Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Salem Witch Trials

The Salem Witch Trials

The girls of Salem had a taste for the occult, and Reverend Parris' Caribbean slave, Tituba, seemed happy to tell them stories of witchcraft and Barbados magic on the long winter evenings. But then the excitement got out of hand. Nine year old Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and her eleven year old cousin, Abigail Williams began to experience fits of sobbing and convulsions. And their behaviour worsened. Abigail would run around to the fireplace before throwing flaming sticks around the house. This strange behaviour soon seemed to spread to their companions: Ann Putnam (12), Mary Walcott (16), Elizabeth Hubbard (17), Susan Sheldon (18), Elizabeth Booth (18), Mercy Lewis (19) and Mary Warren (20). 

Map of Salem in 1692 (Original)

On 25th February, Mary Sibley, the aunt of Mary Walcott, requested that Tituba and her husband, Indian John, bake a witches cake: a mixture of mean and the urine of the afflicted children, which was then fed to the Parris family dog (a supposed familiar of demons). Apparently this worked and the girls were able to name those responsible for their ''illness''. On 29th February, warrants were issued for the arrest of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba.

Tituba and the Children (Original)

In modern times, these symptoms would probably be diagnosed as clinical hysteria. However, the diagnosis of the time was entirely different and the girls were believed to be demonically possessed. By the end of the summer, nineteen had been hanged on Gallows, or Witch's Hill, and one man had been pressed to death.

Three years before the girls of Salem began exhibiting these symptoms, a leading New England minister had published an account of similar phenomena, titled Memorable Providences Relating To Witchcrafts And Possessions. Cotton Mather, the author, was the son of the famous preacher Increase Mather, had studied medicine and was a member of England's scientific association, the Royal Society. He had considerable ability in writing and his book, which was extremely popular, could be credited in part to the atmosphere in Salem during the witch trials which took place there.

Cotton Mather (Original)

Cotton Mather's account of the events which took place, which he described as notable humane, helps to explain why the girls' symptoms would be considered something supernatural, along with the girls' testimonies of their being supernaturally afflicted adding enormous weight to the following accusations. Mather's book described the case of a young woman named Martha who became similarly 'ill' when the family bed-linen went missing. A young laundry girl was suspected and Martha accused her of witchcraft. The laundry girl's mother defended her and ''bestowed very bad language'' on Martha. The effects of this were immediate, with Martha beginning to have ''strange fits, beyond those that attend an epilepsy or a catalepsy...'' Soon Martha's seven year old sister began to show similar symptoms, with doctors unable to diagnose an illness, instead believing the symptoms to be the effect of witchcraft. If one children experienced an attack, the others immediately experienced the same symptoms in the same parts of the body. Mather described the symptoms as follows:

Sometimes they would be deaf, sometimes dumb, and sometimes blind, and often, all at once. One while their tongues would be drawn down their throats; another- while they would be pull'd out upon their chins, to a prodigious llength. They would have their mouths opened unto such a wideness, that teir jaws went out of joint, and anon they would clap together again with a force like that of a strong springlock. The same would happen to their shoulder-blades, and their elbows, and hand-wrists, and several of their joints. They would at times ly in a bennumed condition; and be drawn together as those that are ty'd neck and heels; and presently he stretched out, yea, drawn backwards, to such a degree it was fear'd the very skin of their bellies would have cracked. They would make most pitteaous out-cries, that they were cut with knives, and struck with blows that they could not hear. Their neck-bone would seem dissolved into them that felt after it; and yet on the sudden, it would become again so stiff that there was no stirring of their heads; yea, their heads would be twisted almost round; and if main force at any time obstructed a dangerous motion which they seem'd to be upon, they would roar exceedingly. Thus they lay some weeks, most pitiful spectacles...''

