I was thinking of what to write for the celebration of Halloween and decided that I would write about the Salem Witch Trials. You know Halloween is almost synonymous with witches, so I thought “awesome, I’m done!” That is until I talked to my folks and told them what I was writing about. Have you ever gone home and learned more about your family then you ever knew? Yeah, that was what happened this time. I’m visiting my family and I said, “I’m going to write about the Salem Witch Trials.” My dad pipes up and says, “Don’t forget about your relative Nicholas Noyes.” Yes that was my last name at one time. By the way it is not pronounced No-Yes, it is pronounced like the word noise. Don’t worry I’ve heard that one, and I’m not that noisy. And I’ll get to that part of the story…eventually.
The spring of 1692 began the infamous Salem Witch Trials, where upon 19 people were put to death. Mostly due to fear. Anxiety in the community was rife. They lived on the edge of the known universe, with only darkness beyond. Both the devil and the savage Indians were out to get them. The world was a dark and foreboding place, and the people of Salem were afraid of death by starvation, death by savages, and death by exposure to the elements. All very real fears. But fear begets fear. It grows. And in a Puritan society, where people should conform to the rules, some women didn’t. Older women that lived alone became the target. The different, became a target. The very scary thing about these trials is that everyone involved in persecuting these “witches” thought they were doing the right thing.
The trials began as a group of young girls claimed to be possessed of the devil (after suspicious behavior was noticed), and they accused several local women of witchcraft. Fear of women then ran rampant. A wave of hysteria spread throughout the colony and a special court was convened in Salem. The job of this court was to hear the cases of witchcraft.
The first woman convicted of witchcraft was Bridget Bishop. She was hanged as a witch that June. Eighteen others followed in the next several months. The historical site of Salem’s Gallows Hill became the place to hang witches. More than 150 men, women and children were accused of witchcraft over a period of several months. By September of that year, the hysteria began to abate. Public opinion turned and the trials came to an end. But the damage had been done. The Massachusetts General Court later annulled the guilty verdicts against the accused witches and indemnities were granted to their families. Bitterness lingered on in the community, and the painful, and horrifying legacy of the Salem witch trial endured for centuries, and still continues to this day.
What could have been the cause of this hysteria? Maybe it was as simple as a belief in the supernatural. There used to be a saying back in the seventies, “the devil made me do it.” And it might be as simple a belief as that. The devil was believed to give certain humans (possibly witches) the power to harm others, in return for their loyalty to the devil. This was a belief that had begun in Europe as early as the 14th century. It was a widespread belief in the 1600’s of Colonial Salem Village. The village not only feared death by savages, exposure, and hunger, they had suffered a smallpox epidemic just before the trials, and there was tension between Salem Village and Salem Town (Salem Town is now modern day Salem). We all know that fear can cause unfounded thoughts and irrational behavior.
Nine year old Elizabeth Parris, and 11 year old Abigail Williams began to experience fits. After a local doctor diagnosed the girls of having been bewitched, other girls in the community began to exhibit similar symptoms. In late February, arrest warrants were issued for the Parris’ slave, along with two other women. One a homeless beggar, Sarah Good, and the other a poor elderly woman Sarah Osborn. These women were accused of bewitching by the young girls themselves.
The three women were brought before the magistrates, where the girls went into contortions, spasms, all the while screaming and writhing about in an exaggerated display. Good and Osborn denied any guilt, but the slave, Tituba, confessed to bewitching the girls. She was more than likely trying to save herself, because she went on to accuse others of bewitching the innocent. Among those she accused were Martha Corey, and Rebecca Nurse, both of whom were considered to be upstanding members of the community and church. Several of the accused witches confessed and then went on to name others, more than likely to save themselves. The local justice system became so overwhelmed that the newly appointed governor of Massachusetts established a special Court of Oyer and Terminer for the cases of witchcraft from Suffolk, Essex and Middlesex counties. The court handed down its first guilty verdict on June 2, 1692, and eight days later the “guilty” woman, Bridget Bishop, was hanged. Five more people hanged in July, and another eight in September. In addition, seven other people that were accused of witchcraft died in jail. Martha Corey’s elderly husband, Giles Corey, was pressed to death by stones after he refused to enter a plea at his arraignment.
A respected minister, Cotton Mather, had warned that the dubious value of spectral evidence (testimony about dreams and visions), wasn’t a reasonable or rational value to use as a judgment of someone. Cotton’s father, Increase Mather, was president of Harvard College, and he stood with his son in urging the courts that the standards for evidence of witchcraft should be equal to those of any other crime. His conclusion was, “It would be better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.” In October, the governor dissolved the court of Oyer and Terminer, and mandated that its successor disregard the use of spectral evidence. Trials began to dwindle and by early 1693 the governor had pardoned and released all those in prison on the charges of witchcraft.
The damage to the community had been done, but the pain and resentment continued to linger even after the Massachusetts Colony passed legislation that restored the good names of the condemned and provided restitution to their heirs in 1711. Neither of which made the wrong done to their ancestors right. The graphic and agonizing legacy of the trials has continued to endure to this day. An example of the lasting bitterness and hurt is Arthur Miller’s dramatization of the events in a play entitled “The Crucible” in 1953. He used Salem as an symbol for the anti-communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s.
Now as promised here is my family history with regards to the Salem witch trials. Nicholas Noyes Jr. graduated from Harvard in 1667, and spent 13 years preaching in Haddam, Connecticut. He moved to Salem, Massachusetts in 1683 where he was a pastor until his death in Salem. Before the execution of Sarah Good on July 19, 1692, Reverend Nicholas Noyes, asked her to confess. Her famous last words to him were, “You are a liar! 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.” Twenty-five years later, 9 days before his 70th birthday, he died of a hemorrhage and literally did choke on his own blood. The Reverend Nicholas Noyes officiated as a clergyman at the final hangings of those accused of witchcraft. He is reported as turning to the bodies of the victims and saying, “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.”