The History of the Salem Witch Trials

Salem in Massachusetts is famous for the dark history which fell upon the city over 300 years ago when Puritans ruled the land with their strict authoritative rules. The dark tourism that surrounds The Salem Witch Trials has been an intriguing topic of conversation for more than three centuries, due to the intense wave of hysteria they caused throughout the 17th century.

Out of a time full of despair, hardship, panic and distrust emerge a tale of devastating sadness that will remain part of Massachusetts’ history indefinitely.

The front of The Witch House in Salem Massachusetts. Purple flowers are in focus at the front of the photo with the black exterior of the Witch House blurred in the background.

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The difficulty for the Orthodox Puritans

When the Puritans set sail for New England, it was as if they were already doomed. They made the move so they could live their lives the way God wanted, without any kings or other religions getting involved. However, they brought more than just their essential belongings with them. Unknowingly, the group was harbouring several diseases which caused many deaths before their ship even docked — and quite a few after.

Many colonialists who successfully overcame the challenges of the difficult ocean voyage without disease still perished once they arrived in Salem. This was due to what was known as a “little ice age”. At this time, more than 80% of the people who sailed to the historic coastal city died within the first three winters as a result of remarkably intense cold conditions.

The prolonged, cruel New England winters weren’t just tough for the human inhabitants. They were also terrible for crops, creating the perfect starving backdrop to the insanity which begat the Salem Witch Trials. Witches were thought to be in control of weather which was destroying crops and creating horrific industrial conditions that brought dreadful harm to communities.

What were the main causes of the Salem Witch Trials?

In 1692, two young girls from Salem, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, started acting up. They were convulsing, barking like dogs, scratching their skin until it bled and pulling out their hair. Life during Puritan times was incredibly difficult for most people, due to their excessively strict religious beliefs which condemned dancing, singing and storytelling. Without simple pleasures like these, life was harsh and boring.

Enter Tituba, an enslaved woman brought to Salem from the Caribbean by Reverend Samuel Parris. Tituba spent her days with Betty and Abigail, telling them stories and showing them little oracle readings with eggs like the “Venus Glass.” This egg divination involved cracking an egg into a glass of hot water. The shapes created by the egg white told the profession of your future husband. It was following this that the first instances of unusual behaviour in the young girls began to be reported.

A trip to the only doctor in Salem determined that the girls must have been bewitched. Consequently, the witch hunt was on and accusations started flying throughout Salem. The first accused witches were Tituba, Sarah Good (a homeless woman) and Sarah Osborne (a poor elderly woman).

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Mass hysteria in Salem

As well as the fits and convulsions experienced by the local girls, a dreadful cold snap that had taken over Salem was also causing a great deal of stress. The crops were either doing awfully poorly or completely dying, leaving the animals and people without enough food to survive.

With all this commotion happening at once, people began to panic and anxiety grew at a very rapid pace. At the time, symptoms of stress included convulsions, hyperventilation (which causes a cramped throat), suffocation, fainting and even seizures. These physical symptoms, combined with the doctor’s witchcraft diagnosis, resulted in widespread hysteria throughout Salem.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer

After the accusations, suspected witches were arrested and interrogated. Some claimed to be innocent, while others like Tituba confessed. Tituba claimed the devil came to her and asked her to sign his book and become his servant. 

Governor William Phipps appointed several judges (such as Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne) to serve the Court of Oyer and Terminer, with the aim of determining those guilty of witchcraft.

What made you a witch in the Salem Witch Trials?

Orthodox Puritans believed they were born with original sin and must work hard to repent. They thought devils were fallen angels who whispered evil ideas into the minds of their victims and that they were allowed to roam and punish people under God’s will. The Puritans trusted in good and evil and thought some people would pledge allegiance to the devil and receive the power of evil magic.

They believed mortals were incapable of magic on their own and it was made for them by devils. They imagined witches to be terrible people who envied successful ones and revelled in the misfortunes that fell upon their neighbours. They believed the witches frequently killed livestock, established illnesses and caused sudden disasters.

Witches created mass confusion, shapeshifted, could turn invisible whenever they pleased and used the hair of their victims to cause them harm. Cotton Mather, a Boston Puritan minister and author of several books on witchcraft, believed some people cooperated with devils and spirits simply so they’d leave them alone.

