Salem Remembered – Innocent People Died, Little Girls Lied

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Each year on March 1st, we remember those poor souls who perished at the hands of fearful community leaders in the American village of Salem, Massachusetts. This tragedy began on March 1st, 1692, when Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, a slave woman, were charged and arrested for practicing witchcraft. These heinous charges stemmed from the accusations of several children, connected to the house of Reverend Samuel Parris. The three initially denied any wrongdoing, but later that day Tituba changed her story and confessed that the three had together met with Satan himself and agreed to do his bidding. There was or never has been any physical evidence to prove the three practiced any sort of ritualistic magic or witchcraft. Most historians agree that Tituba confessed due to threats and torture, which in the year 1692 was an acceptable way of reaching the “truth” and would be accepted by the court system.

The Backstory

In the week preceding the arrests, Elizabeth Parris, the 9 year-old daughter of the good Reverend and his niece Abigail Williams, 11, were suddenly stricken with unexplainable fits and other strange behaviors. The local physician, William Griggs, was unable to attribute their conditions to any physical malady. He then enjoined a minister from the neighboring town to support his diagnosis of the ‘evil hand’ which was an old-fashioned way of being attacked by witchcraft. Almost immediately after the diagnosis, the girl’s symptoms grew worse, and then amazingly spreading to two other girls, Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard, who lived near the Parris home.

Both Elizabeth and Abagail blamed Tituba for their behavior. The following day, Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard indicated Sara Good was the cause of their grief and suffering. On March 1st, Sarah and Tituba were brought in for questioning, quickly followed by Sarah Osborne. The town leaders interrogated the girls and Tituba, which led to infighting and finger pointing, with every woman, seemingly fighting for their lives and blaming the others. Tituba eventually confessed and sealed the fate of the other two.

This wasn’t the first time someone had been accused of witchcraft in the area, but it would turn out to be one of the largest and deadliest ones. In 1679, Bridget Bishop, a citizen of Salem was accused of witchcraft, but when a clergyman, Reverend John Hale testified on her behalf, the charges were dropped. In 1680, in nearby Newbury, a woman named Elizabeth Morse was accused and convicted of witchcraft. After spending a year in jail, her death sentence was suspended and she was sent home to live with her husband, but forbidden to travel from the area without proper chaperone. In 1688, Ann Glover was accused of witchcraft in Boston, because she exhibited strange behaviors, such as fits, animal-like movements, hand flapping, and strange contortions. She was hung in November of that year.

As more accusations were made, the citizens of Massachusetts became increasingly willing to accept that witchcraft was infiltrating their communities and that execution was a suitable punishment for those accused. In the 1692 Salem persecution, 140 people were accused. Eventually, 24 of them were convicted. Nineteen were hanged, one was pressed to death, and the rest died in prison, none were burned at the stake as popular culture likes to portray. Most of the accused were middle-aged women, but there were a few men, and even a four year old child. From the first accusation on March 1st through October that year, fear, sensationalism, and execution became the norm. Once the hysteria began, it rapidly grew out of control. No one seemed safe. Accusations flew and lives were destroyed. In the aftermath, we can see the motivations behind the many accusations had more to do with control, land confiscations, and power, rather than black magick.

The Early Victims and Their Plight

Sarah Good was married to William Good. At the time of her arrest she pregnant and a beggar, going door to door asking for charity. She was an easy target in the pious Puritan village where citizens were expected to conform to a strict way of living. It didn’t help that both her and her husband had several disagreements with other citizens over the years. She was arrested and held in a Boston jail from March 7th until June 28th before being officially charged with using witchcraft against three individuals. During her imprisonment, in a shocking surprise, her 4 year-old daughter Dorothy was also accused of witchcraft and arrested. The poor child spent nearly eight months chained up in a dungeon but was later released. Sarah was brought to trial in June, and despite no physical evidence and the fact that one of her accusers had been caught lying to the court, she was found guilty. Since she was still pregnant, the court suspended her execution until July 19th, on which day she along with other witches died on the gallows on Proctor’s Ledge, Salem. Her baby passed away shortly after being born.

