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Salem Witchcraft Trials: 1692 - Magistrates Hold A Hearing, Jails Fill With Accused, Evidence Questioned

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Defendants: 200 accused, including: Bridget Bishop, Reverend George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, Giles Corey, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, George Jacobs, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, John Procter, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Reed, Margaret Scott, Samuel Ward well, Sarah Wild, and John Willard.
Crimes Charged: Witchcraft
Chief Examiners: Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne
Place: Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts)
Dates of Hearings: March 1, 1692 through the spring
Chief Defense Lawyers: None
Chief Prosecutors: None
Judges for Court of Oyer and Terminer: Jonathan Corwin, Bartholomew Gedney, John Richards, Nathaniel Saltonstall, William Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, William Stoughton, and Wait Winthrop.
Place: Salem Town (presentday Salem, Massachusetts)
Dates of Trials: June 2, 1692-September 1692. The court was then suspended. A superior court, convened in January 1693, held trials in several cities.
Verdicts: 29 found guilty
Sentences: 19 hanged; remaining convicted and accused released over a period of years

SIGNIFICANCE: America's only massive witch-hunt resembled those that occurred in Europe over the centuries in that it transpired during a period of political unrest, but it was atypical in that it was localized and comparatively brief. However, the American witch-hunt remains singular in the effect it has exerted on the American imagination as historian and nonhistorian try to fathom the reasons for this frightening example of the perils of hysteria.

In the 17th century there was an almost universal belief in the effective power of witchcraft. English courts were specifically interested in maleficia, the performance of malicious acts against one's neighbors. Many mishaps, major and minor, were attributed to the malice of witches. Yet prior to the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts records indicate only about 100 people had ever been formally accused of witchcraft, 15 of whom were executed. In 1692, 200 were accused in a matter of months.

Over the centuries, witch-hunts generally occurred during times of anxiety or social upheaval. From the time the settlers first landed, they had enjoyed a nearly autonomous form of self-government. But in 1684 Massachusetts lost its charter. England then created the Dominion of New England combining several unwilling colonies. Not only was political autonomy threatened, but the dominion's new governor, Sir Edmond Andros, had declared that the revocation of the charter invalidated land titles. During the wake of England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, James II was deposed and Andros was overthrown. The colony was drifting in a legal limbo.

During the winter of 1691-92, in the kitchen of the Reverend Samuel Parris, Tituba, a Carib Indian slave entertained 9-year-old Betty, the minister's daughter, and 11-year-old Abigail Williams, his niece, with fortune-telling and magic. Eventually, the girls invited in eight more girls, ranging in age from 12 to 20. Key among them was Ann Putnam, Jr., the brilliant daughter of an embittered woman.

To Puritan eyes there was nothing innocent about flirting with magic spells for amusement. Moreover, Puritanism was unrelenting in its admonitions that the grace of God was man's only rescue from deserved damnation—a grace seemingly measured in droplets. However exciting their games, the girls were tense from the strain of their secret misdeeds. By January 1692, tension turned into what would now be termed hysteria.

Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began exhibiting strange symptoms. They fell into trances and, if addressed, made noises and gestures. Abigail suffered convulsions and screamed as if in pain. Other girls soon exhibited similar symptoms. Panic seized the village.

In February, Reverend Parris called in Dr. William Griggs, who, after extensive examination and treatment, concluded they were bewitched. Several ministers came to pray over the girls to no avail. The ministers insisted the girls must name those bewitching them.

An accepted maxim was that the Devil had to work through one person to affect another; in other words, he had to persuade someone to act as his agent. The Devil could then appear to his victims in the shape of his agent and harm them. The spectral shape was thought to be visible only to the afflicted. Such "spectral evidence," criticized by some, was accepted by the court.

Pressed, the girls finally named Tituba, the slave, Sarah Good, a near derelict, and the unpopular Sarah Osburn. On February 29, 1692, warrants were issued and they were arrested.

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