Top 12 Myths About The Salem Witchcraft Trials
The 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials were one of the darkest periods of time in the American colonies in the 17th century. A little town north of Boston erupted in a hysteria that resulted in the deaths of 25 people. Twenty of whom were executed and five more died in jail.
There have been so many documentaries and movies made about the incident. And so much more information has been written in books, articles and on the internet. And, of course, the internet isn’t wrong.
Therein lies the problem. There is so much conflicting information out there that it is hard to know the truth. Some of the confusion stems from old theories written in books in the 1800s. Some of it is bad research. Some of it is sheer conjecture.
The wrong information then gets regurgitated by museums, tour guides, and those who are told the wrong information. And if you hear it over and over again, it must be true. As George Costanza from Seinfeld said, “If you truly believe it, it is not a lie.”
You need to vet your sources, museums and tour companies. Ask questions before you visit and if anyone tells you any of what you are about to read, you may want to try another museum or tour company.
So what are the 12 greatest myths about the 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials? It’s hard to rank them.
12. Twenty people were convicted and executed during the trials
A total of 30 people were convicted. Nineteen of them were executed by hanging. Giles Corey, the man who was crushed to death, was never tried. He died during an interrogation.
Dorcas Hoar was tried and convicted. But she confessed immediately after her conviction and was spared execution.
Proctor's Ledge where 19 people were hanged.
There were 10 others who were convicted and not executed. Mary Bradbury, who was scheduled to hang on Sept. 22, escaped. Abigail Faulkner and Elizabeth Proctor survived because they were pregnant. Abigail Hobbs, Ann Foster, the elder Mary Lacey, and Rebecca Eames, all of whom had confessed, were sentenced to be hanged in September but were given additional time because of the fact they had confessed. They would have probably been hanged in October without Gov. Phips intervention.
The new court, which began trying more people in January, convicted three more – Sarah
Wardwell, Mary Post, and Elizabeth Johnson. They had also confessed and they, along with five others convicted by the first court who were still jailed, were slated to hang on Feb. 1, 1693 but Gov. Phips reprieved them.
There were also five people who died in jail, including Mercy Good, the baby of Sarah Good. In addition, Rev. Hale’s wife was jailed and got sick. She was allowed to go home and recover and then died. You can say it caused her death too. Mary English and her husband Philip escaped to NY and came back after the trials. She got sick from the trip and died less than a year later. If she wasn’t accused, she wouldn’t have needed to escape and would not have gotten sick and died.
This also goes to dispel the myth that you would be spared if you confessed. However, it has already been explained that several people confessed and were scheduled to hang anyway but circumstances - pregnancy, interventions and reprieves - spared them. Some confessors were not tried right away so they could testify against others.
11. The witches were burned and dunked
Mainland Europe burned witches because they were following Christianity. Witchcraft
was heresy so witches were burned. But England's King Henry VIII broke away from the church and started the Anglican Church. Witchcraft was a capital crime punishable by hanging. England hanged its witches. The colonies did also.
There is the practice of dunking (aka swimming). That’s when a suspected witch is dunked in water. If the accused sinks, they are innocent, but they are drowning. If they float they are guilty.
Everyone has lungs so they will float. The idea of dunking is that it is a baptism and the devil
can’t be baptized and will let go of you during the process.
This practice was done in Europe and at least once in the colonies. In August 1692, Mercy Desborough from Connecticut requested the dunking. She was dunked near Hartford, CT. She failed the test, but survived the gallows.
10. Salem was the first witchcraft trials in the colonies
Not by a long shot. There were accusations of witchcraft throughout the colonies. Many did not result in execution. The first accusation appears to be Joan Wright in 1626 in Virginia.
The first person executed was Alse Young in Connecticut in 1647. Massachusetts was next but it was Boston in 1648 when Margaret Jones was executed. Salem was 44 years later.
9. We hanged two dogs and a horse during the trials
The rumor is that we hanged two dogs and a horse during the trials. It was all on the wooden sign in front of Judge Jonathan Corwin’s home. Balderdash!
A dog was hanged in Salem, but that was in 1655 - not during the trials. Gov. John Winthrop writes in his journal that John Bradstreet claimed he was bewitched by a dog so the dog was hanged.In October 1692, a dog was shot in Andover. The girls suddenly started convulsing and claimed it was being done by a dog. The men went outside and killed the first dog they saw.
A horse was never hanged off of that sign. We’re not sure that sign could support a horse. But you have to ask yourself, why would the judge have a sign in front of his home called The Witch House?
8. The Puritans were Jewish
Surprisingly, this has come up several times. There were no Jewish people in Salem in the 1600s. The area was religious freedom for many, so there were Quakers, Anglicans, Hugenots (French Protestants), Shakers, Pilgrims and Catholics.
But the Puritans ruled the roost. They followed the Old Testament so their names came from the Old Testament, but that doesn’t make them Jewish.
The Puritans were more Calvinist. They earned the name Puritans because they wanted to purify the church of all the symbolism.
7. The Judge and Sheriff were father and son
Judge Jonathan Corwin lived at the Witch House. Sheriff George Corwin lived on the grounds now occupied by the Merchant Hotel. The judge did have a son George, but he died at a young age and was not old enough to be sheriff. One of the other theories was that they were brothers but that is wrong too. However, they were related. The judge was George’s uncle. They were uncle and nephew.
It certainly was nepotism. George was married to Lydia Gedney, whose father was Judge Bartholomew Gedney. The sheriff’s uncle and father-in-law were judges in the witchcraft trials.
