It began in the first days of the year 1692 in Salem Village, Massachusetts. Wooden houses stood shuttered against the cold, their thatch roofs covered with snow, smoke rising from their chimneys. In the center of this small Puritan community stood the church meetinghouse.
In the history of mankind up to that time many a witch had been put to death. A war against the devil had been raging in Europe for centuries. When the Puritans sailed for America they left what has been called “The Burning Times.” Although accurate count is impossible, between the years 1500 and 1650 tens of thousands of witches were burned at the stake. These executions were seen as a just and necessary response to the dangers posed by witches, for they were mankind’s most malevolent enemies. It wasn’t only the word of the Bible that supported the belief in them, but the weight of the past. From time immemorial it was universally recognized that alongside the visible world a spirit world existed, a supernatural realm which could affect man and that had to be placated or battled. The greatest minds of the day — such as Isaac Newton and Thomas Hobbes — believed in witchcraft. Witches, with their black arts, were a ready cause for the great and small afflictions that befall humans: a wasting illness, hysteria, impotence; a destructive storm, a poisoned well, a dry cow.
Then there were indisputable facts: people admitted that they were witches and wizards. They disclosed “poppets” (crudely-fashioned puppets, or dolls) which they pierced with headless pins to inflict pain and even cause death; they gave the ingredients of vile-smelling potions. Their descriptions of the witches’ Sabbath were vivid and detailed: anointed with “devil’s grease” a witch slipped through a keyhole and, in an obscene ritual, worshiped the Devil in the form of a stinking goat. Witchcraft was, in actuality, being practiced, of that there was no doubt.
Even before Satan revealed himself in the bewitched girls, it was evident that the powers of evil were at work in Salem. There was a prolonged and damaging drought, and an outbreak of smallpox had taken a deadly toll. (Whose curses had caused these afflictions?) The very real threat of Indian attacks had created a pervasive tension among the villagers. Although there were nightly military watches, isolated farms couldn’t be protected from Indians lurking in the heavily-forested land surrounding the communities of Essex County. Salem was a way station on the road leading from settlements in the north, where the French and Indian War was raging, and a steady stream of refugees brought horrific stories of massacres — of hacked bodies and burning homes. Two of the afflicted girls had been orphaned when their parents were killed by Indians (they were live-in maidservants in the village); another had lost a father and brother. Indians, with their witch doctors, were considered to be devil worshipers, so the battle against them was seen as part of the struggle against Satan.
The villagers felt assaulted on every side; an amorphous sense of impending doom created a collective belief that any threat had to be dealt with drastically. But Salem Village did not face their problems united. Deep-seated conflicts among the more than two hundred adult residents had resulted in years of bitter lawsuits between families. Nor were they united in their religion. Prior to Reverend Parris three ministers had been driven from their posts by dissatisfied parishioners. Parris too was facing harsh criticism. Some refused to pay taxes that went toward his salary. Many chose to worship in Salem Town, which was adjacent to the village.
Thus things stood when, on the day following their arrest, a preliminary hearing was held for the accused witches.
The first accused, Tituba, was the most likely to be a witch. And to think that Reverend Parris had allowed her to work in his home! A Carib Indian slave, Tituba had been brought up on the island of Barbados, where African voodoo thrived. She still wore the brightly-colored turban of those pagan islands. Every one of the ten bewitched girl had spent time during the dull winter months in Tituba’s kitchen. What had they done there? What had been done to them? The girls said that at first Tituba had simply told stories in her strangely-accented words — Bible stories and tales of the luxuriant, warm islands. But then it came out that Tituba had read their fortunes in the palms of their hands and had fashioned a crystal ball from the white of an egg suspended in a cup of water (the girls were especially interested in finding out about their future husbands). She had told them of charms for catching a young man’s fancy and of ways they could make their hair curl. The girls had described their dreams to Tituba and she had explained their meaning. These activities were disturbing, but there emerged a more ominous discovery: after the fits began, Tituba had baked a witch’s cake, made with rye flour and the girls’ urine; it had been fed to a dog to see if the animal would become possessed. It was clear that the girls had unwittingly descended deep into the occult, which was the devil’s domain; it was this that had made them vulnerable to attack by his forces.
