Today in History- First Salem Witch Hanging

In every school across America, we learn about the Salem Witch Trials. Today marks the anniversary of Bridget Bishop’s brutal execution. So, what do we know about what it was like to live during this time?

It wasn’t only in Salem.

Although Salem Village was at the heart of the 1692 witch trials, the alleged witches were from a couple dozen towns. The town of Andover in northeastern Massachusetts, not Salem Village, had the highest number of accused (42 accused in Andover versus 26 accused in Salem Village). However, Salem was where trials were taken to such drastic lengths.

There was no proof.

Many innocent Salem residents were put to death based on spectral evidence. Spectral evidence is courtroom testimony where a witness describes the harm an accused’s spirit has inflicted on them, rather than the accused themselves.

“Witch tests” used in Europe were brought into the Salem witch trials to prove whether the accused were actually guilty of witchcraft. If an accused witch managed to pass one test, the court would try again until he or she eventually failed. The tests included:

  • Incantation Test – The accused would verbally order the devil to leave the afflicted victim. If the victim became cured, the accused was proven to be a witch.
  • Prayer Test – The accused were made to recite the Lord’s Prayer or a selection of scripture from memory. If they made an error, they were a witch.
  • Pricking Test – The accused were poked and scratched by their alleged victims until they bled. If the victim’s afflictions were relieved, that was proof that the accused was guilty of witchcraft.
  • Skin Test – Any appearance of moles, freckles, birthmarks, scars, and extra nipples were proof of a contract with the devil.
  • Swimming Test (or dunking) – Accused witches were bound at the wrists and ankles and dropped into a body of water. If they floated, they were guilty of witchcraft. If they sank, they were innocent (but often drowned anyway).
  • Touch Test – The accused witch would touch their victims. If the victims felt pain, the witch was proven guilty.
  • Weight Test – Witches were supposedly very light, so courts tried to weigh them against the weight of the Bible. When the accused did weigh more than the book, the court simply issued another test to find their guilt.
  • Witch Cake Test – If a witch made a cake with her urine and fed it to a dog, the dog would supposedly have adverse effects.

These “witch tests” used in both Europe and New England were impossible to pass. Most notable was the case of minister William Burroughs, who attempted to pass the Prayer Test by reciting the Lord’s Prayer on the gallows. His perfect recitation only further proved his supposed guilt, as Cotton Mather declared that “the devil often had been transformed into the Angel of Light.”

It wasn’t just women accused.

Most of the accused men and women were middle-aged or elderly, with one notable exception. Dorothy Good, the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good, was accused of being deranged and animalistic after consorting with the devil. Dorothy confessed her supposed crimes to the authorities and claimed to have seen her mother with the devil. Dorothy’s confession allowed her to be released on bond after nearly seven months in prison.

Giles Corey refused to stand trial because he believed the court had already decided his fate. He didn’t want his property to be confiscated upon a guilty verdict. Because he refused to comply with the court, he was given the sentence of being pressed to death. He was stripped naked and covered with heavy boards. Large rocks and boulders were then laid on the planks, which slowly crushed him over three days.

Another executed man was John Proctor, a wealthy farmer who spoke out against the witch trials, particularly after his wife Elizabeth was arrested for witchcraft. In response, John was accused as well.

He attempted to save himself by writing to clergy in Boston that mass hysteria had taken over the village. However, they acted too slowly to save him: He was executed on August 19, 1692.

No one was untouchable.

The first accusations during the Salem Witch Trials were against people marginalized by society. But the accusations didn’t stop there. They soon spread to individuals regardless of their gender, class, or power in the community. In late May 1692, Sir William Phillips, the first royal governor of Massachusetts established the criminal court to conduct the Salem witch trials. But in October 1692, his wife Mary was accused of sorcery.

Not even ministers could escape. George Burroughs was named village minister in 1680, but many disapproved of his religious views, and he often wasn’t paid. When he stopped being compensated, he left Salem. The Putnams, a prominent family he’d borrowed money from, sued Burroughs for unpaid debts and later accused him of witchcraft. Burroughs was brought back to Salem, tried, and executed.

It didn’t just affect adults.

John Proctor’s son was born in prison while his wife was imprisoned on witchcraft charges. Sarah Good also gave birth to a daughter, Mercy, while in custody.

 In October 1692, a girl in Andover accused a neighbor’s dog of bewitching her. Villagers shot the dog immediately. Around the same time, in Salem Village, village girls accused a man of torturing another dog with his evil spirit. Villagers killed that second dog and sent the man fleeing for his life.

We are still trying to right the wrong.

In 1711, colonial authorities pardoned some accused and compensated their families. But it was only in July 2022 that Elizabeth Johnson Jun’r., the last convicted Salem “witch” whose name had yet to be cleared, was officially exonerated.

Total deaths for Salem.

  • Jun 10 – Bridget Bishop
  • July 10 – Rebecca Nurse
  • July 19 – Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Wildes
  • August 19 – George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, John Proctor, John Willard
  • September 19 – Giles Corey
  • September 22 – Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell

Five more people died in prison as they awaited their trials, either from malnourishment or injuries sustained during torture. One of those people was Sarah Good’s infant daughter Mercy, who was born in prison but died shortly after birth. 

What was the aftermath.

When the United States formed its justice system, the founding fathers were inspired by Salem’s failure. The trials assumed that the victim was guilty and were focused on getting a confession rather than finding the truth. Now, all accused criminals are presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Anyone charged with a crime has the right to a lawyer these days. And the United States government no longer accepts “spectral evidence” in court–– that’s evidence gathered in a vision or a dream.

There you have it. A very brief overview of a horrific time in the United States. One that we have turned into a tourist attraction- but had real consequences for very real people.

RIP Ms. Bishop and others!

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