In 1692, Satan came to Salem in Massachusetts colony and began to establish his kingdom. He started by cajoling and bullying his first victims, sometimes promising them wealth and comfort in exchange for their loyalty. He made them sign his Devil’s Book in blood. Then he gave them magical powers and helpers called “familiars” – yellow birds, dogs and cats.
The Devil then helped his recruits turn into specters and torture young girls until they joined him. His witches killed farm animals and gave grown men intense pain. They killed men at sea.
Soon, Satan’s Kingdom spread to Topsfield, Ipswich, Rowley, Amesbury, Reading and Andover. In war-torn Wells, Maine, Satan found a leader in George Burroughs, a minister who once preached in Salem. Burroughs’ specter returned to Salem and convened a meeting of witches in the Rev. Samuel Parris’s pasture.
The witches arrived on broomsticks, whole families of them. Martha Carrier led many from Andover. Burroughs started off with a trumpet and drum roll, then preached to the hundreds assembled that they must replace God’s churches with Satan’s. At noon, Burroughs administered the scarlet sacraments with help from his deacons Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Osborn, Sarah Good and Sarah Wildes. Then they had lunch, with Burroughs sitting at the head of the table next to a man in a white hat with a high crown. The Devil promised Burroughs he would reign as King of Hell.
That, at least, was one of the stories told by dozens of Puritans in and around Essex County in 1692. Why on earth did they believe it? How did it get out of control? And what stopped it?
This is how it happened.
When Satan Came to Salem
The Puritans arrived in the New World believing in folk magic and in witches. Before 1692, the courts in Puritan New England, mostly Connecticut and Massachusetts, had tried dozens of people for witchcraft. In many cases, the courts exonerated the accused. Often people accused of witchcraft turned around and charged their accuser with slander – and won.
In 1692, Essex County in Massachusetts proved fertile ground for an outbreak of hysterical witchcraft accusations. A terrifying war on the Maine frontier came closer and closer to Salem, just 10 years after King Philip’s War had devastated the colony. Some of the war refugees now living in and near Salem had seen terrible cruelty in the Maine war. Adding to the fear of war were drought, crop failure and a recent smallpox epidemic.
Political instability made matters worse. Six years earlier, King James II had revoked Massachusetts’ charter and put a hated leader, Edmund Andros, in charge of all New England. But William of Orange deposed King James II, and revolutionaries in Massachusetts had sent Andros back to England in 1689. However, that left Massachusetts without a charter and without a royally sanctioned government to protect property rights. Worse, King William raised taxes on New Englanders to pay for the frontier war against the French and Indians.
Devout Puritans found this turn of events hard to take. For five decades, John Winthrop’s City on a Hill had grown and prospered. But now, it seemed, they’d displeased God. People stopped going to church, tippled in taverns and violated the dress code. Clearly, Satan was on the march.
Approaching War With Satan
Massachusetts had made witchcraft a capital crime in 1641. According to the Massachusetts Body of Laws. “If any man or woman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) they shall be put to death.”
At the beginning of 1692, tension and fear filled the household of the Rev. Samuel Parris in Salem Village (now Danvers). The minister quarreled with some of his parishioners, who wanted him gone and refused to pay him.
Parris preached of the approaching war with Satan in order to silence his parishioners. In late 1691, he said, Martha Sparks of Chelmsford went to prison, charged with witchcraft. Mary Knowlton of Ipswich showed signs of bewitchment.
In the middle of January, Parris’s 9-year-old daughter, Betty, and 11-year-old niece, Abigail Williams, who lived with them, started acting strangely. They crouched under chairs, twisted their bodies into unnatural positions and spoke unintelligible words and phrases. Abigail said she had pains in her head.
Certainly the girls took their cues from the adults in the household. Whether their behavior resulted from epilepsy, boredom, child abuse, mental illness, or ergot poisoning has kept historians busy for centuries.
Their odd behavior, whatever it was, continued for four days.
Massacre in York When Satan Came to Salem
Then on January 25, something terrible happened in York, Maine: the Candlemas Massacre. A French and Indian war party killed or captured about 150 people and burned almost all of their houses. York not only had many ties to Essex County, but the destruction of the town meant Salem and the surrounding towns were not safe from attack.
