The Salem Witch Trials and the Creepy George Burroughs

 

The trial of George Burroughs in Salem during 1692 was unique in that Burroughs was the only minister accused, tried and convicted of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. Though speculation exists as to Burroughs' actual relationship to the practice of witchcraft, he was most likely innocent in this regard. But innocent or not, there were an abundance of accusations leveled at the minister, ranging from accounts of his almost supernatural feats of strength to implications that he murdered his first two wives. Burroughs' unenthusiastic approach to his faith didn't help him in establishing his innocence either, as he had failed in baptizing all but one of his children, and could not recall the last time he had received the sacrament of communion. These factors, along with the hysterical fits of those tormented by his specter, led to George Burroughs' execution on Gallows Hill, on August 19th, 1692.

George Burroughs was born in 1652, in Suffolk, England. Twenty years later, around 1670, he graduated from Harvard College with the intention of pursuing a life devoted to ministry, and soon after accepted a position leading a church congregation in Casco, Maine. Devastating raids on Casco by local Indian tribes led to the relocation of the populace to Scarborough, which in turn led to Burroughs' eventual relocation to Salem, accepting a ministerial position there with the local church. It was during this period, long before the hysteria of the witch trials struck Salem, that the seed for Burroughs' eventual conviction was planted.

Burroughs' time spent at the parsonage of Salem village was marked by strife and discord. Rival factions within the church were split over its leadership: some were content with Burroughs, others were not, and those members of the congregation unhappy with Burroughs' position were able to express their discontent quite easily: they simply withheld their tithes, the same exact problem faced by Burroughs' predecessor, James Bayley. Faced with a dwindling income that had already been negligible, a divisive congregation, and the death of his wife in 1682, George Burroughs had unsurprisingly decided to return to his congregation in Casco, Maine. Financial matters however, were to complicate this seemingly simple action.

Although Burroughs was owed back pay by his parish, he was forced to borrow money from John Putnam in order to afford funeral costs for his deceased wife. (Interestingly, and perhaps, suspiciously, John Putnam was the uncle of Ann Putnam Jr., the initial accuser and one of the most persistent) It seems that Burroughs made arrangements with the Deacon Nathaniel Ingersoll to use the arrears to pay off Burroughs' debt to Putnam whenever possible, but upon leaving Salem, Burroughs was promptly arrested for debt owed to Putnam. The matter was resolved with little controversy, but one must wonder how much this incident strained the relationship between the two men. Putnam would surely never forget that Burroughs had at one time refused to preach until paid his full salary. The next time Burroughs would see previous members of his congregation, it would be under charges of witchcraft.

In 1688, Burroughs accepted an offer to minister a church in Wells, Maine. Attacks from Indians made this a fairly dangerous place to live, and it is one of history's ironies that no harm befell Burroughs here, but rather in the seemingly peaceful village of Salem. By the time of the first accusation brought against George Burroughs, he was leader of a congregation, husband to his third wife, and father to seven children. Such was the state of things for Burroughs prior to his arrest for witchcraft.

Ann Putnam Jr. was the first to level an accusation against Burroughs. On April 20th of 1692, Ann, "saw the Apperishtion of a Minister at which she was greviously affrighted and cried out oh dreadfull: dreadfull here is a minister com:what are Ministers wicthes to." Ann went on to accuse Burroughs that his specter had pinched and choked her as a means of persuading her to write in his book (or rather, the Devil's book, a sort of contract binding the signer's soul to Satan), had confessed to the bewitching of his first two wives resulting in their deaths, had turned Abigail Williams into a witch, had bewitched soldiers serving under Sir Edmond Andros, and had boasted that he was above a witch, rather a conjurer, thus implicating Burroughs as the ringleader of all satanic activity within the vicinity, and possibly beyond. Not much later, on the 5th of May, the specter of Burroughs again appeared to Ann Putnam. Though only two years old at the time of Burroughs' departure from Salem, Ann successfully recognized a minister, and the exact name of that minister, in her visions. This is probably due to her contact with Mercy Lewis, a servant of the Putnam family who had contact with Burroughs as a child when she lived with the Burroughs family in Maine. Another possibility, as previously alluded to, was Burroughs' connection with Ann's uncle, John Putnam. Is it possible John's dislike for Burroughs was verbalized within earshot of a young, impressionable Ann? Whatever the exact cause for Ann's damning accusations, they nevertheless made an impression upon the townspeople. These disturbing visions coincided very well with what else was known about George Burroughs.

