Salem Witch Trials Facts for Kids

  • The Salem witch trials were done in 1692.
  • Girls started saying they were getting the devil. They later accused people in their community of being witches.
  • The court heard the cases, found 18 guilty people, and hanged them, even though they did not do anything wrong.
  • By September 1692, people were starting to think that the trials weren’t fair. The court annulled the guilty verdicts.

In the 1400s, European countries started to kill people who were accused of witchcraft. Many witch hunts took place in places in Europe like Western Germany, France, and Switzerland. According to historical records, between 40,000 and 60,000 people were put to death for witchcraft, ranging from 1650 to 1750.

The “hunts” were to find someone who they thought was a witch. Witches were people who followed Satan and traded their souls for his help.

People thought that witches used demons to do magic. Witches could change from human to animal form or from one human form to another. Animals were the “familiar spirits” of witches. Witches were said to ride through the air at night to worship the devil and use magic for bad things.

The process of identifying witches started with people noticing suspicious things. Accusations followed, and some people were convicted of witchcraft.

When the Salem witch trials happened, church politics and family feuds mixed with the children being hysterical. There were no political authorities there to stop it from happening.

Causes of the Salem Witch Trials

Causes of the Salem with trials were:

  • In the Puritan community in Salem Village, life could be hard.
  • English rulers William and Mary started a war with France in the American colonies. It was called King William’s War to colonists, but it affected different colonies in different ways. Refugees came to the county of Essex and especially to Salem Village in Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • A smallpox epidemic happened recently.
  • People were afraid that Native Americans would attack them.
  • There is a long-standing rivalry with the more wealthy settlement, Salem Town.

The Two Salems

In the late 17th century, there were two Salems. One was a thriving commercial port town on Massachusetts Bay known as Salem Town, which would later develop into modern Salem. The second one was 10 miles to the interior. It was a tiny, low-income farming community of about 500 people known as Salem Village.

The village was divided by a disagreement between two families. This disagreement got worse and worse and made the rivalry. The wealthy Porters were one family who had notable connections with Salem Towns’ wealthy merchants. The other people in the village were the Putnams, who wanted more autonomy and were a voice for poorer families. People often fought over land, and it often led to lawsuits.

Samuel Parris

Samuel Parris, a Bostonian by way of Barbados, was elected pastor of the village Congregational church in 1689 due to the influence of the Putnams. Parris had attended Harvard College, where he studied theology (now called Harvard University). He had, however, temporarily left his studies before he was able to complete his degree.

He arrived in Salem Village with his wife, three children, and a niece. He owned two slaves from Barbados who were named John Indian and Tituba. Some people think they were of African heritage, but others thought that they may have been of Caribbean Native American heritage.

This man, Parris, negotiated his contract with the congregation. But he was not happy. He wanted more money, including ownership of the parsonage. That did not sit well with many members of the congregation.

Parris Puritan beliefs had a strong effect on the people. The people in his congregation were divided into two groups, those who agreed with him and those who disagreed with him.

This divide became visible when he requested that non-members of the church leave before communion was celebrated. In Salem, there came to be two groups of people: pro- and anti-Parris factions.

How it all Began

In 1692, Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and Abigail Williams, the daughter, and niece of Samuel Parris, who was only 9 and 11 years old, had strange fits. The fits resulted in violent contortions and screams that were out of control.

Betty, Abigail, and their friend Ann Putnam, Jr. (age 12) had been influenced by voodoo tales told to them by Tituba. Then they began practicing fortune-telling.

Scholars who looked at the strange behavior with the help of modern science think that it might have been caused by asthma, epilepsy, or a disease called “convulsive ergotism.” This is when you eat bread or cereal made of rye that has been infected with fungus.

The girls in Salem village acted strangely like the people from Boston who were believed to be witches. This behavior was described in the book Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions (1689), which these girls probably read.

A local doctor said that other girls in the community had the same symptoms as Betty and Abigail. The doctor said that they were bewitched, and he blamed the behavior on something supernatural. These girls were called Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, and Mary Warren.

Tituba made a witch cake at the suggestion of a neighbor. The witch cake did not work, and it angered Reverend Parris, who saw it as blasphemy.

Parris pressured Betty and Abigail to identify their tormentor. They said that Tituba and two other people did it. Neither of them went to church a lot, but they were still part of the community.

In February, arrest warrants were issued for Tituba, a Caribbean slave from the Parris family, along with two other women: Sarah Good, a homeless mendicant, and Sarah Osborn, a poverty-stricken older woman.

The Trials Begin

The people who were accused of being witches went to talk to the judges. People saw them and had strange things happen like spasms, contortions, screaming, and writhing.

Initially, Tituba said that she was not guilty. But after the magistrates wanted her to say this for a long time, she finally said what they wanted to hear. She told them that she had made a deal with the devil, and he visited her.

In three days, she told about her encounters with Satans animal familiars. This included a tall man from Boston who asked her to sign the devil’s book. The names of Good and Osborn were on the list, but there were others that she couldn’t read. Tituba wanted to save herself from being convicted of witchcraft, so she told the Puritans that other witches acted with her.

People in the community became terrified. They said some people were responsible for this. But some of these people were good members of the community, like Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. The four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good was also accused.

Like Tituba, some accused witches confessed to the crime. And then they named other people who were also accused of being witches. As time went by, more and more of the accused turned out to be enemies of the Putnams. Many of the people blaming others were family members or in-laws.

If the person confessed and named other witches, that person was spared from the court’s punishment. This is because Puritans thought that God would punish them.

Soon the trials became too many for the local justice system. So in May 1692, Governor Phips changed things so that there was a special court to hear and decide on witchcraft cases for Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex.

Trials Become Executions

The court was made up of judges who were called Hathorne, Sewall, and Stoughton. The first person they convicted was Bridget Bishop. This happened on June 2nd. She was hung on what is now known as Gallows Hill in Salem Town, exactly eight days after being convicted.

July saw the execution of another five people; there were five in August and eight more in September. Accused witches also perished in jail, seven of them among the accused. Giles Corey, Martha’s husband, refused to plead guilty after his arrest, so they crushed him under rocks until he finally died.

There were accusations about people from other communities. Cotton Mathers’s father (a minister and the president of Harvard) said that they should not use spectral evidence to make accusations and instead they should accuse directly the people involved.

The End of the Trials

Governor Phips took action when people accused his wife of being a witch. He stopped the court from going on. He made a different court. It was not allowed to use evidence that is only seen in their head (spectral evidence).

After January and February, trials resumed. Only three people were convicted. They were pardoned by Phips in May 1693 when the trials were over. Nineteen people had been hung, and five more died in custody.

Years later, people would apologize for the tragedy that came from the trials. The General Court of Massachusetts asked everyone to fast and think about what happened.

Samuel Sewall publicly said that the trials were wrong. The General Court agreed with him, too. They said that the trials were not lawful in 1702.

When people were accused of being witches, they had no lawyers. Their court procedures did not protect them. They did not have the right to cross-examine their accusers, and they were automatically guilty. These abuses played a role in our modern rules about legal representation, the right to cross-examine your accuser, and the presumption of innocence rather than guilt.

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