Friday, January 04, 2008

The Salem Witch Trials

This is a report for my class in English and American Literature. The text in question was "The Trial of Martha Carrier" but I expanded the discussion, out of necessity, to include the backdrop of the Salem Witch Hunts. It's a fascinating and well-documented tragedy, well worth a read especially in light of recent recurring events.

The stories in Cotton Mather's "Wonders of the Invisible World" are truly hair-raising. If you want to write horror, you should read through some of the accounts, especially of the person he identifies only as G.B.

Between February 1692 and March 1693, in colonial Massachusetts, over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned on charges of witchcraft. Of these, 29 people were convicted. Ninteen were hanged, one was crushed to death in an attempt to force a confession, and at least five died in prison. This tragic incident of prolonged community hysteria is what we now know as the Salem Witch Trials.

The trials had their origins in Salem Village. Betty Parris, age 9, and Abigail Williams, age 11, daughter and niece, respectively, of Rev. Samuel Parris, started to have fits "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease." The girls screamed, threw things, uttered unintelligible sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted into strange positions. Other girls and women in the village soon began to exhibit similar behavior. The local doctor could find no suitable explanation for the ailment.

The first three people arrested for the allegedly afflicting Parris and Williams were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and one Tituba. Good was a local vagrant, Osborne was a social outcast for marrying her servant, and Tituba was a foreign-born slave. Owing to their low status, these three were easy targets for the accusations. They were interrogated and sent to jail in March.

Other accusations soon followed. Martha Corey, Dorothy Good, and Rebecca Nurse were arrested in Salem Village, and Rachel Clinton in Ipswich. Suspicion fell on Corey because she voiced skepticism about the credibility of the accusers; her arrest and Nurse's caused some alarm as they were members in good standing with their churches. Good was arrested based on a confession from her 4-year old daughter. Clinton was arrested on an unrelated case.

By April, the hysteria had risen to a fever pitch. More people were arrested, among them a minister. Their cases were brought before high ranking members of the Governor's Council. More accusations and arrests followed in May, among them Martha Carrier.

Up until the end of May 1692, all proceedings were purely investigative. However, in June, with over 62 people in jail, Governor William Phips convened a Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear their cases. First go on trial was Bridget Bishop: the grand jury convicted her on June 2; she was hanged on June 10.

Between June and July of 1692, grand juries endorsed indictments against all other accused. A fortunate few were given reprieves, but many were hanged forthwith. The trials continued through August and September following largely the same pattern. Under duress, some people confessed to being witches.

Martha Carrier was tried on August 2, along with several others, and hanged on August 19. Her trial was one of the five recorded for posterity in Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World.

Wonders of the Invisible World is written in plain, simple language. Its matter-of-fact tone is remarkable considering the gravity of the cases and the fantastical nature of some of the accusations.

Martha Carrier's record is illustrative of the charges levelled and proceedings used against those accused of witchcraft. The cases were built primarily on the testimonies of the alleged victims, in particular, on their accounts of having been tormented by the "Shape" of the accused. This "Shape" is a spectral form of the witch, by which victims could supposedly identify their tormentor. The courts even had a special term for this: "spectral evidence."

"Spectral evidence" was a controversial method, even at the time of the witch trials. Several prominent citizens cast doubt on its validity, among them Increase Mather, Cotton Mather's father. Increase Mather wrote Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits in October 1692. There was also an anonymous tract Some Miscellany Observations on our present Debates respecting Witchcraft. However, the use of "spectral evidence" ultimately prevailed.

The narrative of The Trial of Martha Carrier begins with stories whereby Carrier and her family, through the use of magic, allegedly caused bodily harm to the victims and their cattle. As it progresses, however, it becomes more lurid and bizarre. Added to the mix are stories of mind control and visions. Rounding off the account were confessions to complicity and tales of witch meetings and deals with the devil.

What possible explanations could there be to these accusations? The stories bordering on the fantastic could simply have been made-up, crafted with malicious intent or resulting from the growing mass hysteria. But what of the very real misfortunes, such as loss of cattle or swollen wounds?

One must remember that the colonists were relative newcomers to the New World, and were in fact in the middle of the harsh and arduous task of taming it to their needs. Resources were likely to be scarce. There would have been many as-yet-unknown poisons and pests. These could account for the mysteriously dying cattle and the incurable infections. From these, it would be only superstitious step into accusations of witchcraft.

