Lecture 6:

The Accusers:

The Salem Withcraft Trials are among the most notorious events in American history. There had been witch hunts in Europe for hundreds of years, and many more people were accused, convicted, and executed as witches there than in the colonies. Nevertheless, the events in Salem remain a source of fascination to Americans, partly because of their sensational nature, and partly because of the psychological, social, economic and religious puzzles they present.

It began in 1689, when Samuel Parris and his family arrived in Salem Village. Parris was ordained minister of the Salem Village Church.

Parris has gone down in history as the man who was most responsible for instigating the witchcraft accusations, and for the panic that followed, and rightfully so. His fears created the situation, and he fueled it with his words and actions. Parris was obsessed with sinfulness and Satan. His greatest fear was that Satan would arm his foes to destroy him and the church. And he was obsessed with proving his own importance and maintaining his status. He looked for evil and found it everywhere except within himself.

He lived with his wife; their three children; an 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams; and a Caribbean slave couple, Tituba and John Indian. Parris was unusual, not only for owning slaves, but for having so few children. The norm was for a family to have between 5 and 10 children at 2-year intervals. But Parris's wife, Elizabeth, was not in good health. She died in 1696, after a long illness, at age 48.

Abigail had lived with the family for 3 years. She was probably an orphan.

The winter of 1692 was a very cold one, and the house was freezing inside. Parris's ideas had been engrained in the children: absolutes of good or evil, sin or saintliness, heaven or hell. They were full of anxiety, with no outlets. Children past the age of 4 or 5 were not allowed to play. They were treated as small adults. In Parris's house (and in the village), children were taught that thoughts and actions were the same: an evil thought was as bad as an evil action. So repression was the order of the day.

The children spent their days with Tituba and John Indian, which created yet more conflict for them. Indians were suspected to be the Devil's tools, yet Tituba and John were part of the family. They despised and feared them, yet they were dependent upon them.

The days were similar. They would rise early in the morning and, in winter, eat breakfast by candlelight, since the small windows with panes of dark glass kept the house dim even in daylight. After breakfast, the girls began sewing, spinning, cooking, cleaning, and washing. Like everyone else in the village, they made their own bread, butter, cider, ale, clothes, candles, and everything else they used or consumed. At midday, they ate the large meal of the day, dinner. In the evening, they ate supper. Then there were prayers, including reading from the Scriptures and psalm singing, and then it was time for bed. If the weather was warm enough, the girls might walk a few hundred yards to visit 17-year-old Mary Walcott, or a half mile to see 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard, or 12-year-old Ann Putnam and 17-year-old Mercy Lewis a mile away at Thomas Putnam's. They seldom would have gone further than that. It was too dangerous, and beside, visiting just for pleasure was considered by adults to be bordering on the sinful. The Puritans of Salem Village regarded all activities outside of work and prayer as potentially sinful, and were wary of fun and amusement.

Salem Village was isolated and small. It was separate from Salem Town. (Salem Village is today called Danvers.) It was, in 1692, officially part of Salem Town, but was separated from the rest of the town by a river and a 2-3 hour walk. The village was made up of widely scattered farms with forests beyond them. The official population was 550, but servants, slaves and indentured servants, and the homeless weren't counted. Click Here if you would like to see maps of Salem Village.

At the center of the village was the parsonage. On one side of it was a tavern at a crossroads, and on the other side a field for militia training. Opposite the tavern was the watchhouse: Salem Village hadn't yet been attacked by Indians, but the fear of an Indian attack was great and constant. The meeting house was a few hundred yards down the road, and there were also a few homes of tradesmen (potters, carpenters, shoemakers, and so forth). All of this was surrounded by wilderness.

The only books in the village were religious ones. Children seldom saw anything but the Bible, a primer, and a catechism. Some might see a hymnbook or almanac. Neither Abigail nor Betty could write; we don't know if they could read. There were few schools for girls in New England, and none in Salem Village. Parents were urged to teach their children to read, so that they could read the Bible, but Parris was busy, and his wife was ill, so they may not have done so.

There were no fairy tales or stories; no art or theater; only the simplest religious music. Boys could enjoy hunting, fishing, trapping, carpentry, and crafts, but there were no such outlets for girls.

The only break in the weekly routine was on Sundays. Instead of work, there was church for three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. Church services included long sermons by Parris, threatening them with eternal damnation for their sins of act and thought. The "tithing man" walked up and down the aisles with a stick, prodding those who were fidgeting or dozing. There was no heat in the church. Even the bread froze sometimes. On the coldest days, the shutters were kept closed and candlelight was used to light the room. Parishioners were allowed to bring blankets, pans of hot coals, hot bricks, and even well-behaved dogs for heat. But sometimes the cold forced them to use the tavern for meetings. (The tavern was also filled on Thursdays, for "lecture day": a long midweek sermon.)

