The Girls of the Salem Witch Trials

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Cotton Mather
The Victims

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• Witch Trials Memorial
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• The Salem Witchcraft Papers

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The main instigators of the witchcraft accusations were at first a pair and eventually a group of young girls. For reasons known only to them, 9-year-old Elizabeth Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams dabbled in fortune-telling and then began to appear to exhibit strange behavior. They had depended on the Parris family slave Tituba for guidance in their pursuit of fortune-telling and pointed the finger at her when their actions were discovered.

The girls found willing conspirators in their village friends. Soon, a handful of girls was behaving oddly and making accusations. Among these were Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, Sarah Bibber, Susanna Sheldon, Betty Booth, and Mary Warren. As the accusations began to pile up, Warren, who had directly accused John and Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft, admitted to lying about her afflictions and accused the other girls of lying as well. This occurred in early April but did little to stem the tide. The girls continued to accuse primarily women of the village of witchcraft. Soon, Warren was back in the fold.

The girls continued to be the main accusers throughout the year of 1692, which resulted in the executions of 20 people. They continually referred to mysterious "afflictions," such as being bitten and pinched by people or things that no one could see, having their throats choked or their tongues silenced, and being victims of violent seizures and catatonic states. As the examinations went on (and were open to the public, no less), the girls were seen to be showing evidence of all sorts of spiritual maladies. In some cases, they said they couldn't approach the accused because some hidden force prevented it. In other cases, they cried out whenever the accused shifted her feet. Girls were seen to faint in court or run screaming from the room. They were seen to scream at odd moments and claim to feel evil intents being blasted their way.

In some cases, the accusers were very familiar with the accused. Mary Warren was once a servant in the house of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Ann Putnam's family was owed money by George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem. In other cases, the connections with accused and accuser were more tenuous. In all cases, though, and despite the objections of many of the accused, what the girls said and did and said they saw and felt was taken as primary evidence, the kind of testimony that was personal and could not be disproved. How could the accused deny that the girls were feeling something they said they were feeling?

Some historians have tried to find scientific evidence for some of the initial "afflictions"; what cannot be denied, however, is the damage that the girls' accusations caused, to not only the people condemned and injured but also to the colony's reputation. Salem, Massachusetts, will forever be known for the Witch Trials.

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David White