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Salem trials – people

These biographical sketches come from the terrific website by Douglas Lindner: Salem Witchcraft Trials

John Hathorne

John Hathorne was born on August 5 1641 in Salem to William Hathorne and Anne Smith. Hathorne, the son of a successful farmer, became a noted Salem merchant and a politician. Hathorne’s political skills won him a position as justice of the peace and county judge. A very religious man, Hathorne served on a committee to find a replacement for Salem minister George Burroughs in 1686. He later sentenced Burroughs to death in the 1692 witch trials. Hathorne believed the devil could use witches to undermine the purpose of the church and do harm to people. Because of this belief, Hathorne and another justice of the peace, Jonathan Corwin, took very seriously complaints about suspected witches. Both immediately issued warrants for Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba when witchcraft accusations were made against them. As justices of the peace, Hathorne and Corwin conducted initial examinations of the suspected witches. Hathorne often appeared to act more as a prosecutor than an impartial inquisitioner. Consider this exchange during the Bridget Bishop examination:

Hathorne: How do you know that you are not a witch?
Bishop: I do not know what you say. . .I know nothing of it.
Hathorne: Why look you, you are taken now in a flat lye.

Hathorne died on May 10, 1717 in Salem. Many years later, Hathorne’s great-great grandson, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, added a “w” in his name, most likely to distance himself from Hathorne because of the role he played in the Salem trials.

William Stoughton

William Stoughton was born on September 30, 1631 in England. His parents, Israel and Elizabeth Stoughton, owned a great deal of land in the Massachusetts Bay area. From an early age, Stoughton was interested in the ministry. At age nineteen, he earned a degree in theology from Harvard College, then returned to England where he received an M.A. from Oxford in April 1652. Stoughton continued his studies at Oxford until he lost his fellowship in 1660.

Two years later Stoughton left England for the colonies, finding a job as a preacher in a Dorchester, Massachusetts church. Stoughton  was generally praised for his preaching ability and offered the job of church pastor.

Following the revocation of the Massachusetts Charter and the reassertion of English control over the colony, Stoughton entered political life. He served as a Deputy President of the colony’s temporary government from 1674 to 1676 and from 1680 to 1686. This position put him in charge of the colonial courts of justice. From 1676 to 1679 he also acted as an agent for Massachusetts at the Court of Charles II in England.

Although he lacked any legal education, Stoughton was appointed Chief Justice of Massachusetts, a position he continued to hold until shortly before his death.

Following the outbreak of witchcraft accusations in Salem, Phips appointed Stoughton chief justice of the newly formed Court of Oyer and Terminer. Stoughton, possibly because of both his past theological training and lack of legal training , allowed many deviations from normal courtroom procedure during the witchcraft trials. In addition to admitting spectral evidence, the court allowed private conversations between accusers and judges, permitted spectators to interrupt the procedures with personal remarks, forbid defense counsel for the accused, and placed judges in the role of prosecutors and interrogators of witnesses. Although he acted as chief justice in the Court of Oyer and Terminer during the Salem witches trials, Stoughton suffered little political damage. In 1694, he became acting governor when Phips returned to London to defend his administration against claims of corruption. Stoughton died on July 7, 1701.


Tituba was an Indian woman, not (as commonly believed) a Negro slave. She was originally from an Arawak village in South America, where she was captured as a child, taken to Barbados as a captive, and sold into slavery. It was in Barbados that her life first became entangled with that of Reverend Samuel Parris. She was likely between the age of 12 and 17 when she came into the Parris household. She was most likely purchased by Parris from one of his business associates, or given to settle a debt. Parris, at the time, was an unmarried merchant, leading to speculation that Tituba may have served as his concubine.

Tituba helped maintain the Parris household on a day-to-day basis. When Parris moved to Boston in 1680, Tituba and another Indian slave named John accompanied him. Tituba and John were married in 1689 about the time the Parris family moved to Salem. It is believed that Tituba had only one child, a daughter named Violet, who would remain in Parris’s household until his death.

Tituba made herself a likely target for witchcraft accusations when shortly after Parris’s daughter, Betty, began having strange fits and symptoms, she participated in the preparation of a “witchcake” (a mixture of rye and Betty’s urine, cooked and fed to a dog, in the belief that the dog would then reveal the identity of Betty’s afflictor). Parris was enraged when he found out about the cake, and shortly thereafter the afflicted girls named Tituba as a witch. Parris beat her until she confessed.

Tituba was the first witch to confess in Salem, and she likely did it to avoid further punishment. In her confession she apologized for hurting Betty, claimed she never wanted to hurt Betty, and professed her love for the child. She also wove a lively tale of an active community of witches in Salem. She named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne as witches. By confessing early on, Tituba avoided the ordeal of going to trial, joining with the afflicted girls in providing key evidence against accused witches. Her husband, John, would also fall into fits, and become afflicted.

