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      The Salem Witch Trials of 1692

      The Salem Witch Trials are a defining example of intolerance and injustice in American history.

      This extraordinary series of events that began in 1692 led to the deaths of 25 innocent women, men and children. The crisis in Salem, Massachusetts took place partly because the community lived under an ominous cloud of suspicion. A remarkable set of conflicts and tensions converged, sparking fear and setting the stage for the most widespread and lethal outbreak of witchcraft accusations in North America.

      Centuries after this storied crisis, the personal tragedies and grievous wrongs of the witch trials continue to provoke reflection, reckoning and a search for meaning. Today, the city of Salem attracts more than 1 million tourists per year, many of whom are seeking to learn more about these events. The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) holds one of the world’s most important collections of objects and architecture related to the Salem Witch Trials. From 1980 to 2023, PEM’s Phillips Library was the temporary repository of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court collection of witch trial documents. These legal records, which were returned to the Judicial Archives following the expansion and modernization of the Massachusetts State Archives facility, are available to researchers around the world on our website thanks to a comprehensive digitization project. Through exhibitions, research, publishing and public programming, PEM is committed to telling the story of the Salem Witch Trials in ways that honor the victims and amplify the teachings of wrongful persecution that remain relevant to today.

      The Salem Witch Trials Walk

      The Salem Witch Trials Walk

      This self-guided audio tour takes you inside the galleries and outside the museum to learn more about the infamous events of 1692. PEM curators and experts share a behind-the-scenes perspective of some of the most compelling stories in Salem in this one-hour tour. Included with museum admission.

      History and Origins of the Salem Witch Trials

      English colonial settlers arrived in 1626 at Naumkeag, a traditional Native American fishing site, to establish a Massachusetts Bay Colony outpost. Most were Puritans who sought to “purify” the Church of England from Roman Catholic religious practices and build a utopian society. The settlers renamed the place Salem, after Jerusalem, meaning “city of peace.”

      Over successive decades, waves of colonists arrived, changing the power dynamics in governance, land ownership and religion. By the 1670s, tensions between rural Salem Village (now Danvers) and the prosperous Salem Town flared. Arguments multiplied when Salem Village formed its own church and appointed a controversial minister. Changes to the colony’s charter and leadership, skirmishes with French colonists and their Indigenous allies, a smallpox epidemic and extreme weather all heightened concerns.

      In January 1692, several young girls in Salem Village reported that unseen agents or forces were afflicting them. The minister suspected witchcraft. In the 17th century, a witch was understood as a person who agreed to serve the devil in opposition to the Christian church. On February 29, four men and four girls traveled to Salem Town to make complaints against three women. The next day, interrogations began.

      Notable Figures of the Witch Trials: The Accused and the Accusers

      Historical research reveals a picture of Bridget Bishop (1632–1692) as a witty and independent, though quarrelsome, resident of Salem. Widowed twice, she was married to a sawyer (or woodcutter) named Edward Bishop. Attorney General Thomas Newton decided to put Bridget Bishop on trial first, perhaps looking for a strong case to set the tone for subsequent hearings. Accused and acquitted of witchcraft 12 years earlier, she may have been an easy target by association. Multiple accusers claimed Bishop’s specter was responsible for damages and afflictions. Their testimonies were the result of longstanding suspicions or misattributed gossip about Sarah Bishop, a different person entirely. No witchcraft allegedly perpetrated by Bridget Bishop was ever proven by the required testimony of two witnesses. Instead, the court relied on the spectral evidence claimed by the accusers, the only ones who could “see” the invisible world of demons. Tragically, this injustice against Bishop set the pattern for the remainder of the trials.

      What little is known about Tituba is through her involvement in the witch trials. Documents refer to her as “Indian,” but it is likely that she was from an Indigenous Arawak community in present-day Venezuela. Reverend Samuel Parris enslaved Tituba and brought her to Boston and then Salem Village when he returned North from Barbados in 1680. Parris’s daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams identified Tituba as the perpetrator of their January and February afflictions, the first accusations of 1692. Tituba’s testimony on March 1–2 confirmed for locals that a witchcraft conspiracy existed. In addition to confessing — undoubtedly under pressure — she accused Sarah Osburn and Sarah Good and said there were seven more witches, quickly widening the scope of the crisis. The court left Tituba to languish in prison until May 1693, when a grand jury rejected the charges brought against her. Shortly after, an enslaver, whose name is not known, paid her jail debts and released her to their ownership. The remainder of her life is a mystery.

