Right now, I’m working on a play that takes advantage of the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692 (in a purely thematic sense, I assure you) and a few years ago, my aunt had found that we’re direct descendants of an accused witch, Mary Clements Osgood. So we did a little digging a while ago with a website, I think relativefinder.org (via Family Search and BYU Family History Tech Lab), which helps you find out which famous people you’re related to, mainly through common ancestors (you wouldn’t believe how many signers of the Declaration we’re distantly related to because our family came over on the Mayflower and other very early immigration voyages). My only complaint about relativefinder.org is that you need an account with Family Search and to register for one, you need to be a member of the LDS Church? I’m not sure; I was using my mom’s account information.
Anyway, we found out that we’re related to more people involved in the Salem Witch Hysteria than just Mary. The complete list is full of interesting people:
Martha Ingalls Allen Carrier – hanged August 19 1692
Samuel Wardell – hanged September 22 1692
Susannah North Martin – hanged July 19 1692
Abigail Dane Faulkner – found guilty, pardoned
Rebecca Blake Eames – pled guilty, pardoned
Deliverance Hazelton Dane – accused, imprisoned, later released
Mary Clements Osgood – accused, imprisoned, later released
Elizabeth Hutchinson Hart – accused, imprisoned, later released
Edward Bishop – indicted, imprisoned, escaped
William Stoughton – chief justice
Nicholas Noyes – judge
Samuel E. Sewall – judge
William Griggs – doctor who examined the “afflicted” girls
Thomas Brattle – merchant of Salem Town, protested trials and wrote petitions
Mary Wolcott – one of the “afflicted” girls who accused the victims
Susannah Sheldon – one of the “afflicted” girls who accused the victims
Nathaniel Saltonstall – appointed Associate Magistrate
It actually surprised me how varied the different positions they all held during the Panic. I didn’t expect to be related to the witches and the people who tried them or accused them. And from a detached, historian point of view, I don’t condemn anyone involved in the Panic. It was a part of their culture that was tragically blown way out of proportion.
Early Christians truly believed witches and witchcraft were real and something they needed to be aware of. This possibly stemmed from the polytheistic religions and various other faiths with roots in mysticism that were still fairly widely practiced while Christianity was first getting its bearings as a faith. Originally, witches didn’t pose much of a threat to Christian people. They were just people of a different faith.
It was when the Roman Catholic Church began to consolidate its power and influence over governments and people that the polytheists had to start worrying.
Anything that was not Catholic or even vaguely Christian was considered sinful or outright evil and that included mysticism. That was when the bigotry and fear began. What made things really, truly frightening for those who were not Christian.
In the 12th Century the prosecution of heretics, as defined by the Church, became frequent and terrifying for those who were deemed heretical. The first Inquisition was tentatively established in 1184 in the south of France and then was permanently established under the instruction of Pope Innocent in 1229.
The word “inquisition” is defined as “the act of inquiring deeply or searchingly; investigation.” This originally only implied the dedication to the investigation the inquiring person held and how much work was going to be put into the investigation. Now, it has become synonymous with torture and an utter disregard for basic human rights.
Historians use the term “Medieval Inquisition” to refer to the various inquisitions that began around 1184. These include the Episcopal Inquisition of 1184-1230s and the later Papal Inquisition of the 1230s. They were begun in an attempt to quell the different religious movements that were considered apostate or heretical. This wasn’t limited to polytheism or the mysticism that is brought to mind when the word “witchcraft” is mentioned, but included the Cathars in southern France and the Waldensians in both southern France and northern Italy. These movements were not inherently evil (not that I consider anything inherently evil with the exception of serial murderers) as Catharism was a Christian dualist sect with beliefs initially taught by ascetic priests who had set few guidelines for those who followed. Waldensians, on the other hand, were what at first was a band of people organized by Peter Waldo, a “wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection” (Wikipedia).