The rest of the day was set aside for religious reading, contemplation, and prayer. Observance of these Sunday activities was enforced by law. In 1647, a man in New Haven was tried for absence from public worship. He had fallen into water on Saturday night and couldn't dry his clothes by Sunday morning, so he stayed in bed to keep warm. He was found guilty of "slothfulness" and whipped. In 1656, a Boston man sat in the stocks for two hours for behavior on the Sabbath that was "lewd and unseemly": he'd kissed his wife in public after returning home from 3 years at sea.

The Puritans in Salem lived lives full of monotony, mixed with fear of Indian attacks, serious illness, and political upheaval. They continually needed to repress feelings of rebellion and rage. And their religion provided little relief: Puritans saw the world in stark contrasts: a person was saintly or sinful, godly or devilish. For a girl, especially, to exhibit aything but docility would lead to fears that she was totally evil.

Tolerance of others was seen not as a virtue, but as laxity. Those who broke the rules were punished in ways intended to humiliate as well as physically hurt. Transgressors had eggs thrown at them in the pillory or stocks; they were made to stand in the marketplace with a list of their offenses attached to their foreheads; they were publicly whipped. Court records show some of the crimes: railing and scolding; stealing food; "unseemly practices" between girls; breaking an engagement; "unseemly speeches" against the rule of the church; sleeping during services. No offense was too trivial for punishment.

Those with different beliefs, well-meaning or not, were not thought of as misguided but as evil. The Puritans whipped and hanged Quakers without qualms. Common humanity shown to transgressors was blasphemy: it placed a mere human creature above God and His laws. Thus, those in the wrong seemed to them less than human.

Terror and shame were used to encourage conformity even in the youngest.

Parris was a "failure" in his own eyes. His father had left him less of an inheritance than he expected, and he'd left Harvard without a degree. Then he'd failed in business. Now, he was a mere village pastor in a backwater. His low self-esteem and his deep inner terrors made him rigid, cruel, and merciless.

Children raised in such an atmosphere often suppress their own feelings, and become incapable of compassion for others. Abigail and the other accusers certainly were merciless when it was their turn to exercise power.

During the winter of 1692, Abigail and Betty relieved their boredom by dabbling in fortunetelling with Tituba: they would break an egg into a glass of water and watch the shape of the white. Gradually, they also invited their friends to join them. One day, one of the girls, asking about a future husband's calling, saw the shape of a coffin. This sent Abigail into an hysterical fit. Both Abigail and Betty began behaving strangely: getting into holes, creeping under chairs and stools, using odd postures, uttering "foolish" speeches.

It had begun.

The girls were examined by a doctor, who could find no physical reason for their behavior. They claimed they felt invisible hands pinching and pricking them. They blamed Tituba. Samuel Parris beat and tortured Tituba to make her confess to witchcraft; she refused to confess. She did finally admit that, in the Caribbean, she had learned some means to prevent being bewitched. Parris saw this as proof of her guilt. He needed to believe that the evil came from outside his house.

The girls were, by now, being visited constantly by doctors, ministers, and other people in the village. They were the center of attention. They were continually asked if they "saw" anyone else. Finally, they screamed two names: Sarah Good, a local, aggressive beggar, and Sarah Osbourne, an enemy of John Putnam, Ann's great-uncle. She was the first of many "witches" who were Putnam family foes.

Gradually, the girls' friends also began to suffer attacks by witches, and they, too, began to name names of other witches. The accused would be arrested and held in the Salem jail to await their hearing. These "witches" (mostly women at first, and later a few men) were held in dungeons which were always dark, bitterly cold, and so damp that water ran down the walls. They reeked of unwashed bodies and excrement. They were infested with water rats, and were a breeding ground for disease. The prisoners were kept hungry and thirsty. They were manacled to the walls and treated with deliberate cruelty. There were frequent body searches for "witches' teats," especially around the genitals.

Probably the worst case was that of Dorcas Good, the daughter of Sarah Good. She was four years old. She was accused of witchcraft, tried, found guilty, and held in prison from March 24, 1692 until May, 1693. No protest was made by anyone on her behalf. She was treated like the adults: imprisoned in the Salem dungeons and manacled to the wall. After two weeks there, she was removed from the Salem jail and travelled all day on horseback to the Boston jail. There she was loaded with chains and manacled to the wall. Her mother was there, along with others, but no one had much time or opportunity to comfort her. There was no shield from the cruel wardens and distraught prisoners. Her mother had brought a new baby into the prison with her, and it was dying.

