24 October 2013

The Salem witch trials and the Body of Liberties laws

William Stoughton
When the witch hunt started in Salem Village in February 1692, the Massachusetts colonists were waiting for Rev. Increase Mather to return home from England with a new governor, Sir William Phips, and joint monarchs William & Mary’s new charter. In the interim, four magistrates held examinations (hearings) to see if any of the accused should be held for trial. The jails in Salem, Boston, Ipswich, and elsewhere were filled with accused witches when Governor Phips arrived in May 1692. In short order, he established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle the witchcraft cases, before heading northward to handle military issues with the Native Americans.

Led by Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, the Salem court had an imposing job set before them: Discover witches during unruly public meetings filled with “afflicted accusers,” scared or disbelieving townspeople, and bewildering stories of possession, strange occurrences, unexplained deaths, animal familiars, black Sabbaths, and the like.

So, how did the judges and jury decide each case? In December 1641, the Massachusetts Bay Colony published the Body of Liberties. These 100 rules, which were based on both English law and Biblical law, were intended to be the foundation of the colony’s court system. And under rule 94, Capital Laws, number 2 it says:

“If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.”

Deuteronomy 18:10-11 had a much larger definition: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” But the Salem judges specifically were looking for Sarah Good’s yellow bird or Bridget Bishop’s cat.

So, let’s look at some of the other legal points and see how they pertained to the Salem Witch Trials.

26. Any man that findeth himself unfit to plead his own cause in any Court, shall have the liberty to employ any man against whom the Court doth not except, to help him provided he give him no fee or reward for his pains. This shall not except the party himself from answering such questions in person as the Court shall think meet to demand of him.

On 9 September 1692, sisters Sarah (Towne) Cloyse and Mary (Towne) Easty petitioned the court to allow testimony on their behalf, “seeing we are neither able to plead our own cause, nor is council allowed to those in our condition” (Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt, p. 620). These two eloquent women were fit to plead their cases, but clearly were not allowed to in the Salem court. They had no defense attorney and the judges were acting as prosecutors.

45. No man shall be forced by torture to confess any crime against himself nor any other unless it be in some capital case where he is first fully convicted by clear and sufficient evidence to be guilty. After which, if the cause be of that nature, that it is very apparent that there be other conspirators or confederates with him, then he may be tortured, yet not with such tortures as be barbarous and inhumane.

According to accused witch John Proctor, 18-year-old Richard Carrier and his 16-year-old brother Andrew Carrier, “would not confess anything till they tied them neck and heels till the blood was ready to come out of their noses” (Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World, 1700). The Carrier brothers had not even been indicted, much less been charged guilty before being tortured. 

46. For bodily punishments we allow amongst us none that are inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.

It goes without saying that peine forte et dure, or being pressed to death like Giles Corey, is “inhumane, barbarous, or cruel.” Once the rocks were placed on his prone form, even if the 70-year-old Corey changed his mind and started talking, he’d probably die from the internal injuries anyway. It took him two long and painful days to die.

47. No man shall be put to death without the testimony of two or three witnesses, or that which is equivalent thereunto.

Since witchcraft meant being in league with the Devil, it’s surprising that the justices did not rely on the opinion of several prominent ministers who were against using spectral evidence—visions seen only by the “afflicted accusers”—as the main reason to charge a person. Nor did the justices find conflict in accepting the words, visions, and bodily contortions of the “afflicted accusers” that, if believed, one could say were possessed by the Devil themselves. The “afflicted accusers” often supported each other's testimonies or mimicked each other during the trials while confessed witches claimed to have seen the accused at witch meetings. Robert Calef called the accusers “lying wenches…[who] let loose the devils of envy, hatred, pride, cruelty, and malice against each other.”

Since the court was using confessors to find more witches, the confessors were spared. In most circumstances, confessing to a crime was as good as or better than having two witnesses. Yet none of the confessors were hanged before Governor Phips stopped the trials.

94 Capital 11. If any man rise up by false witness, wittingly and of purpose to take away any man’s life, he shall be put to death.

For the many accused witches who pleaded their innocence, they must have thought the “afflicted accusers” or confessed witches were either possessed by the Devil or liars. However, after the trials were over, we don’t hear much backlash against the accusers or the judges and jury. Some disappear from the records, while others, such as Judge Stoughton, continued to be prominent members of society. None were accused of any wrongdoing from the trials themselves, though Judge Samuel Sewall, numerous jurymen, and accuser Ann Putnam Jr. publicly asked for forgiveness for their part in the trials. Their guilt was their only punishment.


13 October 2013

20 executed in Salem 1692

During the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, 14 women and five men were hanged for witchcraft and one man was pressed to death.

Hanged 10 June 1692
Bridget Bishop


Hanged 19 July 1692
Sarah Good
Elizabeth Howe
Susannah Martin
Rebecca Nurse
Sarah Wilds


Hanged 19 August 1692
George Burroughs
Martha Carrier
George Jacobs Sr.
John Proctor
John Willard


Pressed to Death 19 September 1692
Giles Corey


Hanged 22 September 1692
Martha Corey
Mary Easty
Alice Parker
Mary Parker
Ann Pudeator
Wilmot Redd
Margaret Scott
Samuel Wardwell


Rest in peace.


