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The Salem Witch Trials

Trials of the Salem witch refers to a number of hearings that happened before the county court trails meant to prosecute citizens in the counties of colonial Massachusetts accused for witchcrafts between the years 1692 and 1693. Despite the trials being referred to as Salem trials, the initial hearings on the trials took place in various towns in the province including: Ipswich, Salem Town, Salem Village and Andover in 1692. Among those trials, the best were conducted by the Over and Terminer Court in Salem town in 1692. During the trials, more than 150 people were imprisoned after being arrested, with even more people accused but not arrested by the authorities (Hoffer, 1999).

Most of the people who were brought in court after being accused to be witches were convicted. Many of the session that took place after the Salem trials were held at the Salem villages’ Superior Court of Judicature. The court moved its session from one county to another with the visited ones being Charlestown, Ipswich and Boston. The counties host the only three convictions of all the thirty one trails.  The courts passed capital felony charges to twenty nine citizens in relation to witchcraft. The above men were all found guilty thus hanged. No charged person had the right to go against the plea and if one tried that, he or she was forced into agreeing. A good example is Giles Corey case where he crushed to death as he did not comply with the plea (Hoffer, 1999).

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The episode marks one of the most remembered cases of mass hysteria. It has since then be used in popular literature and political rhetoric as a vivid cautionary event on the isolationism dangers, false accusations, process lapses, religious extremism and the local government involvement in individual liberties.  Before these prosecutions, the supernatural formed part of the day to day life as the people believed in the presence and activities of Satan on earth.In the past, witchcraft was considered as peasants that were heavily depended on specific charms for agriculture and farming. With time, the white magic idea transformed to what was referred to as black magic, and was now strongly associated with evil spirits and demons.

The period between 1560 and 1670 was marked by witchcraft prosecution now that witchcraft was being associated with evil. Salem citizens had the notion that the misfortunes they were facing were attributed the devil activities. They blamed the supernatural when faced with crop failure, infant death, or congregation friction. After all the prosecutions, the colony later admitted that the trials were a big mistake and tried in the best way they could to compensate the families of those who had fallen victims of the episode. Since that time, the trials story has become synonymous with injustice and paranoia, and has continued to fascinate the popular imagination after more than 300 years (Hoffer, 1999).

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The Initial Events

Many centuries ago, most of the people practicing Christianity and other religions as well, were filled with the belief that Satan could pass power to certain selected people who they referred to as witches, to harm and destroy others as away of appreciating their loyalty. The craze of witchcraft had rippled through the whole of Europe as early as 1300s upto the end of 1600s. Thousands of the people alleged to be witches and mostly the women were executed. Although the Salem trials took place just as the European witchcraft craze was coming to an end, there are several local circumstances which explain their onset. 

The events of prosecution are believed to have started at the Salem Village in the year 1962, when a nine year old girl by the name Betty Parris began having fits which were more than the normal epileptic symptoms or any other signs of any known diseases. The girl threw things in the room, screamed, crawled under the furniture’s in the house, and assumed abnormal gestures. Doctors were unable to give any explanation to what was happening to the girl. Several other members of the village developed similar symptoms after this initial incident. Religious leaders’ interventions in Salem village were received with outbursts from the afflicted (Hoffer, 1999).

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Three people were arrested after being accused for afflicting the girl who experienced the symptoms first and other young girls. The other girls were Elizabeth Hubbard, Anne Putnam and Abigail Williams. Those accused were Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and Tituba. Ann Putnam accusation was considered by many as evidence to show that feud from families can be considered as being one of the main resultant of the Trials (Linder, 2000). The citizens often engaged in harsh debates which escalated into full fighting normally out of their opinion on feud because f the existing rivalry between the Porter and Putnam families. One of the accused, Sarah Good, was without a place to call home thus depended on other people for shelter and food. Sarah faced charges for being a witch on the basis of her awful status.

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At the trial, she was accused of puritanical expectations rejection of discipline and self control when she decided to scorn and torment children instead of guiding them towards salivation.  Sarah Osborne who rarely attended meetings especially those related to church, she was considered a witch because the Salem people had the notion that she had different hidden intentions for getting into another marriage. The citizens were also distasteful because she had tried to influence the inheritance of the son in the marriage she had moved out of. Tituba was not from the Puritans society thus was considered to be a slave. Her accusation was linked to her ability to attract young girls using her enchanting stories. The stories were about how people associated with the devil sexually and swaying men’s minds, with the fortune tells resulting to stimulation of the young girls’ imaginations making her meet the villagers’ definition of a witch (Linder, 2000).

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The three outcast women matched the village description of witchcraft suspects. They were taken before the local court and charged for witchcraft and were interrogated for a number of days after which they were imprisoned. After this trail, other followed on similar allegations including that of Martha Corey.  Martha had stood out against the trustworthiness of the accusation of girls thus drawing the attention to her. Martha was a fully involved in the church issues leading to trouble and confusion in the village. The citizens claimed that if Martha was a witch, then anybody in the village could as well be a witch and one being a church member could not render him or her immune to accusation (Linder, 2000).

