The Salem witchcraft trials, which began in May of 1692 after months of rumors of Satanic influence, still grip the American imagination more than 300 years later.
For everyone who remains intrigued by Salem, here are a few lesser-known facts about the witchcraft trials.
When the first accusations of witchcraft began in Salem Village, they initially targeted women.
Tituba, an enslaved person born to a South American indigenous tribe, became the first person accused of witchcraft in Salem after Betty, the daughter of Salem’s minister, Samuel Parris, began acting erratically.
In fact, the first people accused of bewitching Betty were all women: Tituba, a beggar named Sarah Good, and Sarah Osbourne, an older woman who had not attended church for a year. And the first person executed for witchcraft during the trials was also a woman.
But men were accused (and executed) as well. One man, Giles Corey, was killed over three days as increasingly heavier rocks were set atop his body.
Another executed man was John Proctor, a wealthy farmer who spoke out against the witch trials, particularly after his wife Elizabeth had been arrested for witchcraft. In response, John found himself accused as well.
He attempted to save himself by writing to clergy in Boston that mass hysteria had taken over the village, but they acted too slowly to save him: He was executed on August 19, 1692.
Although Salem Village was at the heart of the witch trials of 1692, the accused were from a couple dozen towns.
The list of towns includes:
The town of Andover in northeastern Massachusetts, not Salem Village, had the highest number of accused (42 accused in Andover versus 26 accused in Salem Village).
However, it was Salem Village where the witch trials were taken to such drastic lengths.
The first accusations during the Salem Witch Trials were against people who were for various reasons marginalized by society.
But the accusations didn’t stop there. They soon spread to individuals regardless of their gender, class, or power in the community.
Not even ministers could escape. George Burroughs had been named the village minister in 1680, but many disapproved of his religious views, and he often wasn’t paid his salary. When he stopped being paid altogether, he left Salem. The Putnams, a prominent family he’d borrowed money from, sued Burroughs for unpaid debts and later accused him of witchcraft. Burroughs was brought back to Salem, tried, and executed.
Eventually, the accusations ensnared even the most powerful people in Massachusetts.
In late May 1692, Sir William Phips, the first royal governor of Massachusetts established the criminal court to conduct the Salem witch trials. But by October 1692, his wife Mary found herself the target of sorcery accusations.
William Stoughton, who presided over the Salem witch trials, studied theology at Harvard College and Oxford, but never became a minister and chose to enter politics instead.
From 1671 to 1687, he served on the Counsel of Assistants, a judicial and rule-making body for the colony. In June 1692, Governor Phips appointed Stoughton as chief judge and prosecutor in the Salem witch trials despite Stoughton’s lack of legal experience.
Perhaps some training in the law would have constrained Stoughton’s more extreme actions. Most importantly, Stoughton allowed “spectral evidence” during the trials, so that an accuser could claim that an accused witch had appeared to them in a vision or hurt them within a dream.
The madness of the witch trials eventually resulted in 200 people accused of witchcraft, 140 to 150 arrests for witchcraft, and the hangings of thirteen women and six men.
But not just adult women and men were impacted by the trials. John Proctor’s son was born in prison while his wife was imprisoned on witchcraft charges. Sarah Good also gave birth to a daughter, Mercy, while in custody.
The witchcraft trials even targeted animals. In October 1692, a girl in Andover accused a neighbor’s dog of trying to bewitch her. Villagers shot the dog immediately.
Around the same time, in Salem Village, village girls accused a man of tormenting a different dog with his evil spirit. Villagers killed that second dog and sent the man fleeing for his life.
The collective delusion of witchcraft took more than a year to loosen its grip on Salem and its surrounding towns. After Governor Phips's wife faced accusations of witchcraft, he outlawed spectral evidence in October 1692.
After that, the next thirty-three witchcraft trials resulted in acquittals. The three convicted individuals received pardons.
