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date: 14 April 2021

Salem witches and their accusersfree

(act. 1692)
  • Richard Godbeer

Salem witches and their accusers (act. 1692), were the participants in a witch panic that gripped Essex county, Massachusetts, in 1692. The witch hysteria began in Salem village but then spread rapidly throughout the region. The core group of accusers consisted of girls and young women in Salem village who had begun to suffer strange fits, diagnosed by the local doctor as symptoms of witchcraft. Once they were pressured to name their alleged tormentors other villagers began to come forward with accusations of their own. During that year formal charges of witchcraft were brought against 156 people (listed in Godbeer, 238–42). Many others were named informally. Over half of those indicted lived in two Massachusetts communities, Salem village and Andover, but the accused witches included women and men from twenty-four New England towns and villages.

The most obvious characteristic of those accused was that an overwhelming majority, about three-quarters, were women. On both sides of the Atlantic witchcraft was perceived as a primarily female phenomenon and this instance was no exception. Puritans did not believe that women were by nature more evil than men, but they did see them as weaker and thus more susceptible to sinful impulses. Ministers regularly reminded New England congregations that it was Eve who first gave way to Satan and then seduced Adam, when she should have continued to serve his moral welfare in obedience to God. Some women were much more likely than others to be suspected of witchcraft. Throughout the seventeenth century New England women became especially susceptible to accusation if they were seen as challenging their prescribed place in a gendered hierarchy that puritans held to be ordained by God. Women who fulfilled their allotted social roles as wives, mothers, household mistresses, and church members without threatening assumptions about appropriate female comportment were respected and praised as the handmaidens of the Lord; but those whose circumstances or behaviour seemed to disrupt social norms could easily become branded as the servants of Satan. Especially vulnerable were women who had passed menopause and thus no longer served the purpose of procreation, women who were widowed and so neither fulfilled the role of wife nor had a husband to protect them from malicious accusations, and women who had inherited or stood to inherit property in violation of expectations that wealth would be transmitted from man to man. Women who seemed unduly aggressive and contentious were also likely to be accused; behaviour that would not have struck contemporaries as particularly egregious in men seemed utterly inappropriate in women. Bishop, Bridget and Martin, Susannah , both executed in 1692, exemplify these characteristics: both had been widowed; Bishop had assumed control of her first husband's property before remarrying; Martin had engaged in protracted litigation over her father's estate in an unsuccessful attempt to secure what she considered her rightful inheritance; both women had displayed an assertiveness and fiery temper that some of their neighbours found deeply troubling.

In addition a significant number of the accused in 1692, male and female, either had reputations for occult expertise or had at least experimented with magical techniques for divination or healing. Although ministers condemned any form of magic as diabolical, layfolk often appreciated being able to consult ‘cunning folk’ for benign purposes. Yet such individuals were vulnerable to allegations that they had also deployed their abilities to harm enemies. Wardwell, Samuel (d. 1692), for example, was known to have told fortunes and had boasted of his abilities. One neighbour was reported as having declared that he must be 'a witch or else he could never tell what he did' (Boyer and Nissenbaum, Salem Witchcraft Papers, 3.787).

Other suspects in 1692 did not fit so obviously the witch stereotypes that had informed earlier accusations. These individuals became vulnerable during the panic because they were associated in people's minds with recent threats to the New England colonies that had created an intense sense of endangerment. American Indian attacks, political reforms imposed by the government in England that threatened to undermine the colonists' independence, the increasing visibility of religious dissenters, and the imposition of a new charter in 1691 that gave freedom of worship and the vote to previously disfranchised groups such as Quakers combined to leave the colonists feeling imperilled by alien, invasive, and malevolent forces. They described these threats in much the same language used to characterize witchcraft. Puritans believed, furthermore, that there was a close connection between heresy, heathenism, and witchcraft. A significant number of the accused had close Quaker associations and several suspects were linked by their accusers to American Indians. Samuel Wardwell had Quaker relatives; one of John Alden's accusers claimed that he had sold gunpowder to Indians and had been sexually involved with their women. Tituba , an accused American Indian woman who had lived in the Caribbean before coming with her master to Salem village, was marked by her race as well as her reputation for occult skills. Many of the accused were clearly perceived as outsiders, either literally or figuratively. Eight of the Andover suspects were marginalized by ethnic affiliation: Carrier, Martha (d. 1692), for example, was Scottish and had married a Welshman.

During the decades leading up to the witchhunt Salem village itself had become bitterly divided around a series of issues that paralleled crises in the region at large. The village was legally subordinate to Salem town and had no civil government of its own. Some villagers wanted independence from the town, partly because the latter had proven remarkably insensitive to their concerns and partly to separate themselves from the commercial spirit that increasingly characterized the town, which was flourishing as a seaport. Villagers who saw that way of life as spiritually suspect tended to distrust neighbours who lived near to or were associated with the town's interests. Factional division was shaped by disparate economic opportunity as well as by cultural values. Those farmers who lived closest to the town had land of a higher quality, enjoyed easier access to its markets, and tended to see the town's development as an opportunity; those living further west had poorer land, were less able to take advantage of the town's growth, and tended to resent those who could do so.

