Above: “Examination of a Witch” Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853.
Magistrate: “Pray, what ails these people?”
Martin: “I don’t know.”
Magistrate: “But what do you think ails them?
Martin: “I don’t desire to spend my judgement upon it.”
Magistrate: “Don’t you think they are bewitched?”
Martin: “No I do not think they are.”
Magistrate: “Tell us your thoughts about them then.”
Martin: “No, my thoughts are my own, when they are in; but
when they are out they are another’s. Their Master…”
Magistrate: “Their Master? Who do you think is their Master?”
Martin: “If they be dealing in the Black Art, then you may
know as well as I.”
Magistrate: “Well, what have you done towards this?”
Martin: “Nothing at all.”
Magistrate: “Why, ’tis your appearance.”
Martin: “I cannot help it.”
Magistrate: “Is it not your Master? How comes your appearance
to hurt these?”
Martin: “How do I know? He that appeared in the shape of
Samuel, a glorified Saint, may appear in anyone’s shape.”
Susannah Martin’s efforts to defend herself against charges of practicing witchcraft, as shown above were to prove unsuccessful. The sixty-seven year old widow was one of twenty “witches” who were executed in the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts the first of whom was hung on today’s date, June 10 in 1692.
“The Circle Girls” Start All the Trouble
The charges were originally made against an old homeless woman named Sarah Good, and a slave woman named Tituba. The hysteria began with a group of young girls, known as “the circle girls”. These girls had been a group who had on several occasions sat in the home of the Reverend Samuel Parris where Tituba, who was his slave, told them tales of magic and spirits from her native lands of the the Caribbean Islands. When the girls began experiencing various fits and convulsions, a local doctor declared them to be victims of witchcraft. They accused Tibuta of being source of their afflictions – as an outsider, and also being dark-skinned, she was an object of suspicion to the conformity-minded Puritans and thus a natural target for such accusations. Sarah Good, who often begged door-to-door with her children was also a convenient target. But once the girl’s accusations caught on, virtually anybody could fall under such suspicions. With the encouragement of some local adults the charges even spread beyond Salem into surrounding areas.
Bridget Bishop Goes to the Gallows on June 10.
(Pictured: Bridget Bishop)
In June 1692, a special Court convened in Salem under Chief Justice William Stoughton to judge the accused. The first defendant dragged into the dock was one Bridget Bishop of Salem. Bishop was known in the community for what was seen as her dubious moral character, having been married three times. Also, she was known to frequent taverns, and dressed in a way which was viewed by the Puritans as flamboyant. She pleaded her innocence but like Tituba, she was different and thus an easy target. Bishop was found guilty and executed by hanging on today’s date, June 10. Thirteen more women and five men would follow her to the gallows, and one man, Giles Corey, was executed by crushing. Most of those tried were condemned on the basis of the witnesses’ behavior during the actual proceedings, characterized by supposed fits and hallucinations.
The Witch Accusations Finally Begin to Die Down
In October of that year, Governor William Phipps took the case out of the Salem locality, and ordered it tried in the Superior Court of Judicature, wherein the more sensational charges of the young girls, such as bizarre physical transformations, would not be accepted as evidence. Under these circumstances, the charges fell apart, and the executions ceased. Those sentenced to death and awaiting their trip to the gallows were pardoned, and others in jail and awaiting trial were released.
Causes of the “Circle Girls” Convulsions?
Various medical explanations have been put forward over recent decades to explain the fits and convulsions of the “Circle Girls” which started this whole wretched mess. One such was published in 1976, suggesting that the bread which some of the girls may have eaten might have been infected by a fungus named “Ergot” which produces symptoms similar to the drug “LSD”. Others have dismissed this in favor of other explanations including Encephalitis, spread by birds, or Lyme Disease spread by ticks which would have been easily picked up in some of the forested areas near Salem. There have also been suggestions that their “fits” may have been caused by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by some of these girls as a result of experiences during “King Philip’s War”; a series of skirmishes with local Indigenous American tribes allied with the French which occurred around this time.
Whatever the actual causes, one of the prosecutors also might be considered the final victim as well. The Reverend Nicholas Noyes had declared the unfortunate Sarah Good to be a witch, and urged her to confess. She refused, saying: “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 was indeed hung. But twenty-five years later, the Rev. Noyes died of internal bleeding — having literally choked on his own blood.
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“Salem Possessed. The Social Origin of Witchcraft” by Paul Boyer and Paul Nissenbaum, 1974.