Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Salem Witch Trials

The Evil Hand

Elizabeth Parris was lying on the ground, her arms and legs flailing in the air and spittle spewing from her mouth. She had overturned the dining table, breaking a ceramic pitcher and cutting her arm in the process. Nearby stood Abigail Williams, wide-eyed and gaping.

"Go get Master Parris," Tituba told the girl and Abby ran from the room.

Tituba knelt down next to the spastic girl and tried to calm her. She managed to grab Betty's bleeding arm and wrapped her kerchief around it to stem the bleeding. Thank goodness it wasn't serious, just a long scrape. Slowly, Betty began to relax and by the time Parris and Abigail reached the room, she was asleep in Tituba's arms. Parris looked around the room at the damage. He had tried to keep this a secret in his own home, but he could not any longer. The girl was having seizures and needed a doctor. He sent Abigail off to find Dr. Griggs, the Salem Town physician.

It took Griggs more than an hour to reach the parsonage, and he listened intently as Parris told him Betty's symptoms. She was forgetful of chores, she would stare into space and when she came to her senses she would scream. She refused to bow her head during prayer, Parris said, revealing the worst symptom of all. As if on cue, Betty sat up in bed, looked around at the adults surrounding her and brayed like a donkey. Then she pulled the covers off and began walking on hands and knees barking.

Griggs looked at Parris in wonder. He wasn't a superstitious man by nature and considered himself a scientist, so he was not prone to hasty conclusions. Still, this was clearly not epilepsy. It was not St. Vitus Dance either. Griggs spent several more days in Salem Village studying Betty, and later Abigail, who exhibited the same symptoms. He could not explain it. They ate what everyone else ate. They did not go outside much and had not been bitten by an animal. The girls assured him they had not been drinking ale or cider and they did not smell drunk. Betty and Abby were at a loss to explain their own behavior, but one man Griggs consulted with (quietly) noticed that it seemed the girls were acting out like children would like to act if they were allowed to run undisciplined. Perhaps the best prescription was a sharp spanking? Griggs discounted this advice and called on Rev. Parris.

"Reverend Parris, I fear the Evil Hand is upon them," Griggs said sadly.

"Witchcraft?" Parris asked, unbelieving. Fear of witches had subsided in recent years after almost five centuries of active witch-hunts. True, even Cotton Mather in Boston had written of his experience with witchcraft in his church, but could it happen here, Parris wondered. How had the Devil been invited into his home to infect his children? What sin had he committed that would make God so angry that He would withdraw his protection? Was it the infighting with those who still embraced Salem Town's governance?

After Griggs had gone, Parris went to his bookshelf. He pulled down Mather's pamphlet "Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions," published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1689.

In it, Mather described the possession of a Boston family that was later traced to a neighbor who had bewitched them. The children were tossed about and bent in odd angles, they emulated beasts, shouted profanities and exhibited many of the same symptoms Betty and Abigail showed. Parris reread Mather's hysterical screed and noted that the Boston minister showed little mercy to the woman suspected of being a witch.

Portrait of Rev. Cotton Mather
Portrait of Rev. Cotton
Mather

"The suspected ill woman, whose name was Glover...gave such a wretched account of herself, that they saw cause to commit her unto the gaoler's custody," Mather wrote. "Goodwin (the victims' father) had no proof that could have done her any hurt; but the hag had not power to deny her interest in the enchantment of the children; and when she was asked, did she believe in God? Her answer was too blasphemous and horrible for any pen of mine to mention."

Parris put the book aside and was troubled by the thought that one of his own congregation could be enchanting his children. He rushed home in time to find Betty in the midst of one of her spells. Grabbing her by her shoulders, he shook her gently to get her attention. Saliva ran down her chin as she looked at him, wide-eyed.

"Who is it that afflicts you?" Parris asked. "Who is it?"

Betty said nothing, but instead gave a lowing sound like a calf. Parris repeated himself.

"Who torments you?" he asked. "Is it someone here?"

Betty's eyes rolled back in her head and returned, looking at Parris but not seeing him.

"Is it... Parris looked around, suddenly unable to think of a single name in his congregation. His eyes rested on Tituba, rocking back and forth with a nearly catatonic Abigail on her lap. "Is it Tituba?"

For a second Betty's eyes focused on his. She was surprised to hear a specific name mentioned; no one had brought up names before, they only asked general questions.

"Oh, Tituba...she...Tituba," Betty said and went silent.

For Parris that was good enough evidence. He gently laid his daughter down and approached the slave. Panicking, Tituba began talking without thinking. She told Parris about the witch cake and her own fears of sorcery. Beside himself with fury, Parris only heard a confession of witchcraft. He ordered his wife to fetch the constable. Tituba was taken away in chains.

 

 

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