When public sentiment towards the accusers and the trials began to change, Tituba recanted her confession. This further enraged Parris, who in retaliation, refused to pay the jailer’s fee to get Tituba out a prison. As a result, she spent thirteen months in jail until an unknown person paid the seven pounds for her release and bought her. It is likely that the same person bought her husband, John, because Puritans were not inclined to split up married couples, even slaves. It is unknown what happened to her after she began her life with her new owner. –KS

Sarah Good

Sarah Good was the daughter of a prosperous Wenham innkeeper, John Solart. Solart took his own life in 1672 when Sarah was 17, leaving an estate of 500 pounds after debt. After testimony of an oral will, the estate was divided between his widow and her two eldest sons, with a portion to be paid to each of the seven daughters when they came of age. However, Mrs. Solart quickly remarried, her new husband came into possession of her share and the unpaid shares of the daughters, and as a result, most of the daughters never received a portion of the Solart estate.

Sarah married a former indentured servant, Daniel Poole. Poole died sometime after 1682, leaving Sarah only debts, which some sources credit her with creating for Poole. Regardless of the cause of the debt, Sarah and her second husband, William Good, were held responsible for paying it. A portion of their land was seized and sold to satisfy their creditors, and shortly thereafter they sold the rest of their land, apparently out of dire necessity. By the time of the trials, Sarah and her husband were homeless, destitute and she was reduced to begging for work, food, and shelter from her neighbors.

Good was one of the first three women to be brought in at Salem on the charge of witchcraft, after having been identified as a witch by Tituba. She fit the prevailing stereotype of the malefic witch quite well. Good’s habit of scolding and cursing neighbors who were unresponsive to her requests for charity generated a wealth of testimony at her trials. At least seven people testified as to her angry muttering and general turbulence after the refusal of charity. Particularly damaging to her case, was her accusation by her daughter. Four- year-old Dorcas Good (Sarah’s only child) was arrested on March 23, gave a confession, and in so doing implicated her mother as a witch. At the time of her trial, Good was described as “a forlorn, friendless, and forsaken creature, broken down by wretchedness of condition and ill-repute.” She has been called “an object for compassion rather than punishment.”

The proceedings against Good were described as “cruel, and shameful to the highest degree.” This remark must have been due in part to the fact that some of the spectral evidence against Good was known to be false at the time of her examination. During the trial, one of the afflicted girls cried out that she was being stabbed with a knife by the apparition of Good. Upon examination, a broken knife was found on the girl. However, as soon as it was shown to the court, a young man came forward with the other part of the knife, stated that he had broken it yesterday and had discarded it in the presence of the afflicted girls. Although the girl was reprimanded and warned not to lie again, the known falsehood had no effect on Good’s trial. She was presumed guilty from the start. It has been said that “there was no one in the country around against whom popular suspicion could have been more readily directed, or in whose favor and defense less interest could be awakened.”

Good was executed on July 19. She failed to yield to judicial pressure to confess, and showed no remorse at her execution. In fact, in response to an attempt by Minister Nicholas Noyes to elicit a confession, Good called out from the scaffolding, “You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” Her curse seems to have come true. Noyes died of internal hemorrhage, bleeding profusely at the mouth. Despite the seemingly effectiveness of her curse, it likely just further convinced the crowds of her guilt.

Although he clearly deserved nothing, since he was an adverse witness against his wife and did what he could to stir up the prosecution against her, William Good was given one of the larger sums of compensation from the government in 1711. He did not swear she was a witch, but what he did say tended to prejudice the magistrates and public against her. The reason for his large settlement was his connections with the Putnam family. Although Good’s daughter was released from prison after the trials, William Good claimed she was permanently damaged from her stay in chains in the prison, and that she was never useful for anything.

Rebecca Nurse

Rebecca Nurse was the daughter of William Towne, of Yarmouth, Norfolk County, England where she was baptized Feb. 21, 1621. Her sister Mary (also accused and put to death for witchcraft) married Isaac Easty. Another sister, Sarah Cloyce, was also accused of witchcraft. Nurse’s husband was described as a “traymaker.” The making of these articles and similar articles of domestic use was important employment in the remote countryside. He seems to have been highly respected by his neighbors, and more often than anyone else was called in to settle disputes. Nurse had four sons and four daughters.
Nurse was one of the first “unlikely” witches to be accused. At the time of her trial she was 71 years old, and had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community.” It was written of Nurse: “This venerable lady, whose conversation and bearing were so truly saint-like, was an invalid of extremely delicate condition and appearance, the mother of a large family, embracing sons, daughters, grandchildren, and one or more great-grand children. She was a woman of piety, and simplicity of heart.”

