confess. She responded by saying, "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink." Twenty-five years later, the Rev. Nicholas Noyes died of a hemorrhage, choking (literally) on his own blood.
In time, more people began displaying signs of affliction. Accusations and arrests for witchcraft continued to grow in number. People from all walks of life, rich and poor, farmer and merchant, were now being accused.
The Court tried the Rev. George Burroughs, John and Elizabeth Proctor, George Jacobs, Sr., John Willard, and Martha Carrier on August 5, 1692. Spectral evidence again played a significant role. In George Burroughs' case, it was brought out that he was a habitual liar, and that he had failed to have one of his children baptized. All six defendants were found guilty. Elizabeth Proctor escaped the sentence of death because she was pregnant, but the rest were hanged on Gallows Hill on August 19, 1692. At the hangings, George Burroughs recited the Lord's Prayer flawlessly; this was important because it was believed that a witch could not recite the prayer without making a mistake. He was hanged anyway.
The trials continued, with Giles Corey's scheduled for mid-September of 1692. However, he refused to enter a plea. Based on a law that dated back to the days of Henry IV, the court ordered a "pressing," that is, rocks were piled upon him until he cooperated. He was taken to a field near the Salem Meetinghouse, his hands and legs bound, and heavy rocks were piled upon his chest. He still refused to answer the court's questions or enter a plea. After two days of such mistreatment, he died on September 19, 1692. It is said that his last words were, "Place on me - more weight."
Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeater, Margaret Scott, Wilmott Reed, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker were hanged on Gallows Hill September 22, 1692. Before her death, Mary Easty (Rebecca Nurse's sister) wrote a letter to the magistrates and the Essex County ministers which stated:
... I know I must die, and my appointed time is set. But the Lord He knows it is, if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in. I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way. The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, if it be His blessed will, that innocent blood be not shed ...
By the fall of 1692, people began to believe that the accusations and trials were getting out of control. "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned," said Increase Mather. On October 12, 1692, Governor Phips issued orders to protect the current prisoners accused of witchcraft from harm, and suspended the arrest of suspected witches - unless the arrests were "absolutely necessary." He dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer on October 29, 1692.
People began to ignore the accusations of the afflicted. The fury of the witch trials subsided, and the last trial was held in January 1693. Governor Phips pardoned the remaining accused in May 1693.
Even after the end of the witch trials, many were still in jail because they could not pay for their release. The law required that prisoners pay for their food before being released.
The trials took a toll on the surrounding land and structures as well. Houses and fields were left untended, and the planting season was interrupted. Some of the fields that were planted were not cultivated or harvested.
Crop failures and epidemics continued to bother Salem for years after the trials ended. The Puritans came to believe that these events were happening because God was punishing them for the hangings of innocent people.
The Essex County Court declared that the Salem Village committee was derelict in its duties, and ordered a new election on January 15, 1693. An anti-Parris committee was elected as a result. The Rev. Samuel Parris was now in danger of losing his job. Parris gave his "Meditation for Peace" sermon on November 26, 1693, in which he admitted to giving too much weight to spectral evidence. His sermon and confession apparently did not repair the damaged relations between him and the community; he moved from Salem Village to Stowe, Massachusetts in April 1696. A day of fasting and prayer for forgiveness was ordered for January 13, 1697.
When Parris and his family moved, there was a question about ownership of the parsonage. In July 1697, it was finally settled when arbitrators decided that Salem Village should pay Parris 79 pounds, 9 shillings, and sixpence in back salary. In return, Parris relinquished title to the parsonage.
No one knows what happened to Samuel Parris and his family after they left Salem Village. Tituba was sold to pay for her jail costs. It is believed that Abigail Williams never recovered from her "affliction" and died young. Betty Parris married one Benjamin Barron in 1710. She had five children, and lived in Concord, Massachusetts. She died March 21, 1760, at the age of 78. Parris' son Noyes died insane.
Joseph Green replaced Samuel Parris as minister. To help heal the scars that the witch trials left on the community, he seated the accusers with the accused. This action appeared to help heal the wounds because the family of Rebecca Nurse - John Tarbell, Samuel Nurse, and Thomas Wilkins - asked to rejoin the congregation in November 1698. Their request was granted. With the Nurse family back in the congregation, Green asked the congregation, in 1703, to revoke the excommunication of Martha Corey. The motion was not adopted until 1707. Rebecca and Giles Corey also had their excommunications revoked (posthumously!) on March 6, 1712.
Not all families wished to rejoin the congregation after the trials. Peter Cloyce and his wife, Sarah - who was accused of witchcraft - left Salem Village and moved to Marlborough, Massachusetts. Philip English, who was accused of witchcraft along with his wife, never forgave his persecutors for the loss of his property and reputation. He asked for a large settlement for his losses, but received only a small one. In order to sever ties with Puritanism, he helped found the St. Peter's Episcopal Church.
What happened to the afflicted girls is not known. Surviving information regarding them has provided only small details. Ann Putnam, Jr. raised her brothers and sisters when her parents died two weeks apart from each other. In August 1706, she asked the congregation of her church for forgiveness. The pastor read her prepared statement to the congregation:
I desire to be humbled before God. It was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time. I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will ... I desire to lie in the dust and earnestly beg forgiveness of all those I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, and whose relations were taken away and accused.
She later died unmarried, and was buried with her parents in an unmarked grave.
After the Salem witch trials were over, no one else was ever again executed in America for witchcraft. Salem Village finally separated from Salem Town in 1752, and became the town of Danvers.