There’s a lot of misinformation that’s been spread about the Salem witch trials over the centuries. If you ask most people, they’ll tell you that Salem, Massachusetts drew out the unfair and brutal trials of so-called witches for years.
That’s untrue. In fact, the Salem witch trials only took place over the course of a couple years. What happened during those years? Read on to learn more.
What Prompted the Salem Witch Trials?
The Salem witch trials started in Europe. From as far back as the 1300s, religious people believed that the Devil would manifest himself through people. He would allow them powers to harm others – all they had to do was profess loyalty to Him.
For over three hundred years, thousands upon thousands of accused witches were put to death. They were executed by burning, hanging, drowning, beheading and a host of other methods.
Then, just as the witch craze was dying down in Europe, it began in the colonies. A man named Samuel Parris had recently been ordained the minister of Salem, Massachusetts. The man was greedy, cantankerous and generally disliked by the people of Salem.
Unfortunately for the Parris family, Samuel’s daughters had troubles, too. Elizabeth and Abigail were just small – 9 and 11 respectively. But when they began to do some strange things, all hell broke loose.
The girls would contort into unnatural positions, scream, throw objects and were all-around hard to get along with. The locals blamed a paranormal entity. A doctor agreed.
Just a month after the girls started acting up they, along with another girl, Ann Putnam, blamed three women for their episodes. The women were Tituba, a slave, Sarah Good, a homeless woman and Sarah Osborne, a little old lady.
The Salem Witch Trials
The three women were put to trial, and it was Tituba who said, in essence, “the Devil made me do it.” She described a paranormal “shadow man” who made her sign a book.
Paranoia struck little Salem, and the witch trials began. An already impoverished people were put under more stress. The last thing they needed was the Devil himself walking amongst him.
Over the course of the next year, 19 men and women were hanged at the gallows for practicing witchcraft. Over 150 more were accused, but not convicted. The whole ordeal lasted less than two years. So how have the Salem witch trials earned such an important page in the history books? Probably because of the methods they used to test witches.
Salem Witch Tests
Now, it should be noted that the Europeans had some bizarre ways of testing for witchiness. They’d strip them down in public and examine them for signs of the Devil. When they found birthmarks or moles, they’d stick those spots with needles to see if they’d bleed.
They’d bind the accused witches and toss them into water. If they sank, they weren’t witches (and would likely drown anyway.) If they floated, they were witches (and would be put to death).
Some of these practices were carried over to the Salem witch trials. Salem women were bound and drowned, too. It was said that they, having been marked by the Devil, would float as to avoid baptism.
Witch’s cakes were also used in Salem. The townspeople would create witch’s cakes from the urine of the accused, adding some ash and rye-meal. That was then fed to a dog, who would supposedly fall under the witch’s spell and speak the witch’s name.
In some cases, accused Salem witches were forced to read the Lord’s prayer or another selection from the Bible. They were to do this without making any mistakes. Understand, of course, that most women in the 1600s were illiterate.
How Were Convicted Witches Killed?
Of course, there are stories of the accused drowning or dying during the trial itself. But those witches who were convicted? With one exception, they were hanged.
There were a total of 19 “witches” who were hanged during the Salem witch trials. According to the Salem Witch Museum, they are:
- Bridget Bishop
- George Burroughs
- Martha Carrier
- Martha Corey
- Mary Easty
- Sarah Good
- Elizabeth Howe
- George Jacobs, Sr.
- Susannah Martin
- Rebecca Nurse
- Alice Parker
- Mary Parker
- John Proctor
- Ann Pudeator
- Wilmott Redd
- Margaret Scott
- Samuel Wardwell
- Sarah Wildes
- John Willard
Notably absent from this list is the name of Giles Corey. He was pressed to death during his trial.
Pressing is an ugly death. The subject is stripped of clothes and made to lie down. A heavy board is placed on the body of the accused, and boulders are placed on the board.
Giles Corey was pressed for two days. He simply would plead neither innocent nor guilty. Instead of an answer, he would reply, “more weight.”
Visiting Salem, Massachusetts
Visitors to Salem today can tour the Salem Witch Museum. The museum is open year-round, except for select dates in January. Call ahead to ensure the museum is open. Touring the museum, you’ll see life-like sets and take a self-guided tour.
Elsewhere in Salem are quite a few haunted house attractions and tributes to the Salem witch trials. You can visit the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers, or tour the Gallows Hill Museum. Reenactments of the witch trials take place around the city throughout the year.
Should you visit Salem, keep an eye out for the ghosts of the executed witches. Giles Corey, in particular, is frequently seen around the town of Salem. He’s been spotted in the graveyard as well as in the Joshua Ward House.
The ghost of George Corwin has been seen in Salem, too. Corwin, however was not an accused witch. He was, in fact, the sheriff who signed the warrants for execution. That’s not before strangling and torturing the accused in his own basement.
The man was so hated that his family buried him in the cellar of his home. They feared his grave would be desecrated by angry townspeople. The body was later moved, but the spirit of George Corwin is still not at rest.