Historical Fiction, History, Research, Wanderer Among Shadows

Interesting Things I Learned about the Salem Witch Trials and the Puritans

(Cover image: Statue of Rebecca Nurse and her sisters at the Salem Wax Museum)

During the course of my research of the Salem Witch Trials I found out some interesting things that I think would be fun to share with you all. Likewise, there are some random but fascinating facts about the Puritans that I want to share. But first, let me dispel some myths about the trials and Puritans:

  • No one was burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials. Under English law witchcraft was punished by hanging and as Massachusetts was an English colony, those convicted of witchcraft were hanged.
  • Confessing did not mean that someone was spared execution; it only usually caused their execution to be postponed. Fortunately, for those who confessed in 1692, their executions and/or trials were postponed long enough for them to be either reprieved before they went to the gallows or to be found not guilty under the reconvened court in January 1693.
  • It wasn’t just young girls who claimed to be afflicted in 1692, adult men and women made accusations of spectral torment as well.
  • The Puritans didn’t just wear black; they wore all sorts of colors.

Now on to what I learned about the trials and the Puritans through my research:

1. The judicial system was rigged against the accused (even more than you thought).

The unfairness of the legal system during the Salem Witch Trials went beyond hysterical girls pointing fingers. The allowance of spectral evidence, evidence that involved the accused sending out their spirit to harm someone, made it hard for a suspected witch to prove their innocence as it was very much a she said-she said situation. If a suspect tried to claim that the devil took their shape to harm the afflicted, it came to no good as the belief held by some of the judges that the devil could only spiritually represent a guilty person prevailed. It was hard to prove innocence anyway as the modern legal concept of innocent until proven guilty was very much the opposite in 1692. Some of the accused were also tortured into confessing as in the case of Richard and Andrew Carrier, the sons of the executed Martha Carrier.

The accused were also not allowed to have lawyers represent them, something we would gape at today. It is then understandable to see how a housewife or teenager with no legal background could be lead into making an admission of guilt by experienced magistrates. The judges could also sway members of the jury in disastrous ways. For example, Rebecca Nurse was initially found not guilty by the jury, but the court objected to the verdict and Magistrate William Stoughton told the jury to reconsider words Nurse had spoken that seemed to imply her guilt. When the jury reconvened, they found Nurse guilty and she was later hanged. The only thing that appears to have worked in the favor of the accused is their ability to have jury members replaced if they did not think they would be impartial.

2. Puritans had harsh punishments for simple “offenses.”

One notion you may have about the Puritans that is correct is just how strict they could be. The Puritans took the commandant of resting on the Sabbath very seriously. A person could be fined or put in the stocks for any sort of labor, even tending to their garden, or for unnecessary walking or travelling on Sunday. One man was put in the stocks for kissing his wife on the Sabbath after returning from being away at sea for three years. A person could also be fined or whipped for fornication, and you can only imagine how many people would be paying up today. Being of a different faith could get someone in trouble too. Quakers in particular were subjected to such punishments as whipping, branding, or maiming.

3. Memories were long and gossip spread far.

Many people who were accused in 1692 were the victims of prior accusations and gossip. For example, Bridget Bishop had been accused of witchcraft more than ten years before 1692 and the previous suspicion of witchcraft upon her came back to haunt her during the trials. Her case illustrates that people didn’t forget such taints on one’s reputation so quickly. Sarah Wilds had once been accused by Mary Reddington of using witchcraft to harm her, only for the charge to repeat 15 years later. Likewise, William Brown was called to testify against Susannah Martin in 1692 for supposedly afflicting his wife more than thirty years earlier. Gossip was also capable of reaching towns far outside of their place of origin. Martha Carrier and her family were never really liked by their neighbors, and when they moved to her hometown of Andover sometime in the late 1680s, they were blamed for a smallpox outbreak in the town in 1690 that left thirteen people dead. This gossip reached all the way to Salem Village when the afflicted girls there not only complained that Carrier had tormented them, but that she had killed 13 people in Andover.

