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2.6: The Salem Witch Trials

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During the winter of 1691-92, girls in the Salem Village, Massachusetts began complaining of a strange illness. They described feeling sharp pains and the sensation of being choked. The first girl to feel the effects was Betty Parris, daughter of Salem’s minister, Samuel Parris. The second was his niece, Abigail Williams. Reverend Parris believed the sickness was the result of witchcraft.

The girls accused three women of being witches, including the Parris family’s Indian slave, Tituba. Tituba confessed to being a witch and accused more women. The parade of accusations continued until 20 women had been convicted of witchcraft and executed, and 100 more were in prison. Why did the girls make these accusations, and why did so many people believe them? The documents below provide clues to Salemites’ beliefs about witchcraft and about the context in which the events took place.

Discourse on Witchcraft – Cotton Mather

Source: Excerpt from a 1688 speech by Cotton Mather, a leader of the Puritans. Mather argues for the existence of witchcraft.

It should next be proved THAT Witchcraft is.

The being of such a thing is denied by many that place a great part of their small wit in deriding the stories that are told of it. Their chief argument is that they never saw any witches, therefore there are none. Just as if you or I should say, we never met with any robbers on the road, therefore there never was any padding there....

[T]here are especially two demonstrations that evince the being of that infernal mysterious thing. First. We have the testimony of scripture for it. Secondly. We have the testimony of experience for it.... Many witches have... confessed and shown their deeds. We see those things done that it is impossible any disease or any deceit should procure.

Question:

  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When? What was his perspective?
  2. Close Reading: Judging from this document, why might the people of Salem have believed the girls’ accusations?

Testimony of Abigail Hobbs

Source: The testimony of a teenager accused of witchcraft, Abigail Hobbs, on April 19, 1692.

The Examination of Abigail Hobbs, at Salem Village, 19 April, 1692, by John Hawthorn and Jonath. Corwin , Esqs., and Assistants.

[Judge:] Abig. Hobbs, you are brought before Authority to answer to sundry acts of witchcraft, committed by you against and upon the bodies of many, of which several persons now accuse you. What say you? Are you guilty, or not? Speak the truth.

[Abigail Hobbs:] I will speak the truth. I have seen sights and been scared. I have been very wicked. I hope I shall be better, if God will help me.

[Judge:] What sights did you see?

[Abigail Hobbs:] I have seen dogs and many creatures.

[Judge:] What dogs do you mean, ordinary dogs?

[Abigail Hobbs:] I mean the Devil.

[Judge:] How often, many times?

[Abigail Hobbs:] But once.

....

[Judge:] What would he have you do?

[Abigail Hobbs:] Why, he would have me be a witch.

[Judge:] Would he have you make a covenant with him?

[Abigail Hobbs:] Yes.

Question:

  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When? What was his perspective?
  2. Close Reading: According to this document, why did the people of Salem believe the girls’ accusations?

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CK.SOC.ENG.SE.1.History-U.S.-Basic.2.6

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