Guilty until proven innocent: The Salem Witchcraft Trials, 1692

Article by Sarah Bramham. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.

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Representation of the Salem examinations 1876

Between June and September 1692 there were one hundred and sixty accusations of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Interestingly, a notable number of those accused confessed to making an alliance with the devil and practicing witchcraft. Many Historians interested in the hysteria which gripped Salem in the summer of1692 have investigated these confessions; they question whether the confessions were fraudulent or genuine. Either way, it is undeniable that there is more to the confessions than meets the eye. To suggest confession was nothing more than a means to avoid meeting an early death on Gallows Hill is arguably naive.

New England in 1692 was inhabited by Puritans with a desire to form a pure society. They wished to create a ‘city upon a hill’ for everyone else to aspire to. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that to such people witchcraft was a very real threat. Today, we dismiss witchcraft as being ridiculous as we tend to only take seriously scientific facts with logical reasoning. But to the New England Puritans of this era, belief in the supernatural world was logical. To them, it existed as a world of corruption and disorder in direct opposition to their desired natural world of purity and order. To many Puritans it was believed that one must be aware of the presence of supernatural forces in order to defend against them and maintain a pure society.

Represenation of Tituba performing a witch dance

The first woman to confess was Tituba, the slave of local Puritan minister Samuel Parris. Not only was Tituba the first to confess, she was amongst the first women to even be accused. Accusations against Tituba began when she was involved in making a ‘witch cake’ shortly after Parris’ daughter Betty suffered terrible fits. It was hoped the cake would reveal the identity of Betty’s tormentor. Parris was enraged when he found out about the cake, he became determined that Tituba had harmed his daughter and he beat his slave until she confessed. From this series of events we can determine that Tituba’s confession was about avoiding further immediate punishment from her master, Parris. Tituba would have been seriously injured from her beating and one could suggest that a survival instinct kicked in. However, another side to Tituba’s confession is also apparent. It seems to be a means to an end for her frustrated master Parris, who was desperately seeking an explanation for his daughter’s curious afflictions. Therefore this confession simultaneously had two motives behind it – Tituba’s desire to appease her master, and Parris’ desire for a scapegoat to take the blame for his daughters suffering. Parris exhausted many lines of enquiry to explain his daughter’s strange fits – to no avail. In the end he consulted physician Dr. William Griggs and it was Griggs who finally suggested witchcraft might be at work. This professional verification of the presence of witch craft would have confirmed Parris’ fears beyond doubt. Parris’ misconceptions about his slave’s behaviour and foreign culture, combined with his anger at her for encouraging his daughters to dabble in ‘non-Puritan’ activities (such as fortune telling) would have automatically incriminated her. Tituba being a witch not only explained Betty’s afflictions, to Parris it also made sense of Tituba’s strange superstitions and ‘non-Puritan’ practices.

Deposition of Abigail Williams, accusing others of witchcraft.

Once Parris had forced confession out of Tituba, she would have then had no choice but to continue the charade in order to avoid further beatings. This led to her telling tales of ‘yellow birds’ and ‘black dogs’ and even accusing other women. She appears to make every effort to make her confession as sensational as possible in order to appease her master. It is even conceivable that, with his reputation on the line, Parris’ threatened Tituba to exaggerate her confession.            This would justify Parris’ anger when later Tituba retracted her confession. Parris was so infuriated that he refused to pay Tituba’s jail fees to free her from prison. As Minister, it was Parris’ duty to rid the Puritan society of its evils. But to suggest Parris may have threatened Tituba into continuing and exaggerating her confession is not to suggest Parris did not genuinely believe Tituba was a witch. It is merely to point out that Parris needed to make sure the rest of Salem believed Tituba was a witch as well.

The confessions of Deliverance and Abigail Hobbs were equally as complex as that of Tituba. The Hobbs family originally came from Casco in Maine, which lay in Native Indian territory. Young Abigail had a reputation for being a wild child who would mock Puritan rituals and brag of her supposed fearlessness. Her unruly behaviour is explained when one considers her unstable upbringing. Being raised in Native Indian territory meant that she was right in the midst of the devastating King Phillips War, which continued until 1678. Mary Beth Norton points out how the Indian Wars ‘stunned’ New England and convinced most of its population that they really were ‘in the devil’s snare’. Being raised in this kind of turmoil would have been likely to affect Abigail’s state of mind. The effect the King Phillips War had on Abigail is reflected in that she describes the Devil as “a black man in a hat”. Here Abigail clearly appears to suggest the Devil’s appearance is like that of the Native Indians. One can speculate that Abigail’s confession was about being seen to be fearless. But ironically, Abigail was identifying herself as part of a cult which she really was frightened of, in order to avoid its wrath. One should note that fear sometimes causes people to suffer delusions; therefore it is conceivable that Abigail genuinely believed she heard voices or saw creatures enticing her to make a covenant with the Devil. It shouldn’t be assumed that Abigail’s claims are her trials were blatant lies and bravado. Abigail appears to have become entangled in some of the Native Indian culture around which she was brought up and her fear of the wrath of that culture over-powered her loyalty to the Puritan practices of her own culture.

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Accused Giles Corey is pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty.

The confession of Deliverance, Abigail’s mother, was less sensational than that of Abigail. Deliverance’s confessions often confirmed rumours already swirling in Salem at the time. For example, Deliverance only implicated George Burroughs in her confessions when it had become publicly known that Burroughs had been charged with witchcraft. Deliverance’s caution suggests she structured her confessions more carefully than Tituba or Abigail. It is evident that she desired to make sure she was taken seriously. This could be explained by a protective maternal instinct for her daughter. It is plausible that Deliverance wanted to be by Abigail’s side to offer her comfort and support and to see to it herself that she did not meet her end on Gallows Hill. A sense of parental responsibility is likely to be behind Deliverance’s confession.

Having examined just 3 confessions closely it is clear that each confession often had strikingly different motives depending on the personal situation of the accused witch. To make generalisations and simplify the issue of confession during the Salem witchcraft trials is simply not feasible. This flawed method often leads to narrow conclusions which reflect modern attitudes and rational (such as the conclusions that those who confessed were just avoiding an early death by the nose at Gallows Hill). By immersing oneself in the personal situations of each individual confessor, one can establish more telling and realistic conclusions.

  • Althought the most well known, the witchcraft trials and executions at Salem were much smaller in scale than those in the nieghbouring Andover. During the 1690s most of Massachusetts was touched by the witchcraze which began in Salem.
  • Many theories exist which attempt to explain the mass hysteria which occured in Salem during this time; some believed hallucinogenics found in the local wheat led to several people believing they had been accused, others argue for the suffocating and rigid social and moral expectations in the village, whilst others believe that religious politics and a growing factionalism exacerbated the situation after the first accusation.
  • Nineteen people were executed as a direct result of accusations made in Salem, a further seven more were convicted but of these two were found to be with child and respited and the remaining five were convicted as the furore began to die down, and never executed.

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