A Documentary History of the Salem Village
Witchcraft Outbreak of March 1692
The Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692 is one of the most notorious incidents of colonial American history. Historian Richard B. Trask has re-examined, newly transcribed and arranged in chronological order all the legal, ecclesiastical and other surviving sources relating to the beginnings of the witchcraft hysteria during March 1692. Also included is the important witchcraft sermon, Christ’s Fidelity, delivered in March by Rev. Deodat Lawson and reprinted here for the first time since its 1704 publication.
The important characters of the witch outbreak come alive to the reader, who learns what they said and did, and how this local incident evolved into the largest “witch hunt” in American history. Cases represented include those of Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn, Tituba, Martha Cory and Rebecca Nurse. To help the reader capture an inclusive picture of 1692, the author begins with a helpful introduction, and appends sections dealing with the population of the 1692 village, biographies of the 67 chief characters, excerpts from English witchcraft volumes used by the Salem inquisitors, and narratives of the March events recorded by 17th century writers. Illustrated are an early map of the center of Salem Village, a portrait of Rev. Samuel Parris, artifacts excavated from the minister’s parsonage in 1970, and pictures of sites, houses and documents.
Nineteen witchcraft documents, previously thought to be lost forever, have been discovered and gathered by the author and are reproduced here together for the first time! Dating between April and September 1692, these documents include examinations, indictments, and depositions relating to accused witches Giles Cory of Salem Farmes, Mary English of Salem, Margaret Scott of Rowley, Rachel Clinton of Ipswich, Mary Lacey, Sr. and Jr., Richard Carrier and Rev. Francis Dane of Andover, Margaret Prince and Joanna Penny of Gloucester, Mary Green and Hannah Bromage of Haverhill, and Rev. George Burroughs of Wells, Maine. The preliminary examination of Cory, who was later tortured to death, is the only record of his words to the court in 1692; while the six documents relating to Margaret Scott, who was executed on September 22, 1692, adds significant information to the only two previously known manuscripts concerning her case.
The Devil Hath Been Raised is a 6 inches x 9 inches sewn, acid-free
paper, soft-cover book including 196 pages and 10 illustrations.
“THE DEVIL hath been raised amongst us, & his Rage is vehement & terrible, & when he shall be silenc’d the Lord only knows.” So wrote Samuel Parris, the pastor of Salem Village, in his church record book in late March 1692 when confronted with what was discovered to be a diabolical occurrence taking place in this small Massachusetts hamlet.
What at first seemed only a localized witchcraft outbreak soon would spread rapidly and by the end of May 1692 people from communities as distant and diverse as Salem, Billerica, Andover, Charlestown, Marblehead, Lynn, Reading, Topsfield, Gloucester, Malden, and Beverly would be accused by various “afflicted persons” of using witchcraft upon them. By the fall of 1692 over 150 people had been examined and sent to prison. Men and women, both rich and influential as well as poor and hapless, were enmeshed in frightening legal confrontation. Some 50 falsely confessed to being witches who, in exchange for special powers and favors, had made a covenant with the Devil to assist in his assault upon the people of the colony. Nineteen persons who staunchly maintained their innocence were tried, found guilty and hanged, while one old man was tortured to death, and at least five others died in prison succumbing to harsh conditions and treatment.
The story of the Salem Village witch hysteria is a minor, though well-known footnote in American colonial history. Its popular fascination has continued to make it the subject of innumerable scholarly as well as superficial books and articles. In our own time the expression “A Salem Witch Hunt” is often used as a universal phrase which points to a scapegoating position taken by people or groups emphasizing hysterical, blindly illogical and intolerant actions or expressions.
What was the cause of the historical 1692 Salem witch hunt, the largest witch outbreak in America, that occurred at a time when the earlier, massive witch hunts of Europe were on the wane? Writers and researchers since the last decade of the 17th century down to the present time have been trying to find a theory or an explanation to this question. Colonial clerics, including John Hale and Cotton Mather, saw these events as the direct intervention of the Devil attacking the Puritan Commonwealth and being partially successful as the result of a religious backsliding of New Englanders and the use by civil authorities of ill-conceived traditions and non-biblical principles to discover who was a witch. Later authors would come up with a wealth of hypotheses to describe the causes, postulating among other explanations that it resulted from the pranks of bored adolescents, the influence of oligarchical and power-hungry clergy, local petty jealousies and land grabs, mental aberrations, spiritualist goings-on, political instability, a conspiratorial holding action against the disintegration of Puritanism, mass clinical hysteria, a clash between agrarian and emerging commercial interests, a continuation of the suppression of certain types of women, and even physical reactions to ingested fungus. Besides the mysterious quality of the subject matter, the Salem cases have always afforded the researcher a fairly extensive accumulation of primary source documents representing a diversity of people, yet combined with a body of knowledge that is manageable enough to be examined in microcosm.
