Witchcraft in Salem
On March 1, 1692, Salem, Massachusetts authorities interrogated Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and an Indian slave, Tituba, to determine if they indeed practiced witchcraft. So began the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692External. Over the following months, more than 150 men and women in and around Salem were jailed on charges of exercising “Certaine Detestable Arts called Witchcrafts & Sorceryes.” Nineteen people, including five men, were eventually convicted and hanged on Gallows Hill; and an additional male suspect was pressed to death. Others died in prison. Today they are seen as victims of a tragic mistake.
Cousins Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris, ages eleven and nine, respectively, began to enter trance-like states and to suffer from convulsive seizures in January 1692. By late February, prayer, fasting, and medical treatment had failed to relieve their symptoms, or to quiet the blasphemous shouting that accompanied their fits. Pressured to explain, the girls accused the three above-named women of afflicting them.
A recent epidemic of small pox, heightened threats of Indian attack, economic uncertainties, and small town rivalries may have all primed the people of Salem and its surrounding areas for the mass hysteria that fueled the witchcraft trials. Although social status and gender offered little protection from accusations, historians note that single women particularly were vulnerable to charges of practicing witchcraft, while pre-adolescent girls were likewise most vulnerable to affliction. Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba, for example, all lacked male protectors, while three of the signatories to the bail petition pictured above are widows.
Acting on the recommendation of the clergy, civil authorities created a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the accused witches. As the number of imprisoned people approached 150, however, public opinion shifted against the proceedings. On October 29, 1692, Massachusetts Governor William Phips dissolved the special court, releasing many suspects and preventing further arrests. When the remaining witchcraft cases were heard in May 1693, the Superior Court failed to convict anyone else. Legislation passed in 1711 restored the rights and good names of those who had been accused.
In the 1950s, Arthur Miller‘s play, The Crucible, explored the Salem witchcraft trials. Written during a period when concern about “subversive activities” ran high, Miller used his play to protest the red scares of the postwar era. Once again, Miller implied, innocent people were sacrificed to public hysteria. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, Miller refused to supply names of people he met years before at an alleged communist writers’ meeting. The resulting contempt conviction was overturned on appeal.
- Library of Congress collections include additional items highlighting the early history of Massachusetts, including America’s first book, the Bay Psalm Book printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the first complete bible printed in America, translated into Natick, a dialect spoken by the Algonquin tribes, and published in Cambridge in 1663; The “General Fundamentals” of the Plymouth Colony of 1671; and the seventeenth-century laws of Massachusetts of 1672.
- Learn more about the writing of Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who published early works on witchcraft in Massachusetts by searching on his name in the Online Catalog. Also see the February 12th Today in History feature on Cotton Mather.
- Explore more primary source documents relating to the trials through the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription ProjectExternal website at the University of Virginia
- See the Library of Congress exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic to learn about the history of religion’s influence on early American life.
- Learn about nineteenth-century attitudes toward the Salem witch trials by viewing articles and images from the time. Search Making of AmericaExternal and the Detroit Publishing Company collection using Salem, witch, or witchcraft as search terms.