The Salem Witch Trials are a series of well-known investigations, court proceedings, and prosecutions that took place in Salem, Massachusetts over the course of 1692 and 1693.
Summary of the Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693 when people living in and around the town of Salem, Massachusetts were accused of practicing witchcraft or dealing with the Devil. The accusations were initially made by two young girls in the early part of the year. By May, William Phipps had been named governor of the colony and a new charter had been implemented. Initially, Phipps responded to the accusations by setting up special courts to hear the cases and to determine the fate of the accused. Unfortunately, the courts were controversial because they allowed “spectral” evidence — visions of ghosts, demons, and the Devil — to be entered into the proceedings. Spectral evidence had never been allowed before, and it seemed to fuel the hysteria. By the fall, 19 men and women had been convicted and hanged. Another man died from having heavy stones placed on him. Somewhere between 150 and 200 were in prison or had spent time in prison. Governor Phipps ended the special courts in October after accusations were made against well-respected members of the community, including ministers and his own wife. In January 1693, the trials resumed, but under the Supreme Court of Judicature. Spectral evidence was not allowed, and most of the accused were found innocent of the witchcraft charges and released. A handful of the people accused of witchcraft were convicted, but Governor Phipps intervened in May 1693 and agreed to release them as long as they paid a fine.
This painting by T. H. Matteson depicts the trial of a woman accused of witchcraft. It was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials. Image Source: Wikipedia.
Significance of the Salem Witch Trials
The Salem Witch Trials were important because they showed how quickly accusations and hysteria could spread through Colonial America. At the time, the Witch Trials also threatened the authority and stability of the new charter and government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Facts About the Salem Witch Trials
- Two young girls, Elizabeth Paris and Abigail Williams started to act in a strange manner, which included making strange noises and hiding from their parents and other adults.
- Elizabeth Paris, known as Betty, was 9 years old. Her father was the Reverend Samuel Paris.
- Abigail Williams was 11 years old. Reverend Paris was her uncle.
- More young girls in Salem Village started to show similar symptoms, including 12-year-old Anne Putnam and 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard.
- The first people accused of witchcraft were Tituba, an enslaved woman, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne.
- Dorothy Good was the youngest person to be accused of witchcraft. She was 4 years old.
The Role and Testimony of Tituba
- Tituba is believed to be an enslaved woman from Central America, possibly from Barbados.
- She lived in the home of Reverend Paris and had been taken to Massachusets by Paris in 1680.
- Tituba confessed to using witchcraft.
- She testified that four women, including Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, along with a man, had told her to hurt the children.
- Her testimony convinced the people of Salem Village that witchcraft was rampant in the town.
People Convicted and Executed
- The first person to be executed was Bridget Bishop.
- Over the course of the Salem Witch Trials, 19 people were hanged at Proctor’s Ledge, near Gallows Hill.
- Another one of the accused, Giles Corey, refused to enter a plea before the court and was ordered to be pressed to death. He was laid down on the ground and had heavy boards placed on top of him. Then heavy rocks were set on the boards until he was crushed by the weight.
The Special Courts
- The Court of Oyer heard the cases.
- The Court of Terminer decided the cases.
Salem Witch Trials — Primary Sources
- The Witchcraft Delusion of 1692 by Thomas Hutchinson, William Frederick Poole, and Richard Frothingham
- The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England by Cotton Mather
- Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in Such as are Accused with the Crime by Increase Mather