When hysteria mixed with family rivalries fomented the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692-93, more than 200 people were accused unjustly of practicing witchcraft. Eventually, the colonial government acknowledged that the trials were a mistake, and compensated the families of those convicted. But that vindication came too late for the 19 defendants who were executed. A 20th, Giles Corey, was pressed to death when he refused to plead. As many as 13 others died in prison. Below are brief biographies of the executed.
An older woman, Bishop had a reputation for gossiping and promiscuity, but when it came to witchcraft, she insisted to her judicial accusers that “I have no familiarity with the devil.” Nevertheless, Bishop was the first convicted witch hanged on what later became known as Gallows Hill.
After her first marriage to an indentured servant left her deep in debt, Good married a laborer who worked in exchange for food and lodging, and the two eked out a meager existence in Salem Village. She was among the first suspects identified by the female children when they were questioned by magistrates in February 1692. Good protested her innocence, but officials insisted upon questioning her young daughter, and the child’s timid answers were construed as proof of Good’s guilt. Good was pregnant at the time of her conviction, and officials stayed her execution until she could give birth. The infant died in prison, and in July 1692, Good herself was hanged. Defiant to the end, Good’s final words were a warning to her tormentors: “If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink!”
The Ipswich woman was a kind soul who tenderly took care of her husband John How, who was blind. Nevertheless, something about her aroused others’ ire. Neighbors accused her of causing both their cows and their young daughter to die after they quarreled with her, and when she sought to become a member of a local church congregation, neighbors and kin opposed her. They subsequently experienced a spate of injured animals and other bad luck, which they interpreted as supernatural acts of revenge. In court, her own brother-in-law, Captain John How, accused her of killing his sow and inflicting upon him a painful numbness in his hand that made it impossible for him to work. She was also accused of sending her spectral form to attack a young girl and attempt to drag her into Salem pond. “God knows, I am innocent of anything of this nature,” she testified. But even though other witnesses vouched for her character, she was convicted and executed.
A widow in her late sixties, Martin was the wife of a blacksmith and the mother of eight. In the 1670s, she previously was accused of witchcraft and infanticide, but her husband had successfully countered the charges by suing her accusers for slander. By 1692, however, he had died, and when 15 of her neighbors accused her of bewitching them or causing their farm animals to die, she had to confront the charges alone. Some historians have speculated that the accusations against Martin were linked to an inheritance dispute in which she was involved. Deeply religious, she comforted herself by reading “her worn old Bible” in jail as she awaited execution.
An elderly woman in ill health and a respected member of the church, Nurse was among the second wave of suspects accused by the children. In her initial court hearing, Nurse protested her innocence, but when her youthful accusers cried out in fake pain and performed contortions to suggest that they were being tormented by her, prosecutors took her impassive reaction as a sign of guilt. She was bound over for trial and executed.
As a young woman, Wildes was considered glamorous and forward, and rumor had it that she had once engaged in illicit sex. The accusations of witchcraft against her actually began decades before the Salem witch trials, when she married a widower, John Wildes, which raised the ire of his first wife’s family. The sister of Wildes’ first wife, Mary Reddington, accused Sarah Wildes of bewitching her, prompting John Wildes to threaten a slander suit unless she stopped. When one of Sarah Wildes’ new stepchildren, Jonathan Wildes, began to behave strangely, some took it for demonic possession, and the suspicions against Sarah Wildes continued to simmer. In 1692, things finally boiled over. Wildes’ son Ephraim was a local constable in Topsfield, and protested her innocence when she was arrested by his superior, Marshal George Herrick. One witness fingered her as being part of a coven of specters who whispered at the foot of a dying child’s bed, while others accused her of telekinetically sabotaging their ox cart after they borrowed her plow without her permission. Yet another testified that after quarreling with Wildes, she felt an apparently spectral cat walk across her in the middle of the night. Bizarre as the case against her was, Wildes was convicted and executed.
Rev. George Burrough
The only Puritan minister to be indicted and executed in the witch trials, Burrough was accused by Andover and Salem Village residents of being a ringleader and priest of the devil in the witch coven. Part of the evidence against Burrough was his exceptional physical strength, which was viewed as a sign of satanic assistance. Puritan inquisitor Rev. Cotton Mather, who suspected Burrough of being a Baptist and deviating from Puritan practices, attended his trial and urged the jury to convict him, which it did. When Burrough was on the ladder to the scaffold, he gave an impassioned speech protesting his innocence, and concluded by reciting the Lord’s Prayer—which, supposedly, witches were unable to do. His conspicuous religious fervency prompted some of the onlookers to shed tears and wonder if a terrible mistake had been made.
This victim of the witch hunt is best remembered, perhaps, for being denounced by one of the inquisitors, Rev. Cotton Mather, as a “rampant hag.” The daughter of one of the founding families of Andover, MA, Carrier was married to a servant and the mother of four children. She was an independent, strong-willed person who didn’t like to defer to those who imagined themselves as her betters, and their dislike may have led to her becoming a target of the accusations. Carrier was fearless enough to denounce her youthful accusers. “It is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits,” she admonished the court. Unfortunately, that didn’t save her from execution.
George Jacobs, Sr.
