DOWNTOWN
November 4, 1992

The Persecution of Witchcraft in America

By Paul DeRienzo

In the town of Salem, MA, a monument for those killed during the infamous witch trials of 1692 is under construction. It consists of a small park with benches and on each bench is carved a quote from one of the 20 victims of the trials. “I am not a witch-I am not guilty of such a sin” and other things spoken by the people tried in Salem.

Recently a memorial to the 20 who died was held by a group called The Witches of Salem and a symposium was held on religious tolerance in America organized by the Earth Spirit Community and Coven of the Goddess-an organization of witches in Massachusetts. Although well known the significance of the Salem witch trials are little understood. This is the story of how honest, hardworking people can get swept up in their own quarrels and petty hatred to the extent that their greatest fears become real with the most terrifying of consequences.

The Winter of 1692 was colder than usual in the Massachusetts Bay colonies. According to accounts from the time in the village of Salem, which lay about 15 miles north of Boston, some local girls had taken to experiments in fortune telling. Maybe it was the boredom of the cramped and colorless lifestyles followed by the Puritan settlers or just the curiosity of youths trying to fathom the future of their own lives, or as it was put by one commentator “what trade their sweethearts should be of.”

According to the spiritual leader of the colonies, Cotton Mather, books on the subject of the occult had “stolen” into the land; and young people were being “led away with little sorceries.” One of the girls devised a crystal ball by suspending the white of an egg in a glass-and she received what became a fearful divination: in the glass floated “a specter in the likeness of a coffin.” The magic the girls were trying to harness was beginning instead to ride them: visibly their little experiment was turning ugly.

The girls began to experience alarming symptoms. The most disturbing and frequent was convulsive fits: eyewitnesses all agreed that the girls could not be acting. Still, whether or not the strange contortions and violent episodes were staged would later become an issue that remains unsolved to the present time.


Other manifestations were almost as shocking and included choking sensations, loss of memory, hearing and speech. Finally there developed terrifying hallucinations, the appearance of specters or ghosts that tormented the afflicted in the most cruel ways. The girls cried out that they were being pinched and bitten, and often reported bite marks on their skin.

Initially the Villagers tried to quiet this strange behavior by resorting to prayers and fasting. It was the local minister, the Rev. Samuel Parris, father of one of the girls and uncle to the other who took the initiative by calling in William Griggs, the local physician. But Griggs was unable to explain the behavior of nine-year-old Betty Parris and her eleven year-old cousin Abigail Williams, and he warned Parris that he suspected the presence of an “Evil Hand.”

Soon rumors were spreading through the Village of about 500 inhabitants and fears began to build. A witch cake made of rye meal mixed with the urine of the afflicted girls was baked by Tituba, a West Indian slave in the Parris household. The cake was fed to a dog, apparently in the belief that if the girls were bewitched the animal would be similarly tormented. A few weeks later, Parris denounced the witch cake experiment from the pulpit as “diabolical.”

A month had passed since the bizarre behavior had begun and the afflictions were spreading 11 plague like” in the words of Minister Parris, from house to house. Three young girls in the home of Thomas Putnam Jr., one of the richest landowners in Salem Village, began to show symptoms believed to have been caused by witchcraft. Eventually the panicked Villagers resorted to law. By now eight girls were suffering and under intense grilling by their e1ders they began to name some of their neighbors as responsible for their torments.

On Feb. 29, 1692, arrest warrants were issued against three Village women: Sarah Good, an older woman taken to muttering to herself, sleeping outside in ditches and living on handouts from her neighbors. Sarah Osborne, also of advancing age who was notorious in the Village for, after being widowed, taking in a farm hand with whom she shared her bed, and as the third suspected witch the slave Tituba.

The next day two members of the colonial legislature including John Hathorne, great-great grandfather to the Salem novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (who added the w to the name) conducted a Public examination of the three women. The meetinghouse was packed with Villagers who were by now fully aroused by the strange goings on which would dominate their lives for months to conic.

