John Proctor and the Salem Witch Trials

read about one of the main accused people of the witch trials

Although John Proctor is now regarded as somewhat of a Salem martyr, the truth is he had many flaws. He was known for his temper. Mr. Proctor would often threaten and beat other members of the community.

What we can’t deny, however, is that Proctor was a risk-taker. He advocated for those accused of witchcraft and attempted to make the people of Salem recognize their delusions. Unfortunately, his boldness was his demise and his efforts eventually led to his death.

The Life of John Proctor

John Proctor was born on October 9th, 1631 in Assington, England. When he was about three years old, he sailed with his family to North America. They settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts where his father, John Proctor Sr., became a wealthy landowner and successful farmer.

In 1653, Proctor married Martha Giddens who died six years later while giving birth. John and Martha had four children together but only their son Benjamin survived to adulthood. After his first wife’s passing, John married Elizabeth Thorndike with whom he had seven children.

In 1666, the Proctors decided to leave Ipswich and move to Salem. Upon arrival, they leased a large farm and settled in the outskirts of Salem Village.

Roughly two years after the move, Proctor obtained a business license and opened Proctor Tavern. This establishment quickly became a success and it made the family very wealthy. Apart from his business, Proctor also had houses and land that he inherited from his father.

Elizabeth Thorndike passed away in 1672, under similar circumstances as Proctor’s first wife. After Thorndike’s passing, Proctor married Elizabeth Bassett who also bore seven children.

John Proctor and the Salem Witch Trials

The Salem witch trial madness began when two young girls, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, became afflicted by an unexplainable disease. The girls were experiencing several bizarre symptoms, particularly, convulsions, muscle spasms, and hallucinations.

After the village doctor concluded they had been ‘bewitched’, fear spread like wildfire among the Puritan community. Betty and Elizabeth began signaling out the ‘witches’ responsible for their abnormal state and these people were swiftly executed. The belief that witches were roaming around Salem terrified many of the villagers but others were not so convinced the claims were true.

One of these people was John Proctor. He did not agree with the witch hunt and was very vocal about his opinion. He would mention his disbelief in the witchcraft accusations to anyone who would listen. In her book titled Hunting For Witches, Frances Hill mentions that Proctor publicly demanded the accusers be hanged for their deceit, instead of the other way around.

The Women in John Proctor’s Life

John Proctor’s servant, Mary Warren, also began to have fits of ‘demonic possession’. But Proctor did not believe there was a supernatural cause for her strange conduct. He simply thought Mary - along with the other girls - were acting foolishly because they lacked discipline.

Proctor beat Mary to correct her behavior which, of course, led to a miraculous recovery. It seems like Mary was acting normally until Proctor went on a business trip. While he was away, her strange symptoms returned and she decided to join the trials. Naturally, other young girls in the village immediately followed.

Proctor’s wife Elizabeth - who was pregnant at the time - was the first one in the family to be accused of practicing dark magic and was brought into court for questioning. Although Abigail Williams still testified against Elizabeth, her accusations focused mostly on Elizabeth’s husband. Once Williams took the stand, she claimed that John Proctor’s spirit was there, in the courthouse, attempting to hurt her and the other girls.

Apparently, the girls were taking cues from Williams, convulsing and screaming, claiming Proctor’s invisible spectre was near them. Official court records state that: “Abigail Williams cried out, there is Goodman Procter going to Mrs. Pope, and immediately, said Pope fell into a fit.” Mary Warren also testified against John Proctor, claiming that his spirit had tortured her to get her to sign the ‘Devil’s Book’. These were all Spectral Evidence claims, meaning that anyone could testify by simply saying someone’s spirit was tormenting them, without providing any actual evidence of said person’s involvement in witchcraft.

In The Crucible, a play written by Arthur Miller in 1953, John Proctor and Abigail Williams are portrayed as lovers. Jealousy is therefore used to explain why Williams accused the Proctors of witchcraft. Nevertheless, this supposed relationship is highly unlikely, since there was almost a fifty year age difference between the two.

Abigail was aware that Proctor suggested she - along with other girls - be executed, so there is a possibility that she accused him and his wife to divert suspicion from herself. Scholars have theorized that the intense fear Puritans had of the Devil, combined with imposed social pressures, could have potentially led the girls to experience a psychotic break. Also, this delusion could have manifested itself as a physical illness.

It has not yet been proven if Williams believed to have been possessed by the Devil or if her actions were part of a twisted godawful plan. If Abigail was indeed lying about her condition, then it was in her best interest to accuse the Proctors, especially John, who had previously challenged her.

Mary Warren, on the other hand, probably accused John Proctor of witchcraft simply because he was her superior. It is not unreasonable to believe that Warren, being Proctor's servant, loathed her master and saw the witch trials as a chance for retribution.

John Proctor is Accused

Aside from Mary and Abigail, others joined in to accuse Proctor of witchcraft. Proctor was an aggressive man that had gotten into many altercations in Salem. Needless to say, the people he had problems with came forward and testified against him.

John Proctor was brought into court and examined for signs of witchcraft on April 11, 1692. Once again, during Proctor’s examination, the girls said his spirit was attempting to terrorize everyone. After the examination, Proctor and his wife were transported to the Salem Jail and incarcerated.

While in jail, Proctor wrote an emotional letter to the misters of Boston asking to have their trial moved since he did not believe they would get a fair trial in Salem. In this letter, Proctor also detailed the horrific torture methods the prisoners were put through to incite confessions.

Unfortunately, his letter did not make much of a difference and he was executed shortly after. Elizabeth Proctor was also convicted of witchcraft but her hanging was postponed until she gave birth. After giving birth to her son, Elizabeth was released from jail and her life was spared. However, no one knows how she was able to avoid execution.

John Proctor’s Legacy

The General Court of Massachusetts passed a bill in 1711 that cleared John Proctor’s name, as well as a few others. This bill also awarded financial compensation to the families affected by the tragedy.

In recent years, a few commemorative sites like the Witch Trials Memorial and Proctor’s Ledge have been established in Salem, where grave markers for John Proctor, among other victims, have been placed.

Proctor’s fearless outspokenness and progressive actions are what make his story so inspiring. He was a man of reason that attempted to broaden the narrow minds of his community. Although his end was gruesome and his life was flawed, John Proctor’s efforts still demonstrate the importance of questioning the broken foundations of society.

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