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RAMBLINGS OF A TRAVELER: NEW ENGLAND – #2 Salem Witch Trials

I have to admit, this rambling is going to be more of a history brief-story than actual ramblings about my travels. However, Salem Massachusetts is a place I visited and really could not let go of for a long time after I came home. I also thought it was a particularly timely blog to post around Halloween – just to get our thrill-seeking juices flowing.

It all started out as a nice, peaceful, little Puritan, very religious village in the late 1600’s. And then things went wacko.

 

The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693. The trials resulted in the executions of 20 people, most of them women. 12 other women had previously been executed in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the 17th century, so the executions in Salem were not the first or last in New England. However, the most infamous trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town (Wikipedia)

The episode of the Salem Witch Trials is one of the nation’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process.

 17th-century colonial North America, the supernatural was considered part of everyday life; many people believed that Satan was present and active on Earth. This concept emerged in Europe during the fifteenth century and spread with the later colonization of North America. Peasants used a kind of witchcraft to invoke particular charms for farming and agriculture.

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Over time, the idea of white magic transformed into dark magic and became associated with demons and evil spirits. From 1560 to 1670, witchcraft persecutions became common as superstitions became associated with the devil.

 

In a book of the day written in 1668, titled, “Against Modern Sadducism, Joseph Glanvill claimed that he could prove the existence of witches and ghosts of the supernatural realm. Glanvill wrote about the “denial of the bodily resurrection, and the supernatural spirits.” He publicly claimed that men should believe in witches and apparitions; if they doubted the reality of spirits, they not only denied demons, but also the almighty God. Glanvill wanted to prove that the supernatural could not be denied; those who did deny apparitions were considered heretics for it also disproved their beliefs in angels. Works by men such as Glanvill and Cotton Mather tried to prove that “demons were alive.” (Wikipedia)

So let’s get to the “nits and grits” of the real story, and let the trials begin.

In January of 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits.” They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. Another girl, Ann Putnam, age 11, experienced similar episodes.

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On February 29, under pressure from magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.

Witch Hunt & Trials

All three women were brought before the local magistrates and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692. Osborne claimed innocence, as did Good. But Tituba confessed, “The Devil came to me and bid me serve him.” She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a “black man” who wanted her to sign his book. She admitted that she signed the book and said there were several other witches looking to destroy the Puritans. All three women were put in jail.

With the seed of paranoia planted, a stream of accusations followed for the next few months. Charges against Martha Corey, a loyal member of the Church in Salem Village, greatly concerned the community; if she could be a witch, then anyone could. Magistrates even questioned Sarah Good’s 4-year-old daughter, Dorothy, and her timid answers were construed as a confession.

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The questioning got more serious in April when Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and his assistants attended the hearings. Dozens of people from Salem and other Massachusetts villages were brought in for questioning.

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On May 27, 1692, Governor William Phipps ordered the establishment of a Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) for Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties. The first case brought to the special court was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity. When asked if she committed witchcraft, Bishop responded, “I am as innocent as the child unborn.” The defense must not have been convincing, because she was found guilty and, on June 10, became the first person hanged on what was later called Gallows Hill.

 

It was pretty eerie walking through the graveyard where some of the executed persons/so-called witches were buried and still are today.

 

I felt a cold breeze engulf me as I read some of the gravestones.

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And another

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There is a monument that was erected along time ago, which is just as spooky as the actual gravesite. There is always a wreath on the fence enclosure around some of the witch graves, I was told. And some local folks I spoke to said they were never quite sure who put the wreaths on the fence.

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Five days after the first executions, respected minister Cotton Mather wrote a letter imploring the court not to allow spectral evidence—testimony about dreams and visions. The court largely ignored this request and five people were sentenced and hanged in July, five more in August and eight in September. On October 3, following in his son’s footsteps, Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, denounced the use of spectral evidence: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”

Thank God, Governor Phipps came along and started getting serious about stopping the mass hysteria.

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In response to Mather’s plea and his own wife being questioned for witchcraft, Governor Phipps prohibited further arrests, released many accused witches and dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer on October 29. Phipps replaced it with a Superior Court of Judicature, which disallowed spectral evidence and only condemned 3 out of 56 defendants. Phipps eventually pardoned all who were in prison on witchcraft charges by May 1693. But the damage had been done: 19 were hanged on Gallows Hill, a 71-year-old man was pressed to death with heavy stones, several people died in jail and nearly 200 people, overall, had been accused of practicing “the Devil’s magic.”

 Restoring Good Names

Following the trials and executions, many involved, like judge Samuel Sewall, publicly confessed error and guilt. On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem. In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted £600 restitution to their heirs. However, it was not until 1957—more than 250 years later—that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692.

 

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials

I would highly recommend if you are ever in Salem, Massachusetts on your way to Woodstock, Vermont to see the fall colors as I previously blogged on and on about in the previous posting, to go to the small but informative Salem Witch museum. If you don’t get a very eerie, scary feelings and feel the hair stand up on the back of you neck while you are there then I would say you must be already dead.

 

In the museum I learned that later in the accuser girls’ lives, all the girls confessed they had made the entire witch accusations up. A couple of the girls were haunted by what they had done for the rest of their life.

 

I would recommend a very good history-type book about the Witch Hunts appropriately titled, “Witch Hunts – A Graphic History of the Burning Times” by Rocky Wood, Lisa Morton, and Greg Chapman.

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Another good book about the first six of the accused is a book entitled, “Six Women of Salem” by Marilynne Roach. Good reading if you like to read about real live Witches and things.

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On that happy note, have a great and fulfilling Halloween.

Til Next Time,

PSiddy

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One comment

  1. Very informative. I love PSidddy’s writing.

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