Colonial Witch Trials

A Brief History

"The first suspicion of witchcraft in the New England colonies began at Springfield, Massachusetts, as early as 1645. Several persons were, about that time, tried and executed in Massachusetts; one at Charlestown, one at Dorchester, one at Cambridge, and one at Boston. For almost thirty years afterwards, the subject rested. But in 1687 or 1688, it was revived in Boston; four of the children of John Goodwin united in accusing a poor Irish woman with bewitching them. Unfortunately, the accusation was given attention, and the woman was tried and executed. Near the close of February 1692, the subject was again revived, in consequence of several children in Danvers, then a part of Salem, beginning to act in a peculiar and unaccountable manner. Their strange conduct continuing for several days, their friends betook themselves to fasting and prayer. During religious exercises, it was found that the children were generally decent and still, but after the service ended, they renewed their former inexplicable conduct. This was deemed sufficient evidence of witchcraft.

After several days, the children began to accuse several persons in the neighborhood of bewitching them. Unfortunately, they were credited, and the suspected authors of the spells were seized and imprisoned. From this date, this awful mania rapidly spread into the neighboring country, and soon appeared in various parts of Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk Counties. Persons at Andover, Ipswich, Gloucester, Boston, and several other places, were accused by their neighbors and others. For some time, the victims were selected only from the lower classes. But quickly the accusations fell upon the persons of the most respectable rank. In August, Mr. George Burroughs, some time the minister at Salem and his wife were accused; against Messrs. Dudley and and John Bradstreet, sons of then late Governor Bradstreet; against the wife of Mr. Hale; and the lady of Sir William Phipps. The evil by now had become alarming. One man, named Giles Corey, had been pressed to death for refusing to put himself on a trial by jury; and nineteen persons had been executed, more than one third of whom were members of the church. One hundred and fifty were in prison, and two hundred were accused.

A conviction began to prevail that the proceedings had been rash and indefensible. A special court was held on the subject, and fifty who were brought to trial were acquitted, excepting three, who were afterwards reprieved by the governor. These events were followed by a general release of those who had been imprisoned. An 1800s historian noted about the end of hysterics, "Thus the cloud, which had so long hung over the colony, slowly and sullenly retired; and, like the darkness of Egypt, was, to the great joy of the distressed inhabitants, succeeded by serenity and sunshine."


— A History of the United States, by Charles A. Goodrich, 1857 (edited)


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