The Accused and Accusers of the Salem Witch Trials

learn about the people who were accused of witchcraft and the people accusing them

Imagine a time when there was no truth. Where your enemies sought a revenge so fierce that only bloodshed could satisfy it. Where a simple lie can determine your fate yet the evidence of your innocence was nowhere to be found. This was Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials.

Neighbor turned against neighbor, husband against wife, daughter against mother in a frenzy of accusations and repercussions. The scattered occurrences soon multiplied until Salem was enveloped in a putrid blanket of deceit.

The First Accusers

The Salem witch trials began after several young girls fell mysteriously ill. Their condition was so bizarre, William Griggs, the uneducated village doctor, had no explanation for it other than witchcraft. Elizabeth “Betty” Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams were the first two girls to experience this hell-birthed disease.

Parris and Williams were believed to be prime targets for the Devil. They were the daughter and niece of Puritan Reverend Samuel Parris. His wholesomeness and strong communion with God attracted Satan to him, like a moth to a flame. However, his unbreakable faith and masculinity made him impossible to get to. So the Devil shifted his focus to the two weaklings in Parris’ home; Betty and Abigail.

Betty Parris was nine years old and Abigail Williams was eleven when they succumbed to the evil forces of witchcraft. Their incessant seizures and freakish contortions horrified anyone who witnessed them. They screamed and writhed in pain. The agony was so intense it motivated them to confess their fortune-telling escapades, believing their disease was a punishment from God. Aside from divination, the girls would often ask their slave Tituba to recount stories of Caribbean voodoo as a form of entertainment.

Soon, Betty and Abigail’s friends started to experience the same symptoms, claiming they too were bewitched. Among them were Ann Putnam Jr., Elizabeth Booth, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Warren, Mercy Lewis, and a few others. These young girls became the main accusers during the Salem witch trials, instigating the execution of nineteen people.

The Original Three Witches

After being pressured to name who was responsible for their suffering, Betty and Abigail revealed there were three witches in Salem: Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. Once the witches were identified, magistrates traveled to Salem Village to question and examine the accused.

Tituba’s ethnicity has been widely debated. Some have speculated she was South American, while others claim she was Native American. What we know for sure is that she was a slave that lived in Barbados before traveling to Salem with Samuel Parris.

Similarly to Tituba, Sarah Good was an impoverished, lower-class woman. She roamed the streets asking for money and was painfully disliked within her community. Good was pregnant with her third child during the trials.

Sarah Osborne was different from the other two accused as she was a wealthy, upper-class widow. After her husband passed away, she married her servant and stole her children’s inheritance. Although she had wealth, she was still an outcast, shunned for her questionable and immoral choices. Osborne was forty-nine years old and terminally ill at the time of the trials.

The first three women accused were social deviants; a slave, a scandalized widow, and a long-term beggar. Neither Good or Osborne attended church, something that proved to be a determining factor during their sentencing.

The three suspected witches were transported to Boston and incarcerated until their trial. When Good was questioned by the judge, she denied all involvement in the occult and instead incriminated Osborne. Sarah Osborne, however, died shortly after, avoiding the gruesome sentence she was likely to receive. Unfortunately, even after diverting suspicion from herself, Good was unable to avoid conviction.

Tituba, on the other hand, confessed. Not only did she admit to her involvement in witchcraft, she painted a picture so vivid, it eliminated any remaining doubt in the accusations. Thanks to Tituba’s confession, they were no longer dealing with three straggling witches, it was an entire infestation.

Her fantastic tale described Osborne and Good’s involvement with the Devil, her conversations with animals and how she was obligated to hurt the young girls. Although her detailed confession helped her avoid execution, she was still convicted.

While Sarah Good was in jail, her four-year-old daughter Dorothy was also accused. Ann Putnam Jr., a prominent informant in Salem, was the main accuser in Dorothy’s case, claiming the child’s “apparition” harmed her. Because of this, Dorothy was thrown in jail, spending several months chained in a filthy dungeon. The unbearable stress and abuse she was subjected to caused her to develop a severe mental illness that hindered her for the rest of her life.

Since Sarah Good was pregnant, her execution was set to take place after she had given birth. Unfortunately, her newborn child died in prison. In mid-July, she was brought to what is now known as Proctor’s Ledge and hanged.

The Power of the Accusers and Spectral Evidence

After being accused, suspected witches were brought into court and questioned. Each trial was fairly similar. The accusers would use spectral evidence to demonstrate the person’s involvement in the occult. They would claim that the “specter” of the witch had appeared to them, biting, pinching and choking them until they signed the Devil’s book.

