The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before local magistrates followed by county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex Counties of colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693. Over 150 people were arrested and imprisoned, with even more accused who were not formally pursued by the authorities. The two courts convicted twenty-nine people of the capital felony of witchcraft. Nineteen of the accused, fourteen women and five men, were hanged. One man (Giles Cory) who refused to enter a plea was crushed to death under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to do so. At least five more of the accused died in prison.
Despite being generally known as the "Salem" witch trials, the preliminary hearings in 1692 were conducted in a variety of towns across the province: Salem Village, Ipswich, Andover, as well as Salem Town, Massachusetts. The best-known trials were conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 in Salem Town. All twenty-six who went to trial before this court were convicted. The four sessions of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693, held in Salem Town, but also in Ipswich, Boston, and Charlestown, produced only three convictions in the thirty-one witchcraft trials it conducted.
The original Massachusetts charter of 1629 was canceled in 1684, when King James II installed Sir Edmund Andros as the Governor of the Dominion of New England. Andros was ousted in 1689 when King James II was dethroned in "The Glorious Revolution," and William and Mary ascended to the throne in England. Simon Bradstreet and Thomas Danforth were elected Governor and Lieutenant Governor. At this same time, tensions erupted between the English colonists settling in "the Eastward" (the present-day coast of Maine) and the French-supported Wabanaki Indians of the region, in what would come to be known as King William's War, following only 13 years on the heels of the devastating King Philip's War with the Wampanogs and other indigenous tribes in southern and western New England. In October 1690, William Phips led an unsuccessful attack on Quebec, and many English settlements along the coast continued to be attacked by Indians, including a particularly brutal assault on York on January 25, 1692. A new charter for the Province of Massachusetts had not been given final approval in England until October 16, 1691. News of the appointment of William Phips as the new governor reached Boston in late January and a copy of the new charter arrived in Boston on February 8, 1692. Phips was formally voted governor on Election Day, May 4, 1692. Phips arrived in Boston ten days later, on May 14. On May 16, Phips was sworn in as Governor and William Stoughton as Deputy Governor. One of the first orders of business for the new Governor and Council on May 27, 1692, was the formal nomination of county justices of the peace, sheriffs, and the commission of a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle the large numbers of people who were "thronging" the jails.
Boyer and Nissenbaum have postulated that without a valid charter, there was no legitimate form of government to try capital cases until Phips arrived with the new charter, but this has been disputed by David Konig, who points out that between charters, according to the Records of the Court of Assistants, a group of 14 pirates were tried and condemned on January 27, 1690 for acts of piracy and murder in August and October 1689.
In 1689, Salem Village was finally allowed by the church in Salem Town to form their own separate covenanted church congregation and ordain their own minister, after many petitions to do so. Salem Village was torn by internal disputes between neighbors who disagreed about the choice of Samuel Parris as their first ordained minister, and about the choice to grant him the deed to the parsonage as part of his compensation.
In Andover, the church was in the process of dividing into two congregations, one in the north of the town led by their long-time minister, Francis Dane, and another in the south by Thomas Barnard, the teacher in the Andover church.
Despite reverence for the Bible and antipathy towards "Popery," the Puritans had established a type of theocracy akin to that of medieval Roman Catholicism, in which the church ruled in all civil matters, including that of administering capital punishment for violations of a spiritual nature. A relative few Protestants (such as Roger Williams) prior to this period had contended that this was contrary to the pure teachings of the New Testament, in which the church was separate from the State (Mt. 22:21; 1Cor. 5:12, 13 1 Pet. 2:13, 14), and unrepentant sinful behavior that merited serious spiritual discipline was administered by supernatural means (Acts 5:1-10; 1 Cor. 5:1-4; 1 Tim. 1:20).
The Puritans believed in the existence of an invisible world inhabited by God and the angels, including the Devil (who was seen as a fallen angel) and his fellow demons. To Puritans, this invisible world was as real as the visible one around them.
In his book Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689), Cotton Mather describes strange behavior exhibited by the four children of a Boston mason, John Goodwin, and attributed it to witchcraft practiced upon them by an Irish washerwoman, Mary Glover. Mather, a minister of Boston's North Church (not to be confused with the Episcopalian Old North Church of Paul Revere fame), was a prolific publisher of pamphlets and a firm believer in witchcraft.
