The Trials

Overview of the Trials

January, 1692: Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris, show strange symptoms

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Parris’s appointment as reverend had been controversial, and he hadn’t been paid for several months

After symptoms could not be cured by prayer or medicine, Parris and others began to suspect witchcraft

Betty, Abigail, and other children of families that supported Parris began accusing people of bewitching them

OverView of the Trials

Most women arrested for witchcraft initially are poor or marginalized

As they begin accusing each other and other and the children continue their accusations, the trials sprawl to include more established members of the community

Eventually, 20 people were killed (13 of them women), and over 200 were accused and jailed

By January of 1693, many people (including Increase Mather) had grown skeptical of the proceedings

Trials slow

April,1693: Witch trials end

Magic in Early Modern Society

Magic was an important part of many folk traditions in English society

Not just limited to peasants

Magic was in some ways a local reaction to the uncertainty of life in the early modern period

Two types of magic:

White magic: magic that benefited the person using it or society as a whole (healing, love spells, etc.)

Black magic (maleficium): magic that cursed or harmed another person (curses, sorcery)

For much of the early modern period, only maleficium was considered witchcraft

Woodcut illustration from the chapbook ‘A Rehearsal both strange and true, of heinous and horrible acts committed by Elizabeth Stile, Alice Rockingham, Mother Dutton, Mother Devell, notorious Witches, apprehended at Windsor in the County of Berks,’ 1579

Witchcraft as Satanic Pact

Initially, many people did not believe that witchcraft, had a relationship to Satan

The exceptions were elites and high church officials, who often said that witches got their power from a compact with the devil

By the 17th century, this believe became more common

Little differentiation made between white magic and maleficium

Both were heresy

Belief may have fueled increased number of witch hunts


Nissenbaum and Boyer

Wrote Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974)

Explained accusations of witchcraft as a result of social tensions over the future of the village

Porters and their ilk in the eastern part of the village wanted more commercial orientation and closer ties to Salem Town

Puritans in the western part of the village wanted more agrarian society and independence for the village

Carol Karlsen

Wrote The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (1987)

Argued that accusations of witchcraft need to be understood as gendered

Puritans didn’t believe that women were inherently evil; they posited instead that they were men’s helpmeets

They were anxious about uncontrolled or independent women

Witchcraft allegations were a reaction to these anxieties

Elaine Breslaw

Wrote Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (1996)

(You read an article based on part of that book)

Argued that Tituba’s testimony played a major role in escalating witchcraft allegations

Tituba, an Indian woman from Barbados, tied together elements of Indian, Barbadian, and Puritan traditions in a way that played on anxieties of elite Puritans

Tituba was assumed to have authority in matters of witchcraft because she was a Native American woman


Mary Beth Norton

Wrote In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. (2002)

Argued that the Salem witch trials need to be understood in the context of events outside Salem itself, namely King Philip’s War (1675-76) and King William’s War (1688-99)

Ongoing Indian Wars terrified New England colonists

Many accusers in the trials were from regions (Maine) ravaged by the wars, and some of the accused were alleged to have aided Indians

Allegations may have resulted from deep personal trauma

Wars made the idea that New England was under attack from demonic forces seem plausible



Crime in Colonial AMerica


Trials in Colonial America

Almost never involved a grand jury; magistrates had authority to determine which cases were pursued

Seldom had trial juries except in capital cases

Jurors were not expected to be unbiased until the 18th century

Usually resulted in guilty verdicts

Were public spectacles intended to act as morality lesson for those who observed them

Penalties for Crimes

Howard Schweber, “Ordering Principles: The Adjudication of Criminal Cases in Puritan Massachusetts, 1629-1650,” Law & Society Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1998), 367-408.

Neglect of Religion and Heresy

Religious and civil authority were closely related

Colonies often required church attendance and punished those who shirked their religious obligations or failed to honor the Sabbath

New England colonies banished Jesuits and Quakers

Quakers could be put to death if they returned

Speech Crimes

Jane Kamensky: Words had “Special powers and special dangers.”

Blasphemy punished harshly

Slander, including accusing someone of having a disease, challenging someone’s inheritance, or falsely accusing someone of a crime could be punished criminally

Sex Crimes

Crimes like sodomy and bestiality carried the death penalty under English law, but they were seldom prosecuted in England

Puritans prosecuted large numbers of sex offenses

Prosecuted for major crimes like sodomy, bestiality, and rape (though the latter was rare)

Also prosecuted people for pre-marital or extra-marital sex

Sex offenses resulted in death more frequently than any other category of offense in the 17th century


Thomas Granger

“And whereas some of the sheep could not so well be known by his description of them, others with them were brought before him and he declared which were they and which were not. And accordingly he was cast by the jury and condemned, and after executed about the 8th of September, 1642. A very sad spectacle it was. For first the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus xx.15; and then he himself was executed. The cattle were all cast into a great and large pit that was digged of purpose for them, and no use made of any part of them.”

-William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1642).

18th-Century CHanges

Colonies, even New England colonies, became more similar to England in their treatment of sex crimes

Prosecutions for sex crimes lessened

Punishments became less harsh

Sexual mores relaxed somewhat

Theft and Property Crime

Often penalty of death under English law

Chesapeake colonies executed people for stealing

In the 17th century, New England did not execute thieves unless they were repeat or particularly egregious offenders

In the 18th century, New England came to resemble English traditions more

England instituted what were known as the “Bloody Codes”

Prescribed death for even small thefts

18th century New England began to execute more people for property crimes


Randolph Roth on Murder Rates

Randolph Roth’s claims that homicide rates are lower when people:

1. Have faith that government is stable and capable of enforcing just laws

2. Trust in the integrity of legitimately elected officials

3. Have solidarity among social groups based on race, religion, or political affiliation

4. Have confidence that the social hierarchy allows for respect to be earned without recourse to violence.

Murder Rates in the 18th Century

Lower than in the 17th century

Potential Explanations:

Gender ratios in the Chesapeake colonies had stabilized

King James II deposed in 1688 in Glorious Revolution

Had been unpopular with colonists

King Philip’s War (Metacom’s War) killed 600 people, mostly young men, in Southern New England and united the colonists against a common enemy

As racial slavery solidified and became more codified, white colonists were united by common interest

Violence redirected toward slaves


John Waller being pelted to death at Pillory. (Image taken from The Newgate Calender (1824-1828)

Ducking (or Cucking) Stool

Ducking stool currently on display in Leominster, England


Late 18th Century Changes

Greater concern with fate of individual sinners

Greater concern with redemption narrative

Less emphasis on crime as detrimental and dangerous to the whole physical body of society.


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