12 October 2013

10 misconceptions about the 1692 witch hunt

Salem Witch Trials Memorial
If your ancestors lived in Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 17th century, at some point they were affected by the Salem witch trials of 1692. Perhaps they were one of the accused witches, one of the participants (afflicted “girls,” accusers, judges or jury members), one of the trial attendees, or watched, as Rev. Nicholas Noyes said, the “firebrands of hell hanging there.” Perhaps they were neighbors of the accused or the accusers—or maybe they lived far enough away from the vortex. But, undoubtedly they knew about the events in Salem, whether from experience, word-of-mouth, ministers preaching, or reading various treatises on the subject.

More than 300 years have passed since the witch hunts, and over time, much has been lost, from original court papers to buildings associated with the trials. It’s as if the communal memory was erased, once men such as Rev. Cotton Mather and Robert Calef wrote their books. In the 19th century, after Salem’s maritime fortunes were on the wane, writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles W. Upham returned to the theme of witchcraft. Since then, many theories have been proposed of what really did happen in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to cause more than 150 people to be imprisoned for witchcraft—and the answers still elude us today. 

A Discovery of Witches

Although we’ve lost much through the passage of time, we’ve also heard, seen, or read many things that are not true—from Salem tourist attractions, popular media, and even scholars—about the witch hunts of 1692. So let’s clear up 10 misconceptions.
  • No accused witches in Colonial America were burned at the stake. Witchcraft was a capital offense, which meant death by hanging. In continental Europe, witchcraft was heresy against the church and punishable by burning at the stake. 
  • What is now called Gallow’s Hill in Salem is not necessarily where the accused witches were hung. The location is unknown today.
  • Judge Jonathan Corwin’s house, now called the Witch House, is billed as “the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the witchcraft trials of 1692.” Yes, the wealthy judge lived there, but were any of the accused witches brought there? Probably not.
  • Salem is considered the epicenter of the 1692 witch hunt. However, the first accusations were from “afflicted” girls in Salem Village, now the town of Danvers. The witch hunt spread to other towns, most notably Andover. Salem’s role was mostly judicial; Salem is where the Court of Oyer and Terminer tried people accused of witchcraft and where the 20 victims were executed. The accused were jailed not only in Salem but in such places as Boston and Ipswich.
  • The “afflicted accusers” were not all girls. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams were the first to have strange fits. However, their “affliction” spread to the young and old, men as well as women and children.
  • Old, poor widows were not the only ones accused of witchcraft. People jailed for witchcraft in 1692 range in age from four years old to in their 80s, both male and female. Some were poor, some were wealthy. The first three people arrested for witchcraft were 38-year-old beggar Sarah Good; sickly, widowed Sarah Osborne; and a West Indies slave, Tituba, who lived in Rev. Samuel Parris’ household. Sarah Good was hanged, Sarah Osborne died in jail, and Tituba, who pleaded guilty, survived. 
  • Though Upham and many other writers claim Tituba told stories of voodoo and the Devil to impressionable young girls, starting the witch hunt, no contemporary accounts point fingers at Rev. Parris’ slave. Images from the trials are of witches on broomsticks, witches with animal familiars (a yellow bird was rather popular), witches signing the Devil’s book in blood, heretical baptisms and communions—all centuries-old Western European themes, not voodoo. Mary Sibley had the help of John Indian, Rev. Parris’ other slave, in making the witchcake, maybe not Tituba. In the Danvers church records, Rev. Parris believed the “diabolical means” of making the witchcake “unleashed the witchcraft in the community.” 
  • Bridget Bishop, one of the most notorious accused witches and the first to hang, was not the red corset-wearing tavern keeper as often portrayed. In 1981, David L. Greene, editor of The American Genealogist, proved how Bridget Bishop of Salem Town and Sarah Bishop of Salem Village were conflated into one person. Both were married to men named Edward Bishop. 
  • The youngest victim, Dorothy Good, is mistakenly called Dorcas in most books about the Salem witch trials. Dorcas is the name Judge John Hathorne wrote on her original arrest warrant, though he wrote Dorothy on subsequent records. (The name Dorcas is not a nickname for Dorothy.) According to William Good, his daughter Dorothy “a child of 4 or 5 years old was in prison 7 or 8 months and being chain'd in the dungeon was so hardly used and terrifyed that she hath ever since been very chargeable haveing little or no reason to govern herself” (petition for compensation, Salem, 13 September 1710).
  • Although the last executions for witchcraft occurred on 22 September 1692, there were more trials, and even some guilty convictions. In March 1693, four weeks after she was found not guilty of witchcraft, Lydia Dustin died in prison because her family could not pay her jail fees.
The more you learn about the 1692 witch hunts in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the better you can understand the times and trials your ancestors lived through.

Select Sources:

“Danvers Church Records,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 11 (April 1857)


Demos, John Putnam, Entertaining Satan (1982)

Greene, David L., “Salem Witches I: Bridget Bishop,” The American Genealogist, Vol. 57 (July 1981)


Rosenthal, Bernard, Salem Story (1993)

Rosenthal, Bernard, editor, Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt (2009)