A Brief History of The Salem Witchcraft Trials in Preparation for WGN’s Original Series ‘Salem’

Salem Logo WGN

The date is September 21, 1685 in the town square of Salem Massachusetts. A young man and woman are being held in stocks (an outdoor form of punish most commonly with your hands and head being placed and locked between two wooden boards) due to the act of self-pollution which in those times could be anything from a public display of affection (PDA) to unwed sex. The young man, after admitting his act, gets flogged (being beaten with a whip, stick, etc. as a punishment) and branded on the forehead with an F for (Fornicator) to be permanently reminded for what he has done. Skip to that evening, where series stars Shane West (John Alden), meets in the town square with Janet Montgomery (Mary), who are in love but sadly the next day John is sent off to fight the war. Mary who is pregnant turns to a witch to help her with her situation. Dark magic is performed and (poof) the baby magically disappears leaving a distraught Mary crying on the ground in the woods. John returns 7 years later only to be met with 3 bodies hanging from a tree as he enters the town and Salem is now in the beginnings of the mass hysteria arising in the accusations of witchcraft. That is the opening scene to the WGN premiere of their first ever series, ‘SALEM’.

Cast of WGN's 'SALEM'

All “Salem” images via WGN

‘SALEM’ is based on a dark tragic era in American history that spanned from February 1692 to May of 1693 where more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft and 20 were killed.

Flogging in the town square S1X1 'SALEM'

According to the networks press release, the show is set in 17th century Massachusetts and “explores what really fueled the town’s infamous witch trials and dares to uncover the dark, supernatural truth hiding behind the veil of this infamous period in American history. In SALEM, witches are real, but they are not who or what they seem. The show, which centers on an epic romance wrapped around this explosive revelation, delivers a bold new vision of Salem – and an even bolder new vision of witches.”

The show was created by award-winning producers Brannon Braga (24, Stark Trek, Voyager and Enterprise) and Adam Simon (The Haunting in Connecticut) and will be directed by Richard Shepard (Criminal Minds, Ugly Betty and HBO’s Girls) and will have 13 one-hour episodes in total is produced by Fox21, the cable production division of Twentieth Century Fox Television.

The History of the Salem Witchcraft Trials

Being a native New Englander born and raised (got the accent to prove it), here is a brief history of Salem and the witch trials.

Salem Witch Trial

In 1628 Salem was settled by the Puritans in what became the beginning of the Massachusetts bay colony. King Charles I granted the puritans a royal charter to colonize the area, but Charles II revoked this charter in 1684 after colonists violated several of the charter’s rules. These violations included basing laws on religious beliefs, running an illegal mint and discriminating against Anglicans.

The hysteria began in 1692 when several girls (the afflicted girls), supposedly fell ill and started behaving strangely after playing a fortune-telling game. The first being Betty Harris and soon followed by Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, Mary Warren, and Elizabeth Booth. Symptoms consisted of fits, fevers, contorting pain, and hiding under furniture.

In March, the first three women were accused: Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn and a slave named Tituba. Being social outcasts, these women were easy targets and were arrested and examined. During Tituba’s examination she admitted to being approached by Satan to do his bidding as a witch along with both Sarah Osburn and Sarah Good. This confession triggered the hunt for more witch accusations throughout the village, and that same month four women from Ipswitch were accused: Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey, Dorothy Good and Rachel Clinton.

Hanging at Gallows Hill

Salem Witch Trials

In April, both men and women were being accused: Sarah Cloyce, Elizabeth Proctor, John Proctor, Giles Corey, Abigail Hobbs, Deliverance Hobbs, William Hobbs, Mary Warren, Bridget Bishop, Sarah Wildes, Nehemiah Abbott Jr., Mary Eastey, Edward Bishop, Sarah Bishop, Mary English, Phillip English, Reverend George Burroughs, Lydia Dustin, Susannah Martin, Dorcas Hoar and Sarah Morey. In May, the numbers grew and it was said that although the girls were the main accusers, historians believe that the parents, especially Thomas Putman and Samuel Parrism would egg the girls on to name people in town they didn’t particularly like.

