The Salem Witch Trials were a fearful and disastrous time in American history. Families were torn apart. The once friendly communities were now full of rumors and distrust, suspicion, and dislike. Anyone could be declared a witch, even innocent widows or children who were different in some manner or disliked by a Puritan. The punishments for witches were often horrifying and included hanging, water drowning, burning, and pressing the “witches.” The Trials began in 1692 and ended in 1693. During the trials, nineteen people were hung and 150 imprisoned for perceived witchcraft.
In 1689 a minister, Samuel Parris, moved to Salem village with his family and 2 slaves, Tituba and Indian John. In January of 1692, Parris’ daughter, Elizabeth Parris, Jr., known as Betty, falls ill. It is Betty’s illness which begins the “witch hunt” and subsequent Salem Witch Trials.
Witchcraft trials had been going on for several centuries throughout Europe, with the approval and support of the Church. Countless thousands of men and women had been tortured and executed for alleged witchcraft and devil worship. The Puritans were a very strict and serious minded religious group, that did not condone, singing,dancing or recreational non-work related activities. Such activity was considered idleness and labeled as being the influence of the devil.
Some of the factors leading to acusations in the Salem Witch Trials, included petty jealousies, greed, feuds, and property disputes. Several of the accused witches were well-off and if convicted of witchcraft, their property was forfeited. Other reasons included their failure to attend church regularly, and perceived opposition to the minister, Samuel Parris, as well as any odd or uncustomary behaviors.
January 1692, “Betty” becomes ill, the Reverend Samuel Parris consults with the town doctor, William Griggs. The doctor can find nothing wrong with the girl, and under some pressure from the minister, blames the girl’s illness on witchcraft. As the town was already anxious, due to livestock deaths and a smallpox outbreak, both of which were perceived as sure signs of the devil’s presence in their community. This misdiagnosis began and would fuel the witch hunt hysteria in Salem for almost five months.
The minister’s daughter, Betty, and several of her friends began calling out the names of people in the village, who were said to be bewitching them. Soon the town jail was filled with 150 people from Salem and surrounding villages, all accused of witchcraft.
The trials began in June 1692 and were presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton. The first to go to trial and be hanged was Bridget Bishop. Thirteen women and four men, would follow her to the gallows over the summer. An additional man Giles Corey was pressed, or crushed to death with heavy stones, as he steadfastly refused to plead guilty to the witchcraft charges against him. As well there was one dog, who was thought to be a transformed witch, who was also hanged.
In October of 1692, the trials suddenly ended, when the court was dismissed by the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Phipps, who ruled that so-called “spectral evidence” was not allowable. The accused still in custody were scheduled to be released and those found guilty or waiting on “death row” were also pardoned and released.
In the following years, apologies were issued, but the wounds to the Village of Salem ran deep. The Witch Trials became an example of what fear, superstition, and petty jealousies can do to a tight knit society. Many of the accused and convicted continued to languish in jail after the trials ended, because they could not afford the money required for their release. Since their property was seized and would not be returned to them. Most of those convicted and then released ended up poor and destitute.
There were food shortages in Salem, as the many of the fields had been neglected due to the turmoil of the trials. The Reverend Parris and his family were forced to move away from Salem by April 1696, due to community pressure. His son Noyes died insane. The Puritan Religion began to fade-out and lose influence as a direct result of the Witch Trials. Colonial society began to question the outdated and superstitious beliefs of the Puritans. Following these infamous proceedings, there was never another witch trial or execution in the American colonies.