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Under harsh questioning by Hathorne, Sarah Good quickly accused fellow prisoner Sarah Osborne of being a witch while herself denying lie practice of witchcraft. Hathorne bullied the old and feeble woman; “Sarah Good,” lie asked, “what evil have You familiarity with?” Good responded, “None.” Hathorne kept up the pressure, “Have you made no contact with the Devil?” lie demanded. Again she responded “No.”
But Hathorne would not accept these simple denials and lie kept badgering the woman. “Why do You hurt these children?” lie asked. “I do not hurt them, I scorn it” she answered, “Who do you employ then, to do it?” retorted the magistrate’. “I employ nobody,” said Sarah Good. Hathorne was still not satisfied and he asked, presumably with a straight face, “What creature do you employ then?” Good managed to stand up to the badgering, “No creature, but I’m falsely accused she answered.

The substance of the questioning was quickly overtaken by events in the meetinghouse itself, which would soon make Salem Village the most notorious settlement in Massachusetts. Sitting before Good were the children who had claimed to he afflicted by the old woman’s alleged witchcraft. According to the records of the interrogation, when Hathorne asked the afflicted girls to look it Sarah Good, “upon which they were all dreadfully tortured and tormented for I short space of time.” The girls then charged that the specter in the form of Good had appeared to them although her body was “at I considerable distance from them.”


These specters, which were only visible to those afflicted and not the assembled Villagers, became the basis of evidence on which Sarah Good and 18 other women and men were convicted of witchcraft and hung. Unlike Scotland and the European continent, where witchcraft was heresy and punishable by burning, in England witchcraft was a violation of civil law and the punishment was by hanging. No witches were ever burned in the American colonies.

However, English civil law was extremely harsh and a 20th victim, a farmer in his mid’70s, Giles Corey would be crushed to death under stones as punishment for refusing to plead either guilty or not as required by English laws. Corey had used the witch trials to accuse his own wife who had been hanged. When the old man expressed regret at the height of the witch hysteria he was himself accused. According to the law it was possible to save oneself from the hangman by admitting the charges of witchcraft were true, however, one’s property could then be seized. Corey’s sons had defended their mother against their father’s charges and ashamed by his earlier weakness the old farmer sacrificed himself to protect his inheritance.
At the height of the accusations nearly 150 people were charged with witchcraft and imprisoned while awaiting trial as neighbor was set against neighbor in one of the most bizarre events in American history.

Not So Pure-itans

Salem was one of the first settlements in Massachusetts, being founded in 1626; just six years after the Mayflower washed ashore at Plymouth Rock. Salem had an excellent deep-water port and it grew quickly into a sort of pilot settlement for Boston. As the town, grew it began having troubles feeding itself, so farms were established along rivers several miles into the back Country. Over the years a split in political, economic and religious interests between the merchants of the town and the back Country farmers developed and grew in animosity. In the years to follow, the division between town and village would have a disastrous Outcome.
To the European world the whole province of Massachusetts wits a barbaric frontier and the Puritans who left English persecution to settle it “ere considered a sect of religious fanatics. The lives of these early settlers is still something of it mystery. Their belief was severe and forbade any “vane enjoyments” Such is theatre, dancing or any celebration. They considered Christmas a pagan feast and a holiday meant only it day reserved for silent prayer.

The Puritans came to the New World to escape persecution in England but they were also intolerant to differing beliefs among themselves. They were organized into it theocracy where ministers and church members made it]] the decisions for a Community that saw itself scratching a new and more godly life out of a satanic wilderness peopled by heathen and dangerous Indians.

Arthur Miller in The Crucible, his play about the Salem witch trials writes that tile Puritans formed an organization well Suited for conquering nature. But its the forest fell under the axe and the Indians were driven away by flintlock rifles the need for that organization began to recede and a conflict between the old ways and growing desire for individual freedom was exposed.