In May as the cases grew, Governor William Phips set up a special court, known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer, consisting of eight judges to hear the cases. In May the number of cases grew to over 30 but started a decline in June. Sadly the accusations of witchcraft spread to neighboring towns such as Amesbury, Andover, Topsfield, Ipswich and Gloucester, and numerous residents of those towns were brought to Salem and put on trial.

Bridgette Bishop, a local tavern owner was the first person to be brought to trial and was quickly found guilty, convicted and hanged in Gallows Hill in June 1692.

In July, 14 people were hanged with the pivotal moment of the Salem Witch being the execution of Rebecca Nurse who was a well-loved member of the community. When arrested members of the community signed a petition asking for her released. At trial she was found not guilty and upon hearing the verdict the Afflicted girls started having fits in the courtroom where upon Judge Stoughton asked the jury to reconsider. A week later she was found guilty and executed on July 19th. It was at that time the residents of Salem started questioning the validity of the trials.

Those who did not believe in witchcraft or support the trials were often themselves accused of witchcraft, because anyone who denied the existence of witches or tried to defend those accused must therefore be a witch themselves. John Proctor, a local farmer, found himself in such a bind. Proctor was a nonbeliever in witchcraft and thought the girls were scam artists. Proctor’s entire family was then accused. This included his children, pregnant wife, and sister-in-law. Although his wife escaped execution for being pregnant, Proctor himself was hanged on August 19th along with five other people. Before his execution Proctor had written a letter to the clergy in Boston telling them of the torture inflicted during the trials and asked for the trials to be moved to Boston for a fair hearing. On August 1st the clergy met to discuss the trials but alas it was too late to save Proctor.

In Memorium of John Proctor

In Memorium of John Proctor

Another notable person who was accused of witchcraft was Captain John Alden Jr., the son of the Mayflower crew member John Alden. Alden was accused of witchcraft by a child during a trip to Salem while he was on his way home to Boston from Canada. Alden spent 15 weeks in jail before friends helped break him out and he escaped to New York. He was later exonerated.

The gruesome death of Giles Corey strengthened the growing opposition during the Salem Witch Trials. After being accused of witchcraft, Corey knew if executed his estate would be confiscated and would not be passed down to his children. Corey was the first to not enter a plea therefore bringing his trial to a halt. At the time, English law dictated anyone who refused to enter a plea could be forced through torture. The torture consisted of laying the prisoner on the ground, naked, with a board placed on top of him. Heavy stones were loaded onto the board and the weight was gradually increased until the prison either entered a plea or died. In mid-September, Corey was tortured this way for three days in a field near Howard Street until he finally died on September 19th.

In Memory of Giles Corey

Toward the end of September, the use of spectral evidence was finally declared inadmissible, thus marking the beginning of the end of the Salem Witch Trials.  On September 22, eight people were hanged. These were the last hangings of the Salem Witch Trials.

On October 29th, Phips dismissed the court that had been set up to hear the cases and the remaining accused were found not guilty or released due to lack of real evidence.

A total of 19 people were found guilty and hanged at Gallows Hill, the 20th being Giles Corey.

Historians have noted that many of the accused were wealthy and held different religious beliefs than their accusers. This, coupled with the fact that the accused also had their estates confiscated if they were convicted, has led many historians to believe that religious feuds and property disputes played a big part in the witch trials.

In 1711, the colonists passed a bill, restoring the name of some of the accused and paying restitution to their heirs. Not every victim was named.

In 1957, the state of Massachusetts officially apologized for the Salem witch trials; in 1991, Salem town officials announced plans for a Salem Witch Trials Memorial in Salem. At the announcement ceremony, playwright Arthur Miller read from the last act of “The Crucible” which was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials.

In August of 1992, on the 300th anniversary of the trials, the Salem Witch Trials memorial is unveiled and dedicated by Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel.

Salem Witch Trial Memorial

Salem Witch Trial Memorial

On October 31 in 2001, the state amended the apology, stating:  “Chapter 145 of the resolves of 1957 is hereby amended by striking out, in line 1, the words ‘One Ann Pudeator and certain other persons’ and inserting in place thereof the following words:- Ann Pudeator, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott and Wilmot Redd.”

Sources: 1, 2