All one had to do was simply admit they were a witch.
There has been much speculation as to why the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 unfolded so quickly and dramatically. After all, people had been accused and sentenced for witchcraft before. This was a time and place where the devil was known to actively recruit witches and use them as pawns to torment believers in hopes of gaining souls. Most people were absolutely sure of it.
The evidence was too ridiculous to be believed; girls falling to the floor claiming the specter of the accused was attacking them. But witnesses thought they must be telling the truth, for what else could explain their behavior? Resource books would point to all of this as being textbook proof of witchcraft. And why should young girls lie about such a thing?
One of the girls apologized later and said it wasn’t true. She blamed the devil, of course. Perhaps they were caught up in a hysteria that was bigger than themselves. Remember, these accusations were considered quite plausible. Even the innocents who were accused were baffled, wondering if perhaps Satan was coming to these girls disguised as them. And since everything that happened was thought to be god’s way of speaking to the Puritans, all were left wondering what it was exactly that god was trying to say.
In the end there were twenty people put to death. Nineteen hanged, and one pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Four died in prison, and two dogs were executed as accomplices. Many more were jailed and set free.
Those who stood firm in their innocence did so with full knowledge that it would be easier to confess. Puritans believed in executing unrepentant witches, but if a witch confessed it became a matter between them and god. Confession and accusation was the way out. It appeared to be a desirable outcome for everyone; not only did it mean avoiding the death penalty, but it gave validation to the claims of witchcraft. Which, in turn, meant validation of the trials and puritan faith in general…. all the while increasing fear and paranoia among the people of Salem.
The nineteen men and women who were hanged for their crimes were a minority in that they refused to confess. They were willing to die rather than admit to something that wasn’t true. Were they choosing to become martyrs for a cause, or were they afraid that lying would compromise their place in eternity?
One of those nineteen was an elderly woman named Susannah Martin. She didn’t know the afflicted girls and didn’t even live in Salem. Her home was twenty miles away in Amesbury. But this wasn’t the first time Susannah had been accused of being a witch. Feuds with neighbors in the past had led to two other accusations that were dismissed. Apparently those neighbors hadn’t read Richard Bernard’s A Guide to Grand Jury–Men and therefore did not know what kind of evidence to present. On those occasions her life was spared.
It is likely that Susannah was unprepared for the scene that awaited her in Salem. Upon seeing the girls fall into fits in her presence, she laughed. When asked why she was laughing she famously said, “Well, I may at such folly.” Susannah maintained her innocence throughout the ordeal, at times seeming to lose patience with the circus before her. At one point the afflicted made attempts to walk toward Susannah and each fell to the floor at the same spot claiming there was an invisible barrier. The fact that she could not offer an explanation was all the evidence needed for those present to conclude she must indeed be an agent of the devil.
And while the entire examination is a fascinating study in sociology, one thing Susannah said stands out to me: “I dare not tell a lie if it would save my life.”
And she meant it. Surely there were witnesses who must have wondered why would a witch not confess to save her life? The obvious answer was because she was not only innocent, but a truly god-fearing woman who was willing to die for her faith. And that is exactly what happened on July 19, 1692. Susannah, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes were taken together that day to Gallows Hill and hanged for their great faith in god.
I have always had an interest in this chapter of American history. I’m a genealogy nerd; in 1692 the largest percentage of my ancestors were living in Massachusetts. And while I feel a great distance between me and these people, I also recognize that this is my family history.
I take a specific interest in Susannah Martin because she was my eleventh great-grandmother. A grandmother from another line was one of the accused released from jail at the end of the trials. I think about these families living in the area at the time and I wonder what it must have been like for them. My ninth great-grandmother would have been fourteen when her grandmother was put to death. How much did attitudes change in her lifetime? How did she tell this story to her grandchildren?
Did she believe the devil was to blame?
When we speak of modern-day witch hunts we are always referencing this moment in history. We are united in shaking our heads in disbelief at how so many could be deceived this way. We can’t understand it. But while spectral accusations may not hold up in any American court today, most Americans do absolutely still believe in a real god and a real devil.
They still believe the devil tricks men and women to do his will. They are afraid of supernatural forces, consider demonic possession an actual possibility, and are always ready for a spiritual battle. They also believe god speaks to us through our experiences; that he will punish us for turning our backs on him as a nation, and that our government should be ruled according to god’s law. And there are still an overwhelming number of Americans who would die for their faith.
Maybe what happened in Salem isn’t so difficult to understand after all.