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salem witch trials
The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would endure for centuries.
salem witch trials facts
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Strange behavior at the time had alarmed Salem.
In February 1692, young Betty Parris began having “fits” that defied all explanation at the time. So did Abigail Williams and the girls’ friend Ann Putnam. Doctors and ministers watched in horror as the girls contorted themselves, cowered under chairs, and shouted nonsense.
With only rudimentary knowledge of biology, medicine, or psychology, the experts of the day concluded the girls must have been bewitched. They bullied the children until they began pointing figures at misfit women around them. Tituba was named as a witch, as was a disheveled beggar named Sarah Good and the elderly Sarah Osburn.
SALEM WITCH TRIALS: THE HYSTERIA SPREADS
The three accused witches were brought before the magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne and questioned, even as their accusers appeared in the courtroom in a grand display of spasms, contortions, screaming and writing. Though Good and Osborn denied their guilt, Tituba confessed. Likely seeking to save herself from certain conviction by acting as an informer, she claimed there were other witches acting alongside her in service of the devil against the Puritans. As hysteria spread through the community and beyond into the rest of Massachusetts, a number of others were accused, including Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse–both regarded as upstanding members of church and community–and the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good.
What evidence was used to convict those accused of witchcraft?
Some people condemned the trials… until they finally were stopped.
On October 3, 1692, the Reverend Increase Mather, president of Harvard College and father of famed preacher Cotton Mather, denounced the use of flimsy evidence and reliance on unprovable supernatural claims.
“It was better than ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned,” he said.
Governor William Phips grew disgusted when his own wife was eventually mentioned by the afflicted girls. Determined to quell the madness, he suspended the special court and replaced it with a new Superior Court of Judicature—which disallowed so-called spectral evidence. That court condemned only 3 of 56 defendants. Phips pardoned them along with five others awaiting execution.
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