Sarah Osborne was the wife of Alexander Osborne, her second husband.  At the time of her arrest, she was considered a social outcast in Salem, mainly because she hadn’t attended church for many years. Most people knew that it was illness which kept her away, but the accusations against her came nonetheless. It was later discovered that in her first marriage, she was tied to the Putnam, who were very powerful in the area at the time. Sarah’s family was still engaged in a legal dispute with the Putnam’s family at the time of her arrest. One of her accusers was no other than Ann Putman, one of their children. Her arrest was more than just about supposed witchcraft, it was retribution for crossing the powerful family. Sarah died in prison on May 10th, 1692.

Tituba was a slave, believed to come from Barbados. Little is known about her background. She arrived in Boston with Samuel Parris and several others slaves. Reverend Parris later married and became the town minister of Salem in 1689. Parris was a controversial figure, known for preaching fiery sermons and the subject of questionable financial practices of the Salem Village Church. Tituba was accused of appearing to the other girls in spirit form. Something which was considered witchcraft in the 1600’s. Under physical duress by being severely beaten, she confessed and named names. Her confession was the only thing that kept her from being executed. She was imprisoned, yet as more accusations surfaced, her name was hardly mentioned. She later recanted her confession, which led to Reverend Parris abandoning her to spend the rest of her life in jail. The following year, long after the trials were over, someone purchased her from Parris and paid to have here released from jail. She quickly disappeared and was never heard from again.

The Witch Hunt Continues

Once the accusations started, they snowballed. Martha Corey was detained on March 21st. She was married to Giles Corey a farmer who would later also be arrested. Martha’s plight seemed to begin when she protested her husband’s attendance at the examination of Sarah Good. Martha had repeatedly expressed skepticism about the existence of witches and the Devil to her neighbors, and she tried to stop Giles from being part of the spectacle. Unfortunately for Martha, Giles told others about her actions. Almost as if on cue, Ann Putman reported seeing the spirit of Martha visit her. Unlike the initial round of accusations, this time, several adults joined the fray, including Ann’s mother and several other connected townspeople. Martha maintained her innocence through her questioning, but in an act of courtroom theatrics, the young girl accusers suddenly went into dramatic fits in front of everyone. That action sealed her fate. She remained in prison until her execution by hanging on September 22nd.

Three days later, on March 24th, a 71 year old woman named Rebecca Nurse, was arrested. She was a devout member of the Salem church and very pious. Her only negative was that she was known for occasionally losing her temper. Her husband, Francis Nurse was a former Salem Constable and had fought the powerful Putnam family in court several times over land disputes. Not surprising that her list of accusers included Ann Putnam and her mother, along with others who once again engaged in theatrical actions during her examination. Rebecca was imprisoned. Two family members who attempted to fight on her behalf, Sarah Cloyce, and Mary Easty, were later arrested. Rebecca was executed by hanging on July 19th.

In addition to Sarah and Mary, many other citizens of Salem and the surrounding area were questioned in April. On April 11th, John Proctor, a wealthy farmer and tavern owner was the first man arrested for witchcraft in Salem. Proctor was unpopular because he was an outspoken opponent of the trials and publicly stated that the group of afflicted girls were lying and their actions fraudulent. Ironically, John’s own servant, Mary Warren, claimed to be stricken with the same fits and joined the mob of accusers, then quickly accused Elizabeth Proctor, John’s wife, of witchcraft. Elizabeth was pregnant at the time of her examination and during the hearing, the accusers shifted their narrative against John. He was quickly examined and ultimately both husband and wife were imprisoned. In May, three of their children, Benjamin, Sarah and William, were also accused of witchcraft and arrested as were Elizabeth Proctor’s sister, Mary Basset DeRich, and sister-in-law, Sarah Bassett. None of them were indicted.