Two very compelling arguments for causes of the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. Excellent!

It made perfect sense that a man living in such close proximity to savage, Indian tribes, who remained unscathed throughout every attack, could be in concert with them, and their master, the Devil. Certainly a man who had bewitched troops sent against the Indians would be unharmed. Also, the many accounts of Burroughs' bizarre level of strength began to be viewed in a whole new light. What were once uncanny feats worthy of praise, were now beginning to look like occult powers in practice. And the stories of Burroughs' mistreatment and control of his previous wives coincided all too well with the possibility that he had murdered them. In light of the what was known of Burroughs, and the frightening visions of the young Ann Putnam Jr., not to mention the possibility of discovering the source behind the witchcraft epidemic, a warrant for the arrest of George Burroughs was issued, to be carried out by Marshall John Partridge. On May 4th, a fearful and superstitious Marshall, John Partridge, accompanied by a group of deputies, traveled to Wells, Maine and arrested Burroughs during a meal in his home.

DVD's to watch with the lights on

Burroughs was first examined. This initial examination revealed facts about Burroughs that were Due to the high number of suspected witches in Salem, it was not until May 9th that anything but helpful in proving his innocence. For one, Burroughs could not recall the last time he had partaken of the sacrament. For a minister this was an especially damaging fact. Also, only one out of his seven children had Burroughs baptized. The rumor of Burroughs' home in Wells being occupied by toads was affirmed, although Burroughs could not agree to the rumor that it was haunted. If the examination was harmful in establishing Burroughs' innocence, the trial was damning.

The accusers were many for George Burroughs, and the accusations varied and damaging. Much was made of the strength of Burroughs, a strength that many considered possible only through the assistance of supernatural forces. Samuel Weber, Thomas Greenslit, Simon Willard and William Wormall all attested to Burroughs' ability to lift a barrel of molasses over his head by merely inserting two fingers into it. It was also said that Burroughs was able to, "lift and hold Out a gunn of Six foot barrell or thereabouts putting the forefinger of his right hand into the Muzle of s'd gunn and So held it Out at Armes End Only with that finger."

Mary Weber, Burroughs' neighbor and friend to his wife while he lived in Casco Bay, testified to Burroughs' controlling and verbally abusive demeanor towards his wife. Through his wife, Weber heard frightful stories concerning strange creatures entering their home at night, particularly a white calf. Accusations of Burroughs' abuse towards his wives must have been extremely damaging when coupled with the testimonies of his specter's admission of murder. Ann Putnam not only accused him of the murder of his first two wives, but proposed an explanation as to why the murders were undetected:

"then immediately appeared to me the forme of Two women in winding sheats and napkins about their heads...the Two women turned their faces towards me and looked as pail as a white wall: and tould me that they ware mr Burroughs Two first wives and that he had murthered them: and one tould me that she was his first wife and he stabed hir under the left Arme and put a peace of sealing wax on the wound and she pulled aside the winding sheat and shewed me the place."

In addition to Ann Putnam, several young women attested to Burroughs' specter threatening and torturing them, as well as tempting them to write in his book. Mercy Lewis, obviously inspired by the New Testament account of Satan tempting Jesus, testified to the ultimate temptation:

"Mr Burroughs caried me up to an exceeding high mountain and shewed me all the kingdoms of the earth and tould me that he would give them all to me if I would writ in his book and if I would not he would thro me down and brake my neck: but I tould him they ware non of his to give and I would not writ if he throde me down on 100 pichforks."

Mercy Lewis's testimony, though based merely on spectral evidence, was especially convincing as she had been taken into the Burroughs' home as a child after her parents were killed in an Indian attack. Although the testimony of Mercy Lewis did not include any eye-witness accounts of odd behavior during her stay with the Burroughs, the mere fact that she had lived there must have lent credence to her account.

