5 Facts You Didn’t Know About The Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials of 1692 remain a controversial topic in United States history, and it’s one that has a bearing on our own region. The University of Virginia’s online archive of documents relating to the Salem witch trials includes an interactive map of the accusations. One accused person lived in Salisbury, one in Amesbury, six in Haverhill, and a whopping 45 in Andover, which is where some of the preliminary hearings were held. Some scholars go as far as to claim that the trials were the moment when our early theocratic government crumbled, and the notion of separation of church and state was born.
UMass Lowell Professor Bridget Marshall recently shared with mvm some of the most current research on the topic, and we’ve highlighted a few key points.
PTSD may have been a factor. Many refugees from King William’s War (1688-1697) made it to the Merrimack Valley, including a number of the girls who would later make accusations in the Salem trials. These unfortunate girls had seen their families brutally murdered during the conflicts.
Middle-aged women were at most risk for being accused of witchcraft. It wasn’t the stereotypical “old crones” who were often put on trial, but women just past the traditional age of child-bearing. Other risk factors? While married women were the subject of accusations, their husbands often stepped in to offer protection — single women were particularly vulnerable. Class was also a factor. Lower-income women were more susceptible to prosecution.
While we often associate the witch trials with October, that was when the whole hysteria began to die down. According to Marshall, the problem spiraled out of control when the Massachusetts government sought to expedite the trials with a special Court of Oyer and Terminer, Latin for “to hear and determine.” This special court admitted the sinister sounding “spectral evidence” and accusers could now provide testimony from dreams and visions. Massachusetts Governor Sir William Phips, who had established the Court of Oyer and Terminer, dissolved it in October after his own wife was accused of witchcraft. This brought an end to the executions, but not an end to the legal battles, as …
It wasn’t until 2001 when the last five “guilty” witches had their names cleared. That year, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act adding their names to all those who had been officially exonerated.
Not everyone at the time was swept up in the hysteria. A judge named Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned from the court in June, disgusted at the miscarriage of justice and unwilling to accept the ludicrous spectral evidence as testimony.
Over 150 men and women were accused of witchcraft during the hysteria. Of those, 19 were hanged, one pressed to death, and four adults and one infant died in their cells awaiting trial. While the month of October might not have as much to do with the trials as we often think, it’s still a good time to remember those innocent people whose lives were ruined or lost during this awful time in our region’s past.
Bridget Marshall is Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she also serves as Associate Dean for the College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. She is the author of “The Transatlantic Gothic Novel and the Law, 1790 – 1860.” Her research and teaching focus on the Gothic, nineteenth-century American literature, witchcraft trials, disability in literature, and law and literature.