In early February, Sarah Good, poor and homeless, came begging at the Parris door. The minister gave something to her four-year-old daughter, Dorcas. Sarah then went off muttering. That seemed to set Betty and Abigail off again. They felt an intense fear that robbed them of breath and speech. It went on for days. The family tried home remedies, but none worked.
Then Dr. William Griggs came to visit them. He concluded they “were under an evil hand.” On February 25, Tituba, the Parris’ enslaved black servant, decided to do something to hurt the witches attacking the girls. She baked a witch cake of rye flour and the girls’ urine, then fed it to the dog.
It only made the girls worse. But it also began to show them the shapes of people who caused their affliction.
A mile away, 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard lived with Dr. Griggs. As his orphaned niece, she worked for him as a servant. Hubbard, too, began to show symptoms similar to the girls in the Parris house. At 17, Elizabeth could – and did – testify under oath in court. She would accuse 40 people of witchcraft and testify 32 times, resulting in the execution of 13 innocent people.
A mile away in another direction from the Parris house, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., also started to writhe and babble and complain of pains. She would accuse 62 people of witchcraft when all was said and done.
About six weeks after Betty Parris and Abigail Williams started their fits, the local magistrates began to fight Satan in the courtroom.
The four girls had named three spectral tormenters in the shapes of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and Tituba. Sarah Osborne happened to have quarreled with Thomas Putnam — Ann Putnam’s father — over her first husband’s will. Putnam led a small group to Salem Town on February 29 to swear out a complaint against Osborne and the other two before Judges John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin. Putnam would eventually testify against 43 accused witches.
Hathorne and Corwin then issued warrants for the arrest of the three women. The sheriff brought them to the meeting house. There the two judges examined them, one by one, in front of their accusers. When Sarah Good denied the charges of witchcraft, the four girls became “dreadfully tortured and tormented,” the magistrates said. They claimed her spirit lunged from her body and hurt them.
Tituba confessed, describing how the devil came to Salem. She said a man-devil and his witches and imps had bribed and bullied her into hurting the girls. She said she also flew on a broomstick to Sarah Good’s house. In the end, her confession and naming of names saved her life.
The judges sent all three to jail — along with thieves, pirates and prisoners of war — to await trial. The prisoners had to pay a fee for their upkeep and their iron manacles. Some died in the fetid lockups as they awaited their day in court.
When Satan Came To Salem Again
But the Devil wasn’t through with Salem, far from it. Back he came to Salem in March, and to Ipswich, Malden and Topsfield. His helpers – the witches – appeared in various shapes to their victims and tried to force them to sign the Devil’s Book. If they didn’t, the witches tormented them — pinching, squeezing and pricking. By the end of March, six more stood accused of witchcraft by seven more accusers.
Ann Putnam Jr., her mother and their servant accused 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse. Nurse’s sister, Sarah Cloyse, protested, and soon she was arrested for witchcraft. An Ipswich man, Thomas Burnham, Jr., testified he twice saw Rachel Clenton milking his cow at night. She vanished the first time and turned into a gray cat the second, he said. Then the cow died, Burnham accused Clenton and she went to jail.
Ann Putnam, Jr., accused four-year-old Dorcas Good of sending her specter to bite her like an animal. Under questioning, the child admitted she was a witch and said she’d seen her mother, Sarah Good, consorting with the devil. She joined her mother in manacles in prison.
Judges Hathorne and Corwin wasted no time in rooting out the witches. They issued arrest warrants, interrogated the accused and then sent them to jail with the noisy, convulsing help of the accusers.
April and May
By springtime, the Salem judges realized they couldn’t handle the volume of cases themselves. In April, accusations spread to Rowley, Topsfield, Reading, Amesbury, Beverly and Wells, Maine. Two more men, Benjamin Gould and John Indian, Tituba’s husband, joined the accusers. And two accusers, the servants Mary Warren and Mercy Lewis, found themselves accused.
Susannah Sheldon, an impoverished 18-year-old war refugee, got into the act in late April. She claimed a wealthy Salem merchant, Philip English, and his wife, Mary, caused her to convulse. Philip English escaped, but Sheldon went on to accuse 24 people of afflicting her and testify in court against 11 of them.
