In medieval Europe or colonial America, if you were caught burning an incense stick or cone, certain candles, or liked to go for long walks in the woods late at night, people would accuse you of witchcraft and you would be tortured and executed. However, in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, all you had to do was be either extremely rich or poor and/or be extremely popular or a social outcast. Many people believe people ingested some kind of fungus in bread that caused hallucinations and paranoia and that was why people accused others of witchcraft. However, the contents of the hallucinations and paranoia suggest the underlying causes of the witch trials were largely due to feuds between rich and poor, family disputes, and extreme sexual repression of young women and men alike brought on by strict organized religious beliefs, such as what the Puritans practiced. The witch hysteria of Salem happened in several waves from March 1692-April 1693.
The first victim was Bridget Bishop. She was known for being gossipy and was accused of promiscuity. She was hanged on what later became known as Gallows Hill. Like most victims of all witch trials, she pleaded innocence but no one believed her.
After her first marriage to an indentured servant left her deep in debt, poor Sarah Good then married a laborer who worked to be paid in food and lodging. They lived a miserable life of poverty in Salem village. She was the first among several suspects to be identified by young preteen girls when they were being questioned by authorities after displaying hysteria. Later after the trials were over, some of these girls would come out and say they were faking being possessed or influenced by the accused. Officials questioned Sarah's daughter and concluded her mother was guilty of witchcraft based on her timid answers. She was probably just nervous being questioned by the police. Sarah was pregnant so they waited until after she gave birth to hang her. The baby died in prison. They probably killed it. Her last words were for her tormentors, "If you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink!" Like most of the victims she identified as a devout Christian, not a Satan worshipper. The same was true for most of the victims in the European witch trials. About 2% of all the known victims were Pagan. Most of them were Catholic.
Elizabeth How originally came from Ipswich village outside Salem and struggled to fit in with the community. All she wanted was to be popular. Her husband John was blind. Her neighbors accused her of causing their cows and young daughter to die after they had an argument with her. She tried to become a member of a local church congregation and was severely rejected by everyone. Her neighbors and family interpreted any injuries or illness to them, loved ones, animals, and any bad luck as her magical revenge. Her brother-in-law accused her of inflicting a painful numbness in his hand that made him unable to work. A young girl accused her of attacking her with her spectral form and trying to drown her in a pond. After pleading her innocence, Elizabeth How was convicted and hanged.
Susannah Martin was a widow who was married to a blacksmith and had eight children. During the 1670's she was accused of witchcraft, but her husband protected her by suing her accusers for slander. He died in 1692 during the height of the hysteria. Fifteen of her neighbors accused her of bewitching them and making their farm animals die. This time, no one would protect her and she was unable to defend herself. The accusations were probably linked to inheritance disputes she was involved in. She was deeply religious and read the Bible in jail as she awaited her execution. This should've made people realize she was innocent of witchcraft, but the people who wanted the money they thought they deserved made sure she died. The same is true for most, if not all, of the rich victims from both sides of the Atlantic.
Rebecca Nurse was an elderly woman with bad health and a respected church member. She was among the second wave of victims accused by children. Children often accused people their parents didn't like or people they themselves didn't like. During her court hearing, the girls cried out in fake pain and contorted themselves to convince everyone watching she was tormenting them. Rebecca looked on passively. Bad move! Everyone thought she was guilty and was hanged shortly after.
Sarah Wildes was a beautiful young woman accused of prostitution and witchcraft several years before the Salem witch trials. She married widower John Wildes and she conflicted with his first wife's family whom he was still friends with. His first wife's sister Mary Reddington accused Sarah of bewitching her, but stopped when John threatened to sue her for slander. One of Sarah's new stepchildren Jonathan acted strangely and others believed it was because of demonic possession caused by her. He may have been schizophrenic and because other people didn't like Sarah they blamed her and hoped to use him to get rid of her. In 1692, things finally boiled over with other people being convicted of witchcraft and hanged. John's son Ephraim was a local constable and he protested her innocence when his boss Marshal George Herrick arrested her. One witness said Sarah was part of a coven of specters who whispered at the foot of a dying child's bed. Others accused her of telekinetically sabotaging their ox cart after they stole it from her. Interestingly, they were not convicted of stealing because everyone thought she was using witchcraft to protect her property. Another witness said that after arguing with Sarah she felt a spectral cat walk across her in the night. With such overwhelming "evidence", Sarah was convicted and executed.
