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From Daily Life in Colonial New England by Claudia Durst Johnson, pp. 192-196.

From Daily Life in Colonial New England by Claudia Durst Johnson, pp. 192-196.


The execution of accused witches throughout New England, ending with the wholesale arrests in Salem in 1692, was the worst instance of rule by terror that the colonists faced. The ordeal began in January 1692 when several young girls in the Reverend Samuel Parris's Salem household, in response to being scolded for dancing in the forest and playing games to predict the future, began accusing members of the community of bewitching them. Among the many arrested were Sarah Goode and her four-year-old daughter, Dorcas. Community leaders began to en- courage citizens to turn in their neighbors as witches. Often the only way to avoid being arrested oneself was to accuse someone else first. Once accused, the only way to escape execution was to "confess." Hysteria and arrests began to mount. Throughout the spring, people were arrested and held in prison without benefit of trial. Soon the Salem jail was overflowing, and those accused of witchcraft were packed into the Boston jail.

When the trials began, all rules of evidence and other safeguards for the accused were totally ignored. The most notorious abuse of the legal system was the acceptance of spectral evidence. This meant that even though a roomful of people might say that a woman was sitting with them all evening, her "specter," or spirit, could have left her body and be out torturing her accuser at the same time. Here is one report of the trial of Martha Corey by a staunch believer in the witch threat, Deodat Lawson. He begins by talking about the effect the accused witch had on the young girls who had originated the witch hysteria to save themselves from punishment for dancing:

[T]hese are most of them at Corey's examination, and did vehemently accuse her in the Assembly of afflicting them, by Biting, Pinching, Strangling, etc. And that they did in their Fit see her Likeness coming to them, and bringing a Book to them, she said, she had no Book; they affirmed, she had a Yellow-Bird, that used to suck betwixt her Fingers, and being asked about it, if she had any Familiar Spirit, that attended her, she said, She had no Familiarity with any such thing. She was a Gospel Woman. (Lawson, 155)
By October, twenty people had been executed for witchcraft. Hundreds had been held in prison; some had died there. Dozens had to flee the area to save themselves; hundreds more who lived had had their land and possessions confiscated; and untold numbers had seen families, friends, and communities irrevocably broken apart.

Finally on October 3, 1692, Governor Phips, who had been lobbied by Increase Mather, forbade any further arrests. This marked the end of the executions, but it took a year to try and release the rest of the prisoners.

The intensity of the fear of witchcraft was apart of the daily lives of New Englanders long before the Salem hysteria. People who stood out in any way, especially those who were somewhat rebellious, the physically disabled, and the mentally ill, had good reason to fear arrest on charges of witchcraft. And for ten months in 1692, all citizens of New England had good reason to live in terror of being accused of witchcraft by someone they had offended, someone with whom they had argued, someone who wanted their land, or someone who could in any way profit or receive satisfaction from their being jailed, humiliated, or even executed.

Despite a hard core of ministers and legislators who were convinced that the devil was abroad in Massachusetts and that God would punish them until they purged the colony of every suspected witch, and despite the success of these fanatics in manipulating many people, the general populace in 1692 did not share in the hysterical belief that witches lurked in every household in New England. As dangerous as it was to defy the magistrates, a few ordinary citizens put their lives on the line--unsuccessfully, it turned out--to save Rebecca Nurse, a woman known to be an angel of mercy. Thirty-five citizens put their names to the following petition:

We whose names are hereunto subscribed, being desired by Goodman Nurse to declare that we know concerning his wife's conversation for time past,--we can testify, to all whom it may concern, that we have known her for many years; and, according to our observation, her life and conversation were according to her profession, and we never had any cause or grounds to suspect her of any such thing as she is now accused of. (Quoted in Upham, vol. 2: 272)
As in other matters, however, people were too terrified, too used to following the orders of their superiors, to mount a rebellion. They also immediately perceived that to criticize the witch accusers and the authorities was to bring accusations on themselves or members of their families. Many influential businessmen and ministers were convinced from the beginning that a grave injustice was being done. Many, like the Reverend Increase Mather, worked behind the scenes to influence powerful Englishmen to stop the reign of terror. Many others, like the Reverend Samuel Willard, had an underground railroad to help the accused escape. When a popular minister, the Reverend George Burroughs, was arrested and scheduled for execution, an uprising seemed sure to occur. A tentative groundswell of protest threatened to halt the execution. But the Reverend Cotton Mather, a firm believer in the dangers of witchcraft, galloped up to Salem from Boston at the last minute and confronted the grumbling crowd. After the people backed down, the execution went on.


Lawson, Deodat. "A Brief and True Narrative." In Narrative of the Witchcraft Cases, ed. George Lincoln Burr. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914.

Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft. 2 vols. Boston: Wiggin and Lunt, 1867.

Source: Johnson, Claudia Durst. Daily Life in Colonial New England. The Greenwood Press "Daily Life Through History" Series. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002.

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