Trouble in the tiny Puritan village started in February 1692, when eleven-year-old Abigail Williams and nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris, daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, began acting strangely. The girls complained of bites, contorted their bodies, threw things, and fell into trances. A doctor’s examination concluded they were suffering from the evil effects of witchcraft. The “afflicted” girls were asked to name names, and they did.
“If you think about what’s going on in New England—threat of attack from warring tribes, unease about a new charter—and suddenly something strange happens in your household and you’re a minister. You know a witch was arrested in Chelmsford and another up in Ipswich. You believe that the devil is against Massachusetts, and you believe the devil is against your church, and you believe the devil is against you as a Protestant Puritan minister. And it’s in your house! There were reasons why it was credible that there could be witches in Salem Village,” says historian Margo Burns, the associate editor of Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt.
Burns examines the witch trials through original-source documents in “The Capital Crime of Witchcraft: What the Primary Sources Tell Us,” a presentation sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities Council.
Three women were taken into custody on March 1. Sarah Good, a beggar and mother, Sarah Osborne, a woman who hadn’t attended church in some time, and Tituba, Parris’s Indian slave, were all charged with witchcraft. Tituba confessed and identified more witches from Salem.
“It didn’t have to go any further than those three,” says Burns, “but they didn’t have a way to defend themselves. Just the usual suspects. All were marked for class and Tituba for race. John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, the local magistrates, coerced a false confession out of Tituba. If it had been another time, it might just have stopped there. The next two people should not have had their cases go forward. Hathorne and Corwin could have said, ‘Okay, we don’t buy this. No, you didn’t see her, because we know this person. This is not true.’ But they held them over.”
The next two defendants were Rebecca Nurse, an ancestor of Burns, and Martha Cory, both fully covenanted church members and of high social standing. They were accused of witchcraft based on “spectral evidence,” which meant the court accepted testimony that disembodied spirits, or specters, were sent through dreams or visions by the accused with the help of Satan to harm the victims by stabbing, choking, biting, and jabbing them with pins. The accused were interrogated in public. During questioning, the purported victims exhibited dramatic reactions while townspeople watched.
“There were discussions going on between ministers,” says Burns. “It wasn’t so much whether specters existed, it was how you interpret it. The big discussion was whether the devil could impersonate somebody with or without their permission. So that was tantamount to saying Rebecca Nurse gave the devil permission to go out and afflict these girls in her image.”
In May, the new Massachusetts governor, Sir William Phips, established a special court to try the witchcraft cases, presided over by William Stoughton. “The court didn’t convene until June 2, 1692, so over half those accused, around 70, were just piling up in the jail,” says Burns.
Just as the jails were filling up with accused witches, the number of those claiming affliction also ramped up. One of the accusers listed in the court documents of Sarah Good was her daughter, Dorothy, who was coerced during an interrogation.
A number of villagers petitioned the court on Nurse’s behalf. Nurse was found not guilty, but Stoughton sent the jurors to reconsider. They changed their verdict to guilty. She was hanged on July 19, with Sarah Good and three others.
Five more were hanged in August and eight in September. In October, Increase Mather, a prominent minister in Boston, denounced the use of spectral evidence: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.” That same month, Governor Phips terminated the special court. But that wasn’t the end. Cases would continue in a regular court in January. “When pious men and women who were in good standing in their own churches were accused, there was pushback,” says Burns.
The accusations ran their course in Salem Village, but not in Andover, where 48 were accused compared with 23 in Salem Village says Burns. “A lot of people were against spectral evidence, so confessions were now the gold standard to find people guilty. The confessions that came before were from people with no agency whatsoever, like little Dorothy. But when they got to Andover, the magistrates were really good at interrogating people in private. By September, they could coerce people like clockwork. There, a lot who confessed were children as young as six.” In 1693, the new Superior Court of Judicature tried the remaining cases and eventually cleared the jails. Phips pardoned all those sentenced to be executed by Stoughton in January 1693. The cases continued to be tried until mid May, but no one else was convicted. “The grand jury couldn’t even indict Tituba,” says Burns. The colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated many of the families. But the damage was done, and it was devastating.
On September 13, 1710, William Good went before the court to receive restitution for the losses he endured years earlier. In his petition he wrote:
To The Honourable Committee The humble representation Will’m. Goodof the Damage
sustained by him in the year 1692. by reason
of the sufferings of his family upon the account of supposed Witchcraft
1 My wife Sarah Good was In prison about four months & then Executed.
2 a sucking child dyed in prison before the Mothers Execution.
3 a child of 4 or 5 years old was in prison 7 or 8 months and being chain’d in the dungeon was so hardly used and terrifyed that she hath ever since been very chargeable haveing little or no reason to govern herself. And I leave it unto the Honourable Court to Judge what damage I have sustained by such a destruction of my poor family. And so rest Your Honours humble servant
*William Good Salem.
Good was issued £30.