In Salem Village in 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, and her cousin Abigail Williams, age 11, the daughter and niece (respectively) of Reverend Samuel Parris, began to have fits described as "beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect" by John Hale, minister in nearby Beverly. The girls screamed, threw things about the room, uttered strange sounds, crawled under furniture, and contorted themselves into peculiar positions, according to the eyewitness account of Rev. Deodat Lawson, a former minister in the town. The girls complained of being pinched and pricked with pins. A doctor, historically assumed to be William Griggs, could find no physical evidence of any ailment. Other young women in the village began to exhibit similar behaviors. When Lawson preached in the Salem Village meetinghouse, he was interrupted several times by outbursts of the afflicted.
The first three people accused and arrested for allegedly afflicting Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, Jr., and Elizabeth Hubbard were Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. Sarah Good was poor and known to beg for food or shelter from neighbors. Sarah Osburne had married her indentured servant and rarely attended church meetings. Tituba, as a slave of a different ethnicity than the Puritans, was an obvious target for accusations. All of these women fit the description of the "usual suspects" for witchcraft accusations, and no one stood up for them. These women were brought before the local magistrates on the complaint of witchcraft and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692, then sent to jail (Boyer 3).
Other accusations followed in March: Martha Corey, Dorothy Good (mistakenly called Dorcas Good in her arrest warrant) and Rebecca Nurse in Salem Village, and Rachel Clinton in nearby Ipswich. Martha Corey had voiced skepticism about the credibility of the girls' accusations, drawing attention to herself. The charges against her and Rebecca Nurse greatly concerned the community because Martha Corey was a full covenanted member of the Church in Salem Village, as was Rebecca Nurse in the Church in Salem Town. If such upstanding people could be witches, then anybody could be a witch, and church membership was no protection from accusation. Dorothy Good, the daughter of Sarah Good, was only 4 years old, and when questioned by the magistrates her answers were construed as a confession, implicating her mother. In Ipswich, Rachel Clinton was arrested for witchcraft at the end of March on charges unrelated to the afflictions of the girls in Salem Village.
In April, the stakes rose. When Sarah Cloyce (Nurse's sister) and Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor were arrested, they were brought before John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, not only in their capacity as local magistrates, but as members of the Governor's Council, at a meeting in Salem Town. Present for the examination were Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth, and Assistants Samuel Sewall, Samuel Appleton, James Russell, and Isaac Addington. Objections by John Proctor during the proceedings resulted in his arrest that day as well.
Within a week, Giles Corey (Martha's husband, and a covenanted church member in Salem Town), Abigail Hobbs, Bridget Bishop, Mary Warren (a servant in the Proctor household and sometime accuser herself), and Deliverance Hobbs (stepmother of Abigail Hobbs) were arrested and examined. Abigail Hobbs, Mary Warren, and Deliverance Hobbs all confessed and began naming additional people as accomplices. More arrests followed: Sarah Wildes, William Hobbs (husband of Deliverance and father of Abigail), Nehemiah Abbott Jr., Mary Eastey (sister of Cloyce and Nurse), Edward Bishop, Jr. and his wife Sarah Bishop, and Mary English, and finally on April 30, the Reverend George Burroughs, Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, Dorcas Hoar, Sarah Morey, and Philip English (Mary's husband). Nehemiah Abbott Jr. was released because the accusers agreed he was not the person whose specter had afflicted them. Mary Eastey was released for a few days after her initial arrest because the accusers failed to confirm that it was she who had afflicted them, and then she was rearrested when the accusers reconsidered.
In May, accusations continued to pour in, but some of those named began to evade apprehension. Multiple warrants were issued before John Willard and Elizabeth Colson were apprehended, but George Jacobs Jr. and Daniel Andrews were not caught. Until this point, all the proceedings were still only investigative, but on May 27, 1692, William Phips ordered the establishment of a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer for Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties to prosecute the cases of those in jail. Warrants were issued for even more people. Sarah Osborne, one of the first three accused, died in jail on May 10, 1692.
