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Snitches and Witches

An examination of the Salem witch trials and its impact on women back then and in modern day.

Published onDec 01, 2022
Snitches and Witches

Salem, Massachusetts was founded in 1628 and was the second settlement in the state [1]. The city of Salem is most popularly known for the infamous Salem witch trials that began during the spring of 1692. It started after a group of young girls claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. A massive wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts. There was a strong belief in the supernatural and a fear of the devil. 

A unique aspect of the history of early American law is that the courts admitted “spectral evidence” to the proceedings of the trials [2]. Spectral evidence is defined as a testimony in which witnesses claimed that the accused appeared to them and did them harm in a dream or a vision [2]. It was believed that witches could project themselves spiritually, with the help of Satan, in order to harm their victims from afar [2]. The court could then use the witness’s testimony to convict an individual of witchcraft. 

Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for witchcraft, photograph of an 1855 painting by Matteson, Tompkins Harrison, 1813-1884 [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

The quality of life in the rural puritan community was harsh due to the lingering effects of a British war with France in the American colonies in 1689, a recent smallpox epidemic, fears of attacks from neighboring Native American tribes, and a longstanding rivalry with the more affluent community of Salem Town [1]. Alongside these challenges, the Salem witch trials were also fueled by residents’ suspicions and resentment toward their neighbors and their fear of outsiders. Jealousy and nosiness consumed people as neighbors and family members turned on each other.  The Salem witch trials lasted from early 1692 until the following year and led to the indictment of over 150 people and the execution of 20 [3]. Nineteen were killed by hanging and one was crushed to death [3]. By September 1692, witch hysteria began to fade and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and exempted their families, the painful effects of the trials lingered in the community with a bloody legacy stained on the Salem community. 

Puritanism and Piety

A question most frequently asked is why? Why did people turn on each other or “snitch?” Salem was controlled by powerful men. In the strict puritan society, women were confined to rigid roles (mother, wife, or caretaker). Women had one job: producing obedient, pious children. Women who stepped outside these roles and boundaries were seen as possessed or working with satan [4]. Why else would a woman reject her role in society? Back then, one would think that satan must be possessing her to do so.

Puritans believed that the Bible was God's true law and that it provided a plan or a pathway for living [5]. According to the second chapter of Genesis, Eve was created by God by taking the rib of Adam [5]. Following the strict lines of the Bible, Puritans believed that women were built from men to be their companions or dutiful wives. As descendants of Eve, women were viewed by the Puritans as vulnerable to temptations like the desire for material possessions or sexual satisfaction [5]. Being homeless, poor, or childless violated the roles of females in society, and these were the women targeted by the trials. 

Two of the initial Salem accused witches: Sarah Osborne, a poor elderly woman, and a Native American slave named Tituba were targeted for these reasons [5]. Osborne was a widow who, after her husband’s death, claimed her deceased husband’s estate for herself instead of her children. She challenged the standard proceedings of inheritance at the time causing her to be conveniently accused of witchcraft. While Osborne insisted she was innocent, Tituba confessed after being beaten and threatened. She said that she was working with satan and that there were other witches like her aiming to destroy the Puritans. Because she was a Native American and the community feared them, it was believed she was targeted.   

Sarah Good was also accused of witchcraft and did not behave according to the standards of pious Puritan women. Like Bishop, Good did not conform. Good and her husband were poor and were involved in some conflicts with neighbors. Being poor, vulnerable, unruly, and sexually promiscuous turned women into targets. [5]As magistrates, judges, and clergy, men enforced the rules of this early American society and persecuted women in these trials. The men held all the control to pick and choose who to execute. 

Below is a transcript of an interview between assistants John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin with Sarah Good.

Transcript of the “Examination of Sarah Good.”

Author’s note: The source is adapted here from the original.[6]

Salem Village, February 1692.

John Hathorne (JH): Sarah Good, what evil Spirit have you familiarity with?

Sarah Good (SG): None.

JH: Have you made no contract with the Devil? [Good answered no.]

JH: What do you hurt these children?

SG: I do not hurt them. I scorn it.

JH: Who do you employ then to do it?

SG: I employ nobody.

JH: What creature do you employ then?

SG: No creature, but I am falsely accused.

JH: Why do you go away muttering from Mr. Parris, his house?

SG: I did not mutter, but I thanked him for what he gave my child.

JH: Have you made no contract with the devil?

SG: No.

[Hathorne desired the children, all of them, to look upon her and see if this were the person that had hurt them, and so they all did look upon her and said this was one of the persons that did torment them—presently they were all tormented.]

JH: Sarah Good, do you not see now what you have done? Why do you not tell us the truth? Why do you thus torment these poor children?

SG: I do not torment them.

JH: Who do you employ then?

SG: I employ nobody. I scorn it.

JH: How came they thus tormented?

