While witch trials had begun to fade out across much of Europe by the mid-17th century, they continued on the fringes of Europe and in the American Colonies. The events in 1692/1693 in Salem became a brief outburst of a sort of hysteria in the New World, while the practice was already waning in most of Europe.
In Against Modern Sadducism, (1668) Joseph Glanvill claimed that he could prove the existence of witches and ghosts of the supernatural realm. Glanvill wrote about the "denial of the bodily resurrection, and the [supernatural] spirits."
In his treatise, Glanvill claimed that ingenious men should believe in witches and apparitions; if they doubted the reality of spirits, they not only denied demons but also the almighty God. Glanvill wanted to prove that the supernatural could not be denied; those who did deny apparitions were considered heretics, for it also disproved their beliefs in angels. Works by men such as Glanvill and Cotton Mather tried to prove that "demons were alive."
The trials were started after people had been accused of witchcraft, primarily by teenage girls such as Elizabeth Hubbard, 17, as well as some who were younger.
Recorded witchcraft executions in New England
The earliest recorded witchcraft execution was that of Alse Young in 1647 in Hartford, Connecticut. Historian Clarence F. Jewett included a list of other people executed in New England in his 1881 book.
New England had been settled by religious refugees seeking to build a pure, Bible-based society. They lived closely with the sense of the supernatural. The original 1629 Royal Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was vacated in 1684, after which King James II installed Sir Edmund Andros as the governor of the Dominion of New England. Andros was ousted in 1689 after the "Glorious Revolution" in England replaced the Catholic James II with the Protestant co-rulers William and Mary.
Simon Bradstreet and Thomas Danforth, the colony's last leaders under the old charter, resumed their posts as governor and deputy governor, but lacked constitutional authority to rule because the old charter had been vacated. At the same time, tensions erupted between English colonists settling in "the Eastward" (the present-day coast of Maine) and French-supported Wabanaki Indians of that territory in what came to be known as King William's War. This was 13 years after the devastating King Philip's War with the Wampanoag and other indigenous tribes in southern and western New England. In October 1690, Sir William Phips led an unsuccessful attack on French-held Quebec. Between 1689 and 1692, Native Americans continued to attack many English settlements along the Maine coast, leading to the abandonment of some of the settlements and resulting in a flood of refugees into areas like Essex County.
A new charter for the enlarged Province of Massachusetts Bay was given final approval in England on October 16, 1691. News of the appointment of Phips as the new governor reached Boston in late January, and a copy of the new charter reached Boston on February 8, 1692. Phips arrived in Boston on May 14 and was sworn in as governor two days later, along with Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton. One of the first orders of business for the new governor and council on May 27, 1692, was the formal nomination of county justices of the peace, sheriffs, and the commission of a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle the large numbers of people who were "thronging" the jails.
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum have postulated that without a valid charter, the colony had no legitimate form of government to try capital cases until Phips arrived with the new charter. This has been disputed by David Konig. He points out that between charters, according to the Records of the Court of Assistants, the colony tried and condemned a group of 14 pirates on January 27, 1690, for acts of piracy and murder committed in August and October 1689.
Salem Village (present-day Danvers, Massachusetts) was known for its fractious population, who had many internal disputes, and for disputes between the village and Salem Town (present-day Salem). Arguments about property lines, grazing rights, and church privileges were rife, and neighbors considered the population as "quarrelsome." In 1672, the villagers had voted to hire a minister of their own, apart from Salem Town. The first two ministers, James Bayley (1673–79) and George Burroughs (1680–83), stayed only a few years each, departing after the congregation failed to pay their full rate. (Burroughs was subsequently arrested at the height of the witchcraft hysteria and was hanged as a witch in August 1692.)
Despite the ministers' rights being upheld by the General Court and the parish being admonished, each of the two ministers still chose to leave. The third minister, Deodat Lawson (1684–88), stayed for a short time, leaving after the church in Salem refused to ordain him—and therefore not over issues with the congregation. The parish disagreed about Salem Village's choice of Samuel Parris as its first ordained minister. On June 18, 1689, the villagers agreed to hire Parris for £66 annually, "one third part in money and the other two third parts in provisions," and use of the parsonage.
On October 10, 1689, however, they raised his benefits, voting to grant him the deed to the parsonage and two acres (0.8 hectares) of land. This conflicted with a 1681 village resolution which stated that "it shall not be lawful for the inhabitants of this village to convey the houses or lands or any other concerns belonging to the Ministry to any particular persons or person: not for any cause by vote or other ways".
Though the prior ministers' fates and the level of contention in Salem Village were valid reasons for caution in accepting the position, Rev. Parris increased the village's divisions by delaying his acceptance. He did not seem able to settle his new parishioners' disputes: by deliberately seeking out "iniquitous behavior" in his congregation and making church members in good standing suffer public penance for small infractions, he contributed significantly to the tension within the village. Its bickering increased unabated. Historian Marion Starkey suggests that, in this atmosphere, serious conflict may have been inevitable.
Prior to the constitutional turmoil of the 1680s, Massachusetts government had been dominated by conservative Puritan secular leaders. Influenced by Calvinism, Puritans had opposed many of the traditions of the Church of England, including use of the Book of Common Prayer, the use of clergy vestments during services, the use of sign of the cross at baptism, and kneeling to receive communion, all of which they believed constituted popery. King Charles I was hostile to this viewpoint, and Anglican church officials tried to repress these dissenting views during the 1620s and 1630s. Some Puritans and other religious minorities had sought refuge in the Netherlands but ultimately many made a major migration to colonial North America to establish their own society.
These immigrants, who were mostly constituted of families, established several of the earliest colonies in New England, of which the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the largest and most economically important. They intended to build a society based on their religious beliefs. Colonial leaders were elected by the freemen of the colony, those individuals who had had their religious experiences formally examined and had been admitted to one of the colony's Puritan congregations. The colonial leadership were prominent members of their congregations and regularly consulted with the local ministers on issues facing the colony.
In the early 1640s, England erupted in civil war. The Puritan-dominated Parliamentarians emerged victorious, and the Crown was supplanted by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in 1653. Its failure led to restoration of the old order under Charles II. Emigration to New England slowed significantly in these years. In Massachusetts, a successful merchant class began to develop that was less religiously motivated than the colony's early settlers.
Local rumors of witchcraft
Prior to 1692, there had been rumors of witchcraft in villages neighboring Salem Village and other towns. Cotton Mather, a minister of Boston's North Church (not to be confused with the later Anglican North Church associated with Paul Revere), was a prolific publisher of pamphlets, including some that expressed his belief in witchcraft. In his book Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689), Mather describes his "oracular observations" and how "stupendous witchcraft" had affected the children of Boston mason John Goodwin.
Mather illustrates how the Goodwins' eldest child had been tempted by the devil and had stolen linen from the washerwoman Goody Glover. Glover, of Irish Catholic descent, was characterized as a disagreeable old woman and described by her husband as a witch; this may have been why she was accused of casting spells on the Goodwin children. After the event, four out of six Goodwin children began to have strange fits, or what some people referred to as "the disease of astonishment." The manifestations attributed to the disease quickly became associated with witchcraft. Symptoms included neck and back pains, tongues being drawn from their throats, and loud random outcries; other symptoms included having no control over their bodies such as becoming limber, flapping their arms like birds, or trying to harm others as well as themselves. These symptoms would fuel the craze of 1692.