The Salem witch trials of the 1690s have an iconic place in American lore. But before the Salem witch hunt, there was the “Great Hunt”: a larger, more prolonged European phenomenon between 1560 and 1630 that led to 80,000 accusations and 40,000 deaths...
When anyone mentions witches, outside of Halloween, one place will usually come to the minds of most people - Salem. For some reason; perhaps because of the major publicity it has received over the years - through books, movies, and tourism, or perhaps because people need to remember what horror was brought about through sheer hysteria and gossip; Salem is the most talked about of all the worldwide witch trials.
In the summer of 1692 terror reigned in Salem, Massachusetts, USA. On the word of several young girls in the village, who were exhibiting strange behaviour that they said was brought on by witchcraft, many of the townsfolk were brought to the prison and tried on the charge of witchcraft. There was no-one exempt from the adolescents’ accusing fingers. Popular people, professional people, men, women and even children were brought before the court and interrogated.
First to be accused was Tituba, the Carib Indian slave belonging to Reverend Samuel Parris. Along with Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were also arrested. Of these, only Tituba confessed to witchcraft - and remarkably, of the three, she was the only one to survive!
The youngest of the accused was four years old. Imagine the horror that little girl, Dorcas Good - daughter of Sarah Good, must have felt to be CHAINED to the wall of the rat-infested prison for almost 10 months before she was found not guilty - but not before she watched her mother convicted and taken to the gallows to be hung. In the period that her mother was imprisoned, her sibling also died - a child that Sarah was still nursing was taken to the prison with her but died before Sarah was hung.
In total 19 of those accused of witchcraft were hanged on Gallows Hill. 13 of the convicted were women, and 6 of them men. Giles Corey, also died as a result of the trials - he was pressed to death when refusing to plead guilty or otherwise. His wife was hanged for witchcraft 3 days after his death. Although prison records offer conflicting information, it is thought that as many as 13 other accused people died in prison during the witch trials. Between 100 and 200 people were arrested on charges of witchcraft - and two dogs executed.
Who was to blame for this gross miscarriage of justice, created by ignorance and fear? Perhaps it was the physician who could not identify what illness Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams (aged 9 and 11 respectively) had which caused them to have convulsions, trance-like states and other strange behaviour. His diagnosis was therefore to suggest that they were under Satan’s influence. Perhaps it was Tituba who created the “witch cake” that was made up of rye meal and urine from the sick girls and given to a dog to eat in the hope that the witch who had inflicted the girls would be identified. It was also Tituba who confessed to witchcraft and then gave evidence against Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and others. Perhaps it was the young girls themselves - not only Abigail and Elizabeth, but also Ann Putnum, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren - who were guilty of mischievously accusing anyone who had crossed them? Perhaps it was the townspeople who allowed hysteria to override commonsense and set one neighbour up to accuse his/her neighbour of witchcraft because they did not conform to normal social standards or because the butter turned sour after one of the accused had visited . Perhaps it was the court that allowed hearsay and malicious gossip convict and kill innocent people. Perhaps it was the laws that covered the court and said the trials were “legal”. Whoever or whatever was to blame, the outcome was the same. Many innocent people were condemned to death - and their sentences carried out - whilst many others spent months in prison needlessly and never recovered from their experience.
In 1697 Samual Sewall, one of the judges in the witch trials publicly confessed to the wrong doing he had helped to escalate, and offered an apology to the relatives of those who had died. The matter has never been allowed to die however. In 1706 Ann Putnam apologised for her actions during the summer of 1692. In 1711, a bill was passed through the legislature that restored the names of those accused, and gave £600 in restitution to their heirs - this included money for those like Dorcas Good who never recovered from her ordeal and required to be looked after for the rest of her life. In 1957 the State of Massachusetts formally apologised, and in 1992, a memorial to the witch trials was dedicated in Salem - now renamed “Danvers”.
Those who died needlessly have not died quietly. Their memory lives on, not only in the minds of their generations of relatives that followed them, but also those who strive to prevent such an atrocity happening again.
“I am no witch. I am innocent. I know nothing of it.” Bridget Bishop, first of Salem’s accused to be hanged on June 10th 1692.