On June 2nd, John Proctor was physically examined by seven men for signs that he was a witch but his examiners reported that they didn’t find anything suspicious. While imprisoned, Proctor wrote a letter to the clergy of Boston pleading with them to appoint different judges or move the trials to Boston where he felt they would get a fair trial.  His plea fell on deaf ears. On August 5th, John and his wife Elizabeth were convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to be hanged. Keeping with tradition, Elizabeth’s sentence was delayed until the birth of her child.  John was executed on August 19th. Elizabeth remained imprisoned until she gave birth in January of the following year. Despite being condemned, she was not executed and remained in jail along with her child, ultimately being released. She spent her remaining years trying to restore her rights and her family legacy.

On April 18th, both Bridget Bishop and Giles Corey, the wife of previously accused Martha Corey, were arrested. On the surface, Bridget appeared to be another easy target. She was known to associate with the “wrong” type of people, staying up late drinking and gambling, and it was said she was immoral. Coincidentally, this was the second time she was accused of witchcraft, the first time coming immediately after her first husband passed away. She was acquitted. This arrest was part of a sweep which included three others; Giles Corey being one of them. She was immediately brought to trial and sentenced to death. Bridget was the first of the Salem Witches to be tried in an actual court of law and the first to be executed, despite others sitting in prison.  She was hung on June 10th, just two days after the state resurrected a law which permitted witches to be executed. Her son and his wife were also accused, but luckily escaped from prison; hiding out until the persecutions ended.

Giles Corey was nearly 80 when he was arrested. One of the same accusers that led to his wife’s conviction also pointed the finger at Giles.  During his examination, more accusers came forward and he was formally indicted as a witch. Giles was an intelligent man but he saw no way out of the charge, so he refused to enter either a guilty or not guilty plea. The magistrate attempted to pressure him to confess and beginning on September 17th, Giles was subjected to a medieval torture method known as pressing. He was stripped naked and had a large plank placed on top of his body. Heavy stones were piled on the plank, literally crushing him slowly. When he was asked to enter a plea, his only response was “more weight.” After two days of this excruciating punishment, he finally succumbed and died. Because he never went to trial, his family reputation and vast land holdings were not subjected to seizure. His wife Martha, was hung a few days later.

On April 21st, Mary Easty and Sarah Wildes were arrested. Mary was the sister of previously accused Rebecca Nurse and her mother Joanna Blessing Towne was also suspected of being a witch. Once again the connection to the Putnam family seems to be the central reason. Mary’s husband Issac had previous issues with the Putnam family. Mary had a very good reputation but it wasn’t enough to save her. She was examined but ultimately released on May 18th. Yet, one of her accusers continued to make new accusations, leading her to be re-arrested two days later.  She was executed on September 22nd.

Beyond Salem – The Accusations Grow

Sarah Wildes and her husband lived in the neighboring town of Topsfield, where he held high ranking positions of town treasurer and constable. One of the couple’s children was always acting strange, with symptoms of someone with a mental illness. Many thought it was a sign that she was a witch. Even though she had a high community ranking, she was considered by many as an undesirable. She was a non-conformist with several minor incidents in her younger days which many never forgot. She married John Wildes who already had a large family, a mere seven months after his first wife died. This union didn’t sit well with his former in-laws, who were related to the Putman family. When she was examined in a similar fashion as the others, the accusers continued with their theatrics.  She stood trial along with Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Howe, and Susannah Martin on June 30th. And once again, Ann Putman testified to her spectral activities and she was condemned to be executed by hanging on July 19th.

On April 30th, two more noteworthy arrests took place.  George Burroughs, the former minister of the Salem Church and a Harvard educated man was arrested and charged with practicing witchcraft. He had previously been in a dispute with the church over his salary an left Salem, relocating to Maine. The same girls accused him of doing impossible acts of strength, so constables were sent to Maine to return him to Salem to be examined. On August 5th, George Burroughs was indicted by a grand jury. He was executed by hanging on August 19th. Lydia Dustin of Redding, Massachusetts was arrested the same day as George. Not much is known about her other than she was connected with others which had been previously accused. She was examined and imprisoned immediately thereafter.  Several of her family members were also arrested but never indicted.  Lydia died in jail the following year, March 10th, 1693 as she was unable to pay her jail fees.

