The New England Colonies

3g. Witchcraft in Salem

The Trial of George Jacobs
George Jacobs Sr. and his granddaughter Margaret were both accused of witchcraft, but Margaret managed to escape harm by claiming that Grandpa was indeed a witch. He was convicted and hanged in August 1692.

Surely the Devil had come to Salem in 1692. Young girls screaming and barking like a dog? Strange dances in the woods? This was behavior hardly becoming of virtuous teenage maidens. The town doctor was called onto the scene. After a thorough examination, he concluded quite simply — the girls were bewitched. Now the task was clear. Whomever was responsible for this outrage must be brought to justice.

The ordeal originated in the home of Salem's Reverend Samuel Parris. Parris had a slave from the Caribbean named Tituba. Several of the town's teenage girls began to gather in the kitchen with Tituba early in 1692. As winter turned to spring the townspeople were aghast at the behaviors exhibited by Tituba's young followers. They were believed to have danced a black magic dance in the nearby woods. Several of the girls would fall to the floor and scream hysterically. Soon this behavior began to spread across Salem. Ministers from nearby communities came to Salem to lend their sage advice. The talk turned to identifying the parties responsible for this mess.

Over the River to Munchkinland
"There's no place like Salem. There's no place like Salem..."

Puritans believed that to become bewitched a witch must draw an individual under a spell. The girls could not have possibly brought this condition onto themselves. Soon they were questioned and forced to name their tormentors. Three townspeople, including Tituba, were named as witches. The famous Salem witchcraft trials began as the girls began to name more and more community members.

Evidence admitted in such trials was of five types. First, the accused might be asked to pass a test, like reciting the Lord's Prayer. This seems simple enough. But the young girls who attended the trial were known to scream and writhe on the floor in the middle of the test. It is easy to understand why some could not pass.

Second, physical evidence was considered. Any birthmarks, warts, moles, or other blemishes were seen as possible portals through which Satan could enter a body.

Witness testimony was a third consideration. Anyone who could attribute their misfortune to the sorcery of an accused person might help get a conviction.

Fourth was spectral evidence. Puritans believed that Satan could not take the form of any unwilling person. Therefore, if anyone saw a ghost or spirit in the form of the accused, the person in question must be a witch.

The Trial of Rebecca Nurse
The Trial of Rebecca Nurse

Last was the confession. Confession seems foolhardy to a defendant who is certain of his or her innocence. In many cases, it was the only way out. A confessor would tearfully throw himself or herself on the mercy of the town and court and promise repentance. None of the confessors were executed. Part of repentance might of course include helping to convict others.

As 1692 passed into 1693, the hysteria began to lose steam. The governor of the colony, upon hearing that his own wife was accused of witchcraft ordered an end to the trials. However, 20 people and 2 dogs were executed for the crime of witchcraft in Salem. One person was pressed to death under a pile of stones for refusing to testify.

No one knows the truth behind what happened in Salem. Once witchcraft is ruled out, other important factors come to light. Salem had suffered greatly in recent years from Indian attacks. As the town became more populated, land became harder and harder to acquire. A smallpox epidemic had broken out at the beginning of the decade. Massachusetts was experiencing some of the worst winters in memory. The motives of the young girls themselves can be questioned. In a society where women had no power, particularly young women, is it not understandable how a few adolescent girls, drunk with unforeseen attention, allowed their imaginations to run wild? Historians make educated guesses, but the real answers lie with the ages.

Instant Quiz

Which of the following was not ground for witch accusation?

    Having a wart
    Causing others to scream and wail during prayer
    Refusing to pay taxes

Who was one of the first three Salem people to be accused of witchcraft?

    Rebecca Nurse
    Dorothy Gale
    George Jacobs, Sr.

How many people were executed for being witches?


Which of the following was not a possible cause of the hysteria?

    Girls starving for attention
On the Web
Salem Massachusetts Witch Trials
It all started with the odd behavior of two young girls, but soon enough hysteria and chaos enveloped the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Although the trials lasted only a short time, the city of Salem continues to commemorate the events that put it on the map. This website, from the city of Salem, offers an illustrated overview of the witch hunts and trials with links to notable sites and memorials.
Salem Witch Trials Chronology
The hysteria began on January 20, 1692, and lasted through November 25 of the same year. This chronology describes the day-by-day events leading up to the trials and the trials themselves.
The Salem Witch Museum
It isn't Salem's most-visited museum for nothing. The Salem Witch Museum offers much information about the Salem trials, a virtual tour to other nearby towns caught up in the witch hysteria, and some photographs.
Salem Witch Trials
This site presents lots of information on the trials, including biographies of the accused, trial transcripts, a quiz, a timeline, FAQs, and more. Click on "The Afflicted" to see statistics for the "victims" of the accused. Of these 43 "victims," 27 were between the ages of 11 and 20, 34 were single, and 37 were women.
Trial Transcripts
Read transcripts of the trials of Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, and others.
Salem Witch Trials Quiz
Know enough about the Salem witch trials yet? Take this quiz to find out.
Associated Daughters of Early American Witches
There really is an organization for everyone. Any woman who can trace her heritage back to one of the original accused — qualifies for membership in the ADEAW. The respected organization is devoted to charity, service, and the rememberance of its ancestors.
Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Fact & Fiction
A scholar of the Salem witch trials provides her take on Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, which was inspired by the trials. She includes a long list of historical inaccuracies in the play, but also mentions inaccuracies that Miller was aware of and took poetic license with. This site also includes helpful questions for paper topics.

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