Monday, July 19, 2010

The demise of Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good, and Sarah Wildes

Writer's Almanac...

It was on this day in 1692 that Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good, and Sarah Wildes were hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Their accusers were mostly young girls who fell sick with strange fits and hallucinations, and then testified that they had seen these women flying through the air or asking them to sign the Devil's book.

Today, many scholars see the witchcraft trials as a product of tensions in and around Salem. There was a strong divide between the town of Salem, a prosperous port town, and the village of Salem, which was a poorer farming town. The village of Salem formed its own congregation, and it was divided bitterly over the choice of minister, but eventually selected Samuel Parris, who was the choice of one prominent Salem clan, the Putnams. It was Parris's daughter Betty and her cousin who first displayed the symptoms that were quickly labeled the result of witchcraft, and the girls were soon joined by one of the Putnam daughters, Ann. The Putnams were enthusiastic witch hunters, with Ann's mother, also named Ann, accusing fellow townspeople as well. In general, people who were accused of witchcraft fell into two categories. Some were easy targets — they were old, social misfits, or generally unpopular. Others were upstanding citizens but their accusers had something to gain, either property or status, from the downfall of the people they accused.

On top of the personal politics, Salem had been engaged for years in failed wars with Native American tribes, and morale was low. So witchcraft provided a convenient excuse: Not only was the Devil in league with Salem's enemies, but Ann Putnam claimed that the town's former minister, George Burroughs, was also a witch, and he had bewitched soldiers so that they would lose against the Native Americans. Burroughs, once a popular minister, was one of 20 people executed for witchcraft — 14 women and five men were hanged, one man was crushed to death by stones for refusing to stand trial, and five more people died in prison.

Eventually the furor of the witch trials subsided. The Reverend Increase Mather was the president of Harvard, and his son Cotton had been one of the leading ministers to promote the use of spectral evidence in the trials, which allowed testimony of supernatural events to count as solid evidence. In October of 1692, less than three months after Nurse, Martin, Howe, Good, and Wildes were hanged, the elder Reverend Mather spoke out against using spectral evidence, and he wrote: "It were better that 10 suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned." In 1697, Samuel Parris was replaced by a new minister, Joseph Green, who urged the most prominent accusers to publicly apologize, and who tried to mend town rivalries.

Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692

Salem witch trials [Wikipedia]

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