SALEM WITCH TRIALS OF 1692


 

OVERVIEW

         In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village became ill. William Griggs, the village doctor, was called in when they failed to improve. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the hanging deaths of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; several others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed.  To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village ' families and rivalry with nearby Salem Town combined with a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon, prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem; their names had been "cried out" by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime   punishable by death in 17th-century New England - the practice of witchcraft. 

            In June of 1692, the special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. Presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton, the court was made up of magistrates and jurors. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem who was found guilty and was hanged on June 10. Thirteen women and five men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October of that year. The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the "witchcraft" court, did not allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those awaiting trial and  pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch trials were over. 

            As years passed, apologies were offered and restitution was made to the victims' families.  Historians and sociologists have examined this most complex episode in our history so that we may understand the issues of that era and view subsequent events with heightened awareness.   The parallels between the Salem witch trials and more modern examples of "witch hunting" like the McCarthy hearings of the 1950's, are remarkable.



THE TRIALS

      The Salem witch hysteria of 1692 was one of the most tragic events in American history. To study this event, we must consider the social, religious and political influences of that time. The Puritans from England settled in Massachusetts to escape religious persecution in their home land. The Puritans had a strict moral code and their way of living was fashioned around their religious beliefs. 

      There was a political division between the first Minister appointed to Salem Village in 1679, James Bayley and Samuel Parris, elected as minister in 1689. When the first accusations of witchcraft were voiced by the adolescent girls and throughout the entire event, the ministers exploited the bizarre behavior of the girls to bolster their waning leadership. 

      The accusations of witchcraft and the subsequent executions were an extreme expression of deeply felt moral divisions. The negative references to witchcraft in the Bible and the belief that witchcraft was Satan's work created a paralyzing fear of witchcraft which made it a natural vehicle for the hostility of the community.

      Personal enemies and "socially undesirable" individuals were transformed into enemies of the community and an enemy of the community was therefore a servant of Satan. Between the years of 1690-92, several events occurred which were the immediate causes of the hysteria. Samuel Parris had a West Indian slave named Tituba who was steeped in magical lore. 

      Several adolescent girls became fascinated by Tituba's stories of natural magic and island culture. Two of the girls were related to Samuel Parris while others were children of his supporters. When the girls became "afflicted" and subsequently named the "witches", the supporters of James Bayley took the outrageous accusations of the hysterical girls as confirmation of what they already suspected, that their opponents were in league with Satan. 

      This is the beginning of the Salem witch trials hysteria of 1692.

THE FIRST WARRANT TRIAL OF TITUBA SAM PARRIS 
vs. TITUBA INDIAN
BRIDGET BISHOP SARAH GOOD THE PROCTOR TRIALS
JOHN PROCTOR'S
LETTER TO THE BOSTON MINISTERS.
GILES COREY THE TRAGEDY ENDS
 


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