Historians have determined that Tituba was a likely a target of accusations of witchcraft because of her low social rank as a slave and ethnic differences as she was an Indian woman from Barbados. Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and Tituba were brought before the court on March 1, 1692.
Tituba’s confession in court sparked mayhem. While Sarah Osborne had professed innocence, Tituba allegedly stated “The devil came to me and bid me serve him”, followed by descriptions of visions of various symbolic animals, and claims that there were several other witches in the village looking to destroy the Puritans.1 All three accused women were thrown in jail.
Now that the seed of paranoia had been planted, a stream of accusations followed over the next few months. Minister’s even questioned Dorothy Good, Sarah’s four-year-old daughter, and her answers were misconstrued as a confession of her mother’s guilt.
In May 1692 Governor Williams Phips ordered the establishment of a special Court of Oyer and Terminer (which translates as 'to hear and determine'). On June 10, Bridget Bishop, an older local woman was the first to be found guilty and hanged on what was later to be known as Gallows Hill.2
As more and more of the accused were brought to court, including Rebecca Nurse and John Willard, minister Cotton Mather urged magistrates not to rely on spectral evidence alone. Spectral evidence was the testimony of the afflicted who claimed to see the apparition of the person who was allegedly bewitching them.3 Mather believed spectral evidence to be presumptive and that it alone should not warrant a conviction.
From June 30 through to early July the jury convicted several more people including Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susanna Martin, Sarah Wildes and Rebecca Nurse. All women were found guilty and were hanged on July 19, 1692.
In total 20 people were executed on Gallows Hill in the Salem witch trials, a 71 year-old man was pressed to death (stones were piled on his body to literally press him until he could no longer breathe) and several died in jail.
In early October 1692 Thomas Brattle wrote a letter denouncing the persecution of people as witches and the handling of the trials with a particular focus on the invalidity of spectral evidence in the proceedings.4 Brattle’s letter was instrumental in the dismissal of the court of Oyer and Terminer by Governor Phips on October 29 1692.
By April 1693 the trials were over and many charges were dismissed against other people who had been convicted. In the years that followed many involved expressed regret at their involvement with the trials and for not having intervened to stop the hysteria sooner.
Various petitions were filed between 1700 and 1703 with the Massachusetts government demanding that the convictions be formally reveresed. In May 1709, 22 people who has been conviected of witchcraft or had relatives who were convicted presented the government with a petition demanding a reversal of attainder and compensation for financial losses. It wasn't until October 1711 that the court formally reversed the judgements against the 22 people listed in the 1709 petition and monetary compensation was ordered. 5
In recent years there have been several memorials erected in memory of the innocent people who lost their lives during the hysteria of the trials. On the 300th anniversary of the trials in 1992 a memorial park was dedicated to the victims.
The haunting nature of the Salem Witch trials have led them to heavily influence popular culture. Numerous artistic works including Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the short story Young Goodman Brown by writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (whose great-great-grandfather John Hathorne was one of the judges who oversaw the trials) and various stories by H.P. Lovecraft to name a few.
Want to learn more? Read parts I and II of our series on the Salem Witch trials and our 'Illuminating Thoughts' blog with the director of Obeah Opera Nicole Brooks. You can also listen to our playlist with music inspired by the witch trials.
See Obeah Opera from June 13-22, 2019 at the Fleck Dance Theatre.