Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Salem Witch Trials


Portrait of Rev. Samuel Parris
Portrait of Rev. Samuel

The Rev. Samuel Parris was worried that his daughter was going mad. Insanity had touched his family, but his daughter Betty was much too young for the madness that consumed his ancestors. She had always been a frail, delicate child, often in her sickbed, but never before had 9-year-old Betty shown the signs of mental illness that would eventually end in complete lunacy like the others in the Parris line. Recently, however, the poor girl was exhibiting signs that her mind was slowly deteriorating. There was no other explanation for Bettys absent-mindedness, her blank gaze, the forgetfulness and especially the insubordination.

Like many of the other Salem Village young women, Betty was spending a great deal of unsupervised time with the slave Tituba, but Parris had owned the half Carib Indian-half African woman and her husband, John, since he had arrived in Barbados years before and trusted them. He brought the slaves to Massachusetts Bay Colony when he answered the call for a minister at the new Salem Village church, and although Tituba was petulant and lazy, he had no qualms with her looking after his child and his niece, 11-year-old Abigail. He doubted that Tituba had been a bad influence on the girl.

Parris pushed the thought of Bettys deteriorating state of mind out of his head as he entered the Salem Village meeting house. There was no other place quite like Salem Village, he thought to himself. The place had a cantankerous reputation and some people said the atmosphere was like a bloodless feud. The village was divided by a political and economic schism into two camps, with Parris in the center.

Entering the cold meetinghouse Parris muttered under his breath as he looked around for firewood. The village was supposed to provide him with an allotment of firewood during the winter, but half the congregation had failed to supply their tithe. As a result, Parris was forced to keep the fire burning lower than he liked. The alternative was to gather firewood himself, but that would mean yielding a portion of his contract and he had no intention of backing down further.

Map of Massachusetts with Salem marked (AP)
Map of Massachusetts with Salem
marked (AP)

The acrimony started long before Parris had arrived from Barbados. In truth, it began before Parris was even born. Named for the holy city of Jerusalem, Salem town was founded in 1626 by English merchants who took advantage of the natural harbor and abundant fishing the area provided. As the Puritan movement in England grew and the Puritans became more oppressed, they immigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony to build the City on a Hill that John Winthrop had promised. Situated not far from Boston, but not too close for the comfort of the Puritans, the town prospered. Indian raids notwithstanding, Salem was generally a pleasant place to live. A bit rough, perhaps, but the Puritans liked it that way. Their mission was to return the Church to the state it enjoyed when it had been founded by Jesus Christ, and worldly distractions like secular literature and entertainment could only serve to distract them from their goal. The Puritans did not celebrate even the pagan holidays of Christmas and Mardi Gras.

As Salem prospered, more families moved to the outskirts of town, into the area informally known as "Salem Farms." The Farms was still under the jurisdiction of Salem Town and subject to the theocratic rule of the church there, but as time passed the division between the townspeople and the farmers grew. The farmers were expected to pay taxes to support the Salem Town church and they had to send men into town to stand watch leaving their own homesteads unprotected. Declarations, requests, petitions and letters flew back and forth between town and farms as the farmers sought to gain their independence and the townspeople refused to relinquish control.

Map of Salem Village, 1692
Map of Salem Village, 1692

Religious convenience also played a role in the developing feud, and that is where Samuel Parris entered the fray. With no church of their own, the residents of Salem Farms were expected to attend services twice weekly in the Salem Town Meeting House, a considerable distance for some. In the Puritan faith, and thus in the Massachusetts Bay theocracy, establishing a church was not as simple as erecting a building. A Puritan church was much more than just a house of worship. The church and its leaders dictated public policy, social mores, appointed civil servants and generally set the tone for the community. There was no separation of church and state in 17th century Massachusetts. The tithes assessed against the farmers were significant revenue sources for the Salem Town church and a request by the farmers to build a church of their own was not a matter to be treated lightly. The first request to build a church in the outskirts of Salem Town came in 1660 from a group of farmers who were full members of the Salem Town church. The request was met with silence; a second request met with denial, a third met with delay and subsequent requests were submitted to committees and endless debates.

Salem Possessed
Salem Possessed

However, in 1672 Salem Village, as the Farms had become known, was granted permission to assess a tax to build a meetinghouse and hire a minister. Church membership in Puritan society was extended only to a select few. Those who were not members of the church were considered the congregation, and they were "obliged to support the ministry with their material goods and to attend meetings at which God's word was expounded, but the church itself, as an elite cadre of the community, met partake of the privileged rite of communion," wrote historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum in Salem Possessed.

That first minister in Salem Village was the Rev. James Bayley who arrived in October 1672. An inexperienced pastor, Bayley was no match for the powerful forces already in place in Salem who opposed his ministry. When he came under attack from the opposition (for no less than omitting family prayers in his own household), anti-Bayley forces withheld their taxes until the poor man was nearly destitute.

Eventually, Bayley left Salem, fed up with the village, the town and the ministry in general. He eventually became a doctor in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

After Bayley came George Burroughs, but his stay in Salem was no less fractious than Bayley's. Burroughs stayed two years in Salem and left amid controversy to take a parish in Maine. Deodat Larson, an unordained minister followed Burroughs. Again contention arose in the church and Larson's bid to become an ordained minister failed. He left, and after a lengthy search and protracted negotiations, Samuel Parris agreed to leave sunny Barbados for Massachusetts Bay Colony and Salem Village.

It was a fateful decision that he did not enter into lightly. Parris knew he would be involved in battles as a course of his ministry. He expected no less, because living under the strict Puritan code of morality left little outlet for hostility and aggression. That, combined with the Puritan belief that each person was responsible for monitoring his neighbor's piety, made conflict inevitable. What he did not expect was that he would have to do battle with the Devil. Moreover, he never would have dreamed that those living under his own roof would be the ones who brought Satan to Salem Village.



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