What of the motivations? What could possibly compel someone to make up stories that could lead to someone's death? Community hysteria may have something to do with it, as fear feeds on fear. However, The Trial of Martha Carrier gives us another clue in its third section: Carrier was apparently involved in a land dispute with her neighbor and accuser Benjamin Abbot. Whether the other plaintiffs may have borne similar grudges against Carrier the narrative no longer reveals.

An examination of the four other cases covered in the Wonders reveals similar patterns of domestic squabbles. In some cases, it involved the sale of cattle and fowl; in others, simple misunderstandings. Frequently, the outspoken and sometimes violent characters of the accused worked against them. Delving deeper into other sources, the real reasons come to light: George Burroughs, whom Mather hesitates to name, was formerly a minister who left his post over a salary dispute; Bridget Bishop was a tavern owner involved in an inheritance squabble; likewise Susannah Martin; Elizabeth How was involved in a quarrel with some neighbors.

Trial also gives some possible insight into the character of Martha Carrier. If one strips away the fantastical elements, one sees someone who was frequently involved in quarrels with neighbors. Trial indicates that Carrier had disagreements with at least three people. Such a shrewish personality fosters grudges. Fatally, for Martha Carrier, it could have gone to the extent of a false accusation when the opportunity presented itself.

The witch trials were not without opposition from more clear-thinking sectors of Massachusetts society. Mather wrote Wonders in September 1692, using the records of the Clerk of Court Samuel Sewall, as justification for the trials.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer was finally disbanded in October 1692 amidst reversal of public opinion concerning the witch trials. With several people still in jail, though, the Superior Court of Judicature convened in January of the following year to hear their cases. Hearings lasted until May 1693. Most were acquitted; those found guilty were pardoned. Thus ended the tragic and shameful episode of the Salem witch trials.

The specter of shame would haunt the community for several more years to come. In 1697, the General Court declared a Fast Day for the victims of the trials. Sewall and several trial jurors publicly apologized. In 1700, a reprint of Wonders of the Invisible World came out, this time with critical annotations. Judicial decisions were reversed, and excommunications were lifted; survivors and surviving kin were given monetary compensation.

What caused the witch trials? From our modern viewpoint, it's easy to ascribe the trials to ignorance and superstition. Indeed, these factors cannot be discounted, given the origins of the settlers. Belief in witchcraft has always been part of Old European folklore, and even prior to Christianity, there have always been draconian laws against evil magic. The Inquisition in 1232 criminalized witchcraft, and protestants willingly took the cudgels even after the Reformation. Pockets of Italy, Germany, and France have seen sporadic witch hunts. Around 30,000 to 50,000 suspected witches were executed over a 500-year period.

Considering that the settlers were religious refugees from England, it's easy to see how this zeal carried over into the New World. Furthermore, their Calvinistic orientation colored their outlook so as to be fearful of the works of the devil.

On the other hand, there were other aggravating social factors that contributed to this mass psychosis. The settlers had just come from decades of war against the native American tribes, and even then, their position was still precarious. In the face of an expanding population, they fought over scarce resources. They also had to contend with political tensions back in England that affected them locally. The witch trials may unwittingly have been a cathartic exercise for the population to deal with their frustrations (especially since, being Puritans, they frowned on all forms of entertainment.)

First accused were a homeless vagabond, an outcast woman, and a slave; understandable since they had no one to speak for them. In this manner, the witch trials may also have been a way to weed out the social undesirables. As the trials progressed, some may have taken the opportunity to get back at rivals in, say, a land dispute. The character of some -- shrewish and quarrelsome, as is present in any community -- could have lent credence to the charges.

Ultimately, we go back to Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. Surely two young girls could not have been so malicious or believable. What caused them to go into epileptic fits such as the local doctor had never seen before? Modern science speculates that they may have inadvertently ingested hallucinogenic drugs as may grow in a culture of moldy rye bread. Such a condition, never seen before, may have triggered the initial panic. From there, the conflation with belief, fear, imagination, opportunism, and mob mentality served to aggravate the situation until it all came to its tragic and shameful end.


  • Starting point reference:
  • Starting point reference:
  • Text of Wonders of the Invisible World:
  • Timeline and biographies:
  • More About Salem in 1692, Jennifer M Wilson (
  • Who Burned the Witches?, Sandra Miesel, Crisis Magazine (
  • Lesson Plans and Lecture Notes on Salem Witch Trials, Anthony Perno (