Perhaps the darkest and most infamous period in American Colonial history came to be known as the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. All in all, over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in the townships of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The most notorious of these was, of course, Salem Villiage (present day Danvers, Mass).The hysteria which swept through Salem ultimately resulted in 19 of its citizens being hanged for the crime of practicing witchcraft. Another one was pressed to death under rocks to gain his confession.

The Roots of Witch Hunting

It's not as though Salem invented rounding up "witches" and putting them to death. No, the practice was well rooted in Europe from the 1300's through the 1600's.  Tens of thousands of people in Europe's purge of "witches" were executed. Therefore, it's of little surprise that this belief was also a part of the cultural make-up of those who voyaged across the Atlantic to colonize the Americas. One of those commonly held beliefs was that Satan could give evil power to human "witches" in return for their loyalty to him.

Climate in Salem, 1692

It was a chaotic time in 1692 Salem Villiage. Salem was under Brittish rule, but had her charter revoked. People were pouring in from England to colonize a new land, fleeing from religious persecution. When a new anti-religious charter was put in place in 1691, a great feeling of uneasiness began to cut through the communities. The Christian Puritans feared they would come under secular attack again in the new land. Add to this, a deadly small pox epidemic that had cut through the community, and a stream of refugees trying to escape the King's war with France, up in Canada. Moreover, land disputes between the colonists and periodic attacks on the colony by Native American tribes added to a tense environment in Salem. However, not one of these factors alone is thought to be the sole reason for the mass hysteria sweeping through Salem Villiage at that time.


Enter the "Afflicted"

The "afflicted" refers to a group of nine bored, adolescent girls in Salem Villiage who were supposedly tormented by agents of Satan (witches) living among them. These girls took great delight in feigning seizures, contorting their bodies, and "crying out" the names of those who were possesing them. They would be overcome with their "affliction" in public places or at school. A local doctor was called in to examine the girls and he could come up with only one explanation- WITCHCRAFT. Upon the "crying out" of names by these girls, people were arrested and put on trial for their lives. Amazingly, at these trials, spectral evidence- evidence based on dreams and visions- was allowed. That is to say, these "afflicted" girls were summoned to the court and were allowed to go into trance-like states-- even describing to the court how they saw the "accused" flying above them in the rafters, despite being chained and shackled in court. Sadly, the presiding judges talked one another into seeing these spectres, often pointing their fingers to the rafters as well.


The first victims of the conniving girls tended to be the community's weakest members-- homeless women, street beggars, and a slave woman named Tituba. It was Tituba who once befriended the girls and taught them Voodoo dances from her native culture. Scholars today still dispute Tituba's precise heritage. But it was a woman named Bridget Bishop who was the first to be accused and tried. She was a woman of rather unwholesome reputation-- dressing provocatively and entertaining at "all hours of the night". Five of the nine girls had targeted her: Abagail Williams, Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, and Mercy Lewis. In April of 1692, a warrant was issued for Bishop's arrest, charging her with practing witchcraft. When she entered the courthouse, a number of the "afflicted" girls fell to the floor, writhing in pain, and howling that Bishop was causing it. She was the first to hang on June 10th of 1692.


The Height of the Hysteria

Soon, arrests were made on the accusations of people other than the nine "afflicted" girls. One man, Giles Corey, was accused by his own wife. He was pressed to death under rocks in an attempt to get him to confess. Ironically, if one confessed to their practice of witchcraft, they were spared a date with the hangman. Corey refused to confess and died under those rocks. By now, neighbor "cried out" against neighbor, resulting in dozens of arrests for practicing witchcraft.


But the execution of 71 year-old Rebecca Nurse sent shock waves through the Salem community and began to turn the tide against the witch hunts. Nurse was widely believed to be an upstanding citizen and a righteous pillar of the community. She was "cried out" by a number of the "afflicted" girls, including Putnam, Williams, Walcott, and Hubbard. It was no strange coincidence that Nurse and her husband had been in a long standing land dispute with their neighbors- the Putnams. All of Nurse's accusers were either Putnam relatives or close friends. There was a great public outcry against the arrest of Rebecca Nurse, and many of Salem's citizens testified in her defense. It was enough to find Nurse not guilty. But renewed fits and spasms by the girls caused the jury to ask the magistrate to have their verdict reconsidered. They changed the verdict, and Nurse was hanged on July 19th of 1692. Hanged with her that day, were Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, and Sarah Wildes. Nurse's sister, Mary Easty, was hanged September 22nd alongside Martha Corey, Anne Pudiator, Wilmot Red, Sam Wardwell, Margeret Scott; and the last to be executed for witchcraft, Mary Parker. Elizabeth Proctor survived jail and was later released. Abagail Faulkner died in prison awaiting her release.


Sadly, years later, Ann Putnam publically renounced the accusations of those she accused.


The Aftermath

In October of 1692, Governor William Phipps, growing weary of the spectacle in Salem, ordered the closure of the court of Oyer (meaning "to hear") and Terminer (meaning "to determine") which was run by Chief Justice William Stoughton. Phipps replaced it with the Superior Court of Judicature. This court disallowed any type of spectral evidence that had been previously allowed in Stoughton's court. Executions came to a halt. The new court pardoned all those awaiting death sentences and released those awaiting trial. Phipps effectively ended the Salem Witch Trials that had resulted in 19 hangings, 1 person being pressed to death, and as many as 12 more who died in prison.


The Novel- Dark and Dreadful Forest: Pharaoh's Revelation

Dark and Dreadful Forest: Pharaoh's Revelation. . . is a fictional thriller partly rooted in the darkest days of American Colonial history-- The Salem Witch Trials. Although some of the names have been changed, and characters and events added, Dark and Dreadful Forest... captures the true aura of that time, using glimpses from the diary entries of a terrified 12 year-old girl whose very mother has been "cried out" by the the "afflicted".

The Salem Witch Trials

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