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Salem Witch Trials: The Real Witchhunt

Updated on November 29, 2010

Unless you've done research on the infamous witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, your viewpoint on that period in history might have been like mine, under the mistaken impression that hundreds of people were accused, convicted, and executed for presumably being "witches" according to townsfolk.  In reality, only nineteen people were convicted of the charge of witchcraft.  One man, 80 year old Giles Corey, was pressed to death under stones for refusing to confess.  At least four other people died in prison awaiting their trials.  Only nineteen why does the specter of the Salem witch trials still hover over American history today?

Salem, Massachusetts was a community divided in the late 1600's.  A quiet religious feud had separated the community into two distinct areas, Salem Town and Salem Village, with Salem Village being considered the more upper-class and prominent area with wealthier and more prosperous families among the population.  Prior to the onset of the accusations and afflictions from witchcraft, the religious leader of the community had been Reverend George Burroughs.  Displeased with his requests for tithes (through which he also fed and housed himself), many of the community, led largely by the influence of Thomas Putnam, worked to oust Burroughs from the church.  Many of the accused supported Burroughs and many of the accusers' families had played leading roles in forcing Burroughs to leave town. Subsequently, Reverend Samuel Parris came to Salem to lead the congregation at the personal invitation of the Putnam family.  But who were the Putnams?

Thomas Putnam, Jr. (who had invited Parris to Salem) was the husband of Ann Carr and father of Ann Putnam.  His father was Thomas Putnam, Sr.  The elder Putnam had been the wealthiest man in Salem prior to his death in the 1680's, and his son inherited much of that wealth and influence.  The younger Putnam was the largest taxpayer in Salem acccording to historical records.  Many of the townspeople were related to or connected with the Putnam family in some way, positive or negative.  Those who held negative associations with the Putnam family were usually put under various "influences" to conform to the Putnam's way of thinking or leave Salem.

In 1692 when the witchcraft accusations began, they were largely carried out by one small group of teenage girls, among whom Ann Putnam, daughter of Thomas Putnam, Jr., was a central figure and likely influence.

Abigail Williams (age 11) and Elizabeth (Betty) Parris (age 9), niece and daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, respectively, were the first two girls to display signs of affliction in Salem.  Abigail was living in the home of her uncle, Reverend Parris, at the time of the afflictions.  When Reverend Parris sought assistance for his girls' afflictions, he engaged the services of Dr. William Griggs, the town's prominent physician.  Dr. Griggs' orphaned grand-niece was Elizabeth Hubbard (age 17), who became part of the central ring of accusers.

The primary accusers over the course of the Salem witch trials were:

Mary Walcott (age 17), who was the daughter of Jonathan Walcott (commander of the village's militia) and Deliverance Putnam, sister of Thomas Putnam, Jr.  Mary's biological mother had died when Mary was young.  Thus Mary Walcott was the niece of Salem Village's most prominent citizen and cousin to the witch hunt's leading accuser.

Mercy Lewis (age 19), who was, like many of the other accusers, an orphan.  Her parents had died when she was young and she had initially lived with Salem's former minister, Reverend George Burroughs.  She later lived in the Putnam home prior to the onset of the accusations.  Thus she was extremely close to Ann Putnam and was heavily involved in the Putnam family's motivations and endeavors.

Abigail Williams (age 11), previously discussed (niece of Reverend Samuel Parris).

Ann Putnam (age 12), daughter of Thomas and Ann (Carr) Putnam.  Ann's parents later died in 1699 within two weeks of each other and Ann was left, at age 19, to raise her nine siblings (ages 7 months to 18 years) by herself.  She issued a public apology in 1706 for the accusations she made regarding witchcraft and the loss of life that resulted, and is the only accuser to have ever done so.  She died, unmarried, in 1716 at the age of 37.

Elizabeth Hubbard (age 17), also an orphan, and grand-niece of Dr. William Griggs.

Some of the peripheral accusers who factored in to many of the trials were Elizabeth Booth, Mary Warren, Susanna Sheldon, and a few others.  Their names appear in the trial transcripts more than others as being an accuser or an afflicted individual.

It has been theorized that Ann Putnam was a pawn in her parents' game to rid the town of unwanted citizens (those who didn't follow the Putnam's way of thinking) via the accusations of witchcraft, and that she enlisted the unwitting aid of her friends, family members, and playmates to carry out her parents' wishes.  It has also been posited that the accusations began as a simple and innocent "game" that quickly got out of hand in a community that was dominated by religious control, fear, and superstition at that particular time period.  What really happened in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692?

What DOES pique one's interest is that the accusers were primarily among one small group of young girls, nearly all of them connected to each other in some way.  This does not lend itself easily to random possessions and afflictions from witchcraft.  It does, however, speak of something more sinister at work within the close confines of Salem, and that would be one family's insatiable lust for power and the point where the family was willing to manipulate young women to achieve their ultimate ends, no matter the cost or loss of life that resulted from their quest for dominance.


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    • FitnezzJim profile image

      FitnezzJim 4 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      Interesting. I was drawn to this article because of another article I found today that dicusses the possibility of 'poisoned rye' as a contributor to the Salem Witch accusations. It is a chemical explanation. Yours is a 'human' explanation, power, control, and intrigue. What are the chances the two combined in some way?

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      Too bad you don't like people Sara, you appear to have many fine qualities; but, live and let...whatever.

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 6 years ago from North Carolina

      Good hub sarasca- I like that new coined term"Hypo-Christian", everyone should be on their on spiritual path as long as they are peaceful nor led to do bad things by "leaders". Will read some more of your hubs soon. p.s. your absolutely right that people should take responsibility for there own actions-not hoist them off on a deity.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Wow! I left that comment with a shitty sort of mood as it's source. Your comment, however, was the rare sort of thing that I'd call "perfect." The bloody history of Christianity is despicable, but absolutely NONE of that horrific history (Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials; the list is too long to actually list. . . .) can be blamed on the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and so, can't be described as "Christian Activity."

      Thanks for the reply.

    • sarasca profile image

      sarasca 7 years ago from Bristol, VA

      I agree. Personally, I think there is way too much done in the name of "God" (the Christian version or otherwise) that could really be attributed to some more personal "human" reason. Laying blame at the feet of an unseen deity simply removes any guilt a person might feel for their own human emotions and motivations.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 7 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      If 19 people put to death by lunatics under the guidance of "God" isn't scary, then nothing is scary to you at all.