That her reputation was virtually unblemished was evidenced by the fact that several of the most active accusers were more hesitant in their accusations of Nurse, and many who had kept silent during the proceedings against others, came forward and spoke out on behalf of Nurse, despite the dangers of doing so. Thirty-nine of the most prominent members of the community signed a petition on Nurse’s behalf, and several others wrote individual petitions vouching for her innocence. One of the signers of the petition, Jonathan Putnam, had originally sworn out the complaint against Nurse, but apparently had later changed his mind on the matter of her guilt.

Unlike many of the other accused, during the questioning of Nurse, the magistrate showed signs of doubting her guilt, because of her age, character, appearance, and professions of innocence. However, each time he would begin to waiver on the issue, someone else in the crowd would either heatedly accuse her or one of the afflicted girls would break into fits and claim Nurse was tormenting her. Upon realizing that the magistrate and the audience had sided with the afflicted girls Nurse could only reply, ” I have got nobody to look to but God.” She then tried to raise her hands, but the afflicted girls fell into dreadful fits at the motion.

At Nurse’s trial on June 30, the jury came back with a verdict of “Not Guilty.” When this was announced there was a large and hideous outcry from both the afflicted girls and the spectators. The magistrates urged reconsideration. Chief Justice Stoughton asked the jury if they had considered the implications of something Nurse had said. When Hobbs had accused Nurse, Nurse had said “What do you bring her? She is one of us.” Nurse had only meant that Hobbs was a fellow prisoner.  Nurse, however, was old, partially hard of hearing, and exhausted from the day in court. When Nurse was asked to explain her words “she is one of us,” she did not hear the question.  The jury took her silence as an indication of guilt. The jury deliberated a second time and came back with a verdict of guilty. Shocking as it seems today, it was not uncommon in the seventeenth century for a magistrate to ask the jury to reconsider its verdict. Her family immediately did what they could to rectify the mistake that had caused her to be condemned, but it was no use. Nurse was granted a reprieve by Governor Phips, however no sooner had it been issued, than the accusers began having renewed fits. The community saw these fits as conclusive proof of Nurse’s guilt.

On July 3, this pious, God fearing woman was excommunicated from her church in Salem Town, without a single dissenting vote, because of her conviction of witchcraft. Nurse was sentenced to death on June 30.  She was executed on July 19. Public outrage at her conviction and execution have been credited with generating the first vocal opposition to the trials. On the gallows Nurse was “a model of Christian behavior,” which must have been a sharp contrast to Sarah Good, another convicted witch with whom Nurse was executed, who used the gallows as a platform from which to call down curses on those who would heckle her in her final hour. It was not until 1699 that members of the Nurse family were welcomed back to communion in the church, and it was fifteen years later before the excommunication of Nurse was revoked. In 1711, Nurse’s family was compensated by the government for her wrongful death.

Mary Easty

Mary Easty was the daughter of William Towne, of Yarmouth, Norfolk County, New England, where she was baptized on August 24, 1634. Two of Easty’s sisters, Rebecca Nurse, and Sarah Cloyse were also accused of Witchcraft during the Salem outbreak, although there is ample evidence that all three were innocent.

At the time of her questioning, Easty was about 58 years old and was married to Isaac Easty, with whom she had had seven children. Isaac owned and lived upon a large valuable farm. Her examination followed the pattern of most in Salem: the girls had fits, and were speechless at times, and the magistrate expostulated with her for not confessing her guilt, which he deemed proven beyond doubt by the sufferings of the afflicted.

“How far have you complied with Satan?” “Sir, I never complied with him but pray against him all my days. What would you have Easty do?” “Confess if you be guilty” “I will say it, if it was my last time, I am clear of this sin.” During the exam, when Easty clasped her hands together, the hands of Mary Lewis, one of the afflicted were clenched and not released until Easty released her hands, and when she inclined her head, the afflicted girls cried out to have her straighten her neck, because as long as her head was inclined their necks were broken.

Easty was committed to prison after her examination. For a reason not disclosed in any of the remaining records, Easty, after spending two months in prison, was discharged on the 18th of May. She and her family believed she would now be safe from further accusations. They were wrong. The release seems to have been very distasteful to the afflicted girls, they became determined to not let the matter rest, and redoubled their energies to get her back into prison. On the 20th, Mary Lewis spent the entire day experiencing fits of unprecedented severity, during which time she said she was being strangled, and claimed “they will kill Easty out right.” Several of the other afflicted girls claimed that they could see the apparition of Easty afflicting her, and people came from all around to see the fits. That evening a second warrant was issued for Easty’s arrest. At midnight, after experiencing two days of liberty and being reunited with her family, Easty was rousted from her sleep by the marshall, torn from her husband and children, and taken back to prison where she was loaded with chains. Once Easty was back in prisons with chains, Lewis’s fits stopped.