Warrants were issued for 36 more people, with examinations continuing to take place in Salem Village: Sarah Dustin (daughter of Lydia Dustin), Ann Sears, Bethiah Carter Sr. and her daughter Bethiah Carter Jr., George Jacobs, Sr. and his granddaughter Margaret Jacobs, John Willard, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Abigail Soames, George Jacobs, Jr. (son of George Jacobs, Sr. and father of Margaret Jacobs), Daniel Andrew, Rebecca Jacobs (wife of George Jacobs, Jr. and sister of Daniel Andrew), Sarah Buckley and her daughter Mary Witheridge, Elizabeth Colson, Elizabeth Hart, Thomas Farrar, Sr., Roger Toothaker, Sarah Proctor (daughter of John and Elizabeth Proctor), Sarah Bassett (sister-in-law of Elizabeth Proctor), Susannah Roots, Mary DeRich (another sister-in-law of Elizabeth Proctor), Sarah Pease, Elizabeth Cary, Martha Carrier, Elizabeth Fosdick, Wilmot Redd, Sarah Rice, Elizabeth Howe, Capt. John Alden (son of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of Plymouth Colony), William Procter (son of John and Elizabeth Procter), John Flood, Mary Toothaker (wife of Roger Toothaker and sister of Martha Carrier) and her daughter Margaret Toothaker, and Arthur Abbott. When the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened at the end of May, this brought the total number of people in custody for the court to handle to 62.
Cotton Mather wrote to one of the judges, John Richards, on May 31, 1692, voicing his support of the prosecutions, but cautioning him of the dangers of relying on spectral evidence and advising the court on how to proceed.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Town on June 2, 1692, with William Stoughton, the new Lieutenant Governor, as Chief Magistrate, Thomas Newton as the Crown's Attorney prosecuting the cases, and Stephen Sewall as clerk. Bridget Bishop's case was the first brought to the grand jury, who endorsed all the indictments against her. She went to trial the same day and was found guilty. On June 3, the grand jury endorsed indictments against Rebecca Nurse and John Willard, but it is not clear why they did not go to trial immediately as well. Bridget Bishop was executed by hanging on June 10, 1692.
In June, more people were accused, arrested and examined, but now in Salem Town, by former local magistrates John Hathorne, Jonathan Corwin, and Bartholomew Gedney who had become judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Roger Toothaker died in prison on June 16, 1692.
At the end of June and beginning of July, grand juries endorsed indictments against Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Procter, John Procter, Martha Carrier, Sarah Wilds, and Dorcas Hoar. Only Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin and Sarah Wildes, along with Rebecca Nurse, went on to trial at this time, where they were found guilty, and executed on July 19, 1692. In mid-July as well, the primary source of accusations moved from Salem Village to Andover, when the constable there asked to have some of the afflicted girls in Salem Village visit with his wife to try to determine who caused her afflictions. Ann Foster, her daughter Mary Lacey Sr., and granddaughter Mary Lacey Jr. all confessed to being witches. Anthony Checkley was appointed by Governor Phips to replace Thomas Newton as the Crown's Attorney when Newton took an appointment in New Hampshire.
In the beginning of August, grand juries indicted George Burroughs, Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, and George Jacobs, Sr., and trial juries convicted Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, Elizabeth Procter, and John Procter. Elizabeth Procter was given a temporary stay of execution because she was pregnant. Before being executed, George Burroughs recited the Lord's Prayer perfectly, supposedly something that was impossible for a witch, but Cotton Mather was present and reminded the crowd that the man had been convicted before a jury. On August 19, 1692, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., George Burroughs, John Willard, and John Procter were hanged.
In September, grand juries indicted eighteen more people: Ann Pudeator, Alice Parker, Mary Bradbury, Giles Corey, Abigail Hobbs, Rebecca Jacobs, Ann Foster, Sarah Buckley, Margaret Jacobs, Mary Lacey Sr., Wilmot Redd, Samuel Wardwell, Rebecca Eames, Margaret Scott, Job Tookey, Mary Witheridge, Mary Parker, and Abigail Faulkner Sr. The grand jury failed to indict William Procter, who was re-arrested on new charges. On September 19, 1692, Giles Corey refused to plead at arraignment, and was subjected to peine forte et dure, a form of torture in which the subject is pressed beneath an increasingly heavy load of stones, in an attempt to make him enter a plea. Dorcas Hoar, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Martha Corey, Mary Bradbury, Mary Eastey, Wilmot Redd, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Margaret Scott, and Abigail Faulkner Sr. were tried and found guilty. Abigail Hobbs, Ann Foster, Mary Lacey Sr., and Rebecca Eames pled guilty. On August 22, 1692, only eight of those convicted were hanged: Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Wilmot Redd, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, and Margaret Scott, reportedly called by Salem minister Nicholas Noyes, the "Eight firebrands of Hell". Dorcas Hoar was given a temporary reprieve, with the support of several ministers, to make her confession before God. Aged Mary Bradbury escaped. Abigail Faulkner Sr. was pregnant and given a temporary reprieve.
