The purpose of this article is to investigate the events that led up to the Salem witch trials, representatives of the government, legal and religious institutions that presided over the trials, and the outcome of the trials. The historical inaccuracies embodied in Arthur Miller's dramatic presentation the Salem witch trials, entitled The Crucible, will also be examined.
The Salem Witch trials of the 1690’s had an enormous impact on the colonial community of Salem, Massachusetts. Twenty (20) people died during the hysteria. The Salem witch trials were such a miscarriage of justice that researchers, 300 years after the events, continue to speculate on the causes and the impact they had the community of Salem and the colonies in the New World.
The purpose of this article is to investigate the events that led up to the Salem witch trials, representatives of the government, legal and religious institutions that presided over the trials, and the outcome of the trials. Also, the rationale for the historical inaccuracies embodied in Arthur Miller’s dramatic presentation of the Salem witch trials, entitled The Crucible, will be presented.
Research reveals several suspected causes for the Salem witch trials. While some people may consider the residents of Salem, Massachusetts as ignorant, cruel and superstitious, the truth is that they were just like people of our modern times with fears, desires and greed. These human emotions, combined with religious fervor and a lack of understanding of disease, contributed to the hysteria that made the Salem witch trials possible. The stresses of the poor economic conditions, frontier wars and conflict among the Salem church congregation’s members have also been sighted as factors that contributed to the witch hunts. Stories of strange illnesses, night meetings in the woods, demonic possession, voodoo, and ghostly visitations culminated in the trials during the spring and summer of 1692. Not much about this tragedy was predictable or logical!
The colony of Salem began as a small Puritan settlement under British rule in 1629. In 1641 England made witchcraft a capital crime that was punishable by death. This was the legal foundation that made the Salem witch trial possible.
The winter of 1692 was exceptionally cold. A young girl named Betty Parris began to have spasms. The illness was accompanied by high fever and pain throughout her body. It was reported that she “dashed about” and “dove under furniture”. The local physician, Doctor Griggs, suggested that Betty may have been practicing witchcraft. According to Dr. Griggs, this could have caused Betty’s strange behavior.
In the next few weeks, Dr. Griggs saw similar behaviors in other young women in Salem. One of the girls was Elizabeth Hubbard. By late February, church clergymen and the townspeople had become involved and pressured the 12-year old Elizabeth to identify who had caused her to behave so strangely. Elizabeth blamed Tituba, an Indian slave from Barbados, for her behaviors and illness. She also accused Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne of practicing witchcraft. On February 29, 1692, arrest warrants were issued for Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.
As the number of allegations of witchcraft rose, Governor Phips saw the need to create a new court just to handle the witchcraft cases. Five judges were appointed. The magistrates included Cotton Mather, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin. William Stoughton, who was passionate about cleansing the land of witches and witchcraft, was Chief Justice.
Bridget Bishop was the first accused witch to be brought to trial. She was almost sixty years old. Bridget was the owner of a tavern. She served alcoholic drinks even on Sundays. It was reported the she was “critical of her neighbors” and often paid her bills late. Accused witches had no legal counsel and could not have witnesses to testify about their character. Bridget was found guilty of practicing witchcraft and was sentenced to death by the jury. Chief Justice Stoughton signed the death warrant on June 10, 1692 and Bridget Bishop was hanged on Gallows Hill.
Giles Corey refused to stand trial after he and his wife were accused of being witches. They and were sent to prison. A conviction would mean that his farm would be taken over by the state of Massachusetts. By refusing to go to trial, Giles hoped that everything he had worked for in his 80 years would go to his family members. However, the legal sentence for his refusal was to be crushed to death. It took two days for Corey to die under the pressure of huge boulders. His wife, Martha, was hanged three days later along with seven other convicted witches. These were the last victims of the Salem witch hunt.
The tragedy of the Salem witch trials destroyed the lives many innocent people.
