What’s in a Witch?
March 1 marked the anniversary of the beginning of a horrible era in history: the start of the witch trials. However, that’s not the only notable date on Massachusetts’ timeline. Over the next couple of months, the town of Salem will acknowledge several crucial dates in the history of the Witch Trials.
During the witch hunts and the trials (as if any of us could ever forget), the Puritans took any woman, child, or cat they believed guilty of witchcraft and imprisoned and/or killed them all. Yes, they penalized sweet, innocent cats too (especially black ones… I’m just saying…) because many Puritans thought them responsible for epidemics like the Black Plague. Men who harbored or aided women or animals accused of witchcraft were often tortured and threatened until they agreed to testify against the guilty party, but few were ever charged or executed as witches.
What’s in a Witch?
What classified someone as a witch? The church made up the rules on a case-by-case basis. The village might hang one woman because she had whiter laundry than her neighbor and burn another upstanding lady at the stake because someone saw her leave a man’s house without the company of her husband. Droughts were never responsible for massive crop failure or cattle depletion; the farmer who cried witchcraft found a scapegoat, reported the poor woman (or her pet), and had her put on trial. What we now call mental illness, the Puritans called satanic influence, and unlike the beliefs of the Catholic church today, they believed that those afflicted by any demonic presence brought in on themselves.
To be fair, not every Christian believed in this practice. Some even called it barbaric, inhumane, and against the will of God. Many Christians, in fact, not only refused to take part in the witch trials, but petitioned against the Puritans who burned and hanged their accused. However, members of the British government and church hierarchy fought long battles, and it wasn’t long before witchcraft became a capital offense by law.
Bridget Bishop was among the very first “witch” executed in the Salem Witch Trials. Her marriage record and love for local taverns earned her an unsavory Puritan reputation, and landed her on the Puritan’s “Most Witchy List.” They hanged her on June 10, 1692, another date that Salem recognizes annually. Other women accused for similar lifestyle choices were Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Osborne died in prison on May 10, 1692, while the Puritans hanged Good just over one month after Bishop, in July of the same year.
The Trials Throughout History
The trials only lasted about four months in Massachusetts, but the Puritans accused more than 150 women of witchcraft and hanged 20 in Salem alone.
We did our homework on the trials to compile a list of important dates during the Salem Witch Trials era:
March 1, 1692: The Witch Trials Beginning:
- Judges John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin interrogate Tituba (an Indian slave), Osborne and Good.
- The slave, Tituba, admits that she consorts with Satan. She also told Corwin and Hathorne that there were many more witches in Salem.
March 12 (They wasted little time, eh?):
- An upstanding Puritan by the name of Ann Putnam, Jr. accused Martha Corey of witchcraft.
March 19 (I don’t think blood thirsty describes the Puritans at this point):
- Because of some squabbles over land rights in what was then known as Salem Village, John and Edward Putnam accused Rebecca Nurse of being a witch. Nothing like a good old fashioned hanging to rid yourself of that annoying neighbor, huh?
- The Putnam family must have enjoyed tattling on their friendly neighborhood witches, because on this date in 1692, Ann Putnam (Sr., I assume?) teamed up with Mary Walcott to accuse a four-year-old girl by the name of Dorcas Good of witchcraft. Yep, even toddlers were guilty of witchcraft. What a proud day that must have been for the accusing women when they arrested the poor little girl!
- The Puritans accused the first man up to this point, and one of the few men ever charged with witchcraft, Mr. John Proctor. Mary Walcott (notice a pattern?) and Abigail Williams put Mr. Proctor on the chopping block.
There were other important dates during the Salem Witch Trials besides the arrests and executions of accused witches. In May, 1692, Massachusetts governor Phips created a court specifically for hearing the cases of the accused witches and/or accomplices. The judges who took seats in this ludicrous court include Bartholomew Gedney, Waitstill Winthrop (too bad they didn’t indict witches based on names, because that’s a doozy!), Lt. Governor Stoughton, and, of course, the beloved Corwin and Hathorne.
In July, 1692, John Proctor wrote a letter to the church in Boston, Massachusetts, detailing the horrors that occurred during the interrogations of witches. He requested that they move the Salem Witch Trials to Boston. And although the trials officially only lasted four months, the witches not executed in 1692 were not pardoned or released from prison until May of 1693. Many other witches died while imprisoned besides those mentioned above, so only a fraction of those who went in made it out alive. And it wasn’t until 1711 that Salem Village (which changed its name to Danvers in 1752) paid restitution to the trials victims’ families and restored their reputations. Lots of good it did those murdered by the upstanding citizens. I suppose the Puritans were proud of themselves though!
What is your position on the Salem Witch Trials? Are you pro Puritans, or team Witch? Please let us know! We would love to hear from unique individuals who are not afraid to give us their honest, true opinions!