Introduction

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Overview

The events known as the Salem Witch Trials began on February 29, 1692 (1691 by the old calendar), when Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn, and Tituba Indian were charged with witchcraft. Over the next 7 months, dozens more suspect were named, with the accusations fanning out from Salem to all of Essex County and beyond, eventually including residents of communities from Boston in the south to Wells, ME in the north. The implications went still further. Many charges related to activities further "to the eastward" in Maine and Acadia, and controversial trial procedures were debated throughout New England and New York.

Examinations of alleged witches began on March 1, but the first trial was not held until June 2. As the number of suspects grew exponentially in April and May, the governor and his council were involved. The governor created a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the cases. This court first sat on June 2, for the case of Bridget Bishop, who was indicted and tried that same day.

A series of executions began with the hanging of Bridget Bishop on June 10 and ended September 22. By October, the tide of public opinion had changed, and the trials were suspended. The final cases were decided in May 1693.

In all, at least 144 people were charged. 54 confessed, often during intense and painful interrogation. At least 4 people died in jail (including one infant), where they were housed in deplorable conditions (think typical movie dungeon scene).

Of the 31 people who faced trial, only 3 were acquitted, and those were all in cases which did not come to trial until 1693. 19 people were hanged. 1 man was pressed to death with stones while authorities tried to force him to enter a plea. 8 defendants were found guilty but granted reprieves. 1 of these reprieves was granted to Elizabeth Procter, who was pregnant. The other condemned prisoners escaped execution when Governor Phips suspended proceedings in October and soon after disbanded the special Court of Oyer and Terminer. From January to May 1693, the final cases were settled by Superior Courts. Many of the remaining cases were thrown out by grand juries. The others resulted in acquittals.

The Salem Witch Trials have been described as a hysteria, a panic, a crisis, and a delusion, but for many of the people involved it was an all-out war. Supporters of the trials believed their churches and communities were being assaulted by Satan and his followers. Detractors, on the other hand pointed to many unconventional and even illegal practices employed by the courts to win convictions. In the end, the trials themselves led to much friction and division within colonial towns and churches.


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