Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Salem Witch Trials

Summer in Hell

At the end of June, the Court of Oyer and Terminer met for a second time. One of the appointed judges, William Saltonstall, resigned from the court after the hanging of Bridget Bishop, uncomfortable with the ease by which the court dispensed capital punishment. Between June 10, when Bishop was hanged on what was to become known as "Witches Hill" and June 29 when the court met for its second session, the leading ministers of Massachusetts, among them Increase and Cotton Mather, had consulted one another and published a pamphlet which tried to temper the bloodlust of the Salem accusers.

"We judge that in the prosecution of these and all such witchcrafts," wrote the ministers (most likely Cotton Mather) to Gov. Phipps, "there is need of a very critical and extreme caution, lest by too much credulity for things received only upon the Devil's authority, there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences..."

In the letter "The Return of Several Ministers Consulted," the theologians urged the court not to convict on the word of accusers alone. Spectral evidence could be considered, they advised, but could not be the sole evidence used to send someone to the gallows. Then they gave their blessing to the proceedings in Salem.

"We cannot but humbly recommend unto the government the speedy vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the direction given in the laws of God, and the wholesome statutes of the English nation, for the detection of witchcraft."

A woman, suspected of being a witch, brought to trial
A woman, suspected of being a
witch, brought to trial

And so at the end of June, five women were brought before the court to stand trial on the charge of witchcraft. Among them was Rebecca Nurse, one of the leading citizens and members of the Salem Village church. Nurse's family was quite influential in the village and it was not without some trepidation that the charges were brought against her. Her chief accuser was not one of the afflicted girls, but was in fact Ann Putnam Senior, who had longstanding disagreements with Nurse and her family.

Goodwife Putnam was a sad and vengeful woman whose life had been filled with hardship and misery. She had buried children and lost possessions throughout her adult life, which had greatly affected her mental health and made her susceptible to visions, dreams and omens. Her fragile state of mind left her high-spirited and prone to fits of fancy, which had fatal results for some of the accused. She particularly had it in for Rebecca Nurse, as was evident in her compelling, yet utterly perjured testimony.

"The apparition of Rebecca Nurse did set upon me in a most dreadful manner," she testified before her rapt audience. "She appeared to me in only her shift, and brought a little red book in her hand, urging me vehemently to write in her book; and because I would not yield to her hellish temptations, she threatened to tear my soul out of my body!"

Caught up in her own fabrications, Ann paused for effect before continuing on in her accusations.

"She blasphemously denied the blessed God and the power of the Lord Jesus Christ to save my soul, and denying in several places of Scripture which I told her of, to repel her hellish temptations."

Seated in their usual places in the meetinghouse, the family of the elderly defendant could scarcely believe their ears. It was one thing to hear the accusations of hysterical girls, but what this woman was saying was pure folly. Surely the jury would acquit their pious mother and bring a halt to this farce.

But Ann Putnam was not finished. She moved on to recount how the shape of Rebecca Nurse had tortured her even as the real Rebecca stood in front of Hathorne and Corwin for examination.

"I was most dreadfully tortured by her in the time of her examination, insomuch that the honored magistrates gave my husband leave to carry me out of the meeting house," she said, shuddering at the memory of that awful day in March. "As soon as I was carried out of the meetinghouse doors, it pleased Almighty God, for his free grace and mercy's sake, to deliver me out of the paws of those roaring lions, and jaws of those tearing bears!"

A snort of disbelief arose from the area where the Nurse family sat, but Ann continued on undaunted.

"Ever since that time they have not had the power so to afflict me until this day," she finished. "At the same moment that I was hearing my evidence read by the honored magistrates, was again reassaulted and tortured by my before-mentioned tormentor, Rebecca Nurse."

Having heard the evidence against Goody Nurse and the four others accused that day of the second court session, the jury retired to consider a verdict. On the one hand they had the accusations of so many people, including the poor girls who pointed out that a black-robed man had been whispering in her ear even as victims brought witness against her that very day and that she had brought with her a yellow bird that suckled from the witch's tit between her fingers. On the other hand, only the girls themselves had seen the man and the bird, and Rebecca Nurse had been bedridden with stomach ailments for the last few months. She had always been such a God-fearing, pious woman who was not a lusty barmaid like Bridget Bishop or a terrible hag like Sarah Good. Rebecca Nurse was a pillar of the community; she could not be a witch. The jury discussed it at length and though the evidence was clear against the others, they voted to acquit Rebecca Nurse of witchcraft as the charges had not been proven.

When they reported their decision to Stoughton, the judge looked down at them sternly.

"Did you not consider the very words of the defendant when she said 'What? Do these persons give in evidence against me now? They used to come among us!' Is not that an admission of guilt?"

The jurors looked at Rebecca Nurse, expecting her to say something, to explain what she meant by "they used to come among us." But Rebecca was old, she was tired and the day had been exhaustive. She was also quite deaf and did not realize that she was being asked to explain her statement. As such, Rebecca stood mute, staring back at the judge. When she failed to respond, some of the jurors mumbled amongst themselves and Thomas Fisk, the foreman, asked leave of the court to reconsider the verdict. In just a matter of moments they returned and pronounced her guilty of witchcraft. Like the others, Rebecca Nurse was sentenced to hang.

Justice was swift in Massachusetts Bay Colony, and only Governor Phipps could save Rebecca. Her family was not willing to give up without a fight and appealed to the governor for a reprieve. Phipps stepped in and, because of her advanced age, the circumstances of her conviction and her life of piety, gave the reprieve. But Stoughton was adamant in his desire to see Salem freed of witches and lobbied hard against Phipps' decision. Before the reprieve could be delivered to Ipswich and Rebecca Nurse freed, the governor withdrew it.

Headstone of Sarah Good
Headstone of Sarah Good

On July 19, Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe and Sarah Wildes were taken to Witch's Hill. Sarah Good's last words, as she was urged to confess her witchcraft were filled with venom. "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink."

For her part, Rebecca Nurse went to the gallows wondering what sin she had committed that had angered her God so much that He would end her life in this manner.

Painting of the trial of George Jacobs
Painting of the trial of George

A third meeting of the court in early August yielded similar results. George Burroughs, who had left Salem years before and moved to Maine was brought back in chains and convicted of being a wizard. John and Elizabeth Proctor two of Rebecca Nurse's most stalwart champions were convicted of sorcery, and John was hanged in late August along with Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs and Martha Carrier. Elizabeth Proctor was convicted but her life was spared because she was pregnant.

In early September, Martha Corey, Mary Easty (Rebecca Nurse's sister), Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Dorcas Hoar and Mary Bradbury were convicted of witchcraft and condemned. Ten days later, Margaret Scott, Wilmot Redd, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Abigail Falkner, Rebecca Eames, Mary Lacy, Ann Foster and Abigail Hobbs were convicted. Hobbs, Foster, Eames, Falkner and Parker confessed to witchcraft to save their lives, but by the end of the month the others would all be dead.



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