"Witchcraft Victims on the Way to the Gallows,"by F.C. Yoyan, appeared in the Boston Herald, May 14, 1930.
Credit: Image courtesy of Witchcraft in a Salem Village.
Salem, Massachusetts in 1691 was the home of a Puritan community with a strict moral code. In addition to the difficulties of farming in a harsh climate with rough terrain, Salem faced economic and political unrest. In this community, a group of girls accused an Indian slave named Tituba of witchcraft. Tituba confessed under pressure from court officials, and her confession ignited a hunt for witches that left 19 men and women hanged, one man pressed to death, and over 150 more people in prison awaiting a trial. In this lesson, students will explore the characteristics of the Puritan community in Salem, learn about the Salem Witchcraft Trials, and try to understand how and why this event occurred.
Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600s faced a number of serious challenges to a peaceful social fabric. Salem was divided into a prosperous town and a farming village. The villagers, in turn, were split into factions that fiercely debated whether to seek ecclesiastical and political independence from the town. In 1689 the villagers won the right to establish their own church and chose the Reverend Samuel Parris, a former merchant, as their minister. His rigid ways and seemingly boundless demands for compensation increased the already present friction. Many villagers vowed to drive Parris out, and they stopped contributing to his salary in October 1691.
These local concerns only compounded the severe social stresses that had already been affecting New England for two decades. A 1675 conflict with the Indians known as King Philip's War had resulted in more deaths relative to the size of the population than any other war in American history. A decade later, in 1685, King James II's government revoked the Massachusetts charter. A new royally-appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, sought to unite New England, New York, and New Jersey into a single Dominion of New England. He tried to abolish elected colonial assemblies, restrict town meetings, and impose direct control over militia appointments, and permitted the first public celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts, a celebration of which Puritans strongly disapproved. After William III replaced James II as King of England in 1689, Andros's government was overthrown, but Massachusetts was required to eliminate religious qualifications for voting and to extend religious toleration to sects such as the Quakers. The late seventeenth century also saw a increase in the number of black slaves in New England, which further unsettled the existing social order.
In February 1692, Betty Parris, Reverend Parris's daughter, as well as her friends Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam, became ill with symptoms that doctors could not diagnose, including fits and delirium. Dr. Griggs, who attended to the "afflicted" girls, suggested that they might be bewitched. Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, and Mary Warren later claimed affliction as well.
Prodded by Parris and others, the girls named their tormentors: Sarah Good, a poor woman; Sarah Osbourn, an elderly woman; and Tituba, a slave who had told them stories involving Vudou beliefs. The women were tried for witchcraft - Good and Osbourn claimed innocence, and Tituba confessed. Tituba's detailed confession included a claim that there were several undiscovered witches who wanted to destroy the community. This caused a witch-hunting rampage: 19 men and women were hanged, one man was pressed to death, and over 150 more people were imprisoned, awaiting trial.
On September 22, 1692, the last eight alleged witches were hanged. On October 8, 1692, Governor Phipps ordered that spectral evidence (when someone claimed to witness a person's spirit in a separate location from that same person's physical body) could no longer be admitted in witchcraft trials. On October 29, 1692 Phipps prohibited further arrests and released many accused witches. The remaining alleged witches were pardoned by May 1693. The hangings of witches in 1692 were the last such hangings in America.
For more information, see the following EDSITEment-reviewed websites:
Separate the class into four groups, and assign each group one section of the EDSITEment LaunchPad under the label Understanding Puritan New England. Offer them the following instructions, and suggest that they distribute the reading evenly and return to discuss the questions after 10–15 minutes of reading. Instructors might also consider assigning this reading the night before as homework.
Instructions for students: Just as the society around us shapes the way we think and act, so did it shape the people of Salem, Massachusetts in the 1600s. Look at the websites listed below, and, on a separate sheet of paper, answer the questions about life in Puritan New England. Note that many of the websites contain interactive images. Click on the images to open them, and mouse-over the image to discover more about it.
Ask students to explore the EDSITEment-reviewed websites using the LaunchPad and questions as guides. Once they have answered all of the questions, ask students to prepare a summary of what they learned to present to the class. Have everyone contribute to the overall discussion about Puritan values (the same question begins each list), and then have students present their information to the class. This should be no more than a few sentences highlighting the key concepts of the aspect of Puritan life that they researched.
