Salem Witch Trials
In January 1692, in Salem Village, Massachusetts, seven young girls between the ages of about 9 and 12 were diagnosed by a local doctor, Doctor William Griggs, as having been bewitched. They were having convulsions, screaming, and contorting their bodies in strange movements. In late February, three women of the community were arrested. One was Tituba, the Caribbean slave of Pastor Parris. Another was a homeless beggar, Sarah Good, and a third was a poor older woman named Sarah Osborn. The girls had accused these three women of bewitching them.
Belief in the power of witches to harm others began in Europe in the 1300's, and this belief was held throughout the New England colonies in the 1600's. Life was very hard for the Puritans who lived in Salem Village. Several events had happened just prior to the accusation of the three women. A smallpox epidemic had occurred. A war with the Indians ended in 1689. This left the settlers feeling nervous about their relations with the Indians, their own neighbors and residents of nearby Salem Village.
When the three witches appeared before the court, some of the girls had spasms and convulsions and screamed. The judges were Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne. Sarah Osborn and Sarah Good declared themselves innocent. Tituba confessed, maybe to save herself by testifying against the others. She claimed that other witches participated with her in serving the devil in Salem Village. People across Massachusetts as well as the neighboring communities developed great fear of the possibility of witches in their midst. Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey were then accused, among others. Even the four-year old daughter of Sarah Good was called a witch.
Several others were arrested as witches and implicated even more women. The trials soon became too much for the local courts to handle. Therefore, Governor William Phips made up a special court of Oyer and Terminer to hear these cases. Bridget Bishop was the first convicted on June 2 and hanged eight days later. Five more were hanged in July, five in August and eight in September on Gallows Hill. Eight other women died in jail. The husband of Sarah Osborn was stoned to death because he refused to say whether he was guilty or innocent in court.
Reverend Cotton Mather spoke loudly against convicting women as witches just by seeing the convulsions, screaming and contortions. This is called 'spectral evidence', judging just by what you see. His father, Increase Mather, was President of Harvard College. He told the courts to demand the same kind of evidence in the witch cases as they would in any other trial. The Governor did away with the special courts in October 1892. He stated that any further trials would need more real evidence before conviction. Fewer trials occurred. In May, all those who were in jail on the charge of witchcraft were released.
The Massachusetts General Court held a day of fasting in 1697 for the terrible wrongs done to the women in Massachusetts. Samuel Sewall, the leading judge, apologized for what he had done. The Massachusetts Colony legally restored the good reputations of those convicted. In 1711, they made financial restitution to the families of those who had been hanged. The bad feelings and guilt lasted for a long time in history. In 1953, Arthur Miller wrote a play called The Crucible in which he dramatized the events of 1692.
Scientists have always been curious about what could have caused the symptoms in the girls. In 1976, a study published in Science magazine suggested that they were victims of a fungus called ergot. This is found in wheat, rye and other grains. It causes delusions, vomiting and muscle spasms.
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