On This Day

witch trial, salem witch trial, Examination of a Witch, Thompkins Matteson
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
“Examination of a Witch,” an 1853 painting by Thompkins H. Matteson.

On This Day: Five Women Hanged in Salem for Witchcraft

July 19, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 19, 1692, five women were executed for suspected witchcraft in Salem, Mass. They were among 20 people executed during the Salem Witch Trials.

Salem Witch Trials

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In January 1692, the daughter and niece of the Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem Mass., fell strangely ill. Residents of Massachusetts firmly believed in the devil and were terrified of evil.

“A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion,” writes the Salem Witch Museum.

The town physician who was called in to examine the girl’s illnesses concluded that they were victims of witchcraft. The two girls and two friends had supposedly engaged in an occult ritual with Parris’ Indian slave Tituba, who was then accused of witchcraft.

The two girls also accused two women of witchcraft: Sarah Good, a homeless woman, and Sarah Osborne, who rarely attended church. They were put in prison, where the elderly Osborne would die of natural causes.

On March 1, Tituba confessed to practicing witchcraft. She spoke of black and red cats that asked her to serve them and said a tall man dressed in black had asked her to sign his book. She accused Osborne, Good and two unnamed others of being witches.

The fear of witchcraft in Salem led to a mass hysteria. Many young girls in and around Salem began to exhibit strange behavior and accuse others of witchcraft, while other townspeople said they were visited and threatened by witches at night.

By May 1692, 150-200 men and women were in jail under suspicion of witchcraft. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was created to hear the cases, beginning on June 2 in the case of Bridget Bishop. She was found guilty and hanged on June 10.
Good was put on trial on June 29, along with Sarah Wilds, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin and Rebecca Nurse. Based almost entirely on spectral evidence, all but Nurse, a 71-year-old churchgoer and respected member of the community, were found guilty. After Nurse’s verdict was read, however, her accusers began to convulse. The verdict was reconsidered and she was found guilty.

On July 19, 1692, the five were hanged on Gallows Hill. The hangings “did little in abating the spread of witchcraft in Massachusetts during the summer months of 1692,” writes Tim Sutter on SalemWitchTrials.com. “More people began displaying signs of affliction. … Those from all walks of life, rich and poor, farmer and merchant, were now being accused. No one was exempt from being cried out as a witch.”

The hysteria did not end until the fall, when the townspeople began to wonder if they had executed innocent people. Famed preacher Increase Mather said that it “were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned.”

Spectral evidence was no longer allowed and many trials ended in acquittals. Finally, in May 1693, the remaining accused witches were pardoned. In all, 19 men and women had been convicted and hanged, one man was pressed by rocks, and at least four people had died in prison.

Historical Context: Witch Hunts

Suspicion of witches dated back centuries; the University of Missouri-Kansas City provides the history of witch hunts in Europe, looking at the viewpoints of major theologians and rulers as well as stories of witches in European literature.

The first person in the American Colonies to be convicted of witchcraft was Alse Young, who was hanged in 1647 in Connecticut. Between 1648 and 1663, at least 15 other people were executed for witchcraft in Connecticut and Massachusetts. After 1663, witch trials nearly disappeared in New England until the Salem witch trials, which were the last witch trials in America.

A Possible Explanation for the Salem Witchcraft

Ergot is a toxic fungus that often grows on grain, especially rye, which was a was a staple for early New Englanders. Convulsive ergotism attacks the central nervous system, causing mania, psychosis, hallucinations, paralysis and prickling sensations.

Accounts written during 1692 describe behavior of the afflicted girls that bears an uncanny resemblance to a hallucinogenic state, suggesting they may have contracted convulsive ergotism, according to HowStuffWorks.

Later Developments: Witches Exonerated

In 2001, over 300 years after they were accused and hanged as witches, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret Scott were exonerated of their crimes. They were the few remaining victims of the witch trials that had not yet been officially exonerated. Their descendants took up their cause and campaigned to clear their names.

Related Topic: McCarthyism

In post-World War II America, Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused many government officials of being communists, often with little evidence to back up his claims. His tactics, known as McCarthyism, drew comparisons to a witch hunt. In response to McCarthysism, playwright Arthur Miller wrote his classic play “The Crucible,” a story of the Salem Witch Trials.
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