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Spooky Special- What Really Happened at the Salem Witch Trials?

Image: Bettmann Archive

Last week, Dan and I were on a weekend trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In our downtime, we began looking for vortexes to check out. In our research, we discovered that there are different kinds of vortexes: spiritual vortexes where you can connect with higher powers (spirit guides, ETs, God, if you will) easily and vortexes where it's easier to connect with the spirit realm. Some call it a hotspot for paranormal activity, but as Bashar always says, it's about your intention.

Salem, Massachusetts, is one of these hotspots. It's also a popular spot to visit, especially around Halloween. When you think about Salem, you probably think of witches or how movies and tv shows portray witches. But what really happened to set off the series of events that we now know as the Salem Witch Trials? Well, let's talk about it.

Let's go back in time to January 1692 to Salem Village in Colonial Massachusetts, and its residents are Puritans, a group of English protestants. It was one of the coldest winters Salem had ever seen.

Reverend Samuel Parris became Salem's first ordained minister in 1689. He moved from Boston to take the job opportunity, so when he arrived in Salem, he was an outsider. Parris was disliked by many of the residents in Salem from the start because he was paid a very high salary. Part of his minister's salary was paid in money, and the other was paid in firewood. Since it was very cold this particular winter, firewood was a hot commodity. Many people in Salem found Parris to be greedy and corrupt.

We all know how it goes-- the mixture of money and power is the perfect breeding ground for corruption. Power, back then, was very much mixed with religion.

The resources in Salem were strained due to a war started by the English ruler, King William, against France that destroyed what is now upstate New York, Montreal, and Canada. Refugees were sent to, you guessed it, Salem. In a town where resources were limited due to the cold weather, the extra people made it even worse. Additionally, the village had a smallpox epidemic sweeping though it.

Reverend Parris lived with his wife, Elizabeth, their four children, his niece, and their slave, Tituba. His youngest daughter Elizabeth, or "Betty," 9, was around the same age as his niece, Abigail, 11, so the two girls spend a lot of time together.

In one of the coldest winters Salem had ever experienced, Abigail and Betty begin acting strangely...

It is recorded that Abigail and Betty loved to spend their free time playing secret games. In one such game, the girls would ask a question about their future. They would then drop an egg yolk into a cup or bowl of water and watch what shape the egg yolk made. The shape would predict answers to questions like what their future husband’s profession would be. Similar to an ouija board, this type of game was very frowned upon in such a religious family and town. Aside from this, they were normal girls.

On a very cold and frigid day in January 1692, the usually well-mannered Betty and Abigail began acting strange. Their symptoms included: writhing and yelping, falling into trances, flying into the fireplace, being paralyzed from time to time, contorting their bodies into strange positions, and erratic speech. This went on for weeks.

Reverend Parris called in a doctor to figure out what was wrong with Betty and Abigail. The doctor determined that the two girls did not have an illness of the body but rather an illness of the mind. He declares that their minds are “under an evil hand.”

(Note: It is important to remind the reader that medical professionals were not what they are today. They didn't have the scientific advancements we have today (such as antibiotics.) Religion took precedence over science. The Puritans believed that the devil worked through human agents or witches.)

When Reverend Parris heard this news from the doctor, he knew his girls were under the spell of a witch. To top it off, another girl in Salem named Ann Putman starts acting like Betty and Abigail. The symptoms appear to spread, and soon there would be eleven "afflicted" girls.

Parris and other town officials like Magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne began asking the girls, “Are you under the spell of a witch?” They would drill into the girls that their minds were under the control of "an evil hand" and would pressure them for an answer as to who did this to them. They demand an answer from the girls, and on February 29, 1692, four of the afflicted girls give them one.

After pressure from town officials, the girls (though not in the right mind) admit they are under the spell of three women...

The four girls give the names of three women in the town: Tituba, the Parris' slave, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. Sarah Osborne was an impoverished older woman who had stopped attending church and, most importantly, had recently sued the family of the girl who accused her of being a witch. Sarah Good was a poor pregnant mother with a four-year-old daughter. She was said to have been a beggar and was in debt due to her first husband. She had a second husband, who we'll talk about in a moment.

The girl’s accusations are used in court as hard evidence, and a trial is held. This trial, along with the strange behavior of the girls, set off full-blown mass hysteria.

At first, Tituba denies harming the girls in any way. Then, she changed her tune. She confessed that she signed the "Devil's Book" with blood and had been practicing witchcraft under the devil's orders. She also confessed that she had enlisted Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne to practice witchcraft with her, although they denied this accusation.

It is speculated (and likely) that Reverend Parris tortured and beat Tituba until she agreed to confess. Regardless, Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne were placed in jail.

