Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Salem Witch Trials

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The death toll was mounting. Three days after Giles Corey was pressed to death, eight more witches Corey's wife Martha among them were hanged, bringing the death toll to 20 (19 hanged, one pressed to death). Three people including Sarah Good's nursing baby had died in prison awaiting trial. At least 40 people had been jailed awaiting trial, several had escaped with the help of family and friends and many simply left the area until the storm blew over.

It was now six months from the time Elizabeth Parris started acting possessed and terror swept the colony. Along with their cadre of afflicted friends, Ann Putnam and Abby Williams were summoned to nearby Andover where they pointed accusing fingers at 50 more people, most of them strangers. Emboldened by their power, the Putnam women and several of the more precocious girls started accusing even more prominent people than the likes of Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty and Martha Corey. They went too far when they accused Lady Phipps, wife of the governor and forced the ministers of Boston to step in.

Portrait of Increase Mather
Portrait of Increase Mather

Increase Mather had been publicly silent since June when he signed the ministers' letter urging the speedy prosecution of witches. In October, he delivered a sermon that was later circulated around the colony recanting his belief in spectral evidence. Having seen the chaos and bloodlust the witch-hunts had created among the people of Salem, he took a stand that contradicted the guilty-until-proven-innocent belief of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. "Better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned," he wrote.

Mather's pamphlet, "Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men," was extremely influential, especially in the office of his friend, the governor.

A week after Mather delivered his sermon, Thomas Brattle, Fellow of the Royal Society of Science along with such notables as Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton and treasurer of Harvard University wrote in widely circulated correspondence about his doubts concerning the fairness of the accusations.

"If our officers and Courts have apprehended, imprisoned, condemned, and executed our guiltlesse neighbours, certainly our errour is great, and we shall rue it in the conclusion," Brattle wrote to his now anonymous correspondent. "There are two or three other things that I have observed in and by these afflicted persons, which make me strongly suspect that the Devill imposes upon their brains, and deludes their fancye and imagination; and that the Devill's book (which they say has been offered them) is a mere fancye of theirs, and no reality: That the witches' meeting, the Devill's Baptism, and mock sacraments, which they oft speak of, are nothing else but the effect of their fancye, depraved and deluded by the Devill, and not a Reality to be regarded or minded by any wise man."

Brattle's letter made a profound ripple in the colony, and Governor Phipps forbade any further imprisonments for witchcraft. By the end of October, the ministers of the colony were calling for a day of prayer and fasting to consider the course the trials should take. On October 29, Phipps dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. He did allow Stoughton to continue some trials in a Superior Court, but when Stoughton's juries brought in guilty verdicts, Phipps immediately pardoned the convicted witches. This infuriated Stoughton who held another session of the Superior Court in Boston in January 1693 but walked off the bench when no further witches were convicted. There would be no more trials. By May 1693 the furor had died down and Phipps ordered any suspected witches freed from Ipswich prison.

"Peoples minds, before divided and distracted by different opinions concerning this matter, are now well composed," he wrote to a friend before opening the prison gates. Over the next several years, families of the accused witches, especially those who had died either in prison or on the gallows, began petitioning the colony for restitution. Some were successful, others were not.

1711 document clears several of witchcraft accusations
1711 document clears
several of witchcraft

The Rev. Samuel Parris would continue on as the minister of the Salem Village church for several years, but in 1697 he was forced out of his position and left Salem forever. He had expressed great remorse many times for his role in the madness that took more than 20 lives and especially regretted the fact that the whole mess began in his own home. To greater and lesser extents, the afflicted girls also publicly expressed sorrow for their roles in the trials. In 1702, Ann Putnam the younger stood before the congregation of Salem Village and apologized for her actions. Dorcas Good, the 5-year-old daughter of Sarah Good, was released on bail shortly after her mother was executed but was emotionally scarred by the ordeal. Her father reported to colonial authorities years later that Dorcas was "quite chargeable" and not in control of her sensibilities.



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