On June 10, 1692, the first colonist to be convicted of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, was hanged. Under seventeenth-century English law, witchcraft was a capital offense, and ultimately twenty men and women were executed for witchcraft. Hundreds of others were accused, and dozens languished in jail until they were released. Witchcraft hysteria in Salem Village started in 1688 when thirteen-year-old Martha Goodwin and her siblings began exhibiting bizarre behavior and accused a laundress, Ann Glover, of bewitching them. Then, in January 1692, a number of other girls, including Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris, the daughter of the village’s new minister, began to show signs of similar behavior. Soon, attention focused on Tituba, a servant in the Parris household, who told the girls stories about voodoo from her native Barbados. Also at this time, these and other girls began to practice fortunetelling. During one of these fortunetelling sessions, Ann Putnam claimed to see a specter that looked like a coffin. By March, Putnam and other girls were acting strangely, and in the days and weeks that followed they accused numerous persons, including “Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters,” of witchcraft. By late spring and through the summer, charges were being made that witches were flying around at night, conducting satanic rituals in the forests, and forcing people to sign their names in the devil’s book. Trials began on June 2, 1692, and continued throughout the summer. Just as quickly as the hysteria spread, it began to subside in the fall.
Ultimately, numerous people accused of witchcraft were acquitted, and some of the judges, including Samuel Sewall, later confessed to grave errors in judgment. In 1702 the General Court of Massachusetts declared the 1692 trials unlawful. Ann Putnam’s Confession, in which she revoked her accusations of witchcraft, was issued in 1706, and in 1711 the colony passed a bill restoring the good name of those executed and granted financial compensation to their heirs.
Read our full coverage of Ann Putnam’s Confession, including analysis by the scholar Michael J. O’Neal.