Easty was tried and condemned to death on September 9th. She was executed on September 22, despite an eloquent plea to the court to reconsider and not spill any more innocent blood. The court had long since ceased to pay any attention to anything that was said by the condemned. On the gallows she prayed for a end to the witch hunt.

Easty’s parting communications with her husband and children were said by those who were present to have been “as serious, religious, distinct, and affectionate as could be expressed, drawing tears from the eyes of almost all present.”

In November, after Easty had been put to death, Mary Herrick gave testimony about Easty. Herrick testified that she was visited by Easty who told her she had been put to death wrongfully and was innocent of witchcraft, and that she had come to vindicate her cause. Easty’s family was compensated with 20 pounds from the government in 1711 for her wrongful execution.

Bridget Bishop

Bridget Bishop, “a singular character, not easily described,” was born sometime between 1632 and 1637. Bishop married three times.  Her third and final marriage, after the deaths of her first two husbands, was to Edward Bishop, who was employed as a “sawyer” (lumber worker).  She appears to have had no children in any of her marriages.

Although Bishop had been accused by more individuals of witchcraft than any other witchcraft defendant (many of the accusations were markedly vehement and vicious), it was not so much her “sundry acts of witchcraft” that caused her to be the first witch hanged in Salem, as it was her flamboyant life style and exotic manner of dress. Despite being a member of Mr. Hale’s Church in Beverly (she remained a member in good standing until her death), Bishop often kept the gossip mill busy with stories of her publicly fighting with her various husbands, entertaining guests in home until late in the night, drinking and playing the forbidden game of shovel board, and being the mistress of two thriving taverns in town. Some even went so far as to say that Bishop’s “dubious moral character” and shameful conduct caused, “discord [to] arise in other familes, and young people were in danger of corruption.” Bishop’s blatant disregard for the respected standards of puritan society made her a prime target for accusations of witchcraft.

In addition to her somewhat outrageous (by Puritan standards) lifestyle, the fact that Bishop “was in the habit of dressing more artistically than women of the village” also contributed in large part to her conviction and execution. She was described as wearing, “a black cap, and a black hat, and a red paragon bodice bordered and looped with different colors.” This was a showy costume for the times. Aside from encouraging rumors and social disdain, this “showy costume” was used as evidence against her at her trial for witchcraft. In his deposition, Shattuck, the town dyer mentions, as corroborative proof of Bishop being a witch, that she used to bring to his dye house “sundry pieces of lace” of shapes and dimensions entirely outside his conceptions of what would be needed in the wardrobe of a plain and honest woman. Fashionable apparel was regarded by some as a “snare and sign of the devil.”

On April 18, 1692, when a warrant was issued for Bishop’s arrest for witchcraft, she was no stranger to the courthouse. In 1680 she had been charged (but cleared) of witchcraft, and on other occasions she had ended up in the courthouse for violent public quarreling with her husband. Bishop had never seen or met any of her accusers until her questioning. While several of the afflicted girls cried out and writhed in the supposed pain she was causing them, John Hathorn and Jonathan Corwin questioned her, although there was little doubt in either of their minds as to her guilt:

Q: Bishop, what do you say? You stand here charged with sundry acts of witchcraft by you done or committed upon the bodies of Mercy Lewis and Ann Putman and others.
A: I am innocent, I know nothing of it, I have done no witchcraft …. I am as innocent as the child unborn. ….
Q: Goody Bishop, what contact have you made with the Devil?
A: I have made no contact with the Devil. I have never seen him before in my life.

When asked by one of her jailers, Bishop claimed that she was not troubled to see the afflicted persons so tormented, and could not tell what to think of them and did not concern herself about them at all. But the afflicted girls were not Bishop’s only accusers.  Her sister’s husband claimed that “she sat up all night conversing with the Devil” and that “the Devil came bodily into her.” With a whole town against her, Bishop was charged, tried, and executed within eight days. On June 10, as crowds gathered to watch, she was taken to Gallows Hill and executed by the sheriff, George Corwin. She displayed no remorse and professed her innocence at her execution.

Bishop’s death did not go unnoticed in Salem. The court took a short recess, accusations slowed down for a time, more than a month passed before there were any more executions, and one of the judges, Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned, having become dissatisfied with the court’s methods. Even Governor Phips had doubts about the methods of the court and went to Boston to consult the ministers there as to what should be done with the rest of the accused. Unfortunately for the eighteen others who would be hanged as witches (in addition to the one pressed to death and the several who died in prison), the ministers decidedly and earnestly recommended that the proceedings should be “vigorously carried on,” and so they were. Less than a year after her death, Bishop’s husband married Elizabeth Cash, and several of those who had testified against her, in deathbed confessions claimed that their accusations were “deluted by the Devil.”