The purpose of the preliminary hearing was to determine if there were grounds to bring the accused to trial (although a trial wouldn’t be necessary if a confession was made). Ingersoll’s tavern, where the hearing was to be held, couldn’t hold all the villagers and those who came from neighboring areas, so they moved the proceedings to the church meetinghouse. Two men of distinction from Salem Town served as magistrates; they conducted their questioning seated at the communion table.
The people who crowded into the meetinghouse had never seen a play (plays and acting were disapproved of by the Puritans); they were about to witness a galvanizing drama, one which confirmed their worst fears. At the very moment the first of the accused witches entered, the girls, who were seated in the front row, began to scream. During the ensuing testimony their arms, backs and necks were twisted into grotesque shapes, they were hurled violently to and fro, they were flung to the floor. Though the witches were bound in chains, the entities inflicting these tortures, invisible to the people watching, were the witches’ specters (a witch or wizard can carry out evil acts in a spectral form; these specters can be seen only by the person for whom its visitation is intended). At the end of the day the girls’ dresses were torn, their hair tangled, their clothes, arms and hands bloody.
Despite these spectral attacks, both Osborne and Good denied being witches. Someone else was bewitching the girls — they could not refute the tortures they saw the girls going through — but it was not them. The evidence, however, indicated otherwise. Whenever Osborne or Good looked upon the girls they screamed in pain; the screams subsided only when guards forcibly turned the woman’s head away. The touch test also showed the women to be guilty; when the hand of the accused (who was blindfolded) was placed upon a writhing girl she would immediately become still, as the fit went back into the body from which it came.
Sarah Osborne acted frightened and bewildered, but Sarah Good was defiant and contemptuous. Of the accusation against her she said, “I scorn it.” But neighbor after neighbor came forward, telling how, after an angry encounter with the shrewish woman, their child had become ill or their cow had wasted away. A woman whose daughter had died mysteriously recounted how she had been visited by Sarah in a dream. Sarah had the dead child with her and said that she had given the girl to the devil.
But by far the most startling revelations came from Tituba. The crowd heard her confess that she was indeed a witch, and so were the other two women accused. It had taken beatings in prison by Reverend Parris to get her to tell the truth, but now she spoke freely of red rats that said to her, “Serve me.” They urged her to sign the devil’s book, promising her “many fine things” while also threatening to harm her and the children if she refused; finally she made her mark in blood. She had seen Satan himself, who appeared in different forms; sometimes he came as a tall man with white hair, sometimes as a black dog or a hog. She told of a creature like a cat with a woman’s face and with wings — and it was Sarah Good’s creature. Osborne’s creature was “a thing all over hairy with a long nose”; it was two or three feet high and walked upright. (These “creatures,” also called “familiars,” helped the witch accomplish her deeds; they needed to suck blood from a nipple, but this “witch’s teat” could be disguised as a wart, a pimple or even an insect bite; since these teats were often hidden in areas of the body kept concealed, searches of a highly intimate nature were conducted in prison.)
Tituba said that she sent her specter to hurt the girls because they had revealed her identity, but she avowed that everything she did came from fear of the devil, who threatened to cut off her head if she didn’t obey him. During her testimony the villagers saw Tituba tortured by an unseen force; at other times she was struck dumb and would stare into space as if she had no comprehension of the events going on about her. Magistrate John Hathorne conducted the questioning. His treatment of the other two women had been exceedingly harsh, but toward Tituba his manner changed. As a confessed witch she had much to reveal. Under his coaxing something of far-reaching significance emerged. The tall, white-haired man had showed Tituba the names in the devil’s book; he told her that, along with signatures from other places, including Boston (from whence he came), it contained the signatures and marks of others in Salem Village. Since Tituba could not read, she was unable to identify the names. Hearing this, the villagers perceived things in a new and frightening light. It was not just three witches who were the devil’s agents. Others, maybe the person sitting next to them, had signed Satan’s book. And it was not just Salem that was under attack by the devil’s forces, but all of Massachusetts Colony.
