“Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches; and that tho those night-birds least appear where the Day-light of the Gospel comes, yet New-Engl. has had Exemples of their Existence and Operation.” -Cotton Mather, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, 1702.
One of the earliest settlements of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was Salem. Originally spanning a large swath of the North Shore, Salem was home to Puritan settlers from England. The Puritans enforced their view of the Christian faith on anyone residing within the settlement; harsh punishments were meted out for public drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage. Games of chance and dramatic performances were banned, as were public festivities such as Christmas celebrations. The Puritans believed in the power of demons, as well as that of witches, and felt the evil influence of magic in the world around them (via Wikipedia).
In the winter of 1692, two young girls in Salem Village began to suffer from what was described as “epileptic fits.” They exhibited bizarre behaviors including screaming and throwing objects. Three local women were accused of causing the girls’ behavior and were arrested for witchcraft. The accusations quickly become more rampant, leading to over 150 individuals being arrested for the use of evil magic. The trials would result in deaths of twenty townspeople: 19 were hung on a hill overlooking the town, and one man, Giles Corey, would be pressed to death (having large stones laid atop him until he died) in an attempt to persuade him to confess his guilt. Many of those found guilty were sentenced based upon spectral evidence: people who claimed to have been attacked by witchcraft testified that they witnessed an apparition or spirit of the person who was harming them. Another man, George Burroughs, recited the Lord’s Prayer without mistake; this was an important test, as one of the beliefs regarding witches was that they would misspeak when attempting to voice the prayer. His flawless praying did not save him from the madness of the times, however, as the Reverend Cotton Mather, one of the intellectual forces supporting the trials, argued that Mr. Burroughs must be under the power of Satan himself to perform such a feat. Mr. Burroughs hung immediately thereafter. Finally, in 1693, a Superior Court in Salem found the remaining accused not guilty, and all who were imprisoned for witchcraft were set free (via Wikipedia).
On a beautiful Sunday in early fall, I set off for Salem, to explore this historic town and learn more about one of the more shameful episodes in Colonial American history.
Before we shift to the Witch Trials, it is important to note two facts. The first is that witch trials are not solely an American phenomenon. Rather, the Puritans were carrying on a tradition that had already existed in Europe for almost two hundred years. Demons and witches were a constant preoccupation in Europe, especially after the 1487 publication of Malleus Maleficarum by theologians Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Spenger. This book created a legal and religious framework to pursue the extermination of people proven to be witches. While 20 people died in the Salem Witch Trials, the European witch trials took the lives of an estimated 40,000-60,000 individuals. The second point is that while it is known as the Salem Witch Trials, many of the events took place in towns that today have different names. For instance, several of the accused lived in a town that is now called Danvers. In the late 17th century, however, the entire area was known as Salem.
Although the Rebecca Nurse Homestead was closed for visitors by the time I arrived, the grounds were open, so I took some time to walk around and think about everything I had seen today. When you move past the commercialism, the countless tourists, and the stores trying to sell any little trinket with the word “witch” on it, what remains is a sad moment in our history. Over a hundred and fifty people were accused during the hysteria of the witch trials, and twenty of them gave their lives to this horror. Years later, at least one of the witnesses gave a confession that should startle no one. Ann Putnam, who accused 62 people of witchcraft, gave a statement in her church admitting that she had lied in her accusations, emphasizing her role in the wrongful sentencing of Rebecca Nurse, and asking forgiveness… forgiveness which the surviving victims and the families of those who perished gave her.
Thank you for coming along on this special post. I hope you found it enjoyable and informative. I would strongly encourage you to visit Salem, but to try to avoid the tourist elements, and learn the story of the Salem Witch Trials for what they truly were… the result of fear, ignorance, and the scapegoating of innocent victims. While the story occurred in 1692, it is a tale unfolds over and over again throughout history.