Perhaps the oddest testimony though, came from Elizur Keysar, a resident of Salem who had uneasily conversed with Burroughs during his confinement. According to Keysar, later that day, soon after his encounter with Burroughs, he began to be afflicted by his own visions. Far from the apparitions testified to by the afflicted girls, Keysar saw:

"Very strange things appeare in the Chimney. I suppose a dozen of them. w'ch seemed to mee to be something like Jelly that used to be in the water and quaver with a strainge Motion, and then quickly diappeared soone after which I did see a light up in the chimney aboute the bigness of my hand something above the bar w'ch quivered & shaked. and seemed to have a Motion upward upon Which I called the Mayd, and she looking up into the Chimney saw the same..."

According to Keysar, he had been afflicted by the Evil Eye, as Burroughs had affixed his eye upon him earlier in the day. Keysar was convinced that Burroughs was the "Ringleader of them all," and this strange affliction was evidence of the powers Burroughs possessed.

The quantity of accusations was but one of Burroughs' problems, another being his inability to sufficiently dispel them. During his trial Burroughs read a statement that he, himself supposedly prepared. Intended as part of his defense, Burroughs' statement essentially said that those in covenant with the Devil do not possess the power to send out a devil to torment others. Unfortunately for Burroughs this statement was instantly recognized by Cotton Mather as an excerpt from A Candle in the Dark by English author Thomas Ady. Whether or not this statement was true was quickly overshadowed by Burroughs' falsity, an all too common trait for those in league with darkness. Evidently the afflicted girls had come prepared as well, as they were covered in teeth marks from a visit from Burroughs' specter the night prior. A comparison of Burroughs' teeth with the bite marks strangely found them to be a match, and at this point, the fate of George Burroughs was sealed.

On August 19th, Burroughs was taken in a horse-drawn cart to Gallows Hill for execution. But for this it appears Burroughs had come sufficiently prepared. Prior to his hanging, Burroughs loudly proclaimed his innocence, and then proceeded to recite the Lord's Prayer flawlessly, not a simple feat when faced with one's own mortality. This was Burroughs' most important sermon ever, and he certainly realized the controversy it would immediately incite among the spectators. According to common belief, wizards and witches were physically unable to recite this prayer, and yet here was a minister doing just that. Out of all the executions in Salem so far, this one came the nearest to being stopped, but Cotton Mather, astride his horse, rode up and reminded all present that the Devil too, could masquerade as an angel of light. Burroughs had been tried, and was found to be guilty. Justice was being served.

Many questions reverberate through one's mind when contemplating the life of George Burroughs. Some authors seem to be convinced of his involvement with the occult, while others raise the possibility of his sexually molesting Mercy Lewis. Two very villainous allegations, and yet two very real possibilities. But in light of the evidence at hand, these allegations remain just that, possibilities. While Burroughs was hardly an ideal minister or husband, any implication of occult involvement or molestation stands upon extremely flimsy evidence. Though Burroughs did indeed have numerous accusers, accused witches included, the fact that he was allegedly the ringleader of the whole, terrible affair raises the possibility that George Burroughs had become somewhat of a scapegoat for the Salem witch trials. In this regard Burroughs fit the bill perfectly, but the fervor hardly decreased. As pointed out by historian Benjamin C. Ray:

"From mid-April forward, accusers and confessors reported seeing hundreds of witches under Burroughs's command gathering in Salem village and nearby Andover. It may have been Burroughs's relationship with the Maine frontier, where Indians attacked colonial settlements, that gave new impetus to the accusers' fears, as Mary Beth Norton has recently argued. Burroughs, though, was an easy target. Although a minister, his lapses in receiving communion were notable, and he had failed to baptize all but one of his children. Just as Burroughs sightings multiplied, so did the number of accusations, which spread beyond the immediate environs of Salem village to twenty-two other towns and villages."

In all likelihood, George Burroughs was an average man swept up in something larger than he could have ever imagined. His uncanny strength, once a source of pride, would now be part of his undoing. This, along with a somewhat uninspired approach to his spiritual life, an unhealthy relationship with his wives, and a seemingly charmed life in face of deadly Indian attacks all added up to the execution of one of Salem's most notorious victims.

 

Primary Sources:

"Ann Putnam, Jr. v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977), Vol.I http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=111&division=div2.

"Warrant for Arrest of George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977),Vol. I: 153. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=96&division=div2.

"Samuel Weber v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977). Vol. I. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=105&division=div2.

"Thomas Greenslit v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977),Vol. I:161. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=106&division=div2.