April led to May, and the witch hunt continued to gather steam. Susannah Martin, a 71 year-old resident of nearby Amesbury was the first to be brought in. Susannah had a similar profile to many of the other accused; she was a troublemaker. She had been previously accused of witchcraft not just once, but twice. In both cases the charges were dropped, but she was left destitute after several lengthy court disputes. When her husband passed, she was unable to inherit her father’s estate. With no money and no one to come to her defense, she was arrested for the third time. The same group of girls sealed her fate, despite not knowing her, as she lived in another town. Despite the lack of evidence, she was executed on July 19th.

George Jacobs, Sr., a farmer, and John Willard, Deputy Constable of Salem, were charged on May 10th. Mr. Jacobs was no stranger when it came to brushes with the law. He had a violent temper, one that led to a dispute with Nathaniel Putnam. He along with many other members of his family were accused by one of his servants.  George was by no means a pushover and he repeatedly denied all charges against him, even going to the length of admonishing the judges for believing the accusations. His examination went into the second day, but was quickly ended when Ann Putnam stated that his spirit had confessed to her about being a witch for over 40 years. At his trial, every witness against him claimed some sort of spectral evidence yet not a shred of physical proof.  He was found guilty and hanged on August 19th.

Constable John Willard

John Willard was a young man, no older than 30 and little is known about his younger days. He married into an established Salem farming family but had little interest in farming himself. He engaged in land speculation with a few partners which resulted in profits, but also allowed outsiders to get a foothold on Salem lands. Historians claim that his in-laws were jealous of his success. As a Constable, John was responsible for arresting accused witches, but his heart really wasn’t into it. He became so disillusioned at imprisoning innocent people that he resigned in protest. After he quit, he soon found himself accused of witchcraft by none other than Ann Putnam, Jr.  She later claimed, during his trial, that his spirit had appeared at her home several times in late April and tormented her, attempting to get her to touch the Devil’s book. Although he was accused publicly, no arrest warrant was issued, but the shroud of witchcraft hung over him.

John Willard went to Boston during election week, spending time with many people. One of his in-laws became quite ill and blamed a cross look from John as the reason.  This man was Bray Wilkins. When Bray returned to Salem, he found his grandson was suffering from similar conditions. On cue, the girls, including Ann Putnam, claimed to see spirits sitting on the victims; spirits controlled by John Willard. This time an arrest warrant was issued, but Willard fled, finally being tracked down about a week later by Constable John Putnam. By attempting to elude arrest, he was considered guilty. No physical evidence was discovered when he was examined. At his trial, not a single person spoke on his behalf and he was found guilty and hanged on August 19th.

The Accusations Grow Grander

On May 12th, Alice Parker and Ann Pudeator were arrested. Alice was a housewife and was known as a good woman; that is until she was accused of witchcraft by Mary Warren. Warren claimed that Alice had murdered her mother using a poppet and a needle and that she was part of a group of 30 witches. Not many details survive other than she was indicted and subsequently hanged on September 22nd. Mary Warren also accused Ann Pudeator, a wealthy woman in her seventies. Ann Putman and the others piled on, supporting the accusation. Although it has never been firmly identified, her occupation as a nurse and midwife may have been a motivation for others to charge her with witchcraft.   She was hanged on September 22nd.