      George Jacobs Sr. (1620–1692) was born in London and was living in the Salem colony by 1649. As a country farmer suffering from arthritis, he used two canes to walk. He did not attend church regularly and had a reputation for a violent temper and defiant spirit. His reputation and disability — along with his son’s friendship with the Porter family, enemies of the powerful Putnam family — made Jacobs an easy target for early accusers. His granddaughter Margaret, who confessed to the charge of witchcraft, accused him. Then, Mercy Lewis, a servant of Thomas Putnam, testified that Jacobs “did torture me and beat me with a stick which he had in his hand … coming sometimes with two sticks in his hands to afflict me.” His son and wife also contributed. In August, the court sentenced him to death.

      Rebecca Nurse (about 1621–1692), Mary Esty (about 1634–1692) and Sarah Cloyce (about 1641–1703) were sisters from the Towne family of Topsfield, Massachusetts. All three women were married, with large extended families. Elderly Rebecca, a respected member of the church, was nearly deaf, which may have prevented her from defending herself fully in court. Dozens petitioned the court on her behalf.

      At first, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, but the judges asked them to reconsider. In a dramatic reversal, Rebecca was found guilty, condemned and hanged. Mary put before the court two of the most eloquent, heartfelt petitions of the entire episode. The surviving documents call for fair trials, expose the flaws of the existing court and propose methods of getting to the truth behind the accusations. But they did not help her avoid execution. It is unknown how Sarah escaped the fate of her sisters. After months in prison, she was cleared. Sarah, her husband, and many members of the extended Towne family were among the first English colonists to settle in Framingham.

      Giles and Martha Corey both faced accusations by multiple people. In March, Giles testified against Martha claiming that she bewitched him and his farm animals. In September, when Giles refused to participate in his own trial, the court ordered him to be pressed under stones in order to extract a plea. He remained silent and died under the weight in the only death by pressing in Massachusetts history. Martha and seven other victims were hanged days later.

      The Putnams, a well-established Puritan family, owned much of the land in Salem Village and supported the Reverend Samuel Parris. They were deeply involved in the search for witches, accusing and testifying against many members of their community and extended family.

      Jonathan Corwin (1640–1718) was a merchant and political figure who held various positions, including serving as magistrate during the 1692 pretrial examinations. Corwin lived in the house now known as the Witch House on the corner of Essex and Summer streets. Corwin remained on the bench until October 1692, when the governor officially disbanded the special court of oyer and terminer (meaning “to hear and determine”) that was convened for the witch trials. We do not know much about how Corwin felt about the trials because he spoke little during the examinations and never made any public statements. However, he never apologized for his role in the trials. His brother-in-law John Hathorne served as magistrate, and one of Corwin’s children was listed as “afflicted” in Tituba’s examination in March. His mother-in-law Margaret Thacher was accused of witchcraft, but the charges against her were ignored and no arrest warrant was issued.

      Born in England, Samuel Sewall (1652–1730) and his family emigrated to Newbury, Massachusetts, in the 1660s. A Harvard graduate, Sewall initially trained to become a clergyman. He later pursued a career in business, politics and public service after marrying the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant. His wife’s first cousin was the Reverend Samuel Parris, and he derived significant income from real estate holdings. Sewall was one of nine judges appointed by Governor Sir William Phips to serve on the court in Salem to “hear and determine” accusations of witchcraft. These judges were respected, educated and affluent members of the community, but none had formal legal training.

      While fulfilling his role as judge, Sewall took part in proceedings that sent 19 innocent people to their deaths. In the aftermath of the trials, Sewall’s troubled conscience led to a change of heart, and in January 1697, he made a public confession of guilt, remorse and repentance for the part he played in the trials and apologized for his role in the proceedings. For the rest of his life, Sewall regularly observed a day of fasting as evidence of ongoing contrition. Sewall continued his judicial career for many years, culminating in 1718 with his appointment as Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature. Sewall is also remembered for publishing the first anti-slavery tract in America in 1700.

      Frequently Asked Questions about the Salem Witch Trials

      The Salem Witch Trials are a defining example of intolerance and injustice in American history. Centuries later, the witch trials continue to capture the public imagination.

      Explore the FAQs below to learn more about the tragic events of 1692.

      This series of trials, prosecutions and executions of innocent people accused of practicing witchcraft took place in Colonial Massachusetts. Salem’s witch trials are a defining example of intolerance and injustice in American history.