The ordinary English Puritan settler in 17th century New England believed, as did his European counterpart, in the existence of a literal Devil and the possibility of witchcraft affecting his everyday life. Witches were thought to be humans, typically women, who had agreed to serve the Devil. In return for favors and certain amazing powers from the Devil, they attempted to help “The Old Deluder” bring ruin upon the Christian community.
On continental Europe beginning in the 15th century, literally tens of thousands of “witches” had been discovered and put to death. There, witchcraft was considered a heresy against the church, and heretics were burned at the stake. Because of geography and certain cultural and religious differences, England had escaped the brunt of the continental-style witch hunts for many years. It was not until the mid-sixteenth century in England that witchcraft became a crime punishable by death. From then through the end of the 17th century an estimated one thousand English witches would be found out and hanged. In England witchcraft was considered a felony against the state, and felons were hanged. Major English witch outbreaks typically occurred during those periods of social or political strife as, for example, during the Civil War when in less than two years in the mid 1640s about 200 witches were executed following their discovery by a merciless and deceitful man named Matthew Hopkins, who was dubbed the “Witch Finder General.”
The English settlers of 17th century New England did on occasion find witchcraft at work within their various communities, and although a large-scale witch outbreak did not occur prior to 1692, over 90 individual complaints and accusations took place before that date.
One of the larger Massachusetts Bay towns was Salem, first occupied by Englishmen in 1626. Soon a large migration of people followed from the mother country. By the mid 1630s with the available land of this coastal community quickly diminishing and the desire for larger and better farmland, a group of settlers established homesteads to the west of Salem some five to ten miles from the town center. This area soon became known as Salem Village, and by the 1660s included a substantial collection of widely scattered farms.
Once established, the farmers or “villagers,” as they began to refer to themselves, saw that they had less and less in common with Salem and began to look towards their own self-interests. Many resented their subservient position to the more mercantile and distant townspeople, and beginning in 1667 with a group of villagers petitioning to be exempt from the Salem military watch, “considering how remote our dwellings are from the Town,” the farmers pressed towards becoming independent from their mother community. Salem, having previously lost significant territory to other developing settlements, was not eager to grant any such new request. For the major part of a century through delaying counter-proposals, political clout and obstinacy the town staved-off losing the valuable and taxable village territory.
Turning to the General Court for possible relief, the villagers petitioned for permission at least to build their own meeting house and hire a minister to preach among them. In 1672 Salem relented to the religious argument, and the village was allowed to establish a parish.
A parish was not an independent church, however, and although the villagers could choose from among themselves a five-man committee to assess support for a minister and a building, the chosen minister was not an ordained pastor and theirs was not an independent, covenant church. Villagers who desired full church membership and participation in communion at the Lord’s Table would continue to be required to travel the many miles to the Salem church. Though the villagers were free from paying Salem church rates, for all other purposes, taxing and political, they were legally part of Salem Town. Many but not all of the approximately 550 villagers still desired full independence, both ecclesiastical and political, from the town, and they pressed the issue on numerous occasions. It would not be until the 1750s, however, that Salem Village would be finally granted its full independence with the establishment of the Town of Danvers.
Even while they possessed a semblance of ecclesiastical independence, a divisive inter-village religious factionalism emerged resulting in much controversy during the three, short term, successive ministeries which served the village from 1672 to 1688. Ministers James Bayley, George Burroughs, and Deodat Lawson seemed never to gain the endorsement and support of more than a simple majority of the villagers, and typically found themselves entangled in heated, uncharitable controversy with a vocal minority. Upon finding the situation not worth the fight, each would unhappily depart the village.
In a 1682 letter villager Jeremiah Watts complained concerning the local factionalism, “Brother is against brother and neighbors against neighbors, all quarreling and smiting one another.” Still later in the 1680s during a dispute involving Rev. Lawson, a committee of arbitrators from Salem commented in their written advice to the village that “uncharitable expressions and uncomly reflections tost [sic] to and fro … have a tendency to make such a gap as we fear, if not timely prevented, will lett out peace and order and let in confusion and every evil work.” Among the arbiters in this February 1687 communication were future witchcraft judges John Hathorne and Bartholomew Gedney.
