Salem witches not burned at the stake

Witch Trials Memorial in Salem, Massachusetts

Contrary to popular belief, the Salem witches were not burned at the stake

Hanged and pressed to death.  That was the fate of the women and men sentenced to death for the crime of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts.  Between June and September 1692, 14 women and 5 men were hanged and 1 man was pressed to death with rocks.

According to The Salem Witch Trials by Marilynne K. Roach,

Surviving records indicate that more than 120 individuals (88 women and 32 men) were suspected of witchcraft in New England between 1638 and 1691, excluding those who turned out to be only Quakers.  Some suspects were in court repeatedly, and others not at all.  Some 121 trials involved 85 women and 36 men.  Of these, 38 cases were slander suits brought against an accuser (by 27 women and 11 men).  Spotty records for the 83 actual witch trials resulted in 11 to 17 executions, 1 or 2 of them of men, plus 3 guilty verdicts reversed (2 women and 1 man).

The Burning Times

Many people believe hundreds or thousands of women were burned at the stake in Salem, but this is not the case.  The Burning Times, when burning accused witches at the stake was at its peak, occurred in Europe during the late Middle Ages to the Modern Period.  (They were also hanged, beheaded and drowned.)  Because of spotty record keeping and the dearth of surviving records, the actual number of the executed during those times is not known.  Estimates run as low as 3,000 and as high as 9 million.  Current historians believe the number to be between 50,000 and 100,000, with 25% of victims male.

The beginnings of the Salem Witch Trials

The arrests, imprisonments, trials and executions of the accused in Salem all began when a slave named Tituba began entertaining her young charges with stories of magic and voodoo from the Caribbean.  She had lived in Barbados before being sold to Samuel Parris, a minister in Salem.  One fortune-telling game she played with Parris’ daughter Betty and cousin Abigail Williams was to break an egg in a glass of water and the shape of the white would predict the identity of their future husband.  Soon other girls joined the group and all were entertained by Tituba’s tales.

While playing the who-will-my-husband-be game, one girl thought she saw a coffin in the egg white.  The girls began freaking out.  This kind of sorcery was taboo in Salem, as the people were Puritans, and that kind of nonsense could only mean the devil was at work.  The girls started feeling guilty and exhibiting odd behavior.  Tituba thought perhaps “the Devil me them do it” and baked a cake out of rye flour and Betty and Abigail’s urine.  She fed this to a dog, the belief being that the dog would lead her to the person putting a spell on the girls, but no luck – the dog just ran after a rabbit.  First Betty and then Abigail began having seizures, barking, writhing on the floor, screaming, and staring transfixed at times.  Witchcraft, it must be, and Tituba was arrested.

A poppet, such as the one Bridget Bishop is accused of having in her home.

Witch trials go to court

As months went on, more and more people were accused of witchcraft and arrested. Through the courts, the only way to prove guilt was by confession, a “witch’s mark” on the body or spectral evidence (the accused spirit came to the afflicted in a dream and commanded them to sign the devil’s book or committed some crime).  Other evidence would be the inability to say the Lord’s Prayer.  Neighbors were often pitted against each other.  If they had had a disagreement and someone in one family or their livestock died, it was deemed witchcraft.  Eventually, this led to over 150 people arrested and 19 put to death.

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Salem Witch Trials Memorial

The Witch Trials Memorial is located off Liberty Street in the town of Salem.  The memorial is not in the shape of a hanging tree, witch or broomstick, but rough stone benches engraved with the name, method of execution, and date of each person put to death for the crime of witchcraft.  The memorial was dedicated in 1992 by Elie Wiesel on the 300th anniversary of the trials.  Frequently objects are left on the benches by those who wish to pay their respects, such as the rosary, below, flowers, or candles.

 The Old Burying Point cemetery is adjacent to the Witch Trials Memorial.  Justice John Hathorne, a judge from the witch trials, is buried there, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The House of Seven Gables  The house, by the way, is walking distance from the memorial and cemetery.  None of the accused are buried there.