On the mention of witchcraft, the magistrates arrested Mrs Glover, the laundry girl's mother, for examination. She failed their various tests: when asked if she believed in God, her reply was so blasphemous that Mather's wouldn't print her answer, and she failed to recite the Lord's prayer. Glover was jailed and the girl's symptoms improved. Glover's case was brought forward and she confessed to witchcraft. Her house was then searched, with ''several small images, or puppets, or babies, made of raggs, and stiff't with goat's hair and other such ingredients,'' brought to the court and Glover admitting that these items had been used to torment her victims by spitting on her finger and rubbing it on the chosen doll. An experiment ensued where the children were brought into court and one of the dolls was handed to Mrs Glover. While she held this doll, one of the children would fall into a fit. Glover was condemned to death but, on the way to the gallows, she said that the children would not regain their health as others were involved.

Her prediction was correct, with the children continuing ''in their furnace as before, and it grew rather seven times hotter than it was.'' They would bark at each other like dogs, or purr like cats, and would complain of intense heat or cold. At times their limbs appeared to be made of rubber, with the boy sometimes saying that his head was nailed to the floor, where ''it was as much as a strongman could do to pull it up.'' Their worst agony came when preachers were taken to them. When the preachers ''bestowed some gracious counsils on the boy'' he would go completely deaf. If they prayed or read the Bible ''this would occasion a very terrible vexation to them; thhey would then stop their own ears with their own hands; and roar, and shriek, and halla, to drown the voice of devotion.'' Mather took Martha into his own house but her symptoms persisted. She would complain that she was painfully chained by her invisible assailants, and was seen attempting to dive through the floorboards, telling Mather that ''They'' had told her there was silver ''plate'' at the bottom of the well. Martha did, however, seem to find some relief from her symptoms when in Mather's study, although getting her there was a real struggle.

Then a day came when Martha said that she would, on the following day, cease to be afflicted and that she could now tell Mather the names of those who had afflicted her. Mather, however, never published or reported their names. Martha recovered, but the brother remained seriously troubled.

Martha Goodwin and the girls of Salem were all seen as the victims of demonic assault. When the first women went to court on the accusation of witchcraft, two magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, examined them. Sarah Good's husband testified that she was a witch and her daughter, Dorcas claimed that her mother had familiars: three birds, one yellow and one black, which ''hurt the children and afflicted persons''. Sarah Good then accused Sarah Osborne. Already, the questioning magistrate, Hathorne, had the opinion that Good was guilty, asking questions such as, ''Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?''

The afflicted children were present in court and were asked if Sarah Good was one of those which had afflicted them. They agreed that she was before falling into a bout of fits. On their recovery they revealed that, while Sarah Good was not physically there, she was there ''spectrally'' tormenting them. Good protested, saying that she had not. This same procedure was repeated with Sarah Osborne, with more ''spectral evidence'' being admitted.

Sarah Good cursing the judge (Original)

Finally, Tituba came to the stand and she soon admitted that she knew the Devil – a tall man in black, with white hair, sometimes appearing as an animal. He had asked Tituba to do his bidding and she had made her mark of agreement in red in his book which had nine other names in it. Tituba claimed that she had seem Sarah Good's and Sarah Osborne's names there, also having seen them in the company of the Devil, along with two other Boston witches whose names she didn't know. Apparently Good had two familiars; a cat and a yellow bird, which sucked her between the fingers. Osborne had two familiars; one with wings, two legs and a head like a woman; the other being hairy with a long nose, which was two or three feet high and walked like a man. Tituba claimed to have seen this last standing by the fireplace in Reverend Parris' house the previous night. The 'witches' had rode together through the air on a sticking, searching for children to torment.

Throughout this evidence, the children had fits and Tituba was asked if she could see who tormented them. Tituba claimed that it was Sarah Good, before herself falling into convulsions. The women were again examined on 3rd and 5th March, then, on 7th March, were jailed in Boston. On 11th March a day of prayer and fasting was announced in Salem. The girls threw fits, with one of them, Ann Putnam accusing Martha Corey, a reputable church member, of being spectrally responsible of these convulsions. When asked what the specter was wearing, Ann replied that she didn't know as she had been blinded. Martha Corey was taken to the magistrate, where she asked if her accuser had said what she was wearing, with the magistrate asking how Corey knew this question had been raised. Corey was unable to give a satisfactory answer, and was heard to comment that ''we must not believe all that these distracted children say.''