Although much of the contentiousness and quarreling over village ministers was indeed homegrown, Salem Town shared part of the blame in its heavy-handed dealings with the village. Salem Village was in an unenviable position. It sorely lacked those traditional institutions meant to assist in the governing and the stability of New England communities. The village church could congregate, tax itself, and worship, but was denied performing its own sacraments or holding its own covenant. The Village Committee could be elected and meet, but it was a governing body in name only, not able to act on its own or the inhabitants’ self-interest and forced to appeal to the town selectmen on any substantive issues. Though by no means the only explanation for the village’s problems with factionalism, this vacuum of power greatly exacerbated its difficulties. A not inconsequential number of villagers also had a vision and an empathy more in keeping with the mercantile interests of Salem Town rather than with the agrarian outlook of Salem Village. With these significant political, religious, social, and economic differences existing from without and from within the village society, it is not difficult to understand why the area had acquired a regional reputation for provincialism and ill-feeling.
By 1689 the villagers in a seemingly unusual spirit of cooperation pushed hard for a completely independent church, while at the same time hiring their fourth successive minister, Samuel Parris. By a chance of circumstances, the request was granted from the Salem mother church and on November 19, 1689, the Rev. Mr. Samuel Parris was ordained pastor of the newly created and independent Church of Christ at Salem Village, with twenty-seven adults joining together in full covenant.
What at first seemed a fresh and positive beginning, soon took on the same old attitudes and style of former controversies. Thirty-five-year-old Rev. Parris was a novice to the ministerial calling, having engaged for much of his adult life in the mercantile field. After over a decade of attempting to make a successful living in the Barbados, West Indies, and then in Boston, Parris gradually changed his life’s course to become a minister for Christ. Through truncated negotiations in 1688 and 1689 with various small committees purporting to fully represent the will of the village inhabitants, Parris eventually acquired for himself what he felt to be adequate terms for his calling among the farmers. Though his salary was smaller and included less hard currency than he had initially desired, he concluded that it was sufficient for him and his family. He had also wrangled the major concession of full ownership of the village-built 1681 parsonage and its two-acre lot.
Unfortunately everyone had not been privy to the full terms of the agreement, or at least later claimed this to be the case. A vociferous minority, primarily of non-church member inhabitants, saw the settlement agreement as unwarrantable and an illegal give-away of their village-owned parsonage. As a contemporary chronicler of the witchcraft events, Robert Calef, would write of the parsonage dispute, “This occasioned great Divisions both between the Inhabitants themselves, and between a considerable part of them and their said Minister, which Divisions were but the beginning or Praeludium to what immediately followed.” Slowly festering, the controversy continued to build until by October 1691 the opposition faction made its move. In the annual election of the Village Committee, the old committee made up of the minister’s church supporters was ousted and a new committee composed of Joseph Porter, Francis Nurse, Joseph Putnam, Daniel Andrews, and Joseph Hutchinson, most if not all strong opponents of Parris, was installed. When called upon by the church in November 1691 to begin the gathering of taxes to support the ministry, the committee, whose primary duty this was, chose instead inaction. Thereupon, the church voted to sue the committee in court. The two village institutions had set their course of confrontation, and villagers were placed in the unenviable position of choosing sides. Meanwhile, his firewood supply virtually depleted, the minister entreated his congregation to provide him with wood for heating and cooking. Even this request was tinged with controversy. Parris expected the wood to be brought forth and stacked upon his wood pile by his respectful congregation. Most villagers, however, believed Parris’s salary included a wood allotment payment and that he should not presume to be above making arrangements for his own wood.
From the scant written sources which survive, Parris appears to have been a man of strong will who expected the deference from his people which was customarily given to respected community ministers. A good portion of the inhabitants were unwilling to give Parris, both as to his personal comfort among them and in their acknowledgment of him as their spiritual guide, either their generosity of spirit or of purse. An examination of Parris’s surviving sermon outlines, particularly those written during the last quarter of 1691, seem to include thinly veiled references to his dissatisfaction with his lot among them. He often preached on the theme of conflict between good and evil, Christ and Satan, and enemies who are both within and without the church.
Besides these ever-present conflicts within the village and between the village and the town, the inhabitants of Salem Village were part of the larger community of the Massachusetts Bay and New England. The times were full of uncertainty and apprehension. Many clergy spoke of the backsliding of the current generation of New Englanders into a less God-fearing and righteous-living society, and suggested that in answer to these sins God might allow tribulation to befall His wayward people. Indians and the French to the north were a constant threat. In early 1692 Abenaki Indians had resumed bloody warfare by viciously attacking settlements in Maine, killing or carrying off inhabitants at York and Wells and burning many houses. These attacks led Essex County people to fear that this was the beginning of another war on the scale of the King Philip’s War of the mid 1670s when many Salem Village soldiers had died and when the village had erected a watch house and fortified the meeting house. Indeed not too long before 1692 several young village men on duty elsewhere had died in Indian attacks.