Some of the significant characters in the trials were the following:The accusers included Abigail Williams, Ann Putman, Mercy Lewis, Betty Parris, Mary Walcott, Sarah Bibber, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Susannah Sheldon.
Abigail Williams, considered to be a leader among the accusers, was about 12 years old in 1692. She lived with her uncle, the Rev. Samuel Parris. She made forty-one (41) complaints of witchcraft against residents of the town. Martha Corey, George Burroughs, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth and John Proctor, Mary Easty, John Willard, Mary Witheridge, and Rebecca Nurse were some of her chosen suspects. With the support of Salem community members, Abigail gave testimony in court against seven of the people. Without the legal complaints of the adults, Abigail’s testimony would not have been heard in court because she was a minor.
Salem citizens were accused of witchcraft for a wide variety of reasons. For example, Elizabeth Proctor was accused of witchcraft, because Abigail was seeking revenge and wanted to get rid of John Proctor’s wife after having an affair with him and falling in love with him.
As for Goody Glover, she was accused of being a witch because children would get sick when they were around her.
In the case of John Proctor, he was accused of being a witch because he protested against the examination of his pregnant wife who was being charged for witchcraft.
Overall, many researchers have concluded that greed and jealousy caused the poorer members of the Salem community to create outlandish charges against the wealthier members of the community in order to confiscate their real estate and possessions. In some cases, relatives were accused of witchcraft in order for their progeny to claim their inheritance sooner, rather than later.
It took many people to fulfill numerous roles for such a travesty as the Salem witch trials to take place. Key to the drama is the prosecutors and the magistrates who were responsible for conducting the legal proceedings. Magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, conducted examinations of Tituba, the Indian slave who worked for Reverend Parris, and others. Judge William Stoughton was an enthusiastic witch hunter. Other judges included Samuel Sewall and Cotton Mather. The courts were responsible for determining the guilt or innocence of those accused of being witches. As one of the most respected and educated judges, Cotton Mather advised the magistrates to allow evidence presented by “afflicted accusers” (spectral evidence). The nature of the evidence admitted by the judges and magistrates also included the “touch test” (elimination of contortions and other afflictions by touching a witch) and “witches’ marks” (moles or other body marks and deformities). Hearsay and gossip, too, were considered as credible evidence to prove that someone was a witch.
While the Salem witch trials lasted less than a year, they left their mark on the history of the young developing nation to become known as the United States of America. By the time the trials came to an end, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft. Twenty (20) people had been killed: 19 were hanged and one crushed to death.
Many of the 200 people that were accused of witchcraft were sent to prison. Prisons of the period were horrible, filthy, places. Several of the accused witches died in the Salem jail while awaiting their trial. Others escaped death by hanging only to die in the horrid conditions of the prison. There was no sanitation system. Prisoners were fortunate if they had a small chamber pot to use as a toilet. The small cells were filled with human excrement and horrible smells. There was no water for washing clothes or bathing. Prisoners had to pay for sheets, food and water. Few prisoners could afford such items because their jailers stole any money they had. Children and adults were kept in the same miserable conditions.
Historians have examined and attempted to interpret this period in American history from various points of views. One of the perspectives that sheds some light on what really happened in Salem is related to the economic status of the various factions in the Salem community. Scholars have noted differences between the accused and the accusers. Most of the accused lived to the south side of Salem, and were generally more prosperous than the accusers. In a number of cases, accusing families would benefit from the death of the suspected witch. They would be able to claim the property of the accused after they were convicted and put to death.
Also, the accused and the accusers were on opposite sides when the church congregation split over religious doctrine. The church schism that split the Salem community occurred just before the outbreak of allegations of witchcraft. While many of the accused witches supported the former minister (George Burroughs), the families of the accusers, for the most part, wanted Rev. Burroughs to leave Salem.