In these trying times, asking friends, neighbours and strangers for handouts was a common practice. Since life was tough for everyone, few people could afford to be generous, which often resulted in the person asking for charity to lose their temper and shout at the person refusing to give what they literally couldn’t afford to. If the person who refused later found themselves with some kind of misfortune, such as a horse that became lame or a crop which failed, many assumed they were being punished by the begging person who had the power to cause such inconveniences because they were a witch.

What people reported as Witchcraft

Men testified to sick and dead livestock, bad luck and nightmares. Some even claimed to be attacked by spectral animals. Women lived in fear of their own “bewitched” children which they reportedly suffered from convulsions — an uncommon occurrence many saw as a definitive symptom of bewitchment.

If someone got sick, people would ask, “Who ails you?” and gossip uncontrollably about who caused the illness until they came to their own warped conclusion. Often the sick person was so weak and tired from their illness, they’d genuinely believe the person in question was responsible.

Some people were also just cruel and evil. Several families, such as the Putnam’s, accused people of witchcraft for all kinds of reasons — everything from having an unpaid loan to wanting their neighbour’s land. There wasn’t much required for someone to be accused of witchcraft in those days.

Generally, spectral evidence was the main reason someone would be accused of witchcraft.

When were the Salem Witch Trials?

The Salem Witch Trials took place across several months in 1692. Young girls in Salem started acting strangely in January 1692 and by March of the same year, accusations were rife. The actual court proceedings were held in Salem Town June-September 1692. The Salem Witch Trials ended when the court officially dissolved at the end of October, but the imprisoned people weren’t officially pardoned until May 1693.

Where were the Salem Witch Trials?

In the 17th century, Salem was divided into Salem Village and Salem Town. The city of Danvers in Massachusetts is the original site of Salem Village, where the witch accusations first began. The Salem Witch Trials were held in Salem Town, which is where Salem is currently located.

Where in Salem were the witches hanged?

In 2016, New England scholars discovered the exact area the witches were hanged during the 1692 trials. Originally, they thought the hangings took place at Gallows Hill. But they actually took place just down the road in amongst a cluster of rocks and trees. This location is called Proctor’s Ledge and the accused were hanged from the branches of a tree rather than gallows. In total, 19 people died at Proctor’s Ledge and buried elsewhere.

How did they kill the witches in the Salem Witch Trials?

The Salem witches were killed by hanging. One accused man, Giles Corey, was pressed to death over the course of three days. Two dogs were also executed during the Salem Witch Trials, as they were believed to be possessed by the devil. Unlike their English and Scottish counterparts, none of the accused witches were burned at the stake in Salem.

Salem Witch Trials victims

At the Salem Witch Trials Memorial by the Old Burying Point Cemetery Bridget Bishop memorial bench at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Stone bench with Bridget Bishop Hanged engraved on the stone. There are several bunches of yellow sunflowers sitting on top of her stone.

More than 200 people were accused of witchcraft during the few short months of the Salem Witch Trials. Out of the 145 arrested, 20 were found guilty and executed by hanging or being pressed. You can see the victims’ names and how they died at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.

Bridget Bishop

Bridget Bishop was not the first woman to be accused of being a witch, but she was the first woman to be executed. She was a widow who had several run-ins with the law and was hanged on June 10th, 1692.

Sarah Good

Sarah Good was one of the first women accused of being a witch in Salem, along with Sarah Osbourn and Tituba. Sarah Good was very poor and would frequently go door-to-door begging her neighbours for money and goods. If someone turned her away and shortly after were misfortunate (for example, if one of their animals grew sick or a crop wilted) people would assume it was because Sarah was a witch who cursed the other woman for turning her away when she requested help. Sarah Good was hanged on July 19th, 1692.

Reverend George Burroughs

Reverend George Burroughs was a Puritan minister accused and arrested for witchcraft. The Putnam family were his accusers, from whom he had borrowed money after failing to receive his salary for his work as a minister in Salem. George stopped repaying the Putnams after he moved to Maine, which is what caused the family to accuse him, resulting in his hanging on August 19th, 1692.

Martha & Giles Corey

Martha and Giles Corey were both accused of witchcraft, following Martha’s criticism of the accusations. Martha was hanged on September 22nd, 1692 and Giles was crushed to death over the course of three days, ultimately dying on September 19th.

Rebecca Nurse

Rebecca Nurse was beloved by all…except for the Putnam family who she was at war with over land boundaries. In an attempt to get all her land, the Putnams accused her of witchcraft, and she was hanged on July 19th, 1692.

Who was crushed to death in the Salem Witch Trials?