All told, at least 27 more people found themselves accused of witchcraft in the month of April alone. And in Stamford, Conn., a young French maid named Katharine Branch claimed the specters of Mercy Desborough and Elizabeth Clauson tormented her. Like the Salem girls, she screamed and wept, fell to the floor, rode an invisible horse and did cartwheels with witches. Later, several ministers said Branch’s torments seemed a combination of “fakery, hysteria and improvement by craft.”
The witch panic spread further in May, as accusers called out 50 more witches that month. The Devil appeared in Woburn and Reading, and had particular success in Andover, 17 miles northwest of Salem.
In Andover, 11-year-old Phebe Chandler accused her neighbor Martha Carrier of shaking her shoulder at Sunday meeting. The judges sent Carrier to prison with her children. Jailers hung her two sons upside down by their heels until they accused their mother of witchcraft.
On May 14, William Phips sailed into Boston Harbor with a new charter from England.
The new king, William III, had appointed Phips as royal governor. Phips took office two days after he arrived in Boston.
He had two wars on his hands. One with the French and Indians to his east in Maine, and one with Satan to the north of Boston. Phips would take charge of the war in Maine. He put his lieutenant governor, the ruthless William Stoughton, in charge of the war against Satan.
On May 27, Phips created the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which included nine judges led by Stoughton. Then Phips prepared to leave for Maine to fight the French and Indians.
Early on, Stoughton made the key decision to allow the admission of spectral evidence – acts by demons that only an accuser can see. With spectral evidence allowed, Stoughton’s court set about trying and executing witches with astonishing speed.
Stoughton also set another rule that moved things along, one that encouraged (or tortured) the accused into confessing they practiced witchcraft. The court spared those who confessed. Those who would not confess risked death.
Margaret Jacobs, one of the accused, saved herself by confessing and accusing her own grandfather, George Jacobs, Sr. He would die on the gallows, but he forgave his granddaughter.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer
On June 2, Stoughton convened the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem. The killing soon began. Over four months, the court tried almost 200 people for witchcraft and ordered close to 30 executed – all on spectral evidence. Outside the courthouse, the orgy of accusation and score settling continued.
On the first day of court, afflicted girls screamed and convulsed as the court heard testimony against 60-year-old Bridget Bishop.
Bishop pleaded innocent, but the court found her guilty. Years later, Salem minister William Bentley noted the judges admitted evidence from “children, Indians and tender females, but no man of reputation.”
Within a week, Stoughton signed Bridget Bishop’s death warrant. One of the judges, Nathaniel Saltonstall, quit in protest. Jonathan Corwin replaced him. Saltonstall was then accused of witchcraft.
Bridget Bishop was hanged on Proctor’s Ledge on June 10.
But no one was safe. In Andover, Constable Dudley Bradstreet was the son of the former governor. He issued 48 arrest warrants to people accused of witchcraft. Finally, he said he would issue no more. Then he and his wife then fled town.
Bishop’s hanging caused concern among the Puritan ministers in Boston. The devil, they warned, could impersonate an innocent person. They said the court shouldn’t rely on spectral evidence alone. A Baptist minister named William Milborne sent a petition to the court also objecting to the use of spectral evidence. Phips ordered Milborne arrested.
Entire families went to prison. Accusers blamed the accused for old murders and deaths at sea, claiming they’d seen their specters commit the crimes. The afflicted girls were even used as witch doctors. They were brought to sickbeds to give spectral diagnoses. They would then name two or three people who caused the victim pain. Arrest and imprisonment inevitably followed.
In Connecticut, Kate Branch accused another woman, Goody Miller, who fled.
The Spectral Army
The Devil fought back in strange and terrible ways that summer, heightening the witch panic. He came to Essex County in the form of murderous native American and French fighters. They raided Billerica and Haverhill, killing and scalping women and children. Farther away, they raided Lancaster, Wells, Maine, and Dover, N.H.
When Satan came to Salem he also came to Gloucester in a strange, unsettling way. Terror gripped the town when he brought a spectral army of armed strangers who lurked around Gloucester. They fired at people, but their bullets never hit. They appeared out of swamps but left no footprints. The frightened townspeople huddled into their garrison for a fortnight. Once, when 20 or so of the strangers marched out of the woods, a militiaman fired a silver button at them and they vanished. When they reappeared, the name of God was invoked and they disappeared.
As these events unfolded, the trials continued. Dozens of the accused confessed to joining the devil’s plot in order to save themselves. At Stoughton’s urging, they accused their neighbors and even their own families of witchcraft.
