Dressing up as a witch for Halloween is popular among kids and adults as they take time adding warts to noses and other witchy accessories. In fact, according to Google, a witch is the number one costume choice for trick-or-treaters. While being a witch one night a year is fun for today’s partygoers, the folks from 17th century Salem, Massachusetts had a completely different idea of anyone suspected of practicing witchcraft.
The folks in Salem took the Bible verse “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) very seriously. The Puritans were extremely religious people who believed the Church of England was too close to Catholicism and wanted to move away from the Catholic rituals and more towards the teachings of the Bible. Their beliefs and structure also made them less tolerant of anything that might break their strict rules. Unfortunately, many women and some men lost their lives after being accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, which began in 1692.
In January 1692, Elizabeth (Betty) Parris, 9, and 11-year-old Abigail Williams became strangely ill, causing fear and confusion within the community. The girls were the daughter and niece of the minister of Salem Village, Samuel Parris. Betty and Abigail started having uncontrollable bouts of screaming and their bodies spasmed in what was described as violent contortions. A local doctor diagnosed the pair, stating they had been bewitched. They claimed they were being bitten and pinched by unseen forces. Soon, other young girls in the community started having similar symptoms.
Betty and Abigail named three women whom they said were causing the affliction: Parris’s slave, Tituba; Sarah Osbourne, an invalid widow; and a local beggar woman, Sarah Good. The women denied the accusations except for Tituba who said Satan had revealed himself to her. She claimed to have signed the devil’s book with her own blood and saw that Osbourne and Good’s names where there as well. Her testimony spurred a massive witch hunt that would see near 200 people accused of witchcraft – including Good’s four-year-old daughter – and resulted in 20 executions.
The first official case heard in the special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) was against Bridget Bishop, a widow who had been accused of witchcraft years earlier but never convicted due to lack of evidence. Ten people testified against her, and she was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on June 10.
When it was Good’s time to stand trial, several girls claimed her specter had attacked them, others said they had seen her flying on a broom, and some confessed witches had named her as a sister witch as well. On July 19, Good was taken to Gallows Hill and executed with three other so-called witches, including Rebecca Nurse, a churchgoing grandmother.
In August, Martha Carrier was brought before the court. Her family was already unpopular as it was believed they brought smallpox to Andover. Her two teenaged sons were tortured until they confessed to practicing witchcraft themselves as well as their mother. Dubbed a “rampant hag” who wanted to be “Queen of Hell,” carrier was executed on August 19 along with Reverend George Burroughs, whom the villagers thought was the ringleader of the witches, and three other men.
Martha Cory, an upstanding member community and church member, went to trial in September. After she had tried to prevent her husband, Giles, from participating in the witch trials, folks became suspicious of her and one of the girls accused Martha of making her blind. Her husband even testified against her, and Martha was sent to the gallows on September 22 along with seven other convicted witches. Giles, however, found himself being questioned for witchcraft. After refusing to enter a plea during his trials, Giles was pressed to death – a torture/confession strategy where the person was placed on a hard surface and a slat of wood was placed atop them. Boulders were added over the next several days until the person either confessed or died of suffocation and broken bones.
Thankfully, the trials did not last long – Cory was the last of those executed on Gallows Hill – but the story of the fanatical craze that swept the area and resulted in executions of women and men has remained centuries later.