      The Salem Witch Trials took place from the summer of 1692 through the fall of 1693.

      Most of those accused were women, just as in other witchcraft accusations around the world. The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), an influential witchcraft and demonology manual from 1494, states: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” The typical English settler in New England regarded the devil as real and witches as his accomplices in bringing unexpected misfortune. Women represented three quarters of those prosecuted of witchcraft in New England, with accusers most often pointing the finger at middle-aged and older women. But popular belief held that anyone could be a witch, even friends and family. In difficult times, long-held suspicions erupted into accusations and trials.

      There were no witches in 17th-century Salem. In the 17th century, a witch was understood as a person who agreed to serve the devil in opposition to the Christian church. In 1692, several young girls in Salem Village reported that unseen agents or forces afflicted them, accusing their neighbors of causing these afflictions. The accused and the murdered were innocent.

      The word “witch” has been reclaimed from its historical use as a tool to silence and control women. Today, the term encompasses a broad spectrum of contemporary identities and professions: tarot readers, spiritual healers, Wiccan High Priestesses, Neo-Pagans, occultists, mystics, herbalists and activists. Perhaps it is because of the lessons learned from 1692 and Salem’s attempts to confront its past that the city is a popular place for those who identify as witches.

      The extraordinary series of events in 1692–1693 led to the deaths of 25 innocent women, men and children.

      Most were hanged. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death under large stones. Some of the victims died in prison.

      Many of those arrested for allegedly practicing witchcraft were imprisoned in Salem’s infamous jail. Built in 1684 as part of Essex County’s judicial system, it was located on Prison Lane, known today as St. Peter’s Street at the juncture of Federal Street. Described as a two-story, twenty-foot-square wooden building, it was designed for maximum security. With iron bars on the windows and shackles to chain victims to the wall, escape was improbable. The jail’s dirt floor, lack of air circulation and inadequate sanitary facilities made for brutal conditions throughout the seasons.

      Proctor’s Ledge, a rocky outcropping at the base of Gallows Hill in Salem, was the site where 19 victims were hanged. An official dedication of a memorial at this site happened in 2016. Gallows Hill is also now the name of a residential neighborhood.

      The Salem witchcraft crisis had European origins. During the most active period of witch hunts from 1400 to 1775, religious upheaval, warfare, political tensions and economic dislocation led to waves of persecutions and scapegoating in Europe and its colonies. Roughly 100,000 people were tried for witchcraft and 50,000 were executed. It was believed that witches threatened Christian society by drawing upon Satan’s terrible power to unleash sickness, misery and death across the land.

      English colonial settlers arrived in 1626 at Naumkeag, a Native American fishing site, to establish a Massachusetts Bay Colony outpost. Most were Puritans who sought to “purify” the Church of England from Roman Catholic religious practices. In the late 17th century, Salem’s geographic boundaries covered an area of roughly 70 square miles, including parts of several nearby communities. The area was both urban and rural and included Salem Village (now Danvers), which was home to several farming families.

      The Puritans wanted to build a utopian society and chose the name Salem after Jerusalem, meaning “city of peace.”

      The 1692 crisis occurred about 85 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. The colonists were just emerging in the spring of 1692 from a period of several years of uncertainty with the British. After rebelling against British laws, their charter had been revoked. Without political authority, the local government was chaotic and the colonists feared punishment from the crown.

      Many inventive theories circulate about the Salem Witch Trials, but the crisis was not caused by poisoning from rotten bread, property disputes or an outbreak of encephalitis. The panic grew from a society threatened by nearby fighting between the British and the French over occupying Maine, as well as a malfunctioning political and judicial system in a setting rife with religious conflict and intolerance.

      Ongoing conflict with French colonists and their Indigenous allies to the north of Massachusetts contributed to the unease in Salem. Along with social unrest, a smallpox epidemic and the driest summers and coldest winters on record caused widespread misery. By the 1670s, tensions between rural Salem Village (now Danvers) and the prosperous Salem Town flared. Contentions multiplied when Salem Village formed its own church and appointed a controversial minister. These events and conditions laid the foundation for the most lethal and widespread outbreak of witchcraft accusations in North America. Then, in 1691, England’s King William and Queen Mary issued a charter for the colony, giving more control to the crown through appointed officials and threatening Massachusetts’ status as a Puritan colony.