Depiction of one of the hangings at the Salem Wax Museum

4. Puritans were more supportive of the mentally ill than later generations.

We tend to think of the mentally ill in previous centuries as being locked up in asylums where they were subjected to painful and inhumane medical treatments. The 17th century Puritans instead cared for the mentally ill in their own homes and communities. They created laws to ensure that communities were providing for the mentally ill when they could neither care for themselves nor had family that could sufficiently do so for them. Those suffering from mental health issues could be exempt from paying taxes and family members provided for them in their wills. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the mentally ill were being kept in asylums with more regularity. I will likely do a future post where I go deeper into how Puritans dealt with mental health.

5. Andover had its own witch hunt.

Of course I knew that people from Andover, MA were accused in 1692 from when I first wrote my novel, but I assumed it was only because of the girls from Salem Village being brought in to find witches in the town. When I redid my research several years later, I realized that it was much more complex than that. The first person to be accused in the town was Martha Carrier as previously noted. The accusation against her may have been the only one in Andover had it not been for Joseph Ballard. Ballard was an Andover resident whose wife had been seriously ill in 1692. Believing her illness may be the result of witchcraft, he had two of the afflicted girls from Salem (sources conflict as to which two) brought in to find witches in Andover. The first three women to be accused in Andover after the Salem girls arrived set a dangerous precedent. Ann Foster, Mary Lacey Sr., and Mary Lacey Jr. not only confessed to witchcraft, but accused each other and then accused the family members of Martha Carrier.

This pattern continued with the Andover accused confessing and accusing others including their own family members. Andover acquired its own set of afflicted girls including Rose Foster, Martha Sprague, Sarah Phelps, and Abigail Martin. Accusations spread through family lines, with suspicion falling on the family members of those already accused. Many people in Andover confessed, perhaps from fear and nervousness but also perhaps from believing that it would save them from execution as only those who had maintained their innocence had been hanged in the first sets of executions. Some were pressured by their own family members into confessing for possibly much the same reasons. Ultimately, Andover had more accused residents than any other town including Salem Village and Salem Town combined. Public opinion in Andover shifted towards the end of 1692 and Andover residents wrote petitions on behalf of the accused. All of the town’s residents would be freed following the trials, except for four who died because of the witch hunt.

6. Puritans gave their kids crazy names.

The Puritans bestowed typical names such as Mary, John, Sarah, Joseph, Hannah, and Samuel upon their children. Many of these names came from biblical characters. Some of the names like Hopestill, Prudence, Obedience, and Humiliation reminded children to be virtuous. There were names that were ridiculously long like Fight-the-Good-Fight-of-Faith and If-Christ-had-not-Died-for-thee-thou-hadst-been-Damned. Then some were just bizarre such as Has-Descendants, Wrestling, Continent, and Fly-Debate.

7. An accused person could get out of jail on bail.

This fact somehow eluded me during my initial research at the age of twelve. While we are familiar with bail today, for some reason I did not think that it was possible for someone to be released on bail in 1692. Perhaps it is because we have this view of accused witches being left to languish in horrendous prison conditions until their trials by a strict, unbending court (which is not an altogether inaccurate idea). However, beginning in October of 1692, the court allowed some of the witch suspects, primarily children, to be released through recognizance, a form of bail. A few more were released in the succeeding months on the condition that they appear for their later court date.

Scene of Elizabeth Proctor in prison at the Salem Wax Museum

(All images are my own pictures and are meant for educational purposes. Please do not use them for your own content without my permission and without crediting me.)

Sources:

  • The University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive
  • The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege by Marilynne K. Roach
  • In the Shadow of Salem: The Andover Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Hite
  • In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton
  • “Crazy Brained”: Mental Illness in Colonial America by Larry D. Eldridge
  • Health and Wellness in Colonia America by Rebecca Tannenbaum
  • “Way More Than the Scarlet Letter: Puritan Punishments” and “From the Biblical to the Bizarre: Puritan Names” from the New England Historical Society
  • The Sabbath in Puritan New England, “Chapter. 17- The Observances of the Day” by Alice Morse Earle
  • “A Boy Named Humiliation: Some Wacky, Cruel, and Bizarre Puritan Names” by Joseph Norwood

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