However, what made the Inquisition so terrifying is the fact it held a legal basis through Pope Innocent IV’s papal bull Ad extirpanda of 1252. This authorized the use of torture to elicit a confession from accused heretics. It went so far as to define the appropriate circumstances for which it was to be utilized. As early as 1256, inquisitors were granted absolution if they made use of instruments of torture during their interrogation sessions.
Throughout the late medieval and the Renaissance era, it became common to blame witches and their craft for whatever misfortunes that befell a person or a town or a country. Whether it was the weather affecting their crops or livestock or plague or even war, it was all due to witches casting spells to fulfill the orders given them by their dark lord and master, Satan. In his papal bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, Pope Innocent VIII called for action against witches and magicians in Germany. He wrote:
“It has recently come to our ears, not without great pain to us, that in some parts of upper Germany, […] Mainz, Koin, Trier, Salzburg, and Bremen, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the Catholic faith, give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjuring, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes, and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, as well as men and women, cattle and flocks and herd and animals of every kind, vineyards also and orchards, meadows, pastures, harvests, grains and other fruits of the earth; that they afflict and torture with dire pains and anguish, both internal and external, these men, women, cattle, flocks, herds, and animals, and hinder men from begetting […]”
In the beginning, witchcraft was a sort of vague blanket term to explain a mysterious illness or misfortune. When the Inquisition began to look to eradicate witches from their midst, it was all too easy for people to accuse their perceived enemies of witchcraft. If someone had wronged you in some way, all you needed to do then, to obtain your revenge, was to point the finger and they would be arrested.
Once arrested, they were subjected to the interrogations to discover concrete evidence to use against them in their trial in order to secure an execution. Guided by the Malleus Maleficarum and other similar texts, inquisitors would conduct a series of tests to find this evidence or to pull a confession from the accused.
One such test was to examine the accused’s body for what was called a Devil’s Mark or witch’s teat, a mark that was said to be where they suckled their familiar, a demon in animal form sent from the Devil to help the witch serve him. Finding this mark could only be done once the accused’s body was shaved of all hair, including the genital area. If the accused did have a witch’s teat, it was pierced with a needle or pin to discover if the mark was natural or unnatural. If it bled, or the accused felt pain, it was a natural mark and the accused was not a witch. On the other hand, if it did not bleed and the accused did not feel the pierce of the needle, it was an unnatural mark and the accused was a witch.
A second very popular method of testing the accused for witch-ness was ducking. There were a few ways of doing this. Sometimes, the accused was bound, hands and feet, and then flung into a body of water. At others, they were tied to a chair that was attached to a lever and fulcrum construction and dunked in the water for lengths of time to encourage confession. The thought behind these tests stemmed from the belief that water, being pure, would reject the evilness of the witch. If the accused floated or survived the procedure, they were a witch. If they drowned, they were innocent. Either way, ducking would provide death to the accused.
The Malleus Maleficarum also encouraged the use of torture, with detailed instructions on how to do so. Without going into too many details now, these torture techniques included the strappado, the rack, and a variety of other inventive ways to harm another human being.
When it came to the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692, I haven’t been able to find any concrete evidence the inquiry into the guilt of the accused included physical torture, but from what I have read, it seems that mental torture was utilized. Aside from extremely poor conditions in the jail, it seems to me they were far more content to badger the accused, continuously repeating the same questions innumerable times until they got the desired responses.
This is evident in the transcription of Mary Clements Osgood’s confession:
The examination and confession (8. Sept. 92.) of Mary Osgood , wife of Captain Osgood of Andover, taken before John Hawthorne and other their Majesties justices.