Proponents of separation from the town secured the establishment of an independent church in 1689 and the ordination of Parris, Samuel (1653–1720), a failed merchant, as their pastor. Parris, whose position as pastor was under threat by 1692, fuelled hostilities by translating factional division into a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil. His daughter and niece, Parris, Elizabeth (1682/3–1760) and Williams, Abigail (b. 1680/81), were among the initial accusers. Putnam, Ann (1679–1715), daughter of the minister's close ally Thomas Putnam (1653–1699), was another member of that core group; Lewis, Mercy (b. 1672/3), a servant in the Putnam household, and Walcott, Mary (b. 1674/5), a niece who lived with the Putnams, were also prominent accusers. The elder Putnam, Ann (1662–1699), wife of Thomas, claimed that she too was afflicted.

Divisions within the village were reproduced in the pattern of accusations in 1692: most accused witches and their defenders lived on the side of the village nearest to Salem town, whereas most of the accusers lived on the western side. Many of the accused had personal histories or interests that either associated them with Salem town or otherwise marked them as threatening outsiders. In Salem village and in the county as a whole those individuals and families who had become identified with forces that seemed disorderly and immoral fell victim to accusations of witchcraft as the initial afflictions in the village ignited witch panic.

By early October, when the court proceedings were halted amid acrimonious controversy, nineteen people had been hanged: Bridget Bishop on 10 June; Good, Sarah , How, Elizabeth , Susannah Martin, Nurse, Rebecca , and Wilds, Sarah on 19 July; Burroughs, George , Martha Carrier, Jacobs, George , Proctor, John , and Willard, John on 19 August; and Corey, Martha , Easty, Mary , Parker, Alice , Parker, Mary , Purdeator, Ann , Reed, Wilmot , Scott, Margaret , and Samuel Wardwell on 22 September. Corey, Giles was pressed to death under interrogation on 19 September. Over one hundred individuals were in prison awaiting trial, four of whom died during their confinement (Dustin, Lydia , died on 3 March 1693; Foster, Ann (d. 1692/3); Osborne, Sarah , died on 10 May 1692; and Toothaker, Roger , died on 16 June 1692).

Many historians have recounted the events of 1692, offering explanations that range from cynical conspiracy and manipulation to collective food poisoning. Academic and popular interest in the Salem trials has often distracted attention from other persecutions for witchcraft in the region. The 1692 witch-hunt was exceptional in its scale and intensity, but belief in the existence of witches was part of everyday life in early New England; sixty-one witch trials are known to have taken place there during the seventeenth century, in addition to those at Salem. Three-quarters of those tried before 1692 were acquitted because the evidence against them, though compelling in the eyes of their accusers, proved unconvincing from a legal perspective. The Salem trials were halted primarily because of controversy over the court's reliance upon problematic testimony, which reaffirmed and intensified judicial concerns regarding evidentiary issues. Such concerns combined with embarrassment and distress over the deaths that resulted from the trials that year to discourage future prosecutions, though an end to witch trials in New England by the century's close did not signify an end to the belief in and fear of witches.

The panic that swept through Salem found a modern-day counterpart in the McCarthyist ‘witch-hunt’ in Washington in the early 1950s, as dramatized by Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible (1953). Miller, who was himself summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee, drew inspiration from Charles W. Upham's two-volume study of the trials (1867). Miller took as the play's centre the relationship between the accused John Proctor and the accuser Abigail Williams, with Proctor emerging as the 'most forthright voice against the madness around him' (Miller, Why I wrote The Crucible). When Miller later reworked the play for a film version released in 1997, he recognized the continued relevance of 'one of the strangest and most awful chapters in human history' (Miller, The Crucible).

Sources

  • P. Boyer and S. Nissenbaum, eds., The Salem witchcraft papers: verbatim transcripts of the legal documents of the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692, 3 vols. (1977)
  • P. Boyer and S. Nissenbaum, Salem possessed: the social origins of witchcraft (1974)
  • C. F. Karlsen, The devil in the shape of a woman: witchcraft in colonial New England (1987)
  • R. Godbeer, The devil's dominion: magic and religion in early New England (1992)
  • J. P. Demos, Entertaining Satan: witchcraft and the culture of early New England (1982)
  • E. G. Breslaw, Tituba, reluctant witch of Salem: devilish Indians and puritan fantasies (1996)
  • E. Reis, Damned women: sinners and witches in puritan New England (1997)
  • A. Miller, The crucible (1953)
  • A. Miller, Timebends (1987)
  • A. Miller, ‘Why I wrote The Crucible: an artist's answer to politics’, asuaf.org/~gurujohn/drama/miller-crucible.html, 20 Dec 2002

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