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 Gallows Hill in Salem is not where the accused witches were hanged. In early 2016, the Gallows Hill Project team verified conclusions made by early 20th century historian Sidney Perley that the victims were hanged at Proctor's Ledge, on the lower slope of Gallows Hill bounded by Proctor and Pope streets. In 2017, a memorial was created and dedicated at that location.
  • 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.

updated 2017

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) 

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