Mather was asked by Governor Phips in September to write about the trials, and obtained access to the official records of the Salem trials from his friend Stephen Sewall, clerk of the court, upon which his account of the affair, Wonders of the Invisible World, was based.
This court was dismissed in October by Governor Phips, although this was not the end of the trials.
In January 1693, the new Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery convened in Salem, Essex County, again headed by William Stoughton, as Chief Justice, with Anthony Checkley continuing as the Attorney General, and Jonathan Elatson as Clerk of the Court. The first five cases tried in January 1693 were of the five people who had been indicted but not tried in September: Sarah Buckley, Margaret Jacobs, Rebecca Jacobs, Mary Whittredge, and Job Tookey. All were found not guilty. Grand juries were held for many of those remaining in jail. Charges were dismissed against many, but sixteen more people were indicted and tried, three of whom were found guilty: Elizabeth Johnson Jr., Sarah Wardwell, and Mary Post. When Stoughton wrote the warrants for the execution of these women and the others remaining from the previous court, Governor Phips pardoned them, sparing their lives. In late January/early February, the Court sat again in Charlestown, Middlesex County, and held grand juries and tried five people: Sarah Cole (of Lynn), Lydia Dustin & Sarah Dustin, Mary Taylor , and Mary Toothaker. All were found not guilty, but were not released until they paid their jail fees. Lydia Dustin died in jail on March 10, 1693. At the end of April, the Court convened in Boston, Suffolk County, and cleared Capt. John Alden by proclamation, and heard charges against a servant girl, Mary Watkins, for falsely accusing her mistress of witchcraft. In May, the Court convened in Ipswich, Essex County, held a variety of grand juries who dismissed charges against all but five people. Susannah Post, Eunice Frye, Mary Bridges Jr., Mary Barker, and William Barker Jr. were all found not guilty at trial, putting an end to the episode.
After someone concluded that a loss, illness or death had been caused by witchcraft, the accuser would enter a complaint against the alleged witch with the local magistrates.
If the complaint was deemed credible, the magistrates would have the person arrested and brought in for a public examination, essentially an interrogation, where the magistrates pressed the accused to confess.
If the magistrates at this local level were satisfied that the complaint was well-founded, the prisoner was handed over to be dealt with by a superior court. In 1692, the magistrates opted to wait for the arrival of the new charter and governor, who would establish a Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle these cases.
The next step, at the superior court level, was to summon witnesses before a grand jury.
A person could be indicted on charges of afflicting with witchcraft, or for making an unlawful covenant with the Devil. Once indicted, the defendant went to trial, sometimes on the same day, as in the case of the first person indicted and tried on June 2, Bridget Bishop, who was executed on June 10, 1692.
There were four execution dates, with one person executed on June 10, 1692, five executed on July 19, 1692 (Sarah Good, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How & Sarah Wildes), another five executed on August 19, 1692 (Martha Carrier, John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr., and John Proctor), and eight on September 22, 1692 (Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, Ann Pudeator, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd, and Margaret Scott). Several others, including Elizabeth (Bassett) Proctor and Abigail Faulkner, were convicted but given temporary reprieves because they were pregnant. Though convicted, they would not be hanged until they had given birth. Five other women were convicted in 1692, but sentence was never carried out: Ann Foster (who later died in prison), her daughter Mary Lacy Sr., Abigail Hobbs, Dorcas Hoar, and Mary Bradbury.
Giles Corey, an 80-year-old farmer from the southeast end of Salem (called Salem Farms), refused to enter a plea when he came to trial in September. The judges mistakenly believed that the law provided for the application of a form of torture called peine forte et dure, in which the victim was slowly crushed by slowly piling stones on a board laid upon the victim's body. (British law had, in reality, abolished this practice twenty years earlier.) After two days of peine fort et dure, Corey died, his chest crushed, without entering a plea. Though his refusal to plead is often explained as a way of preventing his possessions from being confiscated by the state (presumably to be sold to the highest bidder within a reduced number of interested people, after all the executions, who were in a financial position to bid) this is not true; the possessions of convicted witches (who did not plead?) were often confiscated, and the possessions of persons accused but not convicted were confiscated before a trial, as in the case of Corey's neighbor John Proctor and the wealthy Englishmen of Salem Town. Some historians hypothesize that Giles Corey's personal character, a stubborn and lawsuit-prone old man who knew he was going to be convicted regardless, led to his recalcitrance.