Those who clung to their innocence died for it.
On July 19, an executioner hanged Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How, Sarah Good and Sarah Wildes. As Sarah Good awaited her death, Rev. Nathaniel Noyes urged her to confess because he knew she was a witch.
Good, according to legend, cried out, “You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” He died bleeding from the mouth from a blood vessel that burst in his head.
Satan Came to Salem Again
Stoughton signed so many death warrants the executioner couldn’t keep up. A month after the mass hanging, another took place.
John Proctor, accused by his servant girl, wrote to ministers in Boston begging their help for an objective trials. Some confessions were coerced, he wrote.
Proctor died by hanging on August 19, along with the Rev. George Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs. Sr., and Martha Carrier. Burroughs’ execution perhaps mattered most, as he led the local witches in their depredations.
The court had also found Proctor’s pregnant wife, Elizabeth, guilty, but stayed her execution until she delivered her child in prison. If she survived.
Meanwhile, in Connecticut, the trail of Mercy Desborough and Elizabeth Clauson proceeded slowly.
Firebrands of Hell
Through August the accusations continued and so did the trials, with the afflicted convulsing, weeping and shouting. Many of the accused confessed, and some became afflicted themselves and began to accuse others.
By then, 11 had died by execution, and others had died in filthy prisons awaiting trial. Nine more would perish by court order. The court ordered Giles Corey pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea. As he lay dying under a pile of rocks, his tongue lolled out of his mouth. Sheriff George Corwin poked it back into place with his walking stick.
On September 22, eight more were hanged: Mary Esty (Rebecca Nurse’s sister), Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Samuel Wardwell, Margaret Scott, Wilmot Redd, Martha Corey and Anne Pudeator. “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there,” said the Rev. Nicholas Noyes.
A week later, Gov. William Phips returned from the war in Maine to find his wife, Mary, accused of witchcraft. On October 12, Phips disbanded the Court of Oyer and Terminer.
Getting Out of Jail
The tide had already began to turn. Some of the Andover girls tried to accuse an unnamed “worthy man of Boston” of witchcraft. He responded by getting a writ to arrest them in a thousand pound defamation suit. They backed down.
In Cambridge, Harvard President the Rev. Increase Mather read an essay to a gathering of ministers. In it, he argued a devil could imitate an innocent person and therefore the court should not admit spectral evidence.
Slowly, the accused – those with family and resources – left prison on bail. Some escaped. Some who confessed retracted, saying they’d been frightened and bullied into admitting witchcraft.
In Connecticut, the court found Mercy Desborough guilty but Elizabeth Coulson innocent. The court granted Desborough a reprieve and then a stay of execution.
On December 10, a man named Samuel Rea put up a 50 pound bond to release Dorcas Good, now five, from prison in Boston. The experience had terrified the child out of her mind. Her mother had given birth to her sister in jail, but the infant died and Good had been hanged. Dorcas never had the sense to govern herself after that, her father said.
The New Year
Though Phips had put an end to the Court of Oyer and Terminer, accused witches still awaited judgment. A half dozen still lingered on death row. The Superior Court of Judicature then met in December to try the remaining cases.
On Dec. 16, 1692, Phips issued an order: the court could not admit spectral evidence. The court proceedings rolled on, but the accusations stopped. No spectral evidence, no witches. The Devil came to Salem no more.
Then on Jan. 31, 1693, a little more than a year after Betty Parris and Abigail Williams first had fits, Phips reprieved all condemned witches and countermanded Stoughton’s execution warrant. Stoughton furiously claimed the governor had advanced the Kingdom of Satan.
The high court dismissed many of the remaining cases or found the accused were innocent. The court heard the final case in May and ordered all prisoners released — once they’d paid their jail fees. Some who couldn’t died in prison. Others returned to families that had lost a loved one to the hangman’s noose. Tituba was sold into slavery to pay her jail fees.
After the Salem witch trials of 1692, no one has been executed for witchcraft.
Images: Rebecca Nurse Homestead By Willjay at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82142949. Salem Witch Trials Memorial Park in Salem By Willjay at English Wikipedia – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51394405/
When Satan Came to Salem tells the overall story of the Salem witch trials. You may also be interested in the story of Connecticut’s witch hysteria here.