She confesses, that about 11 years ago, when she was in a melancholy state and condition, she used to walk abroad in her orchard; and upon a certain time, she saw the appearance of a cat, at the end of the house, which yet she thought was a real cat. However, at that time, it diverted her from praying to God, and instead thereof she prayed to the devil; about which time she made a covenant with the devil, who, as a black man, came to her and presented her a book, upon which she laid her finger and that left a red spot: And that upon her signing, the devil told her he was her God, and that she should serve and worship him, and, she believes, she consented to it. She says further, that about two years agone, she was carried through the air, in company with deacon Frye’s wife, Ebenezer Baker’s wife, and Goody Tyler, to five mile pond, where she was baptized by the devil, who dipped her face in the water and made her renounce her former baptism, and told her she must be his, soul and body, forever, and that she must serve him, which she promised to do. She says, the renouncing her first baptism was after her dipping, and that she was transported back again through the air, in company with the forenamed persons, in the same manner as she went, and believes they were carried upon a pole.
Q. How many persons were upon the pole?
A. As I said before, viz. four persons and no more but whom she had named above.
– She confesses she has afflicted three persons, John Sawdy, Martha Sprague and Rose Foster, and that she did it by pinching her bed clothes, and giving consent the devil should do it in her shape, and that the devil could not do it without her consent.
– She confesses the afflicting persons in the court, by the glance of her eye. She says, as she was coming down to Salem to be examined, she and the rest of the company with her, stopped at Mr. Phillips’s to refresh themselves, and the afflicted persons, being behind them upon the road, came up just as she was mounting again and were then afflicted, and cried out upon her, so that she was forced to stay until they were all past, and said she only looked that way towards them.
Q. Do you know the devil can take the shape of an innocent person and afflict
A. I believe he cannot.
Q. Who taught you this way of witchcraft?
A. Satan, and that he promised her abundance of satisfaction and quietness in her future state, but never performed any thing; and that she has lived more miserably and more discontented since, than ever before.
She confesses further, that she herself, in company with Goody Parker, Goody Tyler, and Goody Dean, had a meeting at Moses Tyler’s house, last monday night, to afflict, and that she and Goody Dean carried the shape of Mr. Dean, the minister, between them, to make persons believe that Mr. Dean afflicted.
Q. What hindered you from accomplishing what you intended?
A. The Lord would not suffer it so to be, that the devil should afflict in an innocent person’s shape.
Q. Have you been at any other witch meetings?
A. I know nothing thereof, as I shall answer in the presence of God and his people; but said, that the black man stood before her, and told her, that what she had confessed was a lie; notwithstanding, she said that what she had confessed was true, and thereto put her hand.
Her husband being present was asked, if he judged his wife to be any way discomposed. He answered, that having lived with her so long, he doth not judge her to be any ways discomposed, but has cause to believe what she has said is true.
– When Mistress Osgood was first called, she afflicted Martha Sprague and Rose Foster, by the glance of her eyes, and recovered them out of their fits by the touch of her hand. Mary Lacey and Betty Johnson and Hannah Post saw Mistress Osgood afflicting Sprague and Foster.
– The said Hannah Post and Mary Lacey and Betty Johnson, jun. and Rose Foster and Mary Richardson were afflicted by Mistress Osgood, in the time of their examination, and recovered by her touching of their hands.
Those are not the words of someone who hasn’t been brainwashed into believing they are a witch just to make the interrogation stop. This is never more evident than in Reverend Increase Mather’s report of his visit with her in prison later:
Being asked why she prefixed a time, and spake of her being baptized, &c., about twelve years since, she replied and said, that, when she had owned the thing, they asked the time, to which she answered that she knew not the time. But, being told that she did know the time, and must tell the time, and the like, she considered that about twelve years before (when she had her last child) she had a fit of sickness, and was melancholy; and so thought that that time might be as proper a time to mention as any, and accordingly did prefix the said time. Being asked about the cat, in the shape of which she had confessed that the Devil had appeared to her, &c., she replied, that, being told that the Devil had appeared to her, and must needs appear to her, &c. (she being a witch), she at length did own that the Devil had appeared to her; and, being pressed to say in what creature’s shape he appeared, she at length did say that it was in the shape of a cat. Remembering that, some time before her being apprehended, as she went out at her door, she saw a cat, &c.; not as though she any whit suspected the said cat to be the Devil, in the day of it, but because some creature she must mention, and this came into her mind at that time.
