Puritanism refers to the movement of reform, which occurred within the Church of England. It began at the time of the Elizabethan settlement of 1559 and ended at the end of the Rump Parliament with the ascension of Charles II to the British throne in 1660.
The American Puritans clearly understood that God’s word applies to all of life. Their exemplary lives and faith, contrary to popular myths, are a highpoint of Christian thinking. Puritan legal history specifies some of their loyalties and compromises. Today, scholars continue their dispute over the degree to which the Puritan colonists influenced American law, morality, and culture. In the area of law, this image is supplemented by lurid accounts of witch trials and corporal public punishments.
The best example of this was during the seventeenth century. The Salem witch trials began in 1692 and lasted less than a year. The first arrests were made on March 1, 1692, and the final hanging day was September 22, 1692. The first noted arrest was of Tituba, a Carib Indian from Barbados. She was Reverend Samuel Parris’ slave. Her role in the witch trials includes the arrest and confession of witchcraft on March 1, 1692.
In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris became very ill. When she failed to improve, the village doctor, William Griggs, was called in. After much deliberation, Griggs concluded that the problem was witchcraft. This put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the death of nineteen men and women. In addition to those nineteen people, one man named Giles Corey was crushed to death. Seventeen others died in prison and the lives of many were irrevocably changed.
To better understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to understand the time period in which the accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics, and rivalry with nearby Salem Town all played a part in the stress.
There was also a recent smallpox epidemic and the threat of an attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem. They were put there because their names had been “cried out” by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. Everyone waited for a trial of a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England, the practice of witchcraft. Under the Massachusetts Bay Colony legal structure, those who were accused of consorting with the devil were considered felons. Today, a person must commit a serious crime, such as murder to be convicted of a felon.
Because the Massachusetts Bay Colony was under British law, they had to follow the strict ways of the British. Therefore, a convicted “witch” had supposedly committed a crime against his or her government. This meant for severe punishment, such as hanging.
During the trials, many were executed. The following are the documented names: Bridget Bishop, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, George Jacobs, Sr., Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, John Proctor, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell, Sarah Wildes, and John Willard.
Almost six months after Rebecca Parris’ court date, the trial of Rebecca Nurse was held. The Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. Presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton, the court was made up of magistrates and jurors. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem who was found guilty and was hung on June 10. Thirteen women and five men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in the following October.
The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the “witchcraft” court, did not allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those awaiting trials and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch trials were over.
After the trials had concluded, Jurors and magistrates apologized. Restitution was made to the victims’ families and a Day of Fasting and Remembrance was instituted. Little is known about the lives of the afflicted girls. Tituba is believed to have been sold and taken out of the Salem Village area.
No one knows exactly as to what caused the girls’ behaviour. There are many theories to explain the “fits” of the young girls who accused so many of practicing witchcraft. Among the theories are adolescent hysteria and ergot poisoning.
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