Roger Toothaker was arrested on May 18th. Roger was a folk healer and farmer from nearby Billerica who specialized in detecting and punishing witches. He had no formal medical training, other than an apprenticeship with a physician who focused on mystical remedies instead of science. He served as a midwife in Salem until Dr. Griggs arrived from Boston in 1690. Toothaker, like the others was accused by Ann Putnam and her group. He was brought before the court, but no records survive of his examination.  He was sent to prison in Boston, where he died on June 16th, less than a month after being arrested. It was said that Toothaker and his wife claimed to practice a form of counter magic to protect themselves against witchcraft and that his own daughter had killed a witch. It was likely that the court didn’t consider the good versus bad angle and only focused on the witchcraft portion of the statement.

Three arrests came at the end of May. Elizabeth How, was accused of witchcraft for the second time in her life. The first occurrence was in 1682 when she was accused of bewitching a 10 year-old girl. The girl died a few years later, but no formal charges were ever filed against Elizabeth. After the incident, she was actively blocked from joining the church in her area. Soon thereafter stories about farm animals being bewitched were linked to her. A decade later, Elizabeth How was again accused of witchcraft, by the same group of girls. She was arrested in nearby Topsfield and examined. From the moment she entered the room, the girls began with their theatrics; showing signs of fits and other strange behavior. Elizabeth was convicted on two counts of witchcraft even after many people spoke on her behalf.  She was hanged on July 19th.

On the 28th of May, Martha Carrier, a 33 year-old woman from Andover was arrested for witchcraft. She was immediately examined and many of her neighbors testified against her. Martha’s case is unique because the courts coerced her own children to testify against her. Her older children were arrested and her younger children were physically tortured until they implicated their mother.  On August 5th, she was found guilty.  On August 11th, both Martha’s daughter Sarah and her husband Thomas were examined. On August 19th, Martha Carrier shouted her innocence, refusing to confess to “a falsehood so filthy” while on the gallows. Like many of the other Salem Witches, Martha was considered a disagreeable member of the community and an easy target.

Also on May 28th, Wilmett Redd, an “irritable” woman from Marblehead, Massachusetts was arrested and accused of witchcraft by the same group of girls from Salem. Once again, in their ongoing charade, the girls began to act out and show signs of being bewitched during the examination. Wilmett, known as Mammy Redd, was in her mid-50’s and married to a fisherman. The accusers claimed she flew from Marblehead to Salem just to torture them. She refused to confess and no one spoke on her behalf at her trial. She was convicted and hanged on September 22nd, but unlike all the other victims, no one came forward to claim her body. She was the only person from Marblehead convicted in the Witch trials.

The Tides Begin Turning

In June 1692, Massachusetts Governor Phips appointed Lt. Gov. Stoughton as chief justice of the Massachusetts court, in addition to his position on the special court of Oyer and Terminer. In Salem, there were a few arrests that month, but none warranting execution. The newly appointed court spent the month convicting and sentencing those already in custody, ultimately executing those who were guilty. Most of those tried were condemned on the basis of the witnesses’ behavior during the actual proceedings, characterized by fits and hallucinations that were argued to be caused by the defendants on trial, instead of physical evidence.

Ann Foster of Andover  was arrested on July 15th, at the time she was 75 years old. Her circumstances are also unique. Elizabeth Ballard, another Andover resident, had a fever in 1692. Her doctors could not figure out the cause, and suspected witchcraft. They sought Ann Putnam Jr. and Mary Wolcott, to see if they could identify the source of the witchcraft. As soon as they saw the aged widow, they immediately began to go into their fits. It was enough evidence for the doctors and they contacted the authorities who had Ann arrested the same day.  Her family members were also brought in and tortured until the implicated her. Seeing how much duress the courts were putting her daughter under, Ann Foster confessed. She was convicted and sentenced to death, but she was never executed. She died in prison on December 3rd. Her daughter remained in jail and little is known of what happened to her. The accusation of Ann Foster is one without many details. Most assume she was chosen by the girls because she was an old woman and an easy target.