The House of Seven Gables

Possible explanation for behavior of accusers – besides Witchcraft

According to Smithsonian Magazine:

Additionally, numerous hypotheses have been devised to explain the strange behavior that occurred in Salem in 1692. One of the most concrete studies, published in Science in 1976 by psychologist Linnda Caporael, blamed the abnormal habits of the accused on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses. Toxicologists say that eating ergot-contaminated foods can lead to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. Also, the fungus thrives in warm and damp climates—not too unlike the swampy meadows in Salem Village, where rye was the staple grain during the spring and summer months.

Witches are now stamped in the streets of Salem.

Apologies for the accused and executed
Also from Smithsonian Magazine:
Following the trials and executions, many involved, like judge Samuel Sewall, publicly confessed error and guilt. On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem. In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted £600 restitution to their heirs. However, it was not until 1957—more than 250 years later—that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692.

Actual quotes from the trial records and dates of execution

The Executed:

June 10, 1692:

Bridget Bishop:    “I know nothing of it.  I am innocent to a Witch.  I know not what a Witch is.”

July 19, 1692:

Elizabeth Howe:  “If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent of any thing in this nature.”
Sarah Wildes“I am not guilty Sir.”
Susannah Martin“I have no hand in witchcraft.”
Sarah Good“… I am falsely accused.”
Rebecca Nurse: “”I can say before my Eternal Father I am innocent, and God will clear my innocency.”

August 19, 1692:

George Burroughs
Martha Carrier “You lye, I am wronged.”
George Jacobs“I am as innocent as the Child born to night.”
John Proctor“We are all innocent persons.”
John Willard …the God of Heaven will clear me.”

September 16, 1692:

Giles Corey:  Pressed to death.  Last words: “more weight.”  According to Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project,

After his arrest, Giles Corey remained in jail with his wife until his trial on September 16, 1692. He went to the trial and pleaded “not guilty” but simultaneously refused to “put himself on the court” because of his contempt for the court. Corey was not willing to submit himself to a trial by jury that, he believed, had already determined his guilt. Because the court had accepted the testimony of the same accusers in a trial on September 9, and in all previous trials, Giles understood that there was no chance of being found not guilty and that a conviction would be inevitable. In every previous trial when an accused individual had plead not guilty, not a single person was cleared so Giles preferred to undergo “what Death they would put him to” rather than be found guilty of witchcraft and thus put to death. According to English law, Giles was ruled as “standing mute” because he would not be tried by “God and my country.” The Court of Oyer and Terminer strictly adhered to the requirement that a defendant “put himself on the country”. Because Giles stood mute, he was given the dreaded sentence of peine forte et dure even though this procedure had been determined to be illegal by the government of Massachusetts. It was illegal for two reasons: there was no law permitting pressing, and it violated the Puritan provisions of the Body of Liberties regarding the end of barbarous punishment. In the entire history of the United States, Giles Corey is the only person ever to be pressed to death by order of a court.

September 22, 1692:

Martha Corey“I am an innocent person: I never had to do with witchcraft since I was born. I am a Gospel Woman.”
Mary Easty” I will say it, if it was my last time, I am clear of this sin.
Alice Parker“I am not guilty.”
Mary ParkerQ. How long have ye been in the snare of the devil?  Ansr. “I know nothing of it.”
Ann Pudeator I would humbly begg of yo’r honours to Take it into your Judicious and Pious consideration That my life may not be taken away by such false Evidence…”
Wilmott ReedAskt if she did not think they were Bewitcht: she answered “I cannot tell.”
Margaret Scott
Samuel WardwellIncriminated himself – “He used also when any creature came into his field to bid the devil take it, and it may be the devil took advantage of him by that.”










October 16, 2012

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  • this was a very interesting read:D i love learning about the thing that happend around that time. i’m sure i’m going to keep reading your stuff!

    • I know – that’s a common misconception, along with ‘there were thousands killed and they were all women.’ Thankfully, the U.S. was spared the widespread murders that occurred in Europe during The Burning Times. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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