Salem - Trials of Hysteria
October 26, 2009
anyone mentions witches, outside of Halloween, one place will usually come to
the minds of most people - Salem. For some reason; perhaps because of the major
publicity it has received over the years - through books, movies, and tourism,
or perhaps because people need to remember what horror was brought about through
sheer hysteria and gossip; Salem is the most talked about of all the worldwide
In the summer of 1692 terror reigned in Salem, Massachusetts, USA. On the word
of several young girls in the village, who were exhibiting strange behaviour
that they said was brought on by witchcraft, many of the townsfolk were brought
to the prison and tried on the charge of witchcraft. There was no-one exempt
from the adolescents’ accusing fingers. Popular people, professional people,
men, women and even children were brought before the court and interrogated.
First to be accused was Tituba, the Carib Indian slave belonging to Reverend
Samuel Parris. Along with Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were also
arrested. Of these, only Tituba confessed to witchcraft - and remarkably, of the
three, she was the only one to survive!
The youngest of the accused was four years old. Imagine the horror that little
girl, Dorcas Good - daughter of Sarah Good, must have felt to be CHAINED to the
wall of the rat-infested prison for almost 10 months before she was found not
guilty - but not before she watched her mother convicted and taken to the
gallows to be hung. In the period that her mother was imprisoned, her sibling
also died - a child that Sarah was still nursing was taken to the prison with
her but died before Sarah was hung.
In total 19 of those accused of witchcraft were hanged on Gallows Hill. 13 of
the convicted were women, and 6 of them men. Giles Corey, also died as a result
of the trials - he was pressed to death when refusing to plead guilty or
otherwise. His wife was hanged for witchcraft 3 days after his death. Although
prison records offer conflicting information, it is thought that as many as 13
other accused people died in prison during the witch trials. Between 100 and 200
people were arrested on charges of witchcraft - and two dogs executed.
Who was to blame for this gross miscarriage of justice, created by ignorance and
fear? Perhaps it was the physician who could not identify what illness Elizabeth
Parris and Abigail Williams (aged 9 and 11 respectively) had which caused them
to have convulsions, trance-like states and other strange behaviour. His
diagnosis was therefore to suggest that they were under Satan’s influence.
Perhaps it was Tituba who created the “witch cake” that was made up of rye meal
and urine from the sick
and given to a dog to eat in the hope that the witch who had inflicted the girls
would be identified. It was also Tituba who confessed to witchcraft and then
gave evidence against Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and others. Perhaps it was the
young girls themselves - not only Abigail and Elizabeth, but also Ann Putnum,
Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren - who were
guilty of mischievously accusing anyone who had crossed them? Perhaps it was the
townspeople who allowed hysteria to override commonsense and set one neighbour
up to accuse his/her neighbour of witchcraft because they did not conform to
normal social standards or because the butter turned sour after one of the
accused had visited . Perhaps it was the court that allowed hearsay and
malicious gossip convict and kill innocent people. Perhaps it was the laws that
covered the court and said the trials were “legal”. Whoever or whatever was to
blame, the outcome was the same. Many innocent people were condemned to death -
and their sentences carried out - whilst many others spent months in prison
needlessly and never recovered from their experience.
In 1697 Samual Sewall, one of the judges in the witch trials publicly confessed
to the wrong doing he had helped to escalate, and offered an apology to the
relatives of those who had died. The matter has never been allowed to die
however. In 1706 Ann Putnam apologised for her actions during the summer of
1692. In 1711, a bill was passed through the legislature that restored the names
of those accused, and gave £600 in restitution to their heirs - this included
money for those like Dorcas Good who never recovered from her ordeal and
required to be looked after for the rest of her life. In 1957 the State of
Massachusetts formally apologised, and in 1992, a memorial to the witch trials
was dedicated in Salem - now renamed “Danvers”.
Those who died needlessly have not died quietly. Their memory lives on, not only
in the minds of their generations of relatives that followed them, but also
those who strive to prevent such an atrocity happening again.
“I am no witch. I am innocent. I know nothing of it.” Bridget Bishop, first of
Salem’s accused to be hanged on June 10th 1692.
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