March 1, 1692 – three women (Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and Tituba) were arrested in Salem, Massachusetts and charged with witchcraft, thus beginning the tragedy known as the Salem Witch Trials.
In early 1692, England’s Massachusetts Bay colony was undergoing a particularly great deal of stress. King Philip’s War, which had devastated the region in the late 1670’s, was still fresh in people’s minds. King James II’s Dominion of New England – which had stripped Massachusetts of its royal charter – had just been repealed, causing political upheaval in the colony. The new Nine Year’s War between England and France had spilled over into the colonies, as France’s Indian allies raided colonial settlements in western Massachusetts. In the Massachusetts town of Salem, about 20 miles north of Boston, conflict between residents over land and their choice of church ministers added fuel to the unease and restlessness of the area.
Added into this mix was the pastime of young girls to meet during the long winter months and play at fortune telling. One such group included 9 year old Betty Parris, the daughter of the local minister, her cousin, 11 year old Abigail Williams, and Parris’ slave, Tituba, who would entertain the girls with stories of witchcraft and demons. In February of 1692 Parris and Williams began to act strangely, having epileptic-like fits and screaming and crying as if in pain. When the local doctor concluded that their symptoms were the result of witchcraft, two other young girls in the community, Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard, began exhibiting similar behaviors, and all hell broke loose.
Parris and Williams named two local women, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, along with Tituba, as having bewitched them. All three fit the description of the “usual suspects”: Osborne did not attend regular Puritan Church services and had married an indentured servant; Good was a homeless beggar; and Tituba was, well, a slave.
On March 1, 1692, the three women were arrested and questioned. While Osborne and Good maintained their innocence, Tituba confessed and, in an attempt to save her own neck, began naming others in the community as practicing witchcraft as well. As more and more men and women were arrested and charged, several of them also began naming names. Mass hysteria spread like wildfire; citizens who merely doubted the accusations were likely to find themselves charged as witches. By May, nearly 200 colonists had been jailed on accusations of witchcraft, a charge that carried the death penalty (Sarah Osborne, one of the first three women arrested, had died in jail at that point).
The governor of Massachusetts appointed a special court (called the Court of “Oyer and Terminer”) to handle all of the witchcraft cases now overwhelming Salem. Those trials began on June 2, 1692, and were presided over by William Stoughton, the colony’s Lieutenant Governor. The first trial was that of Bridget Bishop. Bishop’s “immoral lifestyle” and odd clothing were enough to convince the jury that she was a witch, and she was hanged on June 10, 1692.
Several weeks later the trials continued in earnest. In those trials “spectral evidence” – testimony by witnesses of their dreams and visions – was to be allowed. Not surprisingly, the “afflicted” girls testified in court that they could see the “specters,” or invisible shapes of the persons accused of witchcraft, flying around the courtroom. When an accused person would deny the charges against them, the girls would writhe in pain, screaming that the person’s “specter” was attacking them.
This “spectral evidence” was sufficient, by itself, to convict those charged and send them to the gallows. In one case, 71 old Rebecca Nurse, a well-liked and respected member of the community, was found not guilty by the jury. When the verdict was announced, the girls fell into violent fits on the floor of the courtroom, screaming in pain. The judges directed the jury to reconsider its verdict; upon reconsideration, the jury found Nurse guilty, and she was subsequently hanged.
By October of 1692 the initial hysteria began to die down, and questions about the fairness of the trials became too loud to be ignored. Influential Puritan ministers, such as Cotton Mather and his father Increase Mather, then the President of Harvard College, specifically denounced the use of spectral evidence. Governor Phipps, either in response to these public pleas or because his own wife had now been accused of witchcraft, ordered the Courts of Oyer and Terminer disbanded, forbade any further arrests, and released most of those still held in jail.
The Courts of Oyer and Terminer courts were replaced with regular colonial courts, and the use of spectral evidence was banned in any future trials. A few more suspected witches were tried up until May of 1693, when the governor pardoned anyone still in jail on charges of witchcraft. By then, however, 19 men and women (and two dogs!) had been executed by hanging, four people had died in jail awaiting trial, and one had been pressed to death (crushed slowly under the weight of stones laid on his chest) for refusing to enter a plea to the charges against him.
Eventually the colony came to its senses and dealt with the hysteria that had gripped it. In 1702 the General Court of Massachusetts declared that the trials, in retrospect, had been unlawful. By 1711 all convictions had been reversed, and the families of those affected were paid compensation by the colonial government. The judges, ministers and, more importantly, several of the girls involved, all apologized and asked for forgiveness.