This was the case for every person who confessed to be witches. They said whatever they thought the officials wanted to hear, just to be left alone. And oddly, those who were accused, but never confessed were those who were executed. Those who cooperated were spared to continue to provide names of other witches.
“In Puritan society, a confession put a person in the hands of God. It was up to the Lord to forgive sins and cleanse the unrighteous. Fifty-five of the approximately 200 accused took this way out.” (“Salem Witch Trials,” The History Channel)
In the end, there were twenty people found guilty and executed, one refused to plea and was executed in an effort to obtain his plea, and eight people died in prison with a possible addition of thirteen other people who may have also died in prison.
These people were considered guilty until proven innocent and at the time, trials were not conducted with anyone assisting to defend the accused, leaving them alone to prove their innocence. The evidence used against them included what is called spectral evidence. This is when the spectre of the accused, a sort of ghost-like or astral projected figure, attacked the poor afflicted girls. No one could see the spectre but the attacked girls, not the people around them, not the accused witch.
How could any possibly defend themselves against a form of attack only their “victim” could see?
In the face of this sort of trial, it’s a wonder anyone was ever found innocent. But it did happen. Bridget Bishop had been tried for witchcraft twice. The first jury found her innocent, but once marked a witch in Puritan society, you remained a witch until you died. For Bridget Bishop this was until eight days after her second trial in which she was found guilty of witchcraft. They hanged her on June 10, 1692.
Even then, the use of spectral evidence in cases that decided the life or death of the accused was called into question by ministers who weren’t directly involved in the Salem Trials, including Increase Mather and Samuel Willard (how Increase Mather is so consistently painted a villain in fictional presentations of the Trials I will never know; his son, Cotton, is more villainous than he in this thing and he mostly just supported the trials). On June 15, 1692 Mather and Willard joined with ten other ministers to pen The Return of several Ministers and submitted it to the Governor and Council in Boston. In the paper, they wrote:
“Presumptions whereupon persons may be Committed, and much more, Convictions whereupon persons may be Condemned as Guilty of Witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable, than barely this Accused Persons being Represented by a Spectre unto the Afflicted.”
And in his October 3, 1692 publication, Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, Increase Mather even said, “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.”
Reverend Mather and the eleven ministers were not the only people who protested the accusation, trials, and executions at the time. There were many others not in positions of religious influence who wrote and signed petitions, risking their own reputations and lies for the sake of their friends and neighbors.
To the honoured court of Assize held at Salem, The humble address of several of the inhabitants of Andover.
May it please this honoured court,
We being very sensible of the great sufferings our neighbours have been long under in prison, and charitably judging that many of them are clear of that great transgression which hath been laid to their charge, have thought it our duty to endeavour their vindication so far as our testimony for them will avail. The persons in whose behalf we are desired and concerned to speak something at present are Mrs. Mary Osgood, Eunice Frye, Deliverance Dane, Sarah Wilson and Abigail Barker, who are women of whom we can truly give this character and commendation, that they have not only lived among us so inoffensively as not to give the least occasion to any that know them to suspect them of witchcraft, but by their sober godly and exemplary conversation have obtained a good report in the place, where they have been well esteemed and approved in the church of which they are members.