SG: What do I know? You bring others here and now you charge me with it.

JH: Why, who was it?

SG: I do not know, but it was some you brought into the meeting house with you.

JH: We brought you into the meeting house.

SG: But you brought in two more.

JH: Who was it then that tormented the children?

SG: It was Osborne.

JH: What is it you say when you go muttering away from persons’ houses?

SG: If I must tell, I will tell.

JH: Do tell us then.

SG: If I must tell, I will tell. It is the commandments. I may say my commandments I hope.

JH: What commandment is it?

SG: If I must tell, I will tell, It is a psalm.

JH: What psalm?

[After a long time she muttered over some part of a psalm.]

JH: Who do you serve?

SG: I serve God.

JH: Why do you hurt these children?

SG: I do not hurt them. I scorn it.

JH: What God do you serve?

SG: The God that made heaven and earth [though she was not willing to mention the word, God. Her answers were in a very wicked spiteful manner, reflecting and retorting against the authority with base and abusive words, and many lies she was taken in. It was here said that her husband had said that he was afraid that she either was a witch or would be one very quickly. The worshipful Mr. Hathorne asked him his reason why he said so of her, whether he had ever seen anything by her. He answered no, not in this nature, but it was her bad carriage to him, and indeed, said he, I may say with tears that she is an enemy to all good.]

Despite her denying the claims brought against her, the assistants kept trying to manipulate Good. They saw her as a witch and tried to get that answer out of her. This is clearly depicted in the last paragraph. They said she used “abusive words” and lied.[7] They even got her husband to turn on her saying, “she is an enemy to all good.”[7] The court had predetermined before the hearing that she was a witch and the trials were anything but fair. Although the judicial system was very corrupt due to the powerful men targeting women, the trials started after women turned on each other. 

Women vs. Women

Not only were the accused witches mostly female, but so were the accusers. It was believed that the infamous trials were started by a group of teenage girls in 1692. [8]Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris from the Reverend Samuel Parris’ household claimed they were being bitten, pinched, and pricked by Sarah Good and Tituba. [8]Soon after, other girls reported similar feelings, launching a witch hunt. Some threw fits, crying out that they saw witches. Some historians have suggested that the girls were faking their symptoms. Some historians suggest the young girls were jealous of the marriages or wealth of some of the older women or simply wanted attention. 

Arthur Miller’s fictional play “The Crucible,” based on real events, casts one of the Salem girls as the villain [9]. His play depicts Abigail as a manipulative 16-year-old carrying on an affair with a married man. To get his wife out of the way, Abigail makes witchcraft accusations [9]. Despite no historical record of an affair, the play suggests that women were quick to turn on one another for personal gain. 

In this painting, “Witch Hill/ The Salem Martyr” by Thomas Satterwhite Nobel in 1869, a town girl has been found guilty of witchcraft and is now walking to the gallows with the hangman and judges.

Women and Witch Hunts Today

Today, prisons are filled with vulnerable women in society. Most women who end up in the U.S. correctional system, through probation, jail, prison, or parole, come from a poor background or experienced some kind of trauma [10]. “Trauma causes girls to enter the system in the first place, keeps them there, and needs to be addressed in order to help them,” says Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice [10]. She continues by stating, “trauma is often the reason we see girls committing offenses. Many have experienced trauma or may even have post-traumatic stress disorder and are reacting to that. Traumatized girls might just be trying to protect themselves, but it can come off as disrespectful or misinterpreted as aggressive”[10].

The numbers of women and girls who are victimized are devastating. The ACLU reports that 92 percent of all women in California prisons have suffered physical or sexual trauma in their lifetimes [10]. According to The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: A Girls’ Story, girls in juvenile justice are four times more likely to suffer from sexual abuse than boys [10].

The justice system is traditionally male-oriented and runs mostly by men. Having been traditionally designed for male inmates, many facilities are ill-equipped for women [10]. While there are some correctional facilities specifically designed for women (ones that allow them to have and keep their babies while incarcerated), these are not the majority of facilities and many do not provide feminine hygiene products either [10]. Framing women as “witches” (or as criminals in the modern day) and pushing them away (in prisons) demonizes women and ignores the circumstances that molded them [11].

Inmate Julie Harper, center, marching with members of America's only all-female chain gang early in the morning at Estrella Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. Photos were taken in May 2012.

However, some women are trying to take ownership of the term “witch,” changing its meaning to female empowerment and pushing back against the patriarchy [11]. Responding to director Woody Allen’s statement that women coming forth with sexual harassment allegations had created a “witch hunt atmosphere,” Lindy West writes, “The witches are coming [for sexual harassers and rapists] … we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them”[11].

The intertwining of the words women and witches, and the legacy of the Salem witch trials, are very relevant today. Still, pushback and the rise of the feminist movement raise the question, will the witch hunts ever end?

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