During Corey's examination, she is said to have bitten her lip and that when she did, the children complained of being bitten. Reverend Noyes of Salem Townsaid that this was a form of image magic in which Corey used her own body to inflict harm. Corey was sent to jail pending further examination. At this point there was a pause in the examinations, although the spectral harrassments continued.

On 19th March, the former minister of Salem Village, Deodat Lawson, came to town, spending his first night in Ingersol's tavern where she saw Mary Walcott experience a fit. From her Lawson went to Parris' house to pay his respects, where Abigail Williams also experienced hysterics. The next day, being a Sunday, Lawson preached a sermon, ''Chirst's Fidelity the Only Shield Against Satan's Malignity,'' but not without interruption. One of the afflicted complained that his text was very long, and another claimed to see a yellow bird perching on his hat which hung on a nail by the pulpit. Lawson was, however, undeterred, urging the magistrates to prove they were ''a terror of and punishment to evil-doers.'' He also warned them that there was no dependable way to discover a witch, there were ''no means of God to make a trial of witches.'' Lawson then went on to caution the congregation against false accusations and rash condemnation, which was considered by him to be behaviour of the Devil.

On the day of Lawson's return, another woman was accused. Rebecca Nurse had an entirely different background to the others which had been accused; Good was a destitute beggar, Osborne was old and sickly, Tituba was a black slave. Nurse, however, was a god-fearing woman who owned property and had good standing in the community. Petitions were drawn up by prominent people on Nurse's behalf before the first investigation on 23rd March and before her trial, and Nurse protested her innocence. While the jury believed Nurse was innocent, Chief Justice Stoughton reminded the jury that one piece of evidence needed to be taken into account: an accused woman called Hobbes had been brought into the court to give evidence against Rebecca. Nurse had protested, saying Hobbes was ''one of us,'' meaning that she was a fellow prisoner and therefore not in a positon to testify. However, this was taken to mean that both Nurse and Hobbes were part of the same coven. When Nurse was asked to explain what she meant, she didn't answer and this silence was taken as an important factor in the trial.. Nuse was convicted of witchcraft on 30th June.

Petition for the freedom of Rebecca Nurse (Original)

Nurse's later written explanation was that ''I being something hard of hearing, and full of grief, none informing me how the court took up my words, and therefore had not opportunity to declare what I intended when I said they were of our company.'' Governor Philps granted her a reprieve but the afflicted ones began to claim renewed spectral attacks by Nurse. On 19th July Nurse was hanged.

On the day of Nurse's examination, Dorcas Good, aged 4, was also examined. She voluntarily confessed that she was a witch, claiming to have her own familiar; a small snake which sucked her blood from a spot on her forefinger. There was a small, red mark, around the size of a flea-bite on her finger. Dorcas claimed that her mother Sarah had given the snake to her. . Dorcas spent seven months in prison before her case was dismissed by the Superior Court of Judicature. In 1710, Dorcas' father requested compensation from the General Court as ''being chained in the dungeon [she] was so hardly used and terrified that she hath ever since been very chargable, having little or no reason to govern herself.''

The magistrates, having discovered grounds for believing that an organised conspiracy of witches was at work and confirming the validity of specral evidence, were two steps away from unleashing a torrent of accusations. On 31st March, a day of public fasting was held on the afflicted girls' behalf. During the course of fasting Abigail Williams claimed that the witches had decided to have ''a Sacrament that day at a house in the village, and that they had Red Bread and Red Drink.'' On the following day, Mercy Lewis, the maid of Thomas Putnam, said that ''they did eat Red Bread like Mans Flesh, and would have had her eat some but she had turned away her head and Spit at them, and said, 'I will not Eat, I will not drink, it is Blood'.''

On 3rd April, Sarah Cloyce, Nurse's sister, stormed out of the meeting house when Reverend Parris chose ''One of them is a Devil'' as his sermon. The afflicted girls caught the scent of scandal and accused Cloyce of witchcraft. She was examined the next day and jailed for eight months before her case was dismissed in the following January by the Supreme Court Judicature.