Miller, whose play was first performed in 1953 as a parable for the anticommunist witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, wrote that the Salem trials “were not, however, it mere repression. It wits also, and its importantly, it long overdue opportunity for everyone inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins under the cover Of accusations against the victims.” So the constant bickering in Salem Village over land boundaries, deeds and wills could become morality plays where old scores could be settled on a plane of combat between good and evil. As Miller wrote, “Suspicions and the envy of the miserable toward the happy could and did burst Out in tile general revenge.”

The Hangman Works Overtime

By early spring the prisons were overflowing with accused witches and the entire legal apparatus of Massachusetts was showing signs of the strain. While the arrests continued without let up it a peculiar political situation had developed which was preventing trials from being held.
The restoration of the Catholic monarchy in England after the rule Of the Puritan Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell had led to the imposition of the extremely unpopular royalist Governor Sir Edmund Andros. Andros was overthrown in it bloodless coup d’etat in 1689 and the colonists were now without a charter and therefore unable to try the accuse witches. Increase Mather, the father of Cotton Mather left for England to negotiate a new charter for the colony and returned with Sir William Phips, a Puritan leader and the new Governor of Massachusetts.

Within a few days of his arrival Phips empowered a new court to “hear and determine” the backlog of witchcraft cases. The new court worked fast and on June 10, Bridget Bishop, a Salem Village woman who owned a notorious tavern was hanged as a witch. On June 19 another five condemned witches went to their deaths, including Sarah Good who said from the scaffold: “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”

On August 5 another six trials led to six more convictions but only five executions. Elizabeth Proctor wits spared because she was pregnant and the judge considered the unborn child innocent. On Sept. 22 the last five witchcraft executions took place. By that time serious doubts were growing about the trials and increase Mather wrote Cases of Conscience, questioning the use of spectral evidence, the appearance of ghosts and demons visible only to the accusers. This pamphlet laid the basis of the right of the accused to he presumed innocent’ until proven guilty, now an essential part of the U-S’, Constitution. On Oct. 12, Governor Phips ordered aim end to the trials and by May 1693 all the imprisoned had been acquitted or released.

In their book Salem possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum use a careful analysis to show how the patterns of accusers and accused broke down in Salem during that fateful year. They show that the accusers were generally those farmers living* far from the Town of Salem. In particular they focus on Thomas Putnam Jr. whose family supplied at least 40 accusations. Putnam had led the faction of the Village supporting Rev. Samuel Parris who stood firmly behind the trials.

The Putnam family had amassed an enormous landholding that was under threat as the number of descendants multiplied. This led to feuding over the diminished size of the plots of land available for sons and stepsons. Rev. Parris, a failed merchant in an earlier life, was hitter and paranoid and in a constant battle with other church members over his salary and the title to the Village meetinghouse. Parris was the Village’s fourth preacher in 20 years and the position of preacher had been the focus of many battles for control of Salem Village. One of those preachers, George Burroughs had himself been hung as a wizard during the trials.

The victims tended at first to be social outcasts, such as Sarah Good and the slave Tituba. But gradually the accusers moved up the social ladder, targeting successful merchants and tavern owners with charges of witchcraft. Eventually charges were made against Cotton Mather’s wife, contributing to the final ending of the trials.

Deirdre Pulgram Arthen is public information person for Covenant of the Goddess and director of the Earth Spirit Community in Boston. Covens are modern day congregation’s people who practice the religion of witchcraft. She says that the Salem witch trials rather than involving real witchcraft were 11 much more political and Christian-based hysteria” because she says “the witchcraft that they were talking about was not what we call witchcraft-it was more like what people now call Satanism.” Arthen agrees with other women who are practicing a revived form of witchcraft today-often called Wicca-that those who were tried and hung in Salem were not witches; they were victims.”

Arthen says there will be an event this Halloween-a date known to witches as Samhain, the Celtic day honoring the dead that proceeded the Christian All Souls Day. The event will involve a procession of witches and is being organized by the Witches of Salem.

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