Sarah Good's second husband turned on her during her trial. In the frenzy of witches running around Salem, he told the court that his wife was "a witch or would be one very quickly."

Tituba, for her confessions, was held in custody until May but then released.

(Note: It is often written that Tituba was a black woman who would tell stories of African magic to the little girls. In some accounts, she performed small acts of magic to entertain them. However, historians now believe she was an Indigenous woman. Historians also believe documenting her as a black woman was a way to erase the presence of Native American slaves from the New England colonies.)

Like wildfire, more and more witch accusations arise, including a four-year-old girl. The Governor orders the establishment of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle the growing amount of witch trials. While this court system sounds fancy, it allowed the use of spectral evidence and "witch cakes" made from urine.

The townspeople of Salem were hysteric. They couldn't trust anyone knowing that a witch, or a devil's agent, could be in anyone. More accusations of witchcraft appeared, and more people were in court. Governor William Phipps ordered the establishment of a Special Court to deal with these trials. The Special Court consisted of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide). While the Special Court sounds sophisticated, it wasn't. This court allowed the use of spectral evidence-- the testimony of dreams and visions. These trials also allowed special "tests" to determine if a person was a witch or not.

One strange test included mixing the accused witch's urine with rye meal and ashes to bake a "witch cake." Once baked, they would feed the cake to a dog in hopes that the "beast" would fall under the witch's spell. (Tituba taught the Puritans how to do this.)

Another test examined the body of a so-called witch to look for "Witch's Marks" or birthmarks, moles, sores, and tattoos. Having a third nipple, or a "Witch's Teat," was exceptionally bad. These marks were thought to be insensitive to pain.

During the test, the accusers would stab the markings on the "witch" with needles to prove that they didn't feel pain. (Spoiler: they did feel pain. So, they would repeatedly stab until they got their desired results, or the person would give in to stop being stabbed.) During the height of witch hunts, people would remove these marks from their bodies to avoid suspicion.

The first "witch," an unmarried older woman, is hanged.

The first case that the Special Court entertained was that of Bridget Bishop, an older woman who was known to gossip and act "promiscuously." She denied that she was a witch. If you haven't caught on-- the court system wanted a confession, and that's about it. They didn't seem concerned with finding hard facts that proved otherwise. In June, Bishop was the first person to be hanged for witchcraft on what is now called Gallows Hill.

Meanwhile, Sarah Good gave birth to her baby in jail, and the baby died. Shortly after, she was hanged. Sarah Osborne died in jail.

Hysteria hit a high when two other women, Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse, were accused. Both women had been upstanding members of the church. The people of Salem felt that if these two women could be witches, anyone could. Ann Putman accused Martha.

To make things worse, Dorothy, Sarah Good's four year-old-daughter was accused of being a witch. The little girl, practically still a baby, was questioned in court. Her answers were regarded as facts, and she was placed in jail, where she would live for eight months.

Martha Corey was sentenced on September 8, 1692, Martha was sentenced to death. Much of the evidence against her was spectral evidence-- or visions that witnesses, particularly Ann's father, Edward Putnam, had seen. For example, it is recorded that someone had a vision of Martha allowing yellow birds to nurse from a spot between her fingers.

Martha Corey's husband, Giles, fought for her innocence. However, by doing so, he was under suspicion. He was placed in jail. Like everyone else, they asked Giles if he was guilty or innocent. He refused to give them an answer. Due to not saying if he was innocent or guilty, the Special Court sentenced him to peine forte et dure, which means "until he either answered or died." So, on September 19, 1692, Giles was placed under giant stones. He lay under the stones for two days and died before answering.

Martha Corey was hanged on September 22, 1692. Before her death, she said a prayer. (Author's Note: How sad is it that Martha said a prayer? What a terrifying situation. Martha was a devoted Christian.)

Along with Martha, seven other persons accused of witchcraft were hanged that day.

Respected Minister Cotton Mather urges the Special Court to stop allowing the use of spectral evidence in court. The letters are ignored until the Governor's wife is accused.

Between June and September, eighteen others were hanged. Respected minister, Cotton Mather, pleaded that this needed to stop. He wrote letters to the Special Court that the use of spectral evidence was not allowing fair trials. It was not allowed to be used in trials for any other crime. Cotton's father and President of Harvard, Increase Mathers, joined him in his fight.

The mass hysteria went on until Governor Phipps's wife, Mary Spencer Hull, was accused of being a witch, which led him to accept the pleas in Cotton Mather's letters finally.

In October of 1692, Phipps dissolved the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer and declared that the succeeding court would not be allowed to use spectral evidence. Between 1692 and 1693, 25 people lost their lives in the witch trials. 18 people were hanged, five died in jail, and Giles was pressed to death.

In May of 1693, Phipps pardoned and released all prisoners being held for witchcraft charges.