The magistrates determined that there was sufficient evidence to indict the two women who had not confessed. Along with Tituba, they were sent to prison in Boston to await trial. Prisons of that time were dark stone dungeons, filthy, unheated, damp, vermin and rat-infested, reeking of excrement, a breeding ground for disease. Added to these conditions, accused and confessed witches wore heavy leg irons and wrist manacles chained to the wall, so that they could not fly to the girls and do more harm. Three days after her imprisonment Sarah Osborne, elderly and sickly, died. Good, who was pregnant, gave birth, but the baby died shortly thereafter.
In late June Sarah Good was tried by a Court of Oyer and Terminer (from French, meaning to “hear and determine”). It had been formed to adjudicate the witchcraft cases by the governor of Massachusetts, Sir William Phips. He selected the seven presiding justices. Four were from Boston, and the chief justice, Sir William Stoughton, served as acting governor when Phips was absent from the colony. This court reflected how serious the outbreak of witchcraft was considered to be; all of New England was watching what was happening in Salem.
The trials were held in Salem Town. The justices conducted the questioning and a jury of twelve townsmen delivered the verdicts. The girls were present and were again subjected to attacks by the specters of the witches. All testimony at the preliminary hearing — including the words and actions of the girls — had been transcribed in writing and was introduced in court as established fact. Evidence of witches’ teats found during prison searches was presented. New accusers came forward to offer additional testimony. In Sarah Good’s case, her husband and daughter spoke out against her. He called her an enemy of all good and said that he had long suspected her of being a witch. Five-year-old Dorcas Good, who had in the interim been accused by the girls (they claimed that she came to them in the form of a little mad dog and bit them), said that her mother was a witch and that she was one too. Her familiar was a snake given to her by her mother; it sucked from a red mark on her forefinger that was disguised as a flea bite. Dorcas would be held for five months in prison. After her release it was said that she was never again in possession of her senses.
On July 19 Sarah Good was hanged, along with four other women, on Gallows Hill, a barren and rocky elevation outside Salem Village. Among the crowd of onlookers were the girls. When asked for the last time by Reverend Noyes of Salem Town to confess to being a witch and to save her soul by renouncing Satan, Sarah shouted, “It’s a lie! I’m no more a witch than you’re a wizard. If you take my life away God will give you blood to drink.”
The bodies of the dead witches were stuffed into crevices of the jagged outcropping.
Tituba was not put to death. She remained in prison for fifteen months, never again being called to testify. Of the fifty or so confessed witches, none were executed. Presumably they were being held until their testimony at hearings and trials would no longer be needed, after which they would be put to death en masse. But, practically speaking, confessing meant immunity from hanging. The accused were urged to confess by magistrates and ministers, sometimes by family members. Despite this, many refused to speak the words — “I am a witch” — that would spare them from the gallows. Confessed witches played a vital role. The testimony they gave was detailed and graphic. They told of having seen the accused at witches’ Sabbaths or in homes in Salem Village, where they held their sacrament by partaking of red bread and red drink. Some of their gatherings took place in a pasture near Reverend Parris’s parsonage. Since the devil could put a mist over people’s eyes, these activities were visible only to the initiated.
If the affliction of Betty Parris was the spark, the revelations at the first hearing fanned that spark into a fire that soon raged out of control. From the pulpit Reverend Parris spoke of the battle with Satan’s forces in apocalyptic terms; leading figures in the community shared his sense of urgency. Many people came forward to report a myriad of misfortunes that could have been supernaturally-caused, from a broken wagon wheel to the death of a relative. At the center of the conflagration, the initial source from which the accusations flowed, were the girls (though missing from their ranks was Betty Parris; after the first hearing her parents sent her to live with a family in Salem Town, where she was shielded from any more involvement in the witch hunt). By the end of April twenty-eight people had been charged; in May, thirty-nine more. By that summer the accusations reached outside Essex County, extending even into Boston, and it was no longer just the girls who were accusers. Prisons all over New England — some makeshift wooden holding pens (manacles and leg irons prevented escape) — were filled with hundreds of accused, confessed or convicted witches and wizards. Imprisonment often meant that farm work couldn’t be carried out and children couldn’t be properly cared for. Confiscation of the personal property of someone convicted of witchcraft left families destitute. A general disruption of life set in, though it was most pronounced in Salem Village. Suspicion, fear and enmity reigned.
Continued with The road to Gallows Hill.