Formal Prosecution

The Oyer and Terminer Court was where most of the prosecutions took place. The two convened in Salem for the first time in 1962 with William Stoughton as its Chief Magistrate and Thomas Newton as its Attorney and Stephen Sewall as the clerk (Blumberg, 2007).  Bridget Bishops was the first to be brought before this grand jury. She was charged for not living according to the lifestyle of the puritans as she wore odd costumes and black clothing. This was against the puritan dressing code. She also asked for her awkward cot before her trail with many taking this as an usual gesture. Her amoral lifestyle as well as this gesture made her be accused of practicing witchcraft. She was taken to trail the very day and was found guilty. She was later executed by hanging in 1692 (Demos, 1999).

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Following this, more people were arrested, accused and examined but this took place in Salem Town. The charges were overseen by local magistrates Jonathan Corwin, John Hathorne and Bartholomew Gedney who later become judges of Oyer and Terminer Court (Blumberg, 2007). After several trials, the primary accusations source moved to Andover from Salem Village.  This was after the constable in Andover asked requested to have some of the girls affiliated in Salem to visit as they tried to find out the causes of the affiliations. Most of the cases in these courts ended up on jail senses of execution.

Later, the grand juries had eight more people indicted but failed to indict William Proctor. However, the court could not let him go as it later re-arrested him and placed new charges on him. Another unusual case arose when Giles Corey turned down the arraignment plea and was pressed beneath heavy stones to try make him accept the plea. After this scary incident, four of the accused pleaded guilty while eleven more were found guilty after trial. Eight of those convicted were hanged in September 1692 and the incident has since then been referred to as the “Eight firebrands of Hell” (Demos, 1999).

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Dorcas Hoar, who was one of convicts, was awarded a temporary reprieve and was supported by several ministers, to confess before God. Mary Aged Bradbury escaped while Abigail Faulkner was given temporary reprieve because of her pregnancy. After this incident, Governor Phips asked Mather about the Salam trials and to access the official recordings of the trials from Stephen Sewall who was the clerk of the court. The court was later dismissed by Governor Phips but that dint mark the end of trials. 

The Superior Court of Judicature

In 1693, the new Superior Court of Judicature, Court of General Gaol and Assize convened in Essex County in Salem. In this court, William Stoughton still maintained his previous position as the Chief Justice, Anthony Checkley as the Attorney General  and Jonathan Elatson as its clerk (Linder, 2000). The first five cases before this court were of five people earlier indicted but had not been tried. They were all found not guilty. Grand juries remained held for the most of those still in jail. Most of the charges were dismissed but sixteen of them were indicted and later tried. Of these, three were found guilty.  However, when Stoughton handed in his letter warranting for the execution of the three women, and the rest of the people from the previous court, they were pardoned by Governor Phips, sparing their lives (Blumberg, 2007).

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Early the following year, the Court met again in Charlestown where they had grand juries that ended with five people being tried. The five were found not guilty but they had to pay their jail fees before they were released. The court later convened in Suffolk County in Boston where it cleared Capt. John Alden and also heard charges against a girl who had falsely accused her mistress as being a witch. The final trial took place in Ipswich where it demised all the charges against the remaining five people. The five were found not guilty, marking the end of the episode (Demos, 1999). 

Religious Context

Before the constitutional turmoil that took place in Massachusetts government in the 1680’s was dominated by conservative secular Puritan leaders. The puritans under the influence of the Calvinism opposed most of the traditional practiced by the Protestant Church of England. The traditions included the use of Holy crosses, the use of the Book of Common Prayer, the use of priestly caps and gown during services and kneeling to receive sacrament. Prior to 1699 when most of the trials took place, there had been cases of witchcrafts but most them were rumors from the neighboring villages to Salem Village. Cotton Mather who was a minister of North Church in Boston wrote a book addressing the issue indicating how she was a firm believer of witchcraft. In the book, Mather touches on oracular observations and the ways in which stupendous witchcraft had effects on children from Boston. It was after her writing that children started exhibiting strange behaviors making most people consider it as a prediction or the participation of the church in witchcrafts (Demos, 1999).











Aftermath and Closure

Although the last of the trails was help early 1693, the public reactions to the events that took place during the trials have continued till today. In many years after the trials, the main issues had to do with the finding out the innocence of the people who were unfairly convicted and compensating the families and survivors. The following centuries have been marked by the descendants of those victims that were accused unjustly and condemned resolving to honor their memories. The stories following the trials, witchcraft accusations, and executions has since then captured the imagination of artists, politicians, religious leaders, human rights activists and writers. These people have had mixed interpretation of the events and facts about the historical episode with most of them condemning them. Several articles have been published on the events bringing the intersection between an emerging enlightenment and dealing with confession and torture and medieval past that is gradually disappearing. Such interpretation has been regarded with high esteem as it often reveals the clear boundaries that have been alleged between the post medieval and medieval as cultural constructions. 

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