By August, skepticism was on the rise about the validity of the spectral evidence being provided by the group of girls. On the 5th, Margaret Scott of Rowley, was examined for being a witch. Her only “crime” was a high rate of mortality among her children. In the 1600’s women who had issues with raising healthy children were susceptible to witchcraft charges. Only three of her seven children made it to adulthood. She was also a widow for over twenty years, another questionable practice in Puritan New England. Plus she was poor and sometime seen begging. Margaret was formally accused by one of Rowley’s most distinguished citizens after the daughter of Captain Daniel Wicom became afflicted by witchcraft.  The family brought forth a host of witnesses, which sealed Margaret’s fate.  She was hanged on September 22nd.

Of the Salem Witches, the last two notable arrests came in early September. Samuel Wardwell and Sarah Parker, were arrested on the 1st and 2nd, respectively. William Baker, Jr., a fourteen year-old boy accused Samuel and Sarah of witchcraft. They confessed under extreme conditions the very day they were interrogated. Samuel was executed by hanging on September 22nd. Sarah was released from prison and died in 1712. Samuel was a carpenter who may have been a little too eccentric for the times. He was an amateur magician and told fortunes, which attracted the attention of witch hunters at the time.

Mary Parker, a 55 year old widow, and mother of Sarah Parker was also accused was arrested. Mary refused to confess during the witchcraft trials and cited the fact there were three other women by the same name in the area. One was her sister-in-law who was the old and senile widow of Joseph Parker, who had a documented history of mental instability. In those days, a bad name could lead to hard times, and Mary might have been the victim of such an event. Even her accusers while at the trial had difficulty determining if she was the Mary Parker they associated with the actions. Regardless, she was sentenced to hang on September 22nd.  Of all the Salem Witches, her story is told the least.

The Aftermath

In October 1692, Governor William Phipps of Massachusetts ordered the Court of Oyer and Terminer dissolved. It was replaced with the Superior Court of Judicature, which forbade the type of sensational testimony allowed in the earlier trials. After the change, the executions ceased, and the newly formed Superior Court released all those awaiting trial and pardoned those sentenced to death; although some remained incarcerated as they were unable to pay the jail fees. The Salem witch trials, which resulted in the executions of 19 innocent women and men, had a profound impact on the citizens of Massachusetts. To this day, the term “Witch Hunt” refers to someone being charged and often convicted in the court of public opinion with little or no evidence other than the words of someone else.

The lives of the group of accusers spiraled downward after the trials. Ann Putnam Jr, the leader of the group must have realized she was being used as a pawn by her family to destroy their enemies. She never admitted that anything she did was on purpose but it seemed karma came due. Her parent died a few weeks after the last of the trials and Ann was left to raise all of her younger siblings; nine in total. She did write an apology, but never admitted to not being bewitched. She died at age 37 in 1716 from unknown causes. At the end of her life, loneliness was her constant companion and she never married. Perhaps her childhood was too much for any man to attempt courting her for fear he would be accused and executed at the first sign of any problem.

Elizabeth Parris, who was at the center of the controversy, was sent to live with her aunt. Modern doctors believe her strange actions and outbursts were actually the result of Convulsive Ergotism, a disease caused by consuming contaminated grain. She later recovered. Abigail Williams could have also had the same affliction, having lived in the Reverend Parris household. She disappeared and not much is known about her. Some say she never married and died at 17. Reverend Parris never achieved fame and fortune. He was promised a big reward for his role in the trials, but never received it. He died in poverty years later.

The Salem Witch Trial victims deserve our respect for their suffering at the hands of a church-driven community drunk with power. They were tortured, coerced, and their families destroyed by a court system that decided guilt or innocence on spectral evidence and hearsay. They were innocent people that refused to conform to the Puritan way and paid for it with their lives. A memorial stands in Salem at the site of the execution, commemorating the lives that were lost.

Article updated February 28th, 2023, by the author. Originally published March 1st, 2018.

Additional Reading

Pricking a Witch and the Politics of the Witch Trials

Salem Witch Trials Timeline

The Witchcraft Trial of Elizabeth Morse of Newbury, 1680

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