Revered George Burrough was the only minister to be executed during the Salem witch trials. People accused him of being a ringleader of a band of witches and a priest of the devil, even though he could recite the Lord's prayer from memory, something most people at the time believed witches could not do. He was exceptionally physically fit and people took that to be a sign of demonic assistance. Puritan inquisitioner Reverend Cotton Mather suspected Burrough was deviating from Puritanism to Baptism. Mather attended his trial and urged the jury to convict him, which they did. On the scaffold Burrough gave a speech about his innocence and ended with the Lord's Prayer. Many spectators then thought hanging him was a mistake, but they didn't protest and he was hanged.
Mather denounced Martha Carrier as a "rampant hag". She was the daughter of one of the founding families of nearby Andover, Massachusetts. Nearby towns and villages around Salem were all lumped under the Salem witch trials label because they were in the same area the Provence of Massachusetts Bay. The Salem witch trials took place in Salem town, Salem village (now called Danvers), Ipswich, and Andover. People from nearby towns could accuse Salem residents and vice versa and people in the nearby towns accused each other. Martha married one of her family servants, had four children, and was a spitfire with authority issues. This made her a prime target for accusations of witchcraft. She told her many accusers in court, "It's a shameful thing that you should mind these folks out of their wits". She was then executed.
George Jacobs, Sr. was a twice-married grandfather in his 70's accused by his servant Sarah Churchill and his granddaughter Margaret. They were accused of witchcraft themselves and tried to save themselves by implicating others. There were other women who said George's astral projection beat them with a walking stick. The inquisitors also noticed a bump on his right shoulder. They said it was a witch's teat, a gift from Satan for making a covenant with him. They also thought witches fed their familiars their blood by having them suck out of their witch's teats. One of their inquisitional tortures was called pricking. They would use a needle to poke at every inch of their skin from head to toe to find hard, calloused, or insensitive spots that would be determined to be a familiar sucking spot. George said that the devil must've taken on his form to cause mischief and frame him, but the court decided that couldn't have happened without his consent, so they hanged him.
John Proctor inherited a substantial fortune from his father and worked as a successful farmer, entrepreneur, and tavern keeper. This was not the time or place to be successful or too ambitious. He also mistakenly criticized the young girls who accused witches in public saying "we should all be devils or witches quickly". He also said the girls should be whipped or hanged for lying and slander. Not surprisingly, they turned their deadly attentions to him. One of his servants also accused him and his wife and they were arrested. The sheriff took the house and sold their property so their children would have nothing. This was another theme that happened in all witch trials in America and Europe. The inquisitioners and their families would get the accused's money and property, so rich people were more likely to be accused of witchcraft so others would get their money. The accusers would also get some as compensation for their "torments". Usually rich people lived in one side of the town or city and poor people would live in the other half. People from the poor half would accuse people from the rich half because they were jealous of their money, success, and popularity. John petitioned the trial either move to Boston or that they change magistrates, because he didn't want the people who took all his money and property to judge him. He was refused and then executed. His wife was spared because she was pregnant. She wasn't unpopular like Sarah Good so they released her completely.
Giles and Martha Cory were accused by neighbors. Giles refused to plead and they couldn't make a ruling without his pleading either guilty or innocent. In Europe when this happened, they would crush the victim with a board and large rocks piled on top. They would keep adding large rocks or weights until the victim either pled or was crushed to death. The French term for it is peine forte et dure, the Spanish term is catapelta. They decided that's what they needed to do to get him to plead. Giles' last words allegedly was "more weight" as he was crushed to death. Some other historians say he cursed Salem and all the people as his last words. He is the only North American to have died by this method, or to be tortured by it. His wife Martha was hanged for witchcraft after she pleaded she and Giles were both innocent.
Mary Easty was Rebecca Nurse's sister. Like her she was deeply religious. Her questioner John Hawthorne (ancestor to Nathaniel Hawthorne who wrote The Scarlet Letter and other books. His writing style is really not conducive to the modern reader and way too wordy) believed in her innocence. He released her despite her young accusers writhing and screaming to fake demonic possession. A few days later one of them either got sick or faked being sick and the others said they saw Mary's specter tormenting her. Mary was arrested again and this time she was convicted and hanged.