A twice-married father of three in his early seventies, Jacobs was accused by one of his servants, Sarah Churchill, and by his own granddaughter, Margaret. Both of them had been fingered as witches and may have been trying to save their necks by implicating others. Others, however, soon came forward to join them, including women who claimed that Jacobs’ spectral projection had beaten them with a walking stick. But the most damning evidence, in the minds of his inquisitors, was a slight protuberance on his right shoulder that they believed to be the “witch’s teat” that the devil gave to those who’d made a covenant with him. Jacobs offered an unusual defense, arguing that although he was innocent, the devil may have taken his form to commit mischief. The court, however, decided that such shape-shifting could only have occurred with his consent, and he was condemned to death and executed.
After inheriting a substantial fortune from his father, Proctor went on to become a successful farmer, entrepreneur, and tavern keeper. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of criticizing the young girls who were accusing witches, saying that if they were to be believed, “we should all be devils and witches quickly,” and recommended that they be whipped or even hung for their lies. After being falsely accused by their servant Mary Warren, Proctor and his wife were arrested in 1692. The sheriff went to their house and seized their goods and provisions, and sold off his cattle, leaving the Proctors’ children without a means of support. Proctor petitioned the court to move his trial to Boston, or at the very least, to change the magistrates, because the locals “have already undone us in our estates, and that will not serve their turns without our innocent blood.” It was to no avail. Proctor was convicted and executed in August 1692. His wife was spared because she was pregnant.
Another respected church member who was among the second wave of suspects accused by the children. She was hanged in September 1692.
Some historians’ accounts alternately spell her name as Easty or Eastey. The sister of fellow defendant Rebecca Nurse, Esty insisted in court that “I am clear of this sin” and that she had prayed against the devil “all my days.” Her demeanor was so convincing that even her questioner, magistrate John Hawthorne, was moved to turn to Esty’s accusers and ask, “Are you certain this is the woman?” They responded by writhing and screaming in feigned demonic possession, but nevertheless, Esty was released from jail. In the days that followed, however, one of her accusers appeared to fall ill, and two of the others claimed that they had seen Esty’s specter tormenting her. Esty was arrested once again, and this time she was convicted and hanged.
The twice-widowed mother of six, who worked as a midwife and nurse, inherited property from her second husband. In male-dominated colonial New England society, a self-sufficient professional woman was contrary to what was perceived as the rightful order of things, and that may have made her a target for witchcraft allegations. The testimony of witnesses—including a girl who claimed Pudeator had tortured her by impaling a voodoo doll, and another who accused her of shape-shifting into a bird—was augmented by a constable’s discovery of “curious containers of various ointments” in her home. (The latter, apparently, were either foot oil or grease that Pudeator used to make soap.) Despite her protestations of innocence, she was condemned to death and hanged.
Born in Boston, Wardell was a carpenter who followed his brother Benjamin to Salem to build houses. He was one of the few, and perhaps the only, defendant who actually had dabbled in magic, when he occasionally amused his neighbors by playing at telling their fortunes, a practice that was outlawed as black magic by the Puritans. Nevertheless, Wardell’s bigger crime may have been marrying a younger widow, Sarah Hawkes, in 1673. Her sizable inheritance—combined with his carpentry work—made the couple conspicuously affluent in a society where petty resentments and envy often blossomed into suspicions that someone had satanic assistance. After his arrest in 1692, Wardell—perhaps in an effort to save himself—conceded that he had agreed to a contract with the devil, who had promised to make him wealthy, and even confessed to evil deeds that he hadn’t been accused of. He later tried to recant, but it was too late. In September 1692, he was hanged.
The wife of John Parker of Salem, she was arrested in May 1692 after being accused by the same servant who fingered John Proctor and his wife. Accused of “sundry acts of witchcraft, she was tried in September 1692, and convicted and hanged shortly afterward.
A wealthy widow from Andover, she apparently was unrelated to Alice Parker but was related to one of the other suspects, Frances Hutchins. Parker and her daughter Sarah were arrested and accused of witchcraft as well. When she entered the courtroom at her trial in September 1692, several of the young female accusers fell into writhing spells, even before her name was announced. Once witness testified that she had seen Mary Parker’s spirit, perched high on a beam above the court, at one of the hearings in Salem. Parker was convicted and hanged shortly afterward.
Willard, a sheriff’s officer who lived in Salem, was ordered to bring in several of the accused. He declined, apparently out of a belief that they were innocent. As a result, he was himself accused. After initially escaping arrest in Salem by fleeing to Nashawag, about 40 miles away, he was taken into custody and put on trial in August 1692. The girls who claimed to have been afflicted by witchcraft testified that a spectral being that they called “the shining man” had materialized and prevented Willard’s specter from cutting one of their throats. Willard was found guilty and hanged shortly afterward.
Also known as Wilmet Reed, she was the only Marblehead resident to be condemned for witchcraft. Known locally as “Mammy,” Redd was an eccentric with a volatile temper, and liked to argue with her neighbors. Among other crimes, she was accused of sending her spectral doppelganger to Salem to torment one of the young girls who instigated the witch hunt. She was arrested, brought to Salem for trial, and then hanged in September 1692, in the final wave of executions.
Born in England in 1615, Scott moved to New England with her parents at a young age and married a struggling tenant farmer, Benjamin Scott. The couple had seven children, only three of whom lived to adulthood. After her husband died in 1670, Scott lived off his meager savings until they were exhausted. In her old age, she was forced to beg for support from her neighbors and passersby to survive, which made her a target of resentment and probably led to her arrest. At Scott’s trial, witnesses testified that she had visited them in spectral form and choked and pinched them. She was found guilty and hanged in September 1692, in the final wave of executions.
Hour-long special "Salem: Unmasking the Devil" premieres Thursday, November 10 at 9P et/pt as part of National Geographic Channel's Expedition Week.