Judge Jonathan Corwin
6. The witches were buried at the memorial next to cemetery
None of the victims were buried at the memorial erected in 1992 nor in the cemetery next to it. They were hanged at Proctor’s Ledge on the western edge of the city. There is another memorial at Proctor’s Ledge that was erected in 2017. The bodies were reportedly thrown in the crevice. Per Caleb Buffum, the accused were buried in shallow graves and he went up and covered up a chin and feet that were exposed from the ground.
A handful of bodies were recovered. Rebecca Nurse, George Jacobs and John Proctor were recovered. Nurse is on her property but unmarked. Jacobs was moved from his property to Nurse’s property and is marked. Proctor is believed to be buried on his former property next to a wall on the grounds of Peabody High School.
A theory has been proposed that George Burroughs was recovered too and may be buried with his wife.
We’re not sure about the rest of the victims. They may have been recovered. Some people think animals got to the bodies. Recovering the bodies was forbidden so it was very secretive and families would not have written or spoken about it.
5. The Crucible by Arthur Miller is accurate
The play we all read in high school
All writers are great storytellers and take poetic license. Arthur Miller is no exception. While a chapter of his play is taken directly out of the records of the 1692 witchcraft trials, the rest of the play is a mixture of half truths.
William Cheever was the register of deeds not the sheriff. George Corwin, the 26-year-old nephew of Judge Jonathan Corwin, was the sheriff.
John Proctor did not have an affair with Abigail Williams. She was 12. It was Mary Warren, another afflicted girl, who was a servant for the Proctors. He didn’t have an affair with her either.
Miller’s play was an allegory about the Red Scare and the “witch hunt” by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
One of Miller’s best friends named him in the hearings so Miller wrote the play to get back at his friend and McCarthy.
4. The accused had to sign over their land to the judges
It was very hard to take your land and their were rules against it. Many of the accused did not have land to take. Sarah Good was one of them. She was a pipe smoking beggar who walked around town. She was penniless and had no land. Alice Parker and her husband rented. There are many others who rented land.
The story of the crushing of Giles Corey is said to be about land. However, he deeded his land to friends with the promise they deed it back to his family after his death. And we know his stepsons got the land. Also, John Proctor and George Jacobs wrote their wills while awaiting execution and their land was passed on to their heirs.
The first case of the trials was Bridget Bishop and it was written up in early writings that they accused her to take her land. Therefore, everyone believed the trials were all about taking land. The truth is her husband, Edward Bishop, had the land in his name. But you had to pay for jail and court costs. Edward sold some of the land to pay for these costs. It is believed the judges got to buy the land first. The Gedneys bought some. Bartholomew Gedney was one of the judges in the case.
Nathaniel Hawthorne doesn’t help either. His great novel, The House of the Seven Gables, is about Colonel Pynchon taking Matthew Maule’s land. It never happened. Just poetic license.
3. Tituba, the servant for Rev. Parris, was black
Tituba was enslaved and was certainly a person of color, but she was not Black and not from Africa. Early writings of the trials say that she did the witch cake and it was voodoo from Africa.
The truth is she was captured in South America by a ship called the Savoy, likely off the coast of Venezuela. The manifest called her Tattuba. She was sold into slavery in Barbados. Rev. Parris returned to Barbados, where he grew up, to settle his father’s estate. He bought her there and brought her to New England.
The witchcraft records never refer to Tituba as black. She is referred to as tawny or Indian.
Meanwhile, two other enslaved people were Mary Black and Candy. They were referred to as
Negro or Black. The records made a clear distinction.
2. It all happened in Danvers, formerly Salem Village
Danvers was Salem Village in 1692 and the witchcraft hysteria starts there as the two young girls suffer their afflictions in the reverend’s home. Many people from the village are involved as accusers and accused. But the hysteria spread all over north eastern Massachusetts.
Over 40 towns were caught up in the trials as far north as the New Hampshire border and as far south as Boston. It was west of Boston too in towns like Woburn, Wilmington and Reading.
Gov. William Phips established the court of Oyer and Terminer as the witchcraft court in Salem Towne (now Salem) directly in the middle of Washington Street. The hanging site was in Salem Towne as well as the jail.
1. They were all eating moldy bread and hallucinating
The Ergot theory. The fungus in the rye. The moldy bread.
This theory was proposed by a graduate student in her thesis. It was published in a science magazine and everyone thought this could be the reason. Ergot poisoning can create LSD type hallucinations. But the experts shot down the theory in the weeks following the article. The woman who proposed the theory disagrees with her own theory now.
The experts noted that people in the same household were eating the same food so how is it they all weren’t affected?
In addition, ergot poisoning causes your fingertips to turn black as well as the tips of your toes and bottom of your ears. It also causes diarrhea and vomiting. The Puritans didn’t record any of this. What are the odds that all those writings were lost?
In addition, many people spoke out against the trials from the start and were jailed and fined. They weren’t hallucinating.
Many others thought the afflicted girls were lying. And they were caught in lies again and again. Many noted that the girls afflictions seemed to “come and go” at the proper moment.
And the Puritans knew what ergot looked like and knew not to eat it. They picked the grain by hand and threw out the ergot if they saw it.
Other theories are that it was against the midwives, but men were caught up in this too. One Salem witchcraft trials experts believes that none of the women executed were midwives.
Post traumatic stress disorder is cited as well as convergence disorder and religious extremism.
The real cause? It might be hard to figure out one unifying theory. It may be a little bit of all these proposed theories.
But the one underlying cause is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the Devil. Fear of their neighbors.
When word gets out that witchcraft has been diagnosed in Rev. Parris’ home, many people come forward and tell stories about their neighbors that they believe proves witchcraft.They saw their neighbor do this or suspected their neighbor did that. They drew correlations between a cow dying one day and a visit from a neighbor the day before.
The 1692 Salem Witchcraft Trials may just be good old fashioned human nature. You blame those around you for your troubles and when bad things happen to you. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed on the planet in over 325 years