Stone bench with the engraving Giles Corey Pressed to Death Sept 19 1692. Above the engraving is a bunch of orange and yellow sunflowers honoring Giles memory.

Giles Corey was crushed to death in the Salem Witch Trials. In Salem, executions were public events and if someone wasn’t excited to see the hangings or if they weren’t present for them, people became suspicious. Corey’s wife Martha didn’t agree with the hangings, resulting in her being accused of witchcraft. It certainly didn’t help her case when her own husband, Corey, claimed she had made his ox sick and therefore must have been a witch.

Giles ended up getting into a fight with the Putnam family. After they accused him of witchcraft, he refused to take a plea deal which would have involved saying more about his wife’s involvement in witchcraft. His refusal to speak angered sheriff George Corwin, who was a very cruel man often referred to as “The Strangler”. George was so angry he ordered a shallow grave to be dug to torture Giles.

How Giles was Pressed to Death

After being placed in the shallow grave, a wooden board was placed over Giles’ body and rocks put on top every hour. The rocks slowly crushed Giles, who simply said, “Add more weight.” After three long days of torture and 750lbs of weight, Giles’ body started to give out. His tongue was protruding from his mouth as he cursed Salem and all the sheriffs with his dying words, either: “You will all have blood to drink” or “Damn you! I curse you and Salem!” depending on who you believe.

Is Salem cursed?

The curse of Giles Corey was effective. Every subsequent sheriff of Salem for the next 300+ years died of a heart attack or heart failure-related infliction. The Salem jail was eventually closed, meaning the town had no need for sheriffs and the curse naturally came to an end…or did it? If Salem ever gets a new sheriff who dies of a heart attack, I guess we’ll know!

Was Tituba hanged?

No, Tituba wasn’t hanged. Although she was one of the first women accused of witchcraft in Salem, she was never brought to court, found guilty or hanged. She ended up being sold off to another family and her whereabouts for the rest of her life are unknown.

When was the last witch executed?

The last group of witches to be put to death in the Salem Witch Trials died on September 22nd, 1692. However, it wasn’t until 2001 that the last person was finally cleared of witchcraft on paper.

What stopped the Salem Witch Trials?

Just as quickly as they started, the Salem Witch Trials ended in October 1692. Governor Phipps stepped in and ended them after his wife Martha was accused of witchcraft. He forbade arrests following accusations of witchcraft, dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer and released the accused witches.

If you’re interested in reading a very in-depth and thorough Salem Witch Trials timeline, be sure to check out the book The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege by Marilynne K. Roach.

Salem Witch Trials Sites to Visit

Although almost all the original buildings associated with the witch trials in Salem were lost in a fire or torn down by the city, there are still some sites you can visit today to get a real feel of the terrible things that happened during that time.

There are several related sites in the neighbouring city of Danvers. I haven’t yet been to Danvers, but I’ll be sure to visit in the future to check out all the spots related to the dark history of the witch trials.

The Witch House

The front exterior of The Witch House in Salem Massachusetts. The house is black with a roof that is three gables and a brick chimney in the center of the house.

The Witch House is the only structure from the witch trials of 1692 that’s still standing. The black 17th-century house belonged to Judge Jonathan Corwin, who was one of the judges who presided over the courts during the Salem Witch Trials. The house has been turned into a museum that offers insight into what life was like during the 1600s. 

Address: 310 Essex St, Salem, MA 01970, USA

Related Post: Visiting The Witch House in Salem Massachusetts

The Witch Trials Memorial

The Witch Trials Memorial in Salem where the history of the Salem Witch Trials is remembered. Several granite benches are placed along a granite wall with two trees in the foreground

The Witch Trials Memorial is on Liberty Street, directly next to the Old Burying Point Cemetery. It honors the 20 people who lost their lives during the witch trials and features granite benches with the name and cause of death of each victim.

Address: 24 Liberty St, Salem, MA 01970, USA

Related Post: A visit to the Old Burying Point & Salem Witch Trials Memorial

The Old Burying Point Cemetery

Hundreds of old weathered and aged from time cemetery stones in the Old Burying Point Cemetery

The oldest cemetery in Salem, The Old Burying Point is on Charter Street. Cruel Judge John Hathorne (Ancestor to Nathaniel Hawthorne) played a large part in the persecution of several people accused of witchcraft is buried here.