After Dorcas was released from prison, according to her father, she was never normal. She always needed a keeper. She rocked and picked at her skin and clothing obsessively.

Because the Salem authorities lacked the legal authority to hold a trial, those who were arrested in Salem were subjected to a hearing where the "evidence" against them was presented. They would then be held until they could be transported to Boston for a trial. Pretrial hearings were huge public events and fueled the hysteria, leading to more accusations, in other towns as well. There was a brief outbreak in Andover, which ended when a wealthy Boston gentleman was accused and sued the city for £1000. The accusation against him was dropped; then the accusations against the others in Andover were dropped as well. But accusations and trials continued in Salem and Boston.

The first "witch" to be executed was Bridget Bishop, on June 10, 1692. Her body was dumped into a crevice, as were others hanged later. (Some bodies, such as Rebecca Nurse's, were recovered by relatives, but they acted secretly.)

Rebecca Nurse, age 71, who had always been well-respected, was also accused. She was acquitted at her trial in Boston, but the girls, who were present at her trial, fearful of losing their influence, went wild. The crowd, too, went wild. One of the judges, unsatisfied with the verdict, walked off the bench. Another threatened to have her retried. The judges sent the jury out to deliberate again.

The jury returned, but to question Nurse. She failed to respond to one of the questrions, being hard of hearing and in the noise failing to hear it. The jury took this as a refual to answer, revoted, and found her guilty. She was excommunicated that same afternoon. To her, this was worse than her conviction, because she believed it meant damnation. She was hanged, with four others, on July 19.

Giles Cory, whose wife Martha Cory has also been convicted, refused to be tried. He refused even to plead innocent. In an effort to force him to plead, he was "pressed" in a field near the courthouse. Boards were placed on his chest, and then large rocks were placed on the boards. As he refused to cooperate, more rocks were piled on top of the others. It took hours for him to die. Toward the end, Cory's tongue pressed out of his mouth. The shriff pushed it back in with the end of his cane. Cory's only words during the whole ordeal were "More weight, more weight."

After the deaths of Nurse and others, Parris went to the homes of their relatives to see why they'd stopped coming to church.

The witch hunts ended when the girls, carried away with their power, accused Mrs. Thatcher, the mother-in-law of magistrate Jonathan Corwin; two sons of former governor Simon Bradstreet; the wife of Reverend Hale; and the wife of Sir William Phipps, governor of the province. None was arrested, and the hysteria began to subside, especially after an essay was published denouncing the hysteria by Increase Mather, an influential clergyman (and father of Cotton Mather, who had written an essay urging the trials on). On October 29, the court was formally dissolved.

Doctors and psychologists today speculate that Betty, Abigail and the other girls probably suffered from "clinical hysteria," caused by powerlessness coupled with terror. This condition is suffered mostly by women who live under socially oppressive circumstances, and there were also many cases in soldiers returning from trench warfare during World War I. The condition is characterized by a dual consciousness: the hysteric observes herself and knows what she is doing, but she can't control herself. She may harm herself but seldom goes so far as to commit suicide. Clinical hysteria is rare in our society; one lingering symptom of it is anorexia.

Almost all of the girls who first had "fits" were separated from either a mother or a father or both. Only one, Ann Putnam, lived with both parents, but Ann's mother was deeply disturbed. Mary Walcott's mother had died when Mary was 8. Elizabeth Hubbard was an orphan. Mary Lewis was also an orphan; she had seen her parents slaughtered by Indians.

Many of the accused lost everything. Their land, homes, and goods were seized upon their arrests. Their children were left to fend for themselves, if their neighbors were too afraid to take them in. Some later received some compensation, although others did not; in any case, the amounts were small. Others had to stay in jail, since they couldn't pay their jail fees (it was the law then that an imprisoned person had to pay daily fees for his keep). Sarah Dustin, who was found not guilty, could not pay her jail fees and thus could not be released. She died in prison.

Samuel Parris was fired in September 1697, after a long dispute in the village. He went to live in Stowe, Massachussetts, but failed there after a year, as well. But he had married a woman with money by then, who supported him during his subsequent ventures as shopkeeper, schoolmaster, minister, farmer, and property speculator. He died in 1720.

Betty Parris married and had children, as did several of the other accusers, and eventually left Salem Village.

Abigail Williams probably died young (the records are unclear), and was probably mentally ill.

Mary Walcott also married and had children.

Tituba was sold by Parris to another family to pay her jail fees.

Ann Putnam remained unmarried and stayed in Salem Village. When she was 26, she made a public apology to the church, and especially to the Nurse family, for her actions. She died at age 37.

For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:

1. Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: the Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials.
2. Karlson, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England.

--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.

--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.