Not even in death were the accused witches granted peace or respect. As convicted witches, Rebecca Nurse and Martha Corey had been excommunicated from their churches and none was given proper burial. As soon as the bodies of the accused were cut down from the trees, they were thrown into a shallow grave and the crowd would disperse. Oral history claims that the families of the dead reclaimed their bodies after dark and buried them in unmarked graves on family property. The record books of the time do not mention the deaths of any of those executed.
Much, but not all, of the evidence used against the accused was "spectral evidence", or the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition or the shape of the person who was allegedly afflicting them. The theological dispute that ensued about the use of this evidence centered on whether a person had to give permission to the Devil for his/her "shape" to be used to afflict. Opponents claimed that the Devil was able to use anyone's "shape" to afflict people, but the Court contended that the Devil could not use a person's shape without that person's permission; therefore, when the afflicted claimed to "see" the apparition of a specific person, that was accepted as evidence that the accused had been complicit with the Devil. Increase Mather and other ministers sent a letter to the Court, "The Return of Several Ministers Consulted", urging the magistrates not to convict on spectral evidence alone. A copy of this letter was printed in Increase Mather's "Cases of Conscience" published in 1693. See facsimiles of page 73 and page 74 of this rare book. The publication "A Tryal of Witches", was used by the Magistrates at Salem, when looking for a precedent in allowing "spectral evidence". Finding that no lesser person than the jurist Sir Matthew Hale had permitted this evidence to be used in the trial and the accusations against two Lowestoft women, held in 1662 in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England , they also accepted its validity and the trials proceeded. Other evidence included the confessions of the accused, the testimony of another confessed "witch" identifying others as witches, the discovery of "poppits," books of palmistry and horoscopes, or pots of ointments in the possession or home of the accused, and the existence of so-called "witch's teats" on the body of the accused.
According to English folk understanding of how witches accomplished affliction, when the dog ate the cake, the witch herself would be hurt because invisible particles she had sent to afflict the girls remained in the girls' urine, and her cries of pain when the dog ate the cake would identify her as the witch. This superstition was based on the Cartesian "Doctrine of Effluvia", which posited that witches afflicted by the use of "venomous and malignant particles, that were ejected from the eye", according to the October 8, 1692 letter of Thomas Brattle, a contemporary critic of the trials.
According to the Records of the Salem-Village Church, Parris spoke with Sibly privately on March 25, 1692 about her "grand error" and accepted her "sorrowful confession." That Sunday, March 27, during his Sunday sermon, he addressed his congregation about the "calamities" that had begun in his own household, but stated, "it never brake forth to any considerable light, until diabolical means were used, by the making of a cake by my Indian man, who had his direction from this our sister, Mary Sibly", going on to admonish all against the use of any kind of magic, even white magic, because it was essentially, "going to the Devil for help against the Devil". Mary Sibley publicly acknowledged the error of her actions before the congregation, who voted by a show of hands that they were satisfied with her admission of error.
Other instances appear in the records of the episode that demonstrated a continued belief by members of the community in this "effluvia" as legitimate evidence, including accounts in two statements against Elizabeth How that people had suggested cutting off and burning an ear of two different animals How was thought to have afflicted, to prove she was the one who had bewitched them to death.
Traditionally, the "afflicted" girls are said to have been "entertained" by Parris' slave woman, Tituba, who supposedly taught them about "voodoo" in the kitchen of the parsonage during the winter of 1692, although there is no contemporary evidence to support the story. A variety of secondary sources, starting with Charles W. Upham in the 19th century, typically relate that a "circle" of the girls, with Tituba's help, tried their hands at fortune telling, using the white of an egg and a "glass" (a mirror) to create a primitive crystal ball to divine the professions of their future spouses, and scared one another when one supposedly saw the shape of a coffin instead. The story is drawn from John Hale's book about the trials, but in his account, only one of the "afflicted" girls, not a group of them, had confessed to him afterwards that she had once tried this. Hale did not mention Tituba as having any part of it, nor when it had occurred.
