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Salem Witchcraft Trials of February 1692

History of settlement in Salem, Massachusetts

Perhaps Salem, Massachusetts stands as one of the most famous places in the history of United States as a town known for the witchcraft trials of 1692. An event that is hard not to be curious about sometimes making it is easy to ignore other facts about this beautiful coastal town.

The statue of Roger Conant, Salem Governor, 1626The statue of Roger Conant, Salem Governor, 1626

But what are the origins of this town? To understand this in more depth, we have to go back in time 3 years before Salem was originated. In 1623 after the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock, a small group of the colony arrives in Gloucester Harbor while looking for favorable fishing conditions.

A small temporary settlement is established. Immigrants from The Dorchester Company of England permanently settle the area naming it Gloucester, after a town of the same name in England. 

In 1626, Roger Conant (1592 - 1679) accompanied by a group of fishermen from Cape Ann, after actively seeking for a settlement in favorable conditions, arrived to what was at the time known as Naumkeag - an area previously named by Native Americans which literally translated to 'eel land'.

Prior to this, Conant was invited to be the governor of a fishing settlement on Cape Ann (North of Massachusetts Bay) by Reverand John White and other members of the Dorchester Company. In 1629, Naumkeag was renamed to Salem (from Hebrew 'Shalom' or Arabic 'Salom', the words for peace in both languages.)

The Salem Witch Trials, February 1692

The Salem witchcraft occurrences began during late February,1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. During that time Salem Village (present-day Danvers) was populated by merely 600 people, part of which, mainly containing people from the Putnam family, wanted to separate from Salem Town and generally lived on the western side of the village. The other part of population, living on the eastern side of the village, closest to Salem Town wanted to remain a part of it.

Puritanism was a Christian faith which emerged within the Church of England during that period of time. Those who wanted to remain a part of Salem Town were Puritans. That group of people proposed against individualism.

The Putnams were in the lead of the separatist group, a primarily large group of people who owned most of the farmland in Salem Village. They wanted to create a distinctive congregation different from Salem Town, so in 1689 such congregation was formed under the Reverend Samuel Parris. The Salem Village Meetinghouse was used for the congregation events. Due to the fact that over than a half of the members of the congregation contained Putnams, it was considered a secret group. Still, contracts and privileges presented to ministers of the separatist group angered those who wanted to remain a part of Salem Town resulting in them not worshiping at the meetinghouse.

Consequently, a new committee was formed in 1961 in opposition to the congregation, which constrained a number of Reverend Samuel Parris’ assets and questioned legality of his properties, mainly the ownership of the meetinghouse. These occurrences forced the separatist group to rely on voluntary contributors only. Putnams began to worry about losing Parris as a main influence of their activities.

Samuel Parris had a fairly small family. He was married and had a young daughter and a niece. He also owned 3 slaves bought during his visits to India. There was no room for Parris’ children’s entertainment due to the fact that their past times were restricted by religious rules of their family. One of the regular activities for the children was reading books. Often they would read books about prophecy and fortune telling since it was a popular belief during those days.

One of Parris’ slaves, a young Indian girl, would participate in practicing fortune telling and other supernatural obsessions learned from the books. The girls of Samuel Parris’ family would often be disappointed with their fortunes told by the activities they would participate in. It was not clearly known what sometimes would impose strange physical behavior on the girls. Those consequences coupled with a serious belief in prophecy and witchcraft during that period of time in Salem would later emerge into an assumption that the girls were affected by somebody who practiced witchcraft.

Puritan people believed that by being involved in witchcraft a person could possibly manipulate behavior of other people. The ideals which separate Puritans from other Christians include their strict belief in predestination. This term refers to the idea that God has previously chosen those who will be saved, and an individual can do nothing to change this status. These facts emerged into an investigation of Samuel Parris’ girls because witchcraft was considered a denial of God’s will and aforementioned Puritan ethics.

The investigations resulted in identifying 3 women as being involved in witchcraft practices. One of the women was Samuel Parris’ slave who previously participated in fortune telling with his daughters. She was the only person out of the 3 women to confess of witchcraft. All of the accused women were taken to Boston jail, however the witchcraft accusations would continue. It is still not clearly known by historians and psychologists why these accusations continued.

An assumption is made that the reason for the continued accusation of witchcraft was based on strict religious beliefs and mass hysteria. Some people started to believe that even regular troubles such as sicknesses and bad luck were considered acts of God, targeted at punishing people for witchcraft accusations. Despite that fact, the accusations continued and by the end of May 1692, around 200 people were jailed for witchcraft.

Almost all of the condemned people were accused on the account of little or none completely proven evidence and those who stood trial for the crime of witchcraft could be convicted based on gossip, which resulted in forming the Court of Oyer and Terminer, a new court intended to investigate witchcraft accusations at Salem Village.

One of the most defining points of witchcraft trails in Salem Town was the accusation of former Salem Village minister George. This accusation came from Reverend Samuel Parris’ daughter who was supposedly inflicted by witchcraft. Some of the reasons for this accusation were assumptions that George Burroughs has mistreated his minister duties and abused his wives due to the fact that he was widowed 3 times, significantly lowering his reputation among the population of Salem Village. By this time many people believed that accusations were out of control due to a sudden outbreak of witchcraft cases. These circumstances have lessen public support and interest in witchcraft trials.

By October 1692, a large number of people believed that the accusations were false and the suspects of witchcraft rituals were falsely accused. The arrests of suspected of suspected witches were gradually suspended, unless a reasonable evidence was present. The functions of the Court of Oyer and Terminer were fully deceased on October 29, 1692.

The outcome of Salem witchcraft trials resulted in at least 25 deaths; 19 were executed, one was tortured to death and at least 5 died as a result of harsh prison conditions. Over 160 people accused of witchcraft were either jailed or deprived of property and legal rights.

Quick Facts

Governor William Phips created a court of Oyer and Terminer for the Salem Witch Trials. But what does it mean? Oyer and Terminer is an Anglo-French name that translates to "hear and determine".

In 1819, population of Salem Town is about 1,200

In 1692, population of Salem Village is nearly 600 people, from which around 200 people are jailed for witchcraft.

In 1752, Salem Village is separated from Salem Town, and is renamed to the town of Danvers.

Notable Residents

  • Nehemiah Adams, clergyman & author
  • Frank W. Benson, artist
  • Nathaniel Bowditch, mathematician & navigator
  • Robert Ellis Cahill, sheriff, historian & author
  • Roger Conant, founder of Salem
  • Crowninshield family, Boston Brahmins who later helped found Salem
  • Elias Hasket Derby, merchant
  • John Endecott, governor
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, writer
  • Samuel McIntire, architect & woodcarver
  • Richard Mulcahy, executive producer
  • George Swinton Parker, founder of Parker Brothers
  • Samuel Parris, minister
  • Timothy Pickering, secretary of state
  • Sarah Parker Remond, abolitionist
  • Samuel Sewall, magistrate
  • John F. Tierney, U.S. Congressman
  • Roger Williams, theologian
  • Laurie Cabot, Wiccan high priestess
  • Hardcore/metal band Converge are based in Salem.
  • Singer/Songwriter Mary Lou Lord grew up in Salem
  • Steve Thomas, former host of PBS's "This Old House"
  • Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric- Grew up in Salem, attended Salem High School.

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