The political scene in Massachusetts was also a matter of concern. In 1684 the colony had lost its self-governing charter and the Crown’s newly appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, arrived in 1686. It was unclear during this period if the land granted under the old charter would be considered valid by the new power. With the excuse of the “Glorious Revolution” in England, Massachusetts in 1689 revolted against Andros and set up its own commonwealth based on the old charter. Rev. Increase Mather had been sent to England as advocate for Massachusetts concerning a new charter. The success or failure of his venture was unknown and the cause of much apprehension. Thus the bleak midwinter of 1691-1692 was a period of uneasiness in the colony. Little Salem Village with its divisive social structure and scattered population faced not only consternation from without, but also a continuation of the institutional difficulties with Salem and significant internal stress over its own religious community.
Just when a strange malady first struck several children in the minister’s house and that of several of his neighbors’ homesteads is unclear. By late January and early February of 1692, a number of locals knew that something was amiss, however. Two of the youngsters in the Parris household, daughter Betty, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, together with Ann Putnam, Jr., the daughter of staunch Parris supporter Thomas Putnam, who lived less than a mile from the parsonage, were affected. Putnam’s wife’s niece, Mary Walcott, the 17-year-old daughter of Jonathan Walcott who lived within a stone’s throw of the parsonage, was also ” . . . afflicted by they knew not what distempers.” While it would later be speculated that these adolescent girls and perhaps others were dabbling in unhealthy and sinful games of divination, attempting to find out by means of white witchcraft their future fate, what caused their fits is not clearly known. Though presumed by later writers, it is unclear if Tituba, Rev. Parris’s Indian slave, had any hand in letting the impressionable girls have their forbidden sport and encouraged or at least did not prevent their irreligious games.
An undoubtedly chagrined Parris must have seen these young girls’ actions as extremely dangerous signs. The fits they exhibited were not simply playful; and instead of diminishing over time, they seemed to intensify and infect others. Rev. John Hale of Beverly, an observer of many of these early happenings, would in later years, describe the symptoms:
“These children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their armes, necks, and backs turned this way and that way …. Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choaked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move an heart of stone, to sympathize with them, with bowels of compassion for them.”
As these torments continued, they became the talk of the village, and many saw a clear comparison of what was presently occurring in Salem Village with the reported afflictions of the Goodwin children who had been tormented by a witch in Boston in 1689. Other classic English bewitchment cases were also brought to mind.
Rather than separating the affected children as had been done with successful results in the Boston case by Rev. Cotton Mather, the village parents seem to have allowed the children to keep together. This did not quiet the situation, but rather encouraged its festering. The anxious elders, undoubtedly guided by Rev. Parris, held prayer meetings with the children present. They also held private fasts and called upon the neighborhood ministers to visit and pray over the girls at the parsonage and elsewhere.
A local physician, most probably William Griggs, was also called to offer his assistance and advice. Finding no physical malady he could identify as to the cause, he suggested that their afflictions were likely to be the result of bewitchment, an explanation that others quickly embraced as logical considering the evidence. The teenage maid living with the Griggs family also became an early sufferer of this same strange affliction.
Once it was recognized that these were no epileptic-like seizures or anything of that type and that the problem was spreading to others, many felt that firm action had to be taken. The various private and public fasts and the patient, continual praying and the waiting upon Providence was too ineffectual for some. Concerned adults began pressing the young ones to discover who or what agent was hurting them.
Some sincere but meddling neighbors dabbled in white witchcraft in an attempt to discover the cause of the afflictions. Mary Sibley directed Parris’s slaves to concoct a witch cake utilizing the children’s urine, and when the minister later learned of this abomination occurring under his roof, he severely and publicly chastised the woman, and identified this occurrence as what he perceived to be the new and dangerous plateau of allowing the Devil entry into this sad and now horrific calamity.
Finally the girls, under now unknown pressures and from unclear sources, named three tormentors. The accused were the safe kind of victims to cry out upon. One, the minister’s slave, another a destitute woman of ill repute possessing a sharp tongue, and the third a sickly woman who had avoided church attendance for over a year and whose unsavory marital past had been the occasion for much gossip, were safe choices. With the swearing out of warrants for their arrest issued on February 29, 1692, Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn would become the first to be examined in relation to the girls’ afflictions. The events, the words and the actions that would transpire at their examination, and the testimony and evidence that would result would significantly transform this seemingly typical and local witch incident. And it would be during the critical first thirty-one days of the witchcraft outbreak that the course would be set, the confrontation joined and the community hysteria stoked, leading into the most dramatic, far reaching and deadly witch hunt in all of American history.
Online beginning August 2013