The village of Salem was divided. There were two factions, those that supported the Putnam family and those the supported the Porter family. The Putnams chose Samuel Parris to come be the minister at their parish, and it did not take long for Parris to figure out who his enemies were. Parris only worsened the already existing divide by peaching against those who would not contribute to the upkeep of the church and seek full membership in it.
By 1692 Salem was ripe for the Devil to do his work. Fear gripped the colony as reports of Indian raids in the north traveled down to Massachusetts. “A steady stream of refugees fleeing Indian raids brought reports of massacres, firsthand accounts of fighting, and predictions of future savagery.” (pg. 43) It was this tangible fear that made the people of Salem ready to believe supernatural explanations for illness and other misfortunes that befell them. The children who had survived these raids, but were the only member left in their families, were sent to Massachusetts as servants.
Two examples of such children were Mercy Lewis and Abigale Williams, both would later accuse others of witchcraft. Abigale was the niece of Parris and ended up joining his household, but she always felt like an outsider. She was not treated as a member of the family, but rather like a servant. It is recorded that children were not treated well in Salem during this period. “Historians have found that abuse of children and servants were common, if not epidemic, in the Massachusetts colony.” (Pg. 49)
Abigale Williams was eleven years old the in 1692 and had become well acquainted with her little cousin Betty who fell ill that winter. Betty’s sickness resisted all treatment and had the child acting quite odd, and it was thought that perhaps the illness was a supernatural one. Soon Abigale and all of the girl’s playmates began to complain of similar symptoms. These girls got together and began to name the people they thought responsible for their afflictions. Betty and Abigale started the witch-hunt by accusing Tituba, the Parris’s slave who had come under suspicion after making a cake out of the girl’s urine, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn of witchcraft.
Most of the time, those accused of witchcraft were already in bad standing within the community, but the girls went even so far as to accuse old Rebecca Nurse of witchcraft. Nurse was a full member in good standing in the Church of Salem Village, and beloved by many in the town as a kind grandmother figure. Yet, she was tried and executed. The girls had no limit to their power.
The girls started a nightmare scenario for many in the town of Salem, and their antics led to the death of twenty people. By the spring of 1693 public opinion had shifted away from trials and some began to think that the Judges had erred by relying almost solely on spectral evidence. Over time it was generally accepted that innocent people had suffered at Salem, and spectral evidence was no longer admitted in the courts.
To this day the witchcraft trail in Salem serve as a reminder to not jump to conclusions and that people are innocent until proven guilty by real evidence. The term “witch hunt” is still used to this day when someone is accused with little or no evidence. The trails have continued to fascinate people around the world with many books, movies, and plays about the event. The witchcraft trails have never really gone away, but like Abigale said of Nurse, they just change form.
Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: a Legal History. University Press of Kansas, 2006.