"Simon Willard and William Wormall v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977), Vol. I:162. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=107&division=div2.

"Mary Weber v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers(New York, 1977), Vol. I: 163. new2? http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=109&division=div2.

"Ann Putnam, Jr. v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers(New York, 1977),Vol. I: 167. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=114&division=div2.

" Mercy Lewis v. George Burroughs," In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers(New York, 1977),Vol. I: 169. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=117&division=div2.

"Elizar Keyser v. George Burroughs," in Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers( New York, 1977), Vol. I: 177. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=128&division=div2.

Secondary Sources:

I. Books:

Bonfanti, Leo The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692, Volume II (Wakefield, Mass: Pride Publications Inc., 1977).

Hansen, Chadwick Witchcraft at Salem, (New York: George Braziller, 1969).

Hoffer, Peter Charles The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996).

Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts, (New York: Bernhard M. Auer, 1963).

II. Articles:

Nichols, Amy and Whelan, Elizabeth, "Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature" Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, (2002). http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu:8090/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=salem/texts/bios.xml&style=salem/xsl/dynaxml.xsl&chunk.id=b3&clear-stylesheet-cache=yes. Internet. Accessed April 22, 2008.

Norton, Mary Beth, "The Refugee's Revenge," Common Place, Volume 2, no. 3 (April 2002). http://www.common-place.org/vol-02/no-03/norton/. Internet. Accessed April 21, 2008.

Ray, Benjamin C., "Satan's War Against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692," New England Quarterly, Volume 80, no. 1 (March, 2007). http://www.mitpressjournals.org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1162/tneq.2007.80.1.69.

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Comments 25 comments

Constant Walker profile image

Constant Walker 8 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

Interesting and scary. Scary that we were so incredibly ignorant.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I'm ever amazed that my very outspoken 8th or 9th great-grandmother Elizabeth Gatchell, who lived in Salem at the time, was never accused. Even more amazing is she was a character witness for one of the very few women who escaped the noose.

It IS scary, CW. You'd think Salem would be a lesson in what happens when fear is allowed to trump common sense and fact, but 300 (or even 50) years from now, people will be asking how we could've been so incredibly ignorant regarding BushCo's fearmongering.


Constant Walker profile image

Constant Walker 8 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

As I was typing the above comment, I was thinking, "and we haven't really learned much..."


jreuter profile image

jreuter 8 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Walker and JamaGenee,

Thanks so much for your comments. The Salem witch trials were in many ways, a sad chapter in American history. But I must admit, after spending three months on the subject (specifically George Burroughs) I'm extremely hesitant to imply that these people were ignorant at all. In the context of 17th century New England, witchcraft was a serious, and real, threat to the overwhelmingly predominant faith of Calvinist Puritanism. The practice of Paganism was in no way non-existent, and for a people so driven by Christian theology, this was nothing to overlook. Granted, executions for religious purposes are never justified, but considering the personal testimonies of just how bizarre the "victims" acted, it is hardly surprising that the possible existence of witchcraft began to be much more seriously scrutinized. In their defense, out of over two hundred accused, only twenty-three were executed. The majority of cases were dismissed, and those case that did result in execution were in no way taken lightly. The clergy of Salem in 1692 were an extremely civilizing force regarding the witchcraft hysteria that gripped Salem during this time, and if not for their influence, many more would have been killed. It's very easy to view the actions of those in the past as backwards or uncivilized, but considering the social milieu of that era, the people of Salem should actually be applauded. A comparison of Europe's witchcraft hysteria reveals a much darker, barbaric approach to paganism.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

In Europe, the majority of those accused and subsequently hanged (or burned) for witchcraft were either wealthy unmarried women with no male relativea, or childless widows who'd inherited their husband's money/property upon his death. As these women had no heirs, their money and property automatically went to the Church or to corrupt local officials. Quite a tidy little racket they had going for many years.


Jeanette M 8 years ago

jreuter, this is a wonderful hub full of interesting history. Also, well done on putting it all into perspective.

j


jreuter profile image

jreuter 8 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

JamaGenee,

Thanks for commenting. The details of the Salem incident imply simliar motives. A population map of village and surrounding area shows a clear geographical divide between the accused and the accusers, the accusers belonging almost entirely to the Village of Salem, the accused living within the more rural areas. I don't explore this in my hub, but I highly recommend looking into it. There is a whole lot more to the witchcraft trials than most know.

