MEREDITH WORTHEN, UPDATED:JUN 16, 2020ORIGINAL:SEP 21, 2017
(Photo: William A. Crafts (Vol. I Boston: Samuel Walker & Company) [Public domain], via Wikimedia
A look back at the victims of the Salem Witch Trials and the mass hysteria that led to their deaths.
On September 22, 1692, eight people were hanged for their alleged crimes as witches. They were among 20 who were killed as a result of the hysteria that took place in the New England village of Salem where fear of demonic possession struck panic among the Puritans and led to more than 200 accusations against anyone suspected of witchcraft.
The witch hunts resulted in the arrests of 150 people
In Massachusetts in the late 1600s, a few young girls (including Elizabeth Parris, age 9, Abigail Williams, age 11) claimed to be possessed by the devil and blamed local “witches” for their demons. This sent panic throughout the Village of Salem and led to accusations of more than 200 local citizens over the next several months, including Dorothy “Dorcas” Good who was by far the youngest accused at age 4 (she spent eight months in the prison’s dungeon before being released) along with her mother, Sarah Good (who was later executed).
Sometimes described as “witch hunts” (as also seen in Europe from the 1300s-1700s), this hysteria resulted in the arrests of nearly 150 people, multiple court hearings, and the guilty convictions of dozens. Those found guilty were often chained to the walls in the prison’s basement, known as the “witch jail:” a perpetually dark, cold, and wet dungeon infested with water rats. While in prison, the accused, many of them women, were repeatedly humiliated by being forced to strip naked and undergo physical examinations of their nude bodies.
About 20 years after the convictions, in 1711, the colony passed a bill pardoning those accused and granted monetary restitution to the surviving victims and their families. However, hundreds of lives were damaged by the Salem witch hunts. A total of 24 innocent people died for their alleged participation in dark magic. Two dogs were even executed due to suspicions of their involvement in witchcraft.
None of these alleged “witches” were burned at the stake
In all, there were four execution dates on which 19 women and men were taken to Proctor’s Ledge to die by hanging from a tree. On June 10, 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged. About a month later on July 19, 1692, Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe and Sarah Wildes were executed. Five more were hanged on August 19, 1692, including one woman (Martha Carrier) and four men (John Willard, Reverend George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr. and John Proctor). The final execution date was September 22, 1692, on which eight were hanged (Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, Ann Pudeator, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd and Margaret Scott). In addition, 71-year-old Giles Corey died after being pressed with heavy stones—his punishment for refusing to enter an innocent or guilty plea to the court.
Four more of the convicted (Lydia Dustin, Ann Foster, Sarah Osborne, and Roger Toothaker) died in the unbearable conditions in the “witch jails” awaiting their execution dates. As colluders with the devil, they were not afforded proper Christian burials. Their corpses were thrown into shallow graves. However, the bodies of Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor and George Jacobs were eventually retrieved by their families and given Christian burials.
Despite common folklore, none of these alleged “witches” were burned at the stake. This myth likely derives from the fact that more than 50,000 of the accused were punished by fire for “malevolent witchcraft” during the European witch hunts that peaked around the 15th century. Some were burned alive while others were initially hanged or beheaded and later incinerated to prevent any possibility of postmortem black magic.
Another common misconception is that all the accused “witches” were women. While the majority were women, men were also both accused and convicted of being involved in the occult. In fact, five of the 20 who were executed were men. These men were not well-liked in the community and many were very outspoken against the witch trials. The accused and convicted women also challenged the norms of the community; many were opinionated and forthright while some had bad reputations due to their “unladylike” behavior. Many believe that this is perhaps why certain men and women were targeted and accused of witchcraft.
The cause of the hysteria in Salem is unknown
It is unknown exactly what brought about the mass hysteria in Salem in 1692. Some have theorized that the witch hunts were the result of personal vendettas or economic competition, while others have suggested that the consumption of ergot-poisoned rye grain may have resulted in hallucinations and faulty thinking among the Puritans in New England. Whatever the case, the Salem witch trials and executions are universally declared as a shameful part of history. The Puritans themselves recognized the errors of their ways and held a day of prayer on January 15, 1697, known as the Day of Official Humiliation, to plead with God for forgiveness. In 1702, the trials were declared unlawful. However, it took more than 250 years for Massachusetts to formally apologize for the events of 1692.
On the 325th anniversary of the first mass execution, the city of Salem dedicated Proctor’s Ledge as a memorial to the victims who were hanged there. Although many initially believed that Gallows Hill was the site of the executions, recent evidence from The Gallows Hill Project pinpointed Proctor’s Ledge as the exact site of the infamous Salem witch hangings. Along with numerous renditions of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as well as the Salem Witch Museum, the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial reminds us of the appalling tragedies that took place in 1692, including the false imprisonment and murder of innocents.