Address: 51 Charter St, Salem, MA 01970, USA

Broad Street Cemetery

Broad Street Cemetery on Broad Street is the final resting place of Judge Jonathan Corwin of The Witch House and his nephew, the horrible sheriff George Corwin of The George Corwin House.

Address: Broad St, Salem, MA 01970, USA

John Hathorne’s Home

The history of the Salem Witch Trials Judge Hathorne's home was located behind the Bewitched Statue. This statue features a woman sitting on a half moon.
The site of Judge Hathorne’s residence is located behind the Bewitched Statue.

Located at what is now Washington Street, directly behind the Bewitched Statue in Salem, is the site of the former home of Judge John Hathorne. He was buried in the Old Burying Point/Charter Street Cemetery.

Address: 118 Washington Street, Salem, MA, USA

George Corwin House (The Merchant)

Large brick colonial style building that was once the site where George Corwin lived. In the history of the Salem Witch Trials he was the sheriff who killed Giles Corey.

George Corwin was the brutal sheriff responsible for literally crushing Giles Corey to death. The original building is no longer standing, but stones from the foundation remain.

George Corwin was the first to succumb to the curse of Giles Corey and eventually died of a heart attack. His corpse was buried underneath his house in an attempt to prevent others from snatching his body, as he was extremely disliked by most of the local community. Rumours say that the building which stands in its place, The Merchant Hotel, is extremely haunted. The Merchant is one of the most haunted hotels in Salem.

Book a stay at The Merchant Hotel here: The Merchant Hotel

Address: 148 Washington St, Salem, MA 01970, USA

Proctor’s Ledge & Gallows Hill

Proctor’s Ledge is a set of rocks located between Pope Street and Proctor Street in Salem, where accused witches were hanged. Because there aren’t any gallows, it’s assumed that the 19 people hanged there were done so from tree branches. Proctor’s Ledge is just down the road from Gallows Hill, which is suspected to be the original location of the hangings. There you can see a commemoration plaque attached to the Walgreens that now resides on the site.

Address: 7 Pope St, Salem, MA 01970, USA

The Turner-Ingersoll Mansion (The House of the Seven Gables)

The front of a large mansion known as the House of the Seven Gables in Salem Massachusetts, painted dark brown/black with three gables and a chimney in the center. There is a path leading to the front door with green bushes on either side.

The Turner-Ingersoll Mansion was built in 1668 by John Turner and was the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel, the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne, was inspired to write his novel by real events that occurred during the witch trials.

Address: 115 Derby St, Salem, MA 01970, USA

Related Post: Visiting The House of the Seven Gables in Salem Massachusetts

The Home of Bridget Bishop

Bridget Bishop was the first person to be executed during the Salem Witch Trials and you can visit the site of the home she shared with her second husband, Thomas Oliver. Although her house is no longer there, you can see the Salem Five Bank which now sits in its location.

Address: 71 Washington Street, Salem, MA, USA

The Original Salem Jail

Salem Jail on Federal Street in the Ten Federal Building held the majority of those accused of witchcraft who were awaiting trial.

Address: 4 Federal Street, Salem, MA, USA

The Salem Witch Museum

Salem Witch Museum at night, castle like building with large windows lit up with a red light. Learn about the History of The Salem Witch Trials here.

The Salem Witch Museum is one of several museums dedicated to the witch trials’ history. The most popular museum of its kind, Salem Witch Museum features scenes of animatronic figures which re-enact the story of Salem during the witch trials.

Address: 19 1/2 N Washington Square, Salem, MA 01970, USA

Witchcraft History around Massachusetts

If you’d love to visit more sites associated with the Salem Witch Trials, be sure to stop by Danvers in Massachusetts. Danvers was originally Salem Village where the initial accusations began. However, the courthouse where people were condemned is located at what is now Washington Street in Salem.

If you’re interested in learning more about and visiting the historical sites and locations of the Salem Witch Trials, be sure to check out the History of Massachusetts.

Modern witchcraft in Salem

Instead of hiding in shame from its past, Salem now embraces its dark history and honours those who lost their lives during the Salem Witch Trials. There are several museums, walks and tours that detail Salem’s history, increasing public interest and educating those who want to find out more.

Now referred to as the “Witch City”, Salem is alive with modern-day witchcraft shops, museums and tours. If you want to check out museums and shops you can visit in Salem, check back soon for my Salem Spooky City Guide!

Want more Witchcraft history? Check out the related post: Witchcraft History in Scotland

More information about Things to do in Salem

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