Jeanette, thanks very much!


newcapo 7 years ago

Great hub. I grew up 15 minutes from Salem. I lived in Salem for a couple of years during the 1990's. The witch museum is a HUGE tourist attraction- I got scans of all the orginal documents. Biggest point I remember is that the trials are an embarrassment to us as a people, like slavery is viewed now. I have forgotten many of the facts I learned at the museum, but I do remember this- there's no better town to go to on Halloween than Salem, MA !!!


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 7 years ago from Central Oklahoma

I'm updating my files for a blog post about the ancestress who testified for a woman accused of witchcraft, and I came across a tidbit that may shed light on the large number of people accused.  To wit: if a person was found guilty, the sheriff could conficate all money and property owned by that person, then distribute it as he saw fit.  Mostly he "distributed" it to himself. 

The sheriff at the time?  Judge Corwin's son, and not surprisingly, he made many of the accusations, obviously hoping for a guilty verdict so he could get his hands on the accused's...forgive the pun...possessions.


Silver Freak profile image

Silver Freak 7 years ago from The state of confusion

Fascinating and shameful period of history - and you wrote a wonderful hub about!


Bill-Bill 6 years ago

Hi, this is Billy I am at school, doing a project you helped me wonders. Thanks!


jreuter profile image

jreuter 6 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

You're welcome Billy, glad to help.


CCSETTLE 6 years ago

quick ? for anyone. ive been reading alittle about this and wanted to know why "burning witches" is something everyone thinks about when most of the people who died just get hanged? if anyone can answer that? :)


jreuter profile image

jreuter 6 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Because that was the practice in Europe.


colin 6 years ago

thanks much jreuter, need this info for my monologue...


jreuter profile image

jreuter 6 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

no problem, good luck.


Suzy Witten 5 years ago

For those interested in reading a novelization of the Salem Witch Hunt (including a new theory of the "afflictions" and a story in which George Burroughs' relationship to Mercy Lewis is examined), please consider THE AFFLICTED GIRLS A Novel of Salem by Suzy Witten (winner of 2010 IPPY Silver Medal for Historical Fiction) (ISBN: 978-0-615-32313-8) Thank you.


rachel brown 5 years ago

what are some good things that george burroughs has done or some good things about him


jreuter profile image

jreuter 5 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Doing a paper I assume? May I suggest research?


Ur Anaite profile image

Ur Anaite 5 years ago from The Land of the Dead

excellent read, thanks for sharing


big man 2938475 4 years ago

this shiz is weird


Lone Ranger 4 years ago

Scary what hyper-vigilance can do. The Salem witch hunt was a travesty, to say the least, but even it paled in comparison to the Catholic Inquisition.

Be well - L.R.

P.S. Enjoyable read, JR - you do good work!!!


Jerome Burrows profile image

Jerome Burrows 2 years ago from Woonsocket, Rhode Island

George Burroughs was my 8th great uncle and i resent this article and want it removed. People died young in those days and to insinuate my uncle had something to do with his wife's early death when medicine at the time was barbaric to say the least is GREATLY exaggerated, and Slanderous. HOW DARE YOU CALL MY UNCLE CREEPY!! How dare you not call the people who killed an innocent man ignorant, sorry but they were. You will remove this blog or you will be hearing from my attorney.


jreuter profile image

jreuter 2 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Hilarious comment Jerome. Threatening a lawsuit over an internet article? Good luck with that. I gleefully await to hear from your attorney. I did my research pal, sorry you don't like it, but everything I've written here can be corroborated by primary source material. I'm still not sure you're serious though, I mean, who gets offended because their 8th great uncle gets slammed on the internet? That's just weird, or, dare I say, creepy.


David George Burroughs 8 months ago

George Burroughs is alleged to be my 7th great grandfather. Very interesting research on grandpa! Our family just became aware of his role and place within the trials within the past decade. George has been known to be a family name because that was my grandfather's name and also several generations' grandfathers before him. Do you know the names of Creepy George's children? Since he had plenty of wives in the process, it would be interesting to know the names of any children and to which wives they are linked.

Thanks,

David

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