The Salem Witch Trials, 1692, and The “Burning Time”

Jerry Anderson December 12, 2015 Comments Off on The Salem Witch Trials, 1692, and The “Burning Time”

Salem, Massachusetts, was named after the word “salem” which means peace. The word “salem” is derived from the Hebrew “shalom” and the Arabic “salaam,” both of which mean “peace.” The town’s founders hoped that it would be a place of peace. Additionally, they had derived the name of the town as an abbreviated form of the holy, biblical city of Jerusalem. They hoped that this new town would develop into a wonderful city that would be the basis for a new Jerusalem in the New World. This entire concept would be challenged when, in 1692, 20 people were executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts.

The city of Jerusalem today.

The hysteria and mystery surrounding this event make it a subject of intense interest. The execution of 20 people and the jailing of over 400 people accused of witchcraft was small in comparison to the activities of religious and civil authorities in Europe who executed hundreds of thousands of people (some historians say the figure is much higher) for the same reason from the 1300s thru the 1700s. In Europe, during what is called “The Burning Time” (1400-1700 A.D.), it is estimated that at least 200,000 women and girls were hung, drowned or burned as witches. One of the reasons why this witch-hunting took place was that it was profitable. Anyone executed as a witch had all of their property and possessions confiscated by the government. The victim’s family was even charged for the torture, burning and beheadings inflicted on one of its members. They would even get an inflated bill for the rope used to hang their loved one.

Families of victims were billed for the rope used to hang a “convicted” witch.

In the Middle Ages animals, as well as people, were tried and publicly executed for witchcraft. Birds, wolves, insects, cats, dogs and many other animals were victims of ecclesiastical courts who accused these animals of being witches and heretics. The were punished by being excommunicated, tortured and killed. The last such trial took place in 1740, when a French judge found a cow guilty of sorcery and sentenced it to be hung by its neck until it was dead. In 1386, also in France, a judge ordered a pig to have its legs broken and mutilated, and to then be hanged, for the killing of a little girl. The pig was dressed up in the child’s jacket and dragged to the town square just as if it had been a condemned human criminal or witch. There, the public watched and cheered as the torture and execution was carried out.

1386, execution of a pig in France for witchcraft.

Execution of a dog found guilty of witchcraft.

This enthusiasm for uncovering followers of the Devil spread to the New World. During the 1600s, some 32 people were executed for witchcraft in the American colonies. The special court set up in Salem in 1692 to investigate accusations of witchcraft allowed psychological pressure and abuse, as well as torture, to obtain confessions. It also ruled that anyone who confessed, identified fellow witches, and repented would go free. The court even allowed what was called “spectral evidence” to be used during trials, meaning that a person could testify concerning visions and/or dreams they had concerning the identity of the “witch” who was tormenting them.

Tituba, telling tales to the teen-age girls of Salem.

The affair began after a group of mostly teen aged girls gathered in the kitchen of the home of a local Reverend, Samuel Paris. The Paris’ family slave, a woman named Tituba, was half African and half Carib. She entertained the girls with tales of African and West Indian magic and, it was assumed, demonstrated to them the manner in which to practice the “black arts.” Evidently, these tales caused a hysterical illness and/or overreaction in which some of the girls would fall down on the ground, howl and wail, and act as if they had been transformed into animals. A doctor was called in and he could find nothing physically wrong with the children. His conclusion was that they were, in fact, “possessed” by demonic spirits. These symptoms spread to many of the children in Salem village, and the authorities reacted. They asked the children to name names. Who or what was tormenting them? The jail started to fill up and the witchcraft trials began.

Rebecca Nurse, first found innocent, and then guilty. Double jeopardy?
One accused woman, Rebecca Nurse, an individual of outstanding reputation in the community, was found not guilty by the jury deciding her fate. However, when the verdict was read aloud in the courtroom several young girls began to writhe in grotesque postures, wail and howl, fall upon the floor and screamed that they were seeing spirits flying about the courtroom tormenting them. The judge then asked the jury to retire and reconsider their verdict. They soon brought back a verdict of guilty. Not long afterward, Rebecca Nurse and four other women were hung on nearby “Gallows Hill.”

Gallows Hill Park today. The spot where the hangings took place.
Four men were condemned to death as “warlocks” (the male equivalent of a witch) during the trials. One, a Reverend George Burroughs, was accused of seducing young girls to practice witchcraft by giving them fine, colorful clothes and then biting them on their arms. The girls who accused him did, in fact, have bite marks n their arms, and, in court, Reverend Burroughs’ mouth was pried open so the jury could examine his teeth. They came to the conclusion that it was his teeth that had created the bite marks on the arms of the girls and he was condemned to death.

The “pressing” to death of Giles Corey.
An eighty year old man named Giles Cory was accused of witchcraft but refused to plead either guilty or not guilty before the court. According to the “common law” of the time he was staked to the ground and heavy weights were piled upon his chest until he would consent to plead one way or the other. This was done in an open field next to the jail in which he was being held. A large crowd watched. Giles Corey was crushed underneath the tremendous weights placed upon him but he would not utter a word. At last, as another heavy stone was placed upon the already large pile atop his chest, he said his only words, “More weight”, and died.

Cotton Mather
A repulsive reaction to these proceedings set in and by the end of 1692 those accused and condemned for witchcraft were released from jail or pardoned by the Governor of the colony. The witch trials had come to an end. But in 1693, the famous Puritan minister, theologian and writer Cotton Mather wrote a defense of the trials saying that New England was a battleground where the forces of God and of Satan were to clash. He saw the outbreak of witchcraft at Salem as the reaction of the Devil to the Christian settlement of this New World pagan continent.

Meanwhile, outside in the street…

But, belief in witches did not end. As late as 1787, outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, while the “Founding Fathers” were writing and debating the new Constitution, a mob of men and women attacked and killed an accused witch. It was an ugly counterpoint to the debates about civil and political rights going on inside the Hall. And the Salem witch trials remain a stain upon the early history of our country. What have we learned from them?

Arthur Miller
When Arthur Miller wrote his famous play The Crucible about the Salem witch trials he used the events in Salem, Massachusetts, as a reference point with which to compare the communist witch hunts of the 1950s led by Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. As an anonymous historian once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Sen. Joe McCarthy, leader of the communist “witch hunts” of the 1950s.
To wrap up this story I offer two short You Tube videos. The first is a 5 and one-half minute summation of what happened during the Salem Witch Trials and the possible causes for this notorious event.

The second video is a clip from the TV show “The Simpsons” with its irreverent, comic take on a serious episode from our nation’s past.

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