In early 1692, during the depths of winter in Massachusetts Bay Colony, a group of young girls in the village of Salem began acting strangely. The daughter and niece of the local minister, Samuel Parris, claimed to be afflicted by invisible forces who bit and pinched them, sending their limbs flailing. By mid-February, two more girls had joined them, and the first waves of panic gripped Salem’s residents: The girls had been bewitched.
The afflicted girls soon accused three women: the Parris’ “Indian” slave, Tituba; a local beggar woman, Sarah Good; and an invalid widow, Sarah Osbourne. As local magistrates began questioning the accused, people packed into a tavern to witness the girls come face to face with the women they had accused of witchcraft.
While the other two women denied the accusations against them, Tituba told vivid stories of how Satan had revealed himself to her. She said she had signed the devil’s book with her own blood, and seen the marks of Good and Osbourne there beside her own.
Tituba’s riveting testimony helped unleash a notorious witch hunt that swept quickly beyond Salem and engulfed all of New England. Close to 200 people would be accused before the Salem Witch Trials ended the following year, and 20 of them would be executed by hanging over the summer and fall of 1692. These are five of their stories.
1. Bridget Bishop
When the special Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Town in early June, the first case it heard was against Bridget Bishop, a local widow, as the prosecutor assumed her case would be easy to win. Bishop had been accused of witchcraft more than a decade earlier, but was acquitted for lack of evidence. She also fit everyone’s idea of a witch: elderly, poor and argumentative.
Ten witnesses testified against Bishop, and she was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. On June 10, she was taken to Proctor’s Ledge near Gallows Hill in Salem and “hanged by the neck until she was dead,” according to the report of the sheriff who escorted her.
2. Sarah Good
By then, signs of opposition to the Salem Witch Trials had begun to surface. Several ministers questioned whether the court relied too much on spectral evidence, or testimony about the ghostly figures witches supposedly sent to afflict their victims. “Everyone assumed there were specters who could do it,” says Margo Burns, a New Hampshire-based historian specializing in the Salem witch trials. “That was not disputed. But what was disputed was whether the devil could send the shape of an innocent person to afflict.”
Still, when the Court of Oyer and Terminer reconvened on June 28 after its success convicting Bishop, Sarah Good was quickly convicted and sentenced to death. Several of the afflicted girls claimed Good’s specter attacked them, and Tituba and several others had named her as a fellow witch in their confessions, claiming she flew on a broomstick and attended witches’ gatherings. On July 19, Good was carted to Gallows Hill and executed along with the churchgoing grandmother, Rebecca Nurse, and three other convicted witches.
3. Susannah Martin
Susannah Martin did not even live in Salem, but in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Like Bishop, she had been accused of witchcraft before, but the charges had been dropped for lack of evidence. Her bad reputation may have spread to Salem by 1692, when four of the afflicted girls in Salem accused her by name, claiming her specter had attacked them.
When the court asked them how they knew the specter was Martin’s, the girls said “‘Oh, she said her name was Goody Martin and she was from Amesbury,’” Burns recounts. “They didn’t even have to recognize her.” Despite the general lack of evidence against her, Martin was also convicted and hanged on July 19, the same day as Sarah Good.
4. Martha Carrier
When the Court of Oyer and Terminer met for a third session in early August 1692, it heard the case of Martha Carrier of Andover, which would be home to more accused witches than any other town. “Her family was very unpopular,” Burns says of Carrier; they were thought to have brought smallpox to Andover. After Carrier was accused, the authorities interrogated her two teenage sons, torturing them into confessing to witchcraft themselves, and implicating their mother.
In The Wonders of the Invisible World, his famous account of the Salem Witch Trials, Cotton Mather memorably called Carrier a “rampant hag” who aspired to be “Queen of Hell.” The court convicted Carrier in the same session as two prominent male victims of the witch hunts, John Proctor and Reverend George Burroughs, whom people suspected of being the ringleader of Salem’s witches. On August 19, Carrier went to Gallows Hill along with Proctor, Burroughs and two other men—she was the only woman executed that day.
5. Martha Cory
Like Rebecca Nurse, Martha Cory was far from the usual witch suspect, who tended to be a poor outcast. She was a covenanted member of her church and was considered an upstanding member of the community. But Martha had attracted suspicion after she tried to stop her husband, Giles, from attending one of the early examinations in the witch trials, even going so far as to hide his saddle. Shortly after this, one of the afflicted girls accused Martha of bewitching her and turning her blind.
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Martha’s defiant attitude turned court officials against her, and Giles refused to corroborate her testimony, and even testified against her—at least until he was accused. Less than two weeks after Martha was found guilty and sentenced to death, Giles was pressed to death after he refused to enter a plea in his own trial. On September 22, Martha Cory went to the gallows along with seven other convicted witches, in what would be the last hangings of the Salem Witch Trials.