Tituba's race is often cited as Carib-Indian or that she was of African descent, but contemporary sources describe her only as an "Indian". Research by Elaine Breslaw has suggested that she may well have been captured in what is now Venezuela and brought to Barbados, and so may have been an Arawak Indian, but other slightly later descriptions of her, by Gov. Thomas Hutchinson writing his history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 18th century, describe her as a "Spanish Indian". In that day, that typically meant an Indian from the Carolinas/Georgia/Florida. Contrary to the folklore, there is no evidence to support the assertion that Tituba told any of the girls any stories about using magic.
Various accounts and opinions about the proceedings began to appear in print in 1692.
Deodat Lawson, a former minister in Salem Village, visited Salem Village in March and April, 1692, and published an account in Boston in 1692 of what he witnessed and heard, called "A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village: Which happened from the Nineteenth of March, to the Fifth of April, 1692"..
Rev. William Milbourne, a Baptist minister in Boston, publicly petitioned the General Assembly in early June, 1692, challenging the use of spectral evidence by the Court. Milbourne had to post 200£ bond or be arrested for "contriving, writing and publishing the said scandalous Papers".
On June 15, 1692, twelve local ministers -- including Increase Mather, Samuel Willard, Cotton Mather -- submitted The Return of several Ministers to the Governor and Council in Boston, cautioning the authorities not to rely entirely on the use of spectral evidence, stating, "Presumptions whereupon persons may be Committed, and much more, Convictions whereupon persons may be Condemned as Guilty of Witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable, than barely the Accused Persons being Represented by a Spectre unto the Afflicted".
Sometime in 1692, minister of the First Church in Boston, Samuel Willard anonymously published a short tract in Philadelphia entitled, "Some Miscellany Observations On our present Debates respecting Witchcrafts, in a Dialogue Between S. & B." The authors were listed as "P.E. and J. A." (Philip English and John Alden), but is generally attributed to Willard. In it, two characters, S (Salem) and B (Boston), discuss the way the proceedings were being conducted, with "B" urging caution about the use of testimony from the afflicted and the confessors, stating, "whatever comes from them is to be suspected; and it is dangerous using or crediting them too far".
Sometime in September 1692, at the request of Governor Phips, Cotton Mather wrote "Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches, Lately Executed in New-England," as a defense of the trials, to "help very much flatten that fury which we now so much turn upon one another". It was published in Boston and London in 1692, although dated 1693, with an introductory letter of endorsement by William Stoughton, the Chief Magistrate. The book included accounts of five trials, with much of the material copied directly from the court records supplied to Mather by Stephen Sewall, his friend and Clerk of the Court.
Cotton Mather's father, Increase Mather, published "Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits," dated October 3, 1692, after the last trials by the Court of Oyer & Terminer, although the title page lists the year of publication as "1693." In it, Mather repeated his caution about the reliance on spectral evidence, stating "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned". Second and third editions of this book were published in Boston and London in 1693, the third of which also included Lawson's Narrative and the anonymous "A Further Account of the Tryals of the New-England Witches, sent in a Letter from thence, to a Gentleman in London.
A wealthy businessman in Boston and fellow Harvard graduate, Thomas Brattle circulated a letter in manuscript form in October 1692, in which he criticized the methods used by the Court to determine guilt, including the use of the touch test and the testimony of confessors, stating, "they are deluded, imposed upon, and under the influence of some evill spirit; and therefore unfit to be evidences either against themselves, or any one else
The first hint that public response for justice was not over came in 1695, when Thomas Maule, a noted Quaker, publicly criticized the handling of the trials by the Puritan leaders in Chapter 29 of his book Truth Held Forth and Maintained, expanding on Increase Mather by stating, "it were better than one hundred Witches should live, than that one person be put to death for a witch, which is not a Witch. For publishing this book, Maule was imprisoned twelve months before he was tried and found not guilty.
On December 17, 1696, the General Court ruled that there would be a Fast Day on January 14, 1697, "referring to the late Tragedy, raised among us by Satan and his Instruments. On that day, Samuel Sewall asked Rev. Samuel Willard to read aloud his apology to the congregation of Boston's South Church, "to take the Blame & Shame" of the "late Commission of Oyer & Terminer at Salem. Thomas Fiske and eleven other trial jurors also asked forgiveness.