Ann Pudeator was a twice-widowed mother of six, a midwife, nurse, and inherited property from her second husband. She was very self-sufficient for a woman of her time and this made her a target. A girl said she tortured her by impaling a voodoo doll. Another one said she saw Ann shape-shift into a bird. They also said she had "curious containers of various ointments" in her house. This was proven to be jars of foot oil or grease used to make soap. Ann had no defense for the shape-shifting accusation and they suspected she got rid of the voodoo doll, so they hanged her.
Samuel Wardell was a carpenter from Boston who worked with his brother Benjamin to build houses in Salem. He was a paid fortune teller and he married a young widow with a huge inheritance. Her money combined with his made them very affluent. People thought they had Satanic assistance because of their money. Samuel admitted to dealing with the devil and all the other things he was accused of, but then he recanted. They hanged him anyway.
Alice Parker was arrested after being accused by her servant Mary Warren. Mary Warren used to work for John Proctor. She was the same one who accused him and his wife of witchcraft. Apparently no one thought much about Mary Warren's tendency to work for "witches" or realized there was a pattern. Alice was tried, convicted, and hanged so once again Mary Warren succeeded in praying on the rich as a quick and easy way to get money in a time when people were too paranoid and superstitious to realize what was really going on.
Mary Parker, no relation to Alice, was a wealthy widow from Andover and a relative to suspect Frances Hutchins. Mary and her daughter Sarah were arrested and accused of witchcraft also. When Mary entered the courtroom at her trial, the young girls who accused her fell into long writhing spells before her name was announced. One of them said she saw Mary's specter perched high on a beam above the court at one of the hearings. Mary was convicted and executed afterward.
John Willard was a sheriff's officer from Salem who was ordered to arrest several accused persons. He refused because he believed their innocence. He himself was accused of being in the same coven as them and that he was protecting them for that reason. He escaped and fled to Nashaway 40 miles away, but he was tracked down and brought to court in Salem. The young girls who accused him said a shining man specter saved them from John slitting their throats. He was hanged shortly afterwards.
Wilmot "Mammy of Marblehead" Redd was eccentric, had a very short temper, and liked to argue with her neighbors. She was from outside of Salem. She was accused of several crimes including sending her spectral doppelganger into Salem to torment the young twelve-year-old girls who instigated the witch hunt. Mammy of Marblehead was arrested and brought to Salem to trail and hanged in one of the final waves of the executions.
Margaret Scott was born in England in 1615 and moved to New England with her parents at a young age. She married a struggling farmer who died in 1670. Margaret had to beg her neighbors for support. This made her a target for the later Salem witch trials because people resented her because she couldn't pay them back. At her trial witnesses said her spectral form choked and pinched them. She was hanged as one of the final victims.
Toward the end of the trials in the end of 1692, Elizabeth Ballard came down with a fever that baffled doctors, so they suspected witchcraft. Two of the "afflicted" girls Ann Putnam and Mary Walcott were taken to Andover village to seek out the witch. They fell into fits at the sight of Ann Foster, a 72 year old widow. She was tortured at Salem for days and her daughter Mary Lacey also accused her of witchcraft. Ann died in Salem jail after rotting there for 21 weeks. After that the trials were discredited and ended.
It is unlikely in the modern western world that witch hysterias will happen again. However, in the Middle East and rural India people are still tortured and executed for witchcraft. In India they still burn "witches" at the stake as they often did in medieval Europe. So if you are accused of witchcraft, what is the best thing to do? Also: if you were a time traveler and you went to Salem or medieval Europe and people accused you as a witch as soon as they saw you, what would be the best course of action? The answer lies within the life of Tituba. Tituba was a slave who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. She was caught teaching her master's children pagan rituals. Records do not indicate clearly where she was from. Some historians believe she was from Africa. Some think she was from South America. Others think was Native American. Native Americans were also enslaved if they were captured and they mixed them with the African slaves they kidnapped and brought over. She could've been half African and half Native American. She could've been teaching the children Voodoo (Voudun) or a Native American spiritual practice. It's also possible they were just playing a game they made up and others watching misunderstood it. No one knows. As soon as she was accused she immediately confessed to all the accusations and did not recant any of it. Instead of being hanged, Tituba was put under house arrest where she lived comfortably until she died. If Samuel Wardell hadn't recanted his "confessions" he too could've survived the witch hunts and lived comfortably until his natural death. So if you are ever accused of witch craft, the best thing to do is own up to it. Say "Hell yeah I'm a witch and I'm going to put a spell on you too." Don't recant and don't lose confidence, you too could survive the witch hunt.