We were surprized to hear that persons of known integrity and piety were accused of so horrid a crime, not considering, then, that the most innocent were liable to be so misrepresented and abused. When these women were accused by some afflicted persons of the neighbourhood, their relations and others, tho’ they had so good grounds of charity that they should not have thought any evil of them, yet, through a misrepresentation of the truth of that evidence that was so much credited and improved against people, took great pains to persuade them to own what they were, by the afflicted, charged with, and, indeed, did unreasonably urge them to confess themselves guilty, as some of us who were then present can testify. But these good women did very much assert their innocency, yet some of them said they were not without fear least Satan had some way ensnared them, because there was that evidence against them which then was by many thought to be a certain indication and discovery of witchcraft, yet they seriously professed they knew nothing by themselves of that nature: Nevertheless, by the unwearied sollicitations of those that privately discoursed them both at home and at Salem, they were at length persuaded publickly to own what they were charged with, and so submit to that guilt which we still hope and believe they are clear of. And, it is probable, the fear of what the event might be, and the encouragement that it is said was suggested to them, that confessing was the only way to obtain favour, might be too powerful a temptation for timorous women to withstand, in the hurry and distraction that we have heard they were then in. Had what they said against themselves proceeded from conviction of the fact, we should have had nothing to have said for them, but we are induced to think that it did not, because they did soon privately retract what they had said, as we are informed, and, while they were in prison, they declared to such as they had confidence to speak freely and plainly to, that they were not guilty of what they had owned, and that what they had said against themselves was the greatest grief and burden they laboured under: Now, though we cannot but judge it a thing very sinful for innocent persons to own a crime they are not guilty of, yet, considering the well ordered conversation of those women while they lived among us, and what they now seriously and constantly affirm in a more composed frame, we cannot but in charity judge them innocent of the great transgression that hath been imputed to them. As for the rest of our neighbours, who are under the like circumstances with these that have been named, we can truly say of them that while they lived among us, we have had no cause to judge them such persons as, of late, they have been represented and reported to be, nor do we know that any of their neighbours had any just grounds to suspect them of that evil that they are now charged with.
Francis Dane, sen.
Tho. Chandler, sen.
Henry Ingolls, sen.
Wm. Chandler, sen.
John Abbot, sen.
Francis Dane, jun.
Henry Ingolls, jun.
John Frie, sen.
Wm. Chandler, jun.
Tho. Johnson, jun.
There were no less than 53 people who supported Mary Osgood, Eunice Frye, Deliverance Dance, Sarah Wilson Sr, and Abigail Barker. They supported their character and their faithfulness and they doubted their guilt and they doubted the evidence enough to put themselves in danger by protesting. As in Europe before, disagreeing with the church was an indication that maybe you were just a little heretical (or a witch) too, and maybe you were heretical (or a witch) enough to be imprisoned and tried as well.
It was in October 1692 that the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the court specially established for the Hysteria, was disbanded and the efficacy of spectral evidence was formally challenged. Governor William Phips created the new Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery, which originally convened in Salem. However, it was once again led by William Stoughton as Chief Justice.
Through this new Superior Court, and with the elimination of spectral evidence and the new requirement of evidence provided by more than just the afflicted victim, justice began to prevail for the accused. Many who were indicted in the Court of Oyer and Terminer were found not guilty, and when three were found guilty—Elizabeth Johnson Jr, Sarah Wardell, and Mary Post—while their execution warrants were being written, Governor Phips pardoned them. May 1693 saw the Superior Court in Ipswich with several grand juries who dismissed charges against all but five people.
Susannah Post, Eunice Frye, Mary Bridges Jr, Mary Barker, and William Barker Jr were tried and found not guilty.
And then the Hysteria stopped.
I don’t condemn nor excuse anyone involved in that year of mass hysteria. It was tragic, truly, how this destroyed so many lives. But I also think it was necessary for how the justice and legal systems developed in America.
Because of the Hysteria, defendants are now considered innocent until proven guilty. Defendants are allowed legal representation. Evidence has to make fucking sense. There’s probably a lot more that I can’t remember right now.
I understand that what happened was terrible, horrible and we never want it to happen again, but it’s also incredibly important to understand why it all happened even if to just prevent it from happening again.
“I am no more a witch than you are a wizard and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.” – Sarah Good to Judge Nicholas Noyes at her execution, July 19 1692.