November 4, 1992
The Persecution of Witchcraft
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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