English Protestants of the 1692 Massachusetts Bay Colony saw themselves as builders of a new civilization, from the ground up, out of the wilderness. And every angry, dark and cold corner of this new world was filled with physical and spiritual danger.
Like a deadly virus, the plague of “magic” infected nearly every single colonist, young and old alike.
While we may never have a final tally of those officially charged with the heinous capital crime of practicing witchcraft, it’s estimated that 185 people across 25 locations throughout the colony. It was a sea of finger pointing in which husbands accused wives; daughters turned on mothers, nephews snitched on aunties; brothers and sisters were at each other’s throats. The youngest of the suspected witches and wizards was just five and the oldest was nearly eighty. At the height of the activity, one colonial preacher discovered that his family contained at least 20 witches.
It all began when nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris and her friend Abigail Williams began to act strangely, suffering violent seizures, foul screaming fits, invisible bites, hypnotic states coupled with incomprehensible incantations. Within a few weeks, a number of other young women around Salem began to behave in much the same way. Members of the Goodwin family barked like dogs, yowled like cats, running in fear from attacks by so-called invisible spirits. It was mayhem when they were asked to perform any religious acts or say prayers.
Doctors were dumbfounded. There was no logical it medical explanation for any of the girls’symptoms, no actual physical illness they could diagnose. So, the only explanation they could come up with was that this was the work of the devil.
Just a little over 50 years prior, in 1641, idolatry—or the worship of false gods—was established as a major criminal offense—far worse than murder because it involved the final destiny of your soul. Leading the charge against this new supernatural threat was a young passionate minister, Cotton Mather. He ignited people’s fears with every ultra superstitious word out of his mouth. Even something as small as a pile of laundry had spiritual significance to Cotton Mather.
Reverend Samuel Parris—Elizabeth’s father—began conducting prayer services and ordered people in the community to fast in hopes of warding off the evil spirits. In an effort to dig up the suspected “witches” in the community, colonist John Indian also made a thoroughly disgusting “witch cake” with ingredients that included rye meal and the suspects’ own urine. This counter-
spell was meant to expose the identities of additional witches to the bewitched young girls Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams—who were under constant coercion by Cotton Mather and his people to name the original source of witchcraft in the colony. Eventually, the girls identified three older women that included Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and a West Indian slave of the Parris family, named Tituba. All 3 women were swiftly arrested on February 29—a, Leap day.
While Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were firm in claiming they were innocent, Tituba spoke about visions of Satan coming to her sometimes as a giant dog, other times as an enormous pig. Taking the drama even further up the scale, Tituba also spoke of a secret society of witches plotting against Salem and the colonies. Hmmm.
But just what was considered a witch back then? A worker of magic? A healer? A devil worshiper? An evil person in general?
In European folklore, witches were wild and mischievous. They kidnapped babies and stole men’s penises. Ouch… They abused wild dogs and attended bloodthirsty ceremonies deep in the woods. They could walk on their hands and make pregnancy go on for years. So A Salem witch was very tame by comparison. She might make a mess in the barn or disrupt prayers, but she seldom attended secret orgies, as was often reported of Scottish and Scandinavian witches. To be labelled as a witch in Salem, all one had to do was supposedly put a spell on a drink or weave a cloth that may have been a little too well made—according to other women in the village.
Now, what was considered substantial evidence of witchcraft? People all over the colonies couldn’t really decide, but in most cases a “free and voluntary confession” by the one accused of being a witch was solid proof. However, in most cases these “confessions” was arrived at by means of torture. For men like Cotton Mather, the concern was less about killing an innocent person than about allowing a sorceress to remain free to infect others.
Tituba’s testimony of a colony-wide conspiracy set people’s imaginations ablaze. After 20 people had been condemned to death in the Salem witch trials, colonist Thomas Brattle wrote a letter criticizing the witchcraft trials. Even Cotton Mather, himself, was disturbed by the execution of George Burroughs, who kept uttering the Lord’s Prayer as he just before he was hanged. Had they been too severe? Had they been mistaken? Thomas Brattle’s letter made a huge impression on then-Governor Phips, who commanded that “magical” or “intangible” evidence no longer be allowed in charging and trying people for witchcraft. Ultimately, the witchcraft court was disbanded, and Cotton Mather returned to his earlier field of study—medicine—specifically infectious diseases and fevers.