Thus, these two perspectives seem to offer some explanation of the events surrounding the Salem trials. Disputes over property and religious beliefs may have been enough to motivate the citizens of Salem to take drastic measures—to contrive allegations of witchcraft against their neighbors and fellow townsfolk. Greed and jealousy could move human beings to such evil deeds. It was actually a rather ingenious plot because everything was sanctioned by the courts and approved by the church. These were the most powerful and respected institutions in the society.
After the surviving witches were released from the prison, it is reported that there was a period of atonement, when the village attempted to normalize and reunite. Samuel Sewall, one of the judges, issued a public confession of guilt and he apologized for his role in the witch-hunt. Several jurors admitted that they were "sadly deluded and mistaken" in their judgments about the guilt of their fellow citizens. Governor Phips blamed William Stoughton for madness and all of the horrific hangings. William Stoughton refused to acknowledge any wrong doing and felt that he had not been allowed to complete his mission to "clear the land of witches”. The citizens of Pennsylvania responded by electing Stoughton to replace Phips as the next Governor of Massachusetts.
Historical events are often the source of material for literary works. Such is the case of The Crucible, a book written by Arthur Miller. The Crucible dramatizes and illustrates the events of the Salem witch trials.
According to Salem witch trial historian, Margo Burns, TheCrucible contains several misrepresentations of the actual historical events. Burns reports that some of the significant inaccuracies in The Crucible include the following:
First, Miller portrays Abigail as a young woman of 17 or 18 years of age. In reality, Abigail Williams was only 11 or 12 years old at the time of the trials. This detail could significantly alter the plot and the events of the drama.
Second, Arthur Miller characterizes Tituba as a slave of African heritage. However, the documented facts show that Tituba was an Indian from the Caribbean island of Barbados. Miller seemed to use an American stereotype in this case.
Third, Miller chose to omit certain key characters from his play. One of the main characters who does not appear in the drama is Cotton Mather.
Miller does choose to name many of his characters after real people who participated in the Salem witch trials, but he uses his artistic freedom in assigning motivation to his characters.
In conclusion, the Salem witch trials of 1692 were very tragic. Numerous innocent people died for their cause or for false accusation of witchcraft. Many people were involved in the trials, which made it even more important and a big deal to the Salem society. Finally the outcomes of the trials were disastrous. Their neighbors with the approval of the court and the church killed twenty people. We must be aware that when the Salem witches disappeared, witch hunting in America did not end. There have been reoccurrences of similar events during the hunt for Communists during the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. Such events could happen again if we cannot break free of prejudices and irrational fears. Every man and woman has a right to believe what he or she wants, and they should not be punished for it. This is a basic freedom provided in the Constitution of the United States. Each new generation must learn the lessons of history or risk repeating the same mistakes. The Salem witch trials should warn us that we must remain vigilant to safeguard our system of justice.
Boyer, Paul and Nissenbaum, Stephen, eds., Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England (1972).
Burns, Margo. “Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Fact & Fiction.” 17th Century Colonial
New England. 24 Oct. 2003. 29 Oct. 2005 <http://www.17thc.us/docs/fact fiction.shtml>.
Burr, George Lincoln, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648 -1706 (1992).
Coventry, William W., Demonic Possession on Trial: Cases Studies from Modern England and Colonial America, 1593-1692 (2003).
DeRosa, Robin, The Making of Salem: The Witch Trials in History, Fiction and Tourism "History and the Whore: Arthur Miller's The Crucible", pp. 132-140 (2009).
Discovery Channel, "The Salem Witchcraft Trials" (50 minutes)
History Channel, "Salem Witchcraft Trials" (50 minutes)(1998).
LeBeau, Bryan, The Story of the Salem Witch Trials (1997). Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002).
PBS Home Video, "Three Sovereigns for Sarah" (180 minutes)(1986).
New World Video, "The Witches of Salem: The Horror and the Hope" (35 minutes) (1972).
Roach, Marilynne, The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Day-to-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege.
Silverman, Kenneth, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1970).
Weisman, Richard, Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst (1984).