      The first claims of bewitchment occurred at the Reverend Samuel Parris’s parsonage in Salem Village, known today as Danvers, in January 1692. From February to June, the afflictions and accusations spread rapidly across much of the colony. Local constables detained suspects for examination at the behest of magistrates, who then publicly questioned the accused to determine cause for trial.

      Despite many courageous pleas, all of those convicted of witchcraft found their reputations and relationships shattered by the experience. Some of the victims suffered a court-sanctioned seizure of their belongings, resulting in a loss of their identity and standing in the community. Ultimately, the court’s verdicts and sentences led to the unjust execution of 19 of the more than 170 individuals accused.

      Few local people were willing to question the witch hunt initially because it could put them under suspicion. Opposition grew over the summer of 1692 as it became increasingly clear that the court was failing to protect innocent lives. Later that fall, several leading ministers of the colony wrote books criticizing the trials, despite a public defense by Reverend Cotton Mather and a publication ban by Governor Sir William Phips. The opposition became more vocal over time and, finally, in 1697, the Massachusetts government ordered a day of public fasting and prayers for forgiveness of the colony’s sins, including the witch trials. Belief in witches declined gradually in the 18th century as the ideas of the scientific revolution spread. The Salem trials had proved it was impossible to convict a witch without endangering innocent lives as well. Following the trials and executions, many involved, like judge Samuel Sewall, publicly confessed error and remorse. Massachusetts issued its first pardons for victims of the witch trials in 1703. Several later rounds of exonerations, occurring over hundreds of years, attempted to complete this process for all victims. Efforts to serve justice continue even today: Massachusetts exonerated Elizabeth Johnson Jr. of Andover through legislative action in 2022.

      Shame over the witch trials ran so deep that it took 300 years before a memorial to the victims was constructed in Salem. Today, the community fully acknowledges the place the witch trials hold in American history and local groups strive to make amends. The volunteer community organization Voices Against Injustice (VAI) maintains the Salem Witch Trials Memorial and provides programming that connects the events of 1692 to today. The organization also presents the annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, which recognizes and celebrates individuals and organizations that confront fear and injustice with courage to honor the legacy of those who did the same in 1692.

      Dedicated in August 1992, the Salem Witch Trials Memorial is located on Liberty Street, Salem. It was designed by Maggie Smith and James Cutler to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the trials. The memorial is maintained by the volunteer community organization Voices Against Injustice.

      Yes – descendents of the Salem Witch Trials victims and accusers live all over the world, and many travel to Salem to trace their ancestral roots.

      The term “witch hunt” has become synonymous with intolerance, injustice and the rush to judgment. The phrase has been used by politicians across the spectrum to tarnish the opposition, from rhetoric on the smallpox vaccine controversies of the 1720s to the American Revolution, abolition of slavery and fears of communist subversion.

      Witch hunts occurred in Europe hundreds of years before the Salem Witch Trials. Belief in witchcraft in Early Modern England was widespread, but not universal. By the late 17th century, several English scholars and religious figures rejected the idea that witchcraft existed, a concept debated in the American colonies. The persecution of women and those perceived to be “other” still happens around the world today.

      Known as the Witch City, Salem welcomes around 1 million tourists every year. The witch insignia can be found on the masthead of The Salem News, on Salem police cars and on the uniforms of the local high school football team. In 1982, the city of Salem planned the first Salem Haunted Happenings Festival during Halloween weekend. The festival was an effort to provide family-friendly events for guests who were interested in visiting the Witch City. Following the first festival’s success with about 50,000 guests in attendance, the annual event has continued to grow each season, drawing history buffs and Halloween enthusiasts from all over the world. Salem Haunted Happenings is a festive celebration of Halloween and fall in New England that runs annually from October 1–31. Events include a Grand Parade, the Haunted Biz Baz Street Fair, Family Film Nights, costume balls, ghost tours, haunted houses, live music and chilling theatrical presentations.

      Puritanical Massachusetts and its rush to judgment are the backdrop for the 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathanial Hawthorne, descendent of witch trial judge John Hathorne. The Salem Witch Trials inspired Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, which is a partially fictionalized story of the trials. It was an allegory for the United States government’s persecution of people accused of being communists throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The events have also inspired countless TV shows, films and even musical genres. Recently, PEM worked with contemporary artists who have ancestral ties to the tragic events in Salem. The resulting exhibition, The Salem Witch Trials: Reckoning and Reclaiming, included the work of contemporary artist Frances Denny, who has photographed a broad array of people who identify as witches today, as well as the work of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who was a descendent of one of the accused in Salem.

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