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Overview of the Salem Witch Trials

Uncertainty ruled over the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692 as massive and complex events challenged political stability, religious ideology, and economic security.  The Puritan roots of the colony challenged the region to adapt to increasing secularization, religious tolerance, and warfare.  As a brief search through the historiography of Salem would show, many factors likely influenced the population to turn against itself by accusing neighbors of witchcraft.  From February 1692 to May 1693, 177 people faced accusations of witchcraft.  150 of those named were arrested for the crime.  19 men and women hanged in 1692, one man was pressed to death, and at least five victims died in jail. 

The problems facing Salem began decades earlier.  Scholars emphasize several of these points.  The literature reviews of Boyer and Nissenbaum, Norton, and Baker cover several of these major themes.  Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum focus on internal conflict within Salem between the Town and the Village and inside the Salem Village Church.  In their research presented in Salem Possessed, they determine that Putnam political and economic difficulties drove the family to initiate accusations.  Since the original publication of their book, historians have criticized several of their arguments, and Boyer and Nissenbaum recanted part of their argument.  In short, their argument was correct, but their evidence was not able to prove it.   Mary Beth Norton in In the Devil's Snare changed the history of the subject with an in-depth look at the impact of the Indian wars along the Maine frontier. Norton believes war paranoia sparked fear in 1692.  Given that a number of those involved in the witch trials were refugees from destroyed areas of Maine, she is correct.  Aspects of the Indian wars drove the Salem Witch Trials.   Emerson W. Baker's recent book A Storm of Witchcraft accounts for the frontier, but also how the frontier and politics mattered to the judges. The judges as the political and military leaders wanted to deflect blame for chaos within the war and refugee issues, as well as political instability regarding the Massachusetts Bay Charter.  The witch trials provided an easy scapegoat.

However, Norton and Baker miss one point.  In order for the judges to scapegoat, and for the Indian wars to appear in testimony, the trials needed to happen.  The judges decide to not stop the witch hunt, but they never instigated it.  Language regarding the frontier appeared far more frequently in Andover, later in the trials.  The witch hunt needed to begin before other theories occurred.  The politics of Salem Village and Salem Town provided the opportunity, and the early accusation reflect this aspect of the causes of the accusations.  In his criticism of Boyer and Nissenbaum's work in a special issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, Richard Latner wrote, "Explaining what happened in Salem Village in 1692 will take a different sort of thesis from that offered in Salem Possessed."  Social network analysis is that type of thesis.

A brief history of the Salem Witch Trials:


February: Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, the daughter and niece respectively of Salem Village minster Samuel Parris, suffered unusual afflictions.  They fell into trances, ran around screaming, contorted their bodies, and saw spectral figures.  An unknown doctor diagnosed the girls as under an evil hand, or suffering from witchcraft.  Soon other girls suffered similar symptoms including Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard.

February 29: Salem Judges John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin issued arrest warrants for Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba for afflicting Parris, Williams, Putnam, and Hubbard.

March 1: Hathorne and Corwin held examinations of Good, Osborne, and Tituba in Salem Village.  Tituba confessed to signing the Devil's book, and she described how Good and Osborne forced her to harm the girls.

March 19:  Hathorne and Corwin issued a warrant for Martha Corey, a member of the Salem Village Church.  Now that church members faced the pointing finger of the accusing girls, nearly everyone in the community was vulnerable to accusations.

March 24: Rebecca Nurse faced the judges at her examination.  Although she previously seemed one of the least likely women to be accused, the accusations quickly removed all security of social standing.  Judge Hathorne even lamented at seeing an "old professor" of the faith before him in court before sending her to jail for a later trial.

April 11:  Sarah Cloyce, a sister of Rebecca Nurse, was examined with Elizabeth Procter, and both women sent to jail.  John Procter also faced the judges this day, setting a milestone for the trials.  John Procter was the first of many men accused during the witch trials.

April 18:  Giles Corey, who previously testified about his suspicions of his wife Martha, joined the growing list of accused suspects.  Mary Warren, an accuser turned accused was also arrested.  Warren lived in the Procter house as a maid.  She accused the Procters, and then recovered from her afflictions until the accusing girls claimed she only recovered by signing the Devil's covenant.  Warren began to confess soon after.

April 19: Abigail Hobbes, at age 14, confessed to witchcraft.  She spoke of how the Devil kept her safe in the woods.  Her parents William and Deliverance joined her in jail a couple days later.  Bridget Bishop refused to confess on this day.

April 22:  Nehemiah Abbott Jr. denied that he ever signed the Devil's book, and in a rare moment, the accusing girls acknowledge that Abbott only looked similar to the actual witch.  He left without any issue.

May 9:  Rev. George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem Village, returned after his arrest in Maine.  He denied playing any role in the bewitchment of the young girls of Salem.

June 2: The Court of Oyer and Terminer heard its first case against Bridget Bishop.  She was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death.

June 10: Bridget Bishop hanged for witchcraft.

June 29:  The trial of Sarah Good continued in its second day, and the Court heard the trials of Rebecca Nurse and Susannah Martin.

July 19: The colony executed Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Wildes for witchcraft.

August 5: George Burroughs, John Procter, and Elizabeth Procter faced the Court for their trials.

August 19: George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., John Procter, and John Willard hanged, but Elizabeth Procter was given a stay of execution for her pregnancy.

September 8: Martha Corey began her trial.

September 19: Giles Corey died from pressing.

September 22: The last executions killed Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd, Margaret Scott, and Samuel Wardwell.


January 4: The trials resumed without spectral evidence, starting with Sarah Buckley, Margaret Jacobs, Rebecca Jacobs, and Mary Whittredge.  All four women were found not guilty.

May 11: William Hobbes was cleared by Proclamation.

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