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Volume 7, Issue 2: Historia

Salem in 1692 (Pt. II)

Chris Schlect

In 1697, pastor John Hale took up pen in hand to compose a history of the outbreak of witchcraft in Salem that he had witnessed five years earlier. In his words, this is how it began:

In the latter end of the year 1691, Mr. Samuel Paris, Pastor of the Church in Salem-Village, had a Daughter of Nine, and a Niece of about Eleven years of Age, sadly Afflicted of they knew not what Distempers; and he made his application to Physitians, yet still they grew worse: And at length one Physitian gave his opinion, that they were under an Evil Hand. This the Neighbours quickly took up, and concluded they were bewitched. . . These Children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any Epileptick Fits, or natural Disease to effect. Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choaked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move an heart of stone, to sympathize with them, with bowels of compassion for them. 1
Eventually the girls cried out the names of those who tormented them: Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and an Indian woman named Tituba. The accused were served warrants on February 29, 1692, and such a crowd had gathered the next day to hear them examined that the proceedings were transferred to the meeting house.
As Sarah Good was questioned, several onlookers volunteered accusations that she used dolls to torment people. She denied all such practices. Tituba, on the other hand, admitted to having formerly been a witch, and even confessed to tormenting the girls on one occasion (against her will). Moreover, she confirmed that both Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were witches and were indeed tormenting the poor girls, and others as well. Sarah Osborne denied all wrongdoing. At several times the proceedings were interrupted by the girls' violent fits of uncontrollable screaming; the accused supposedly caused these fits.
The questioning continued during the next few days. Tituba still insisted that the others were genuine witches, and that she herself was but a victim being tormented by the devil who sought to regain her allegiance. The magistrates believed her because her story remained consistent after repeated examinations, and she presented them with physical evidence that her body had been tormented. She was released, and Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good remained in jail to await trial.
By this time the people's interest in witchcraft had been aroused. Within weeks the number of the afflicted, and of those accused, multiplied dramatically. By June 2, the number of accused exceeded seventy.
The Massachusetts government was hardly equipped to deal with the situation, for it had only been in existence for two weeks. Years earlier, in 1684, the king revoked the original charter of Massachusetts. King James II restructured the colony's government and appointed Sir Edmond Andros as governor over all New England. Andros abolished the Massachusetts General Court and imposed Episcopalianism upon the Puritan community, thereby annulling their vision for representative government and purity in worship. When the news arrived in 1689 that James II had been deposed in England, the colonists ousted Governor Andros from his post on their side of the Atlantic. This left Massachusetts without an official government. All important ruling functions were on hold until Increase Mather returned from England with a new charter from King William. He arrived with the charter, along with William Phips, the king's newly-appointed governor, on May 14, 1692. Governor Phips faced a huge backlog of witch case s that needed his attention. (Before Phips' arrival, the local magistrates had no authority to conduct trials. So for the previous three months they had been doing all they could to keep public order: jail the accused and wait for a charter and a governor.)
Within days of his arrival, Phips appointed a special court, the Court of Oyer and Terminer, to judge the numerous cases that had burdened the Salem magistrates. The court chose to hear the easiest case first, that of Bridget Bishop. On June 10 she was convicted and immediately executed. Sarah Good was convicted on June 30, and hanged with four others on July 19. Of course, these proceedings were well known to the public, and only served to amplify the frenzy.
The Puritan clergy immediately adopted a critical posture toward the sort of evidence the court admitted. In fact, outside of Salem, most of the clergy and the other educated men in the colony disapproved of the proceedings. Yet despite their strong criticism of the trials, they remained very respectful of the judges and of the court's authority. They knew that the Salem witch trials were a test of the new government, and so they sought to uphold its integrity. Many historians have mistaken the clergy's open respect of the court for wholehearted approval of what the court was doing. (Cotton Mather especially has been painted as a dark figure in the Salem trials for this reason.) But an honest examination of the historical evidence will reveal that it was the clergy's influence that brought the court's workand a horrific tragedyto a quick end.
Governor Phips disbanded the special court on October 12; the Salem witch trials ended. In the next installment we will look more closely at these controversial trials, and by examining them we will see the glaring need in our own society for a resurgence of stalwart Puritanism.

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