What Were the Salem Witch Trials?

Martha Cory in jail for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692-63.
Martha Cory in jail for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692-63.

The Salem witch trials, held from February 1692 to May 1693, were the numerous hearings and prosecutions of individuals accused of practicing witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. The witch trials resulted in the execution of 20 people, including 14 women, of which all but one were executed by hanging. In addition, five others, including two infants, died in prison. Despite the fact that these trials were named the Salem trials, the first hearings were conducted in several different towns including Andover, Ipswich, Salem town, and Salem village in 1692. The court of Oyer-and-Terminer held the infamous trial in 1692.


In February 1692, two young girls in the Salem village claimed that the devil had possessed them. They also accused other ladies of practicing witchcraft. The accusation spread fear throughout the town, and a special court was formed in Salem to deal with the trials. The first lady to be accused, convicted, and hanged for witchcraft was Bridget Bishop. 18 more women followed Bridget to the Gallows Hill, and more than 150 women, children, and even men were accused of witchcraft. By the end of September 1692, the madness surrounding the trials had subsided, and the public opinion towards the case changed against the witch trials. Even though the court revoked the verdict later and the accused were released and compensation awarded to their families, the bitterness continued in Salem. The painful history of the witch trials lasted for centuries.

The Origin of the Salem Witch Trials

Centuries before the Salem trials, many people, both Christians and other religions, believed that there existed a powerful supernatural being (the devil) who gave people evil powers, such as the powers of witchcraft to hurt others in return for being loyal to him. The witchcraft idea spread throughout Europe from the 1300s to the 1600s, and thousands of people who were accused of witchcraft were executed in Europe. In fact, the Salem trials began when the European Witchcraft craze was ending. In 1689, a war started between the English rulers, Mary and William, and the French over the American colonies referred to as King Williams’s war. The war ravaged parts of Quebec, Nova Scotia, and upstate New York, sending the refugees to Essex County in Massachusetts and specifically to the Salem village. The refugees stressed most of the natural resources in Salem, which aggravated an existing rivalry between the families controlling the wealth in the port and the ones who depended on agriculture. A controversy brewed over the 1st ordained minister of Salem, Reverend Samuel Parris, and the local’s hated him because of his selfish nature and rigid methods. The villagers believed that the devil influenced the controversy.

The First Cases of Witchcraft

In January 1692, Reverend Samuels niece Abigail Williams (11 years old) and daughter Elizabeth (9 years old) started having hysteria-like behaviors. The girls uttered unusual sounds, screamed, threw things, and twisted themselves into strange positions. The doctor blamed the behavior on witchcraft. Another eleven years old girl named Ann Putnam experienced similar episodes. Under the pressure of magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, the girls blamed three ladies for bewitching them: Sarah Osborne (a poor lady), Tituba (Reverend Samuel’s Caribbean slave), and Sarah Good (a beggar).

How Did the Witch Hunt Begin?

In March 1692 local judges began interrogating the three ladies for days on suspicion of witchcraft. Two of the ladies claimed to be innocent, while the Caribbean slave, Tituba, confessed to bewitching the girls. She admitted that the devil visited her and proposed that she serves him. Tituba even described the images of the red cat, black dog, and a black man who offered her his book which she signed. She also admitted that other witches are looking to destroy the Puritans. The court sent all the three ladies to jail. Tituba's confession led to a stream of questioning and accusations which resulted in charging of Martha Corey, who was a loyal Christian. Her arrest led to many people questioning the trials. The governor ordered the creation of the Oyer and Terminer court to hear and settle the cases in the Middlesex, Essex, and Suffolk Counties. The case of Bridget Bishop was the first case to be heard before the jury, and she was described as living non-puritan life and for wearing odd costumes and black clothes. She was also questioned about her coat which was torn and cut. Bishop claimed to be innocent, but she was declared guilty and became the first lady to be hanged for being a witch. Five individuals were hanged in July 1692, five more people in August, and eight more people in September of the same year.

Challenging the Arrests

Cotton Mather, a minister, wrote a letter to the court asking them not to condemn suspects on visions and dream testimonies, but the governor denied his plea. On October 3, 1692, Increase Mather, Cotton Mather's father and the then president of Harvard, wrote to the governor denouncing the use of supernatural evidence in the trials. Finally, the governor accepted the plea, which resulted in the prevention of more arrests, the release of many suspects, and the dissolution of the court on October 29, 1692. The Governor created the High Court of Judicature, which condemned only three people out of the 56. Phipps pardoned all the prisoners charged with witchcraft in 1963, but the damage was already done. The courts sentenced 19 prisoners to be hanged, many people condemned for witchcraft died in prison, and the court accused more than 200 people of being witches.

The Aftermath

After the trials and the death sentence of innocent people, many people including Judge Sewall confessed openly of the mistakes done during the hearings. In 1697, the court ordered a fasting day and praying for the misfortune of Salem victims. In 1702, the courts declared that the Salem Trials were unlawful, and the colony passed a restoration bill in 1711, stating that the good names and rights of the accused restored and that their heirs granted financial compensation. Massachusetts apologized officially for the tragedy in 1957, over 250 years later. The witch trials threatened the then government of Massachusetts Bay, and it signaled the end of Puritanism as the force in Massachusetts and distrust in the government. No longer would an ordained minister be the top adviser of the state, or the governor be the trusted partner of the legislature.


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