Q: How many people were accused and what happened to them?

A: From late 1691 into 1693, at least one hundred ninety one people were suspected of witchcraft in Massachusetts, twenty seven only named, and one hundred sixty four faced some form of legal action. The courts tried fifty two defendants, found thirty guilty of the charge of witchcraft, and hanged nineteen. One man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death (the only time that torture was carried out in New England) to force him to enter a plea—i.e. to agree to be tried by the court. Corey remained stubbornly silent and so died. A few more individuals died in the unsanitary jails.

Q: How many people claimed to be “afflicted” by witches?

A: About seventy people were regarded as afflicted and six or seven of them actually died. Not all testified in court.

Q: Didn’t ergot poisoning from moldy rye bread cause the “bewitched” girls’ behavior?

A: Ergot convulsions occur in people with a vitamin A deficiency—unlikely given the available diet—otherwise the symptom is gangrene. No one reported gangrene.

Q: Why Salem?

A: The panic began in Salem Village (now the town of Danvers but then the rural area of Salem), then spread to twenty two other communities, and embroiled people from Maine to New York. Most trials were in Salem, the Essex County seat.

Q: Weren’t the accused persecuted pagans?

A: In 1692 witches were assumed to owe allegiance to Satan. The accused insisted they were innocent and identified themselves as Christian (like their accusers). There is no evidence they had any connection with modern day Witches, Wiccans, and other like groups who do not include devils in their beliefs.

Q: But weren’t the suspects the only ones practicing magic?

A: The settlers’ culture included a surprising amount of magical folk-lore. While ministers warned that such customs attracted evil spirits, many people practiced several forms of fortune telling and counter magic intended to repel evil spells, under the assumption that results were natural effects or the work of angels.

Q: Didn’t people accuse neighbors of witchcraft to get their property?

A: Accusers were not rewarded with anyone’s property. Government confiscations mainly paid prison and court fees, etc. When George Jacobs, Sr. was hanged for witchcraft the sheriff confiscated £79 and 13 shillings worth of goods including the widow’s wedding ring, but the house and farm stayed in the family until the 1930s.

Q: Wouldn’t confessing to the charge have saved Jacobs and the others?

A: Everyone who was tried in the summer of 1692 was found guilty. “Confessions” only delayed a trial, so the confessed “witches” could testify against their supposed co-conspirators. By chance, the postponement gave time for the panic to subside. Most of those who were hanged refused to lie and thus endanger their souls.

Q: Didn’t anyone speak out against all this?

A: Anyone who contradicting popular opinion and showed sympathy toward supposed “witches” risked being accused themselves. Nevertheless, over 250 people signed petitions and made written statements in favor of some of the accused.

Q: So how did the trials end?

A: The government drew back in October 1692 to reconsider how the cases were being handled. Trials resumed, without spectral evidence—i.e. without accepting reports of what invisible spirits were doing—the following January and only three defendants were found guilty. These and the others awaiting execution were eventually pardoned.

Q: And then?

A: Massachusetts observed a Public Fast on January 14, 1697 primarily to acknowledge the errors of the former witchcraft trials. Then, beginning in 1703, surviving condemned and others petition the government to clear the names of those found guilty of witchcraft. Finally, on October 17, 1711, Governor Joseph Dudley signed a reversal of Attainder to clear the names in the petitions. Monetary restitution followed The missing names were cleared October 31, 2001.

Found Guilty and Hanged

Bridget Bishop
Rev. George Burroughs
Martha Carrier
Martha Corey
Mary Easty
Sarah Good
Elizabeth How
George Jacobs, Sr.
Susannah Martin
Rebecca Nurse
Alice Parker
Mary Parker
John Proctor
Ann Pudeator
Wilmot Read
Margaret Scott
Samuel Wardwell
Sarah Wildes
John Willard


Giles Corey

Condemned But Not Executed

Mary Bradbury
Rebecca Eames
Abigail Faulkner, Sr.
Ann Foster
Dorcas Hoar
Abigail Hobbs
Mary Lacy, Sr.
Mary Post
Elizabeth Proctor
Sarah Wardwell

Known to have Died in Jail

Lydia Dustin
Ann Foster
Sarah Osburn
— Good (Sarah Good's infant daughter)
Roger Toothaker

© Marilynne K. Roach