In May of 1693, Phips released from prison all remaining accused or convicted witches. That May release included Elizabeth Proctor, who had been found guilty of witchcraft in August of the previous year and sentenced to death,but had her execution postponed due to pregnancy.
Not all of the accused witches who escaped hanging did so through the mercy of the governor. For instance, after being accused of witchcraft, Philip and Mary English were held for trial in a Boston jail.
Because of Philip English’s wealth, he was allowed his freedom during the day and could rent rooms in the home of his jailer for himself, his wife, and daughter.
On August 21, 1692, aided by two Boston ministers, Philip and Mary fled for New York, forfeiting a £4,000 bond and leaving their daughter in the care of a friend.
If there is any consolation for some of the condemned witches of Salem, it may come from the fact that their families lived on long after them.
Three presidents William Howard Taft, Chester Arthur, and Gerald Ford have been said to descend from one of Salem’s executed witches or their siblings. The late comedian Lucille Ball is a descendant of Rachel Vinson, who was acquitted in the witch trials.
Norman Rockwell, the famous painter and illustrator who created the cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post magazine for nearly five decades, was a descendant of Esther Dutch Elwell, accused of “wickedly and feloniously sundry acts of witchcraft upon the body of Mrs. Mary Fiche.”
George Burroughs, the Puritan minister, had nine children before being hanged. His sixth great grandson was Walt Disney.
Besides their descendants, the accused witches of Salem leave another legacy: a rich and fascinating history for us to explore today.
Ancestry® has made a home for a piece of that history in its online collection, New England, Salem Witches and Others Tried for Witchcraft, 1647-1697.
This database contains information on more than 200 individuals formally accused and put on trial for witchcraft in New England between 1647 and 1697, including those accused in the Salem witch trials.
In these records you can find the year the accused stood trial, first and last name, town or village where the trial took place, and the outcome of the trial.
What Might You Uncover on Ancestry?
Maybe there’s another reason that people still find themselves intrigued with the Salem witchcraft trials, besides the possibility of sorcery or the specter of mass delusions convulsing into violence.
Seventeenth century Salem also gave birth to stories of courageous stands for reason, hopeful births, and acts of clemency and mercy. Let those stories inspire you to start your family history research today.
Alexander, Mary Jane. “Family History Proves Bewitching to Descendants of Salem ‘Witches’ : Colonial America: Three Presidents, Clara Barton, Walt Disney, Joan Kennedy and One Unborn Child Are among Those Whose Ancestors Were Accused of Consorting with the Devil 300 Years Ago.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1993. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-08-29-mn-29128-story.html.
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “Animals in the Salem Witch Trials.” History of Massachusetts Blog, February 20, 2012. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/animals-in-the-salem-witch-trials/.
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “The Salem Witch Trials Victims: Who Were They?” History of Massachusetts Blog, August 19, 2015. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/salem-witch-trials-victims/.
Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. “Tituba: The Slave of Salem.” History of Massachusetts Blog, January 2, 2013. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/tituba-the-slave-of-salem/.
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“List of People of the Salem Witch Trials.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 6, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_of_the_Salem_witch_trials.
Lynch, Patrick. “The Evil ‘Justice’ William Stoughton Was the Ultimate Hanging Judge at the Salem Witch Trials and Here’s Why.” HistoryCollection.com, January 29, 2018. https://historycollection.com/william-stoughton-ultimate-hanging-judge-salem-witch-trials/.
“The Multitude of Salem Witch Trials Descendants.” New England Historical Society. Accessed May 6, 2021. https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/salem-witch-trial-descendants/.
“Philip and Mary English Home, Site Of.” Salem Witch Museum. Accessed May 6, 2021. https://salemwitchmuseum.com/locations/philip-and-mary-english-home-site-of/.
“Statistical Analysis of the Accused.” Salem Witch Trials . Accessed May 6, 2021. https://salemwitchtrials.com/accusedstats.html.
“William Phips.” Wikipedia. Accessed May 6, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Phips.