Robert Calef, a merchant in Boston and long-time public adversary of Cotton Mather, republished Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World in 1700 with additional material added to it, broadly criticizing the proceedings, under the title "More Wonders of the Invisible World, bringing the issue back into public debate. John Hale, minister in Beverly and present at many of the proceedings, had completed his book, "A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft" in 1697, but it wasn't published until 1702, after his death, and perhaps in response to Calef's book. Expressing regret over the actions taken, Hale admitted, "Such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former presidents, that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way".
Various petitions were filed between 1700 and 1703 with the Massachusetts government, demanding that the convictions be formally reversed. Those tried and found guilty were considered dead in the eyes of the law, and with convictions still on the books, those not executed were vulnerable to further accusations. The General Court initially reversed the attainder only for those who had filed petitions, only three people who had been convicted but not executed: Abigail Faulkner Sr., Elizabeth Proctor, and Sarah Wardwell. In 1703, another petition was filed, requesting a more equitable settlement for those wrongly accused, but it wasn't until 1709, when the General Court received a further request, that it took action on this proposal. In May 1709, 22 people who had been convicted of witchcraft, or whose relatives had been convicted of witchcraft, presented the government with a petition in which they demanded both a reversal of attainder and compensation for financial losses.
Repentance was evident within the Salem Village church. Rev. Joseph Green and the members of the church voted on February 14, 1703, after nearly two months of consideration, to reverse the excommunication of Martha Corey. On August 25, 1706, when Ann Putnam Jr., one of the most active accusers, joined the Salem Village church, she publicly asked forgiveness. She claimed that she had not acted out of malice, but was being deluded by Satan into denouncing innocent people, and mentioned Rebecca Nurse in particular, and was accepted for full membership.
On October 17, 1711, the General Court passed a bill reversing the judgment against the 22 people listed in the 1709 petition (there were seven additional people who had been convicted but had not signed the petition, but there was no reversal of attainder for them). Two months later, on December 17, 1711, Governor Joseph Dudley also authorized monetary compensation to the 22 people in the 1709 petition. The amount of 578 pounds 12 shillings was authorized to be divided among the survivors and relatives of those accused, and most of the accounts were settled within a year, but Phillip English's extensive claims weren't settled until 1718.
Finally, on March 6, 1712, Rev. Nicholas Noyes, and members of the Salem church reversed Noyes' earlier excommunications of their former members, Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.
Not all the condemned had been exonerated in the early 18th century, and so in 1957, descendants of the six people who had been wrongly convicted and executed but who had not been included in the bill for a reversal of attainder in 1711, or added to it in 1712, demanded that the General Court formally clear the names of their ancestral family members. An act was passed pronouncing the innocence of those accused, although it listed only Ann Pudeator by name. The others were listed only as "certain other persons," phrasing which failed specifically to name Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd and Margaret Scott.
The 300th anniversary of the trials was marked in Salem and Danvers by a variety of events in 1992. A memorial park was dedicated in Salem with a stone bench for each of those executed in 1692. Speakers at the ceremony in August included Arthur Miller and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Danvers erected its own new memorial, and reinterred bones unearthed in the 1950s, assumed to be those of George Jacobs, Sr., in a new resting place at the Rebecca Nurse Homestead.
In 1992, The Danvers Tercentennial Committee also persuaded the Massachusetts House of Representatives to issue a resolution honoring those who had died. After much convincing and hard work by Salem school teacher Paula Keene, Representatives J. Michael Ruane and Paul Tirone and others, the names of all those not previously listed were added to this resolution. When it was finally signed on October 31, 2001, by Governor Jane Swift, more than 300 years later, all were finally proclaimed innocent.
The story of the witchcraft accusations, trials, and executions has captured the imagination of writers and artists in the centuries since the event took place, many of which interpretations have taken liberties with the facts of the historical episode in the name of literary and/or artistic license.
Although it is not widely believed that the girls who made the original accusations were actually possessed by the devil, the cause of the symptoms of those who claimed affliction continues to be a subject of interest. Various medical and psychological explanations for the observed symptoms have nevertheless been explored by researchers, including psychological hysteria in response to Indian attacks, convulsive ergotism caused by eating rye bread made from grain infected by the fungus Claviceps purpurea (which is the natural substance from which LSD is derived), and an epidemic of bird-borne encephalitis lethargica.
Modern academic historians are less inclined to believe that the cause for the behavior was biological, exploring instead motivations of jealousy, spite, and a need for attention to explain behavior they contend was simply acting.