The accusers would also claim that the specter was in court causing them distress. They would then proceed to enact an Oscar-worthy performance by suffering fits that only ceased when they were touched by their “tormentor”. The admittance of spectral evidence in court made it virtually impossible for someone to prove their innocence during the witch trials.

Bridget Bishop

Bridget Bishop was targeted immediately after Tituba’s confession. Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, and Mercy Lewis all claimed Bishop was torturing them in spectral form. Although other women had been accused before her, Bishop was the first one to be convicted.

The accusations were likely motivated by her unusual lifestyle. She had been married multiple times, owned two taverns and dressed in bright colors. All three were traits highly criticized by the Puritans.

Aside from the young girls, many others came forward to testify against Bishop. She was accused of bewitching children and of owning dolls used in satanic practices. Following the overwhelming amount of “evidence” against Bishop, she was executed on June 10, 1692.

Rebecca Nurse

Seventy-one-year-old Rebecca Nurse was among the unfortunate group of accused. Unlike the others tried and convicted before her, she was considered to be an exceptional member of the community. She was kind and respected.

Upon being accused, many of her acquaintances came forward to petition her release. Even people she had disagreements with, spoke up in her defense. Nurse came close to being acquitted but the girls’ convincing seizures and overall performance in the courtroom eventually led to her execution. On July 19th, 1692, Rebecca Nurse was brought to Proctor’s Ledge and hanged.

George Burroughs

George Burroughs was one of the first ministers to step into the Salem Village Church. From the beginning, Burroughs was met with conflict. The villagers disliked his attitude and thought he was unqualified for the role. The public paid his salary. Upon realizing this, the people of Salem stopped paying his wages to get him to resign.

He was then obligated to borrow money from Thomas Putnam, accuser Ann Putnam’s father. Burroughs moved to Maine before he was able to pay off his debt. As a result, Thomas Putnam accused Burroughs of witchcraft. He was then brought back to Salem and executed.

John and Elizabeth Proctor

John Proctor was a successful tavern owner who lived in the outskirts of Salem Village. He was first accused of witchcraft in late April after he had repeatedly expressed his skepticism about the trials.

Abigail Williams had initially accused his pregnant wife Elizabeth. However, when Williams took the stand, she shifted her focus to John. She accused him of being her main tormentor, while Elizabeth was merely assisting him with the abuse.

Unfortunately, John Proctor had many enemies that took advantage of the opportunity to testify against him. Particularly, his servant Mary Warren. On August 5, 1692, the Proctors were convicted of witchcraft and sent to jail pending execution.

John was hanged on August 19, 1692. His wife’s execution, however, was postponed until she gave birth. Luckily, after having her son, her life was spared and she was released.

Giles and Martha Corey

Giles Corey was a successful farmer with a bad reputation. Sixteen years before the trials, Corey beat his farmhand to death over some stolen apples. The injuries were so severe that he died a few days later. Since physical abuse was legal, Corey was only fined for his violent exhibition.

After his wife Martha was arrested under suspicion of witchcraft, Corey turned his back on her, believing the accusations. He realized he was mistaken when he found himself in the same predicament.

His accuser was primarily Mercy Lewis. In her September 1692 deposition, she stated that Giles Corey’s specter appeared to her, obligating her to write in his book.

During his trial, Giles Corey refused to plead guilty or not guilty. This meant that he could not be tried. To avoid the possibility of having a wizard walk free, he was pressed to incite a confession.

This method of torture was known as “peine forte et dure”. It took place in the Howard Street Cemetery. Heavy boulders were placed on top of Corey while he lay on the floor naked. Corey never caved and he passed away after three days of excruciating pressure. His wife Martha was hanged in late September 1692.

After the Witch Trials

After his wife was suspected of witchcraft, Massachusetts governor Sir William Phips pardoned the accused and released the remaining prisoners, putting an end to the witch trials.

When it was all said and done, a total of nineteen had been hanged, four died in prison and one man was pressed to death. Among those executed for witchcraft were Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes, Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Jacobs, Sr., Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Easty.

The tragic blood-stained story of Salem shakes us to the core. It is easy to be overtaken by sorrow when reflecting on this time in history. How uncertain people must have felt, knowing they could be the next one accused. What is most frightening of all is that this is not a work of fiction, not a play, not a script; this is real life.

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