On 10th May, Magistrate Hathorne, during his examination of George Jacobs Sr, declared that while the Devil might choose to appear in someone's form, he could only do so if the person had consented. Following this announcement, the accusations came in droves. The accused were usually jailed on the grounds provided by the afflicted girls during the first examinations. Among the newly accused was a former minister of Salem, George Burroughs, who was brought from Maine. He gave a speech from the scaffold which touched his audience before reciting the Lord's prayer, which was believed impossible for a witch. However, he was still executed.

Another man, Giles Corey, refused to plead guilty or not guilty, nor would he agree to a trial. Therefore, as the law then allowed, he was tortured by having heavy weights piled onto his body until he either answered the allegation or died. He chose to die, taking two days to do so. 

The torture and death of Giles Corey (Original)
Having seen such success in court, the afflicted girls became somewhat famous, with other communities such as Andover and Gloucester seeking their visionary help. However, not all communitires respected their so-called insight. When on the way to Gloucester, at a stopover at Ipswich, the girls threw a fit or two but were completely ignored. As others leared of the methods used in the Salem, accusations became more and more numerous and were increasingly directed at the ruling classes. Among those accused were the clergy, (Reverend John Willard of Boston), politicians (the Secretary of Connecticut), judges and justice (Nathaniel Saltonstall and Dudley Bradstreet), merchants (Hezekiah Usher and Philip English), military men (Captain John Alden), and the wives of prominent men (Margaret Thatcher, widow of a Boston divine and mother-in-law of Judge Corwin). The wives of the governor and Increase Mather were also rumoured to be witches. As the charges became more absurd, it became obvious that the legal procedures were hurting rather than helping the problem.

A surprisingly successful method was soon discovered which could be used against the accusers. A man from Boston who had been accused of witchcraft by people from Andover hired agents to ask publically about those who had accused him. In the course of these inquiries, the agents announced that the accusers would find themselves facing a lawsuit for defamation of character and would be fined £1000 in damages. Accusers quickly dropped their charges.

Theologians also waged war on the accusers. Increase Mather, president of Harvard and the Bay's premier divine, published a pamphlet called Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men which was widely distributed. He started by saying that no one was immune to the charges of witchcraft, no matter how virtuous they were, and stated that ''It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person be condemned.'' Most importantly, he ised his education and moral authority against the use of spectral evidence in obtain convictions. This publication saw many witchfinders without their previous power and the afflictors were believed to be possessed instead of bewitched.

On 12th October, Governor Phips ordered that the trials be suspended and then, on 26th October, the Court of Oyer and Terminer (''Hear and Determine'') was ended. During its time, the court had heard thirty-one cases of witchcraft, giving the death sentence to every one of them. Of the eleven yet to be executed, five were pardoned after confessing, two died in prison, two had their executions suspended as they were pregnant, with them later being pardoned, and one escaped. Tituba was held until the court decided that they were unable to reach a conclusion about her and she was later sold as a slave to pay for her imprisonment. 

The Old Witch House in Salem, as it was until 1856 (Original)
In total, 19 people were hanged on Gallows Hill, one man was pressed to death, several people died in prison and alsmost 200 people overall were accused of practicing ''the Devil's magic.'' Following the trials, on 21st February 1693, Governor William Phips wrote:

When I put an end to the Court there were at least fifty persons in prison in great misery by reason of extream cold and their poverty, most of them having only spectre evidence against them and their mittimusses being defective, I caused some of them to be lettout upon bayle and put the Judges upon consideration of a way to reliefe others and to prevent them from perishing in prision, upon which some of them were convinced and acknowledged that their former proceedings were too violent and not grounded upon a right foundation... The stop put to the first method of proceedings hath dissipated the blak cloud that threatened this Province with destruction...

Another contemporary writer, Robert Calef, summed up the results of the trials as follows:

And now Nineteen persons having been hang'd, and one prest to death, and Eight more condemned, in all Twenty and Eight, of which above a third part were Members of some of the Churches of N. England, and more than half of them of a good Conversation in general, and not one clear'd; about Fifty having confest themselves to be Witches, of which not one Executed;above an Hundred and Fifty in Prison, and Two Hundred more accused; the Special Commision of Oyer and Terminer comes to a period...

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