The Salem Witch Trials

Thirteen year old Martha Goodwin was possessed by the devil. She purred like a cat, barked like a dog and neighbours spotted her flying like a goose twenty feet high. At the very mention of chores or religious reading she stormed into a whirling rage. Whistling during prayer and laughing at the sick, her antics were beginning to affect other girls. She was under the spell of a witch and must be struck down. She was hung in Boston during the November of 1688. And that was that. It seemed like they had stopped the devil. Until two girls in Salem began acting strangely four winters later…

The New England colony was a dangerous place. A tiny settlement perched on the very edge of a continent they knew little about, it’s people were God fearing and paranoid. Neither English yet neither American, they faced the constant danger of famine, plague, attacks by the Indians or attacks by the French. Their founding fathers had fled the England of James I determined to create a ‘city on a hill’ for children of the reformation forced to flee persecution at home. Within two years of their arrival they all but destroyed the Pequot tribe in a brief conflict, selling the survivors into Caribbean slavery. Four decades later in the 1670s one in ten colonial men died during King Philip’s War – another massacre of their heathen neighbours. Around the time of the Goodwin family’s tribulations the people of Salem rebelled against their royal governor amid the backdrop of war against the French. During the harsh winter of 1691 it seemed like God had forgotten them. What had gone wrong? And who was to blame?

The cautionary tale of Martha Goodwin had gripped the colony. Books were penned and sermons spoken – witchcraft was never far away. 25 men had already been hung for it in the short history of New England. It was in this backdrop that the well-read and devious daughter and niece of Reverend Parris began showing the symptoms of witchcraft in the town of Salem. They complained of being pricked by pins and threw books around the room. When an audience appeared their symptoms got worse! Word got around and within the week three more Salem girls were showing their symptoms.

At the beginning of February a physician confirmed the worst – the girls were bewitched. The devil was in Salem, but who had summoned him and what did he want? In a matter of days the girls named names. Sarah Good the homeless beggar, Sarah Osborne the seldom churchgoer who married a wealthy man and Tituba the heathen Caribbean slave of the Parris girls had been fortune telling, dancing in the woods and even having sexual flings with demons. The accusations were supported by complaints from three respected male villagers. By March all three women were locked up in prison.

Four more names were named before Easter. One of these was Martha Corey, a respected townswoman who publicly questioned the validity of testimonies from teenage girls. She was definitely a witch. The interrogations were in full swing. The four year old daughter of Sarah Good unwittingly sentenced her mother when questioned by the deposition of witch hunters. The cold winter had turned to a hot summer. Accusations and arrests came thick and fast. Neighbours, friends, rivals and relations all named one another.

72 year old widow Ann Foster succumbed during her interrogation. The devil had indeed appeared to her in the form of an exotic bird alongside none other than her tempestuous neighbour Martha at his side. She and her daughter were arrested. The hunt was at fever pitch – you were with Salem or against it.

The first death was Sarah Osborne in her prison cell. On 2nd June a special court was created to sentence the witches who had overrun the town. Bridget Bishop was the first to be sent to the gallows. The main line of questioning at her trial was about her immoral lifestyle as symbolised by her black coat. It had been cut or torn in two ways, but why? Simple answer: she was witch.

The court were advised not to rely on evidence which came from dreams or visions but this was too little too late. Five days later and five more were hung. John Proctor, made famous by another victim of another witch hunt, Arthur Miller in The Crucible, issued a plea for his case (And that of his wife, son and daughter) to be heard outside of Salem where he could have a fair trial. He was found guilty. Why ask for a change of venue if you were innocent?

During the August 19th execution of George Burroughs, question marks were raised when he recited the Lord’s Prayer in the shadow of his noose. After all it was common knowledge that witches were unable to recite this prayer. This air of doubt was settled when the accusers confirmed that the devil recited it to him. Two days later the elderly Giles Corey was pressed to death with heavy stones because he refused to plea either guilty or not guilty. In all, twenty people were formally executed not to mention those who died in their lonely prison cells.

As the hot summer cooled, so did the mass hysteria of accusations and capital punishment. Temporary reprieves were given to Mary Bradury (77) and Abigail Faulkner (pregnant) so that they could consider their confessions. Nonetheless the death rattle lingered on. More trials were held in January and three were pronounced guilty but the governor decided to release them. Well, they had to pay their jail fees first and as a result one died in her cell.

One year on and Salem was beginning to contemplate their actions. Had the devil really cast a spell of witchcraft upon the town? Had this mass hysteria really started when two teenage girls mimicked the behaviour of a ‘witch’ they had read about? Interestingly one of the main accusers at the age of 25 publically apologised. She had not acted out of malice and wished no harm upon her neighbours; but the devil HAD told her to denounce innocent people.

So what caused the Salem Witch Trials? Scientific evidence has pointed to a rare fungus in grain which can induce visions and fits in those who ingest it. But perhaps the causes lie in the devious minds of bored young women whose accusations were merrily believed by a community riddled with fear, self doubt and anxiety. But what then of Martha Goodwin? Well maybe she was a witch…

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