In 1692 Salem
Village (Danvers) and the town of Salem experienced the infamous
witchcraft hysteria. The dramatization that you will see is based upon the
court transcripts of the trial of Sarah Good which occurred at the
beginning of that hysteria. The historical record as to what happened
surrounding the hysteria is very clear and quite complete. However, to
this day historians continue to argue as to why and how the hysteria could
During the particularly cold and bitter winter of 1692, several young
girls of Salem Village regularly gathered in the kitchen of Reverend
Parris. Ann Putnam, who will be the accuser in your presentation, was one
of those girls. There were few entertainments available for young girls in
Puritan New England, and the girls were expected to entertain themselves.
Tituba, a Carib Indian and slave of the Parris, helped to amuse the girls
with tales of her native Caribbean. These tales may very well have
included stories of witchcraft and voodoo.
Before the winter was over, Parris' daughter Betty and his niece Abigail
were acting strangely. Dr. Griggs was summoned to examine the girls, but
he could find nothing physically wrong with them, so he declared them
"bewitched". Soon the other girls were exhibiting similar strange
behavior. They barked like dogs, had fits, and eventually claimed that the
Devil was pursuing them. The Puritans of the time believed in an actual!
physical! presence of the Devil, and a meeting was called to investigate
the girls' strange behavior.
At that meeting the girls accused Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osburne of
being a witch. (If a person accused of witchcraft confessed, he or she
would be stripped of their property but allowed to live. To deny the
accusation was to risk execution.) To save her Iife - a slave's only
possession - Tituba confessed to witchcraft. Now there was proof - a
confessed witch and her victims - that the devil had established a
physical presence in Salem. The hysteria began for real.
Contributing to the spread of the hysteria was the legal system of that
time which accepted "spectra! evidence" in cases involving witchcraft.
Spectral evidence held that the spirit of a witch could leave his/her body
and torment a victim. Additionally, invisible "familiars" - usually cats
or birds associated with the witch - could also attack the victim. In our
dramatization, Ann Putnam will testify that she is being attacked by Sarah
Good's familiars (little yellow birds) even while the trial is in session.
Obviously, there was no way for individuals to defend themselves against
Before the hysteria was over, nineteen people, including Sarah Good, were
hanged on Gallows Hill, and Giles Corey was pressed to death. Even two
dogs were hanged for giving the children the "evil eye". Hundreds of
accused people were jailed in Salem, and hundreds more were jailed
throughout New England. And as your Dungeon Tour will demonstrate,
imprisonment at this time was a horrible experience.
Fourteen years later, in August of 1706, Ann Putnam confessed that she had
falsely accused Sarah and others. She was humbled before her congregation.
The colony of Massachusetts eventually made small financial restitution to
the surviving families of those executed for witchcraft, but no
restitution was given to those who merely suffered imprisonment.
But how and why could the hysteria have occurred ? Historical theories
have ranged from weather conditions producing an LSD-tike mould on the
grain to boundary and property-rights disputes being fundamental causes.
There were petty disputes between rival groups in Salem Village, and a new
wealthy merchant class was challenging the traditional political influence
of the church leaders in the colony. But it is impossible to single out
one specific fundamental cause.
However, an hysteria is essentially a psychological occurrence, so a
glimpse of the mind set of the times might be helpful. By the winter of
1692 the population of Massachusetts had good cause to feel insecure and
threatened for a variety of reasons:
The colony existed on the edge of a huge, unknown continent, and
there was a constant threat of Indian attack.
The winter was particularly harsh and this reinforced the feeling of
The harvest of 1691 had been poor
There had been an outbreak of smallpox.
The colony's charter, which gave it the right to exist and
established legal rights and land boundaries, had been revoked. The new
charter would extend toleration to other Protestant groups and thereby
challenge the established order.
The French were waging war.
New wealth from the trade with the Caribbean was upsetting the
social and political establishment of the colony. The traditional
leadership of the church was being challenged by a new merchant class.
It is not difficult to find other times in more modern American History
(The McCarthy Hearings of the 1950's, The Palmer Raids, or the
Sacco-Vanzetti Case could serve as some examples) when mass insecurity
created by uncertain times resulted in hysterias similar to Salem's in
1692. So rather than judging our Puritan ancestors too harshly, perhaps we
should just try to learn from their experiences and try to avoid repeating
their mistakes in our future.