Ask students to access the following websites and answer the questions listed below. This can be done individually or with partners, and can also be given as a homework assignment. Ask students to read slowly and carefully, looking up words they do not understand and writing them down in their notebook.
Read the first five paragraphs of John Dane's Narrative, until you reach the following passage: "Then said my mother, " go where you will, God he will find you out." This word, the point of it, stuck in my breast; and afterwards God struck it home to its head."
Finally, write the following names on slips of paper, and have students draw them from a hat. A convenient PDF with all the names is available for you to print out.
Bridget Bishop; Rev. George Burroughs; Giles Cory; Mary Easty; Sarah Good; Rebecca Nurse; John Proctor; Ann Pudeator; Samuel Wardwell; Sarah Osbourne; William Stoughton; John Hathorne; Samuel Sewall; Francis Dane; Cotton Mather; Sarah Churchill; Elizabeth Hubbard; Mercy Lewis; Elizabeth Parris; Ann Putnam, Jr.; Mary Warren; Mary Wallcott; Abigail Williams; Tituba; Philip English; George Jacobs, Sr., Susannah Martin; Sir William Phips; Samuel Parris.
Ask students to do the following as a homework assignment:
Find your assigned person on the website 'Important Persons in the Salem Court Records' and write five sentences about him or her answering some of these questions, or similar questions that you come up with on your own: How old was the person? What was the person's occupation? What do we know about the person's family? Why do people think this person was accused of witchcraft and/or accused others of witchcraft? What is most remembered in about this person in current popular culture, if anything? Was this person wealthy or poor? Where did this person live?
Introduce the trials by asking students:
If time allows, have students read Words About the Word 'Witch', available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History website. Otherwise, you might use the website to guide your students' discussion of the term.
As a way to draw together the earlier work on Puritan beliefs and the more specific instance of the Salem Witch Trials, introduce to students the description of Witchcraft available at the EDSITEment-reviewed website History Matters. You might ask students questions like: Who was the head of a Puritan household? What was thought of women who stood out? What cues suggested signs of witchcraft? How do these cues fit within the Puritan worldview that you researched earlier?
At this point, students should begin to reconstruct the history of "What Happened in Salem?" They should begin with their individual person that they researched (see Activity 2). Make sure students follow their individual's role, no matter how small or large, as best they can throughout the process. In combination with this Chronology via the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive, have students separate into groups of four to create a timeline of the Salem Witch Trials. Events on the timeline should each have one sentence attached to them, to assure that students read information about the events, rather than just finding them on the Chronology. The students can illustrate their timelines if there is time for them to do so.
If some groups of students finish earlier than others, ask these students to access this petition for bail from accused witches. Ask students to click on the document and to try to read it. What was it like reading this kind of document? What was the document about? What were some of the reasons that the accused witches cite for why they should be allowed to leave the prison? You might consider recommending both the NARA Primary Document Analysis Worksheet (PDF) and How to Read Old Documents (from American Centuries) to help students figure out the petition.
As students are completing the timeline or reading the primary source document, post signs on your walls - on one side of the classroom, post the words "I agree" and on the other side, post the words "I don't agree". Read a series of controversial statements, listed below, and have students stand somewhere between the "I agree" and "I disagree". They don't have to agree or disagree, they can stand in the middle, or closer to one side than the other, wherever on the spectrum they fit. After each statement is read and students are standing in their spots based on levels of agreement, conduct a conversation from those places, so students can physically see where they are. Students may change physical positions if they change their minds based on discussion. If students move, they should be asked what convinced them to change their mind.
Feel free to add to or alter this list of statements:
Some of these questions might be best asked of the historical people the students have been tracking since Activity 2. Have the students role-play their historical person, answering some of the questions as the student might think their historical person would respond. Make sure the students explain their rationale behind their decisions.
Use the Salem Witch Trials as an opportunity to explore the concept of the multiplicity of explanations and causes there can be for one event. Ask students to brainstorm a list of reasons why they think the Salem Witch Trials might have happened, which you can then write on the board. Ask them to support their reasons based on evidence they've learned in their study of the event. Add some of these Causes for the Outbreak of Witchcraft Hysteria in Salem, available via the EDSITEment reviewed Digital History website, to their list. Discuss the possibility that there was more than one cause of this event. Ask students to identify other historical events to which there were many causes. To extend this lesson, you can ask your students to write a short essay underlining some of the causes of the Salem Witchcraft hysteria.
4-6 class periods