Guest post by Robert Wilhelm
The City of Salem, Massachusetts celebrates Halloween with a month-long series of “Haunted Happenings,” culminating on Halloween Night with a citywide costume party and fireworks over the harbor. It seems appropriate; everyone knows the story of the Salem girls whose accusations of witchcraft, in 1692, sent a score of their neighbors to the gallows. Salem has long been known as the “Witch City.” But is this nickname justified?
Here are five surprising facts about the Salem witchcraft hysteria that may be unknown to holiday revelers:
1. It didn’t happen in the city of Salem.
The “afflicted girls,” as they were called, lived in Salem Village, which today is the town of Danvers. The first women they accused of witchcraft were from Salem Village. The home of Rebecca Nurse, who was hanged as a witch, still stands and is a tourist attraction in Danvers. Though the trials were held in the city of Salem, the accusations, arrests and questionings began one town over.
2. Witchcraft in Essex County predated the Salem trials by decades.
Though never before reaching the hysteria level of 1692, accusations of witchcraft occurred in the Massachusetts Bay Colony throughout its history. In Ipswich, in 1652, a man was sentenced to pay twenty shillings or be whipped for “having familiarity with the devil.” In 1669, Susanna Martin of Amesbury was brought to court for bewitching a neighbor. For many years prior to 1692, “Mammy” Redd terrorized the town of Marblehead with her ability to cast spells. When the hysteria broke out in Salem Village, these two women were among the first to hang.
3. Most of the women and men accused of witchcraft were not from Salem.
The “afflicted girls” were summoned to other towns in the area to identify witches, and they were happy to oblige. Those imprisoned for witchcraft came from towns throughout Essex County. In the town of Andover alone the girls cried out more than forty witches; more than were accused in Salem Village.
4. The majority of those accused pled guilty to witchcraft.
Hundreds of people were arrested for witchcraft in the summer of 1692, and an overwhelming majority of them admitted to the charge. This was primarily due to the fact that those who denied being witches were executed. But many actually believed that the charges against them had to be true and began searching their memories for times that they may have given an opening to the devil.
5. The accusations of witchcraft were stopped by a Boston lawsuit.
While in Andover in the fall of 1692, the girls accused “a worthy gentleman of Boston” of witchcraft. This worthy gentleman did not plead guilty or innocent; instead he turned around and swore out a writ against his accusers for defamation and demanded one thousand pounds in damages. This effectively ended any further accusations. Before winter came, Governor Phips, responding to petitions from the towns of Andover, Topsfield, Gloucester, Haverhill and Chelmsford, pardoned the fifty-two women, men and children still in jail for witchcraft.
So, if you are looking for a fantastic Halloween party, Salem is the place to go.
But if you want to visit the source of the 1692 witchcraft hysteria, go a few miles northwest to Danvers. And if you want to be surrounded by the spirit of Puritan witchcraft, anywhere in Essex County will do.
Robert Wilhelm writes about historical true crime for the blogs Murder by Gaslight and the National Night Stick. His interest in historic murders began with the research of traditional American murder ballads, and among the hundred or so murder tales at Murder by Gaslight are the true stories behind two dozen murderous folk songs. Together with his wife, Anne, Robert founded—and for fifteen years hosted—the Essex Music Festival, an annual festival of folk and acoustic music on the banks of Chebacco Lake in Essex, Massachusetts. His book, Murder & Mayhem in Essex County was published in November of 2011.