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Ask the Expert

Can you tell me if the accused witches were perhaps inheritors of land, and therefore prime targets to have their land taken away by the accusers?

Contrary to popular belief, the question of taking over neighbors’ land was not a major factor involving the witchcraft persecutions of 1692. There is NO evidence of property being a motive for those accusing Giles Corey. There is plenty of proof that people who were convicted were allowed to have their real estate inherited.

It’s hard to say exactly what happened here, because we have no way to know that he was thinking. But the best explanation seems to be that he recognized the no-win situation and simply protested the only way he knew he could—by refusing to allow the court to try him.

Can you tell me about Nathaniel Ingersoll?

Nathaniel Ingersoll was the son of Richard Ingersoll and a prominent citizen of Salem Village. He was a deacon in the church and a contributor to many village improvements.

People came to his licensed ordinary (similar to a tavern) for food and drinks; his establishment did not offer overnight accommodations. It was a village meeting place, one of the primary locations for sharing information.

Ingersoll’s ordinary also served as an informal village headquarters and was the scene of a number of witchcraft proceedings.

Part of the original building is incorporated in the house that stands at the corner of Centre and Hobart Streets in present-day Danvers.

What is a “witch cake”?

The reference to witch cake comes from a passage by the Rev. Samuel Parris, who said a meddling neighbor directed Parris’s Indian slave to make it. The scanty evidence indicates that the witch cake was a combination of some type of flour, such as rye, mixed with urine from the afflicted. We don’t know for sure how the cake was supposed to work; supposedly it was fed to an animal rather than to humans. Strange behavior by the animal was considered evidence that the person who had provided the urine sample was indeed bewitched.

The practice of baking a witch cake was considered an act of witchcraft by anyone who was religiously inclined; doing so was condemned as going to the devil to discover the devil.

Urine was common in efforts to counter witchcraft. Some people also believed in boiling bent pins in urine.

How does modern American law compare to 17th-century English law?

English law of the 17th century was not as developed and codified as law is today. Though we might think of the 1692 trials as grossly unjust, 17th-century contemporaries would have looked at it as a norm in their society at that time.

The 1692 Massachusetts judges were not legal scholars but generally politically or economically significant members of their society whose judgment was respected, even though that judgment was not necessarily based on a legal foundation.

I have a simple question for you. I want to know how you know the facts about this “hysteria” if you only read it in history? It’s a hard call to make, but no one really knows unless they were really involved in it. I guess it is just a simple matter of who man thinks is “credible,” but there are just too many lies out there. Just a thought…

Pilot asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Truth surely can be an elusive concept.

What historians do is attempt to obtain slices of the reality of the past. In general terms, historians rely on primary sources—documentary evidence written or produced by participants of events—rather than secondary sources written by others later on. There are more than 850 legal documents and many other items written in 1692 by participants of the hysteria. Even though that number is not astronomical, we have more documentary evidence about the Salem trials than any other witchcraft outbreak.

It is true, however, that those who record events can, by chance or design, skew the facts to their understanding of them. And, those who were unable to record their side of events remain silent forever. Historians take the primary sources, acknowledging their incompleteness, and still attempt to find truths. Often, theories of why the witchcraft outbreak took place tell us more about the time in which the theorists write than about the events.

Most of the events of Salem—with regard to dates, people involved, and testimony given—are recorded. Motives, agendas, secret thoughts, and psychological quirks are very elusive.

How accurately were Mary Warren, John Procter, Betty Parris, and Abigail Williams portrayed in “The Crucible”?

Miller was not an historian nor did he pretend to be, and we know so little about many of the witchcraft characters that we can’t really psychoanalyze or even describe them.

Mary Warren, a 20-year-old servant in the Procter household, was an afflicted person until her master and mistress were accused. Standing up for them, she was then accused herself and soon switched back to accusing others. In jail, Warren said that when she was afflicted, she indeed saw the apparitions of people and that her head was distempered, meaning that she was delusional.

John Procter, one of my ancestors, was about 60 years old, and Abigail Williams was 12 years old. There is no proof that they were lovers.

I have always been told that Rebecca Nurse is an ancestor of mine. What do we know about her?

Rebecca Nurse was the daughter of William and Joanna Towne. Born in Yarmouth, England, in 1622, she married Francis Nurse in 1644. They had a large family and moved to Salem Village in 1678. She was a covenant member of the Salem Church. Though many generations of the Nurse family remained in the Danvers area, many more spread out throughout the United States.

The Nurse family homestead in Danvers is open to the public (see TravelWise).

On a recent visit to Salem, we discovered that one of the “witches” hanged was named Elizabeth Howe. The name is one shared by my husband’s mother’s relatives. We were wondering if it might be possible to find out if she was related to our family in some way. How would we go about discovering this information?

Elizabeth Howe, the daughter of Joane and William Jackson, was born in England in 1638. In 1658 she married James Howe, the son of Elizabeth Dane and James Howe. She was hanged as a witch on July 19, 1692.

Many American families can trace an ancestor in or around Salem in the 1690s. This is one reason why the witchcraft outbreak is such a perennially popular subject. Anyone with roots in 17th-century Massachusetts could have a number of witches hanging from the family tree.

Howe is a common name, and there is much written about this Ipswich and Topsfield family. However, you must first trace your roots back far enough to be able to latch your line onto this one.

When doing genealogical research, start with yourself and work your way back generation by generation. Generally, once you have traced your line back to the late 1800s, you’ll find many genealogy volumes that can help you go further back. Some institutions worth checking would be the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (see TravelWise), the Danvers Archival Center (see TravelWise), and the New England Historic Genealogical Society ( in Boston.

To what degree did one’s socioeconomic position play a part in the trials? Were any of the “elite” ever named as witches, or was this primarily the plight of the agrarian community? I find it sickly amusing that the trials were quickly squelched when the governor’s wife was named. Was this simply a precursor to Boston politics as usual?

In most witchcraft cases, the status and sex of the witch had much to do with who was accused. It began that way with 1692 Salem, but eventually became much more democratic as to who was accused. Many men were accused, as were a number of church members and upper-class types, including Philip English, one of the colony’s richest men. It is true that there was talk of several high-placed people being witches, such as Governor Phips’s wife, but this was only noted by bystanders after the height of the witchcraft hysteria was over. However, rich or influential persons who were accused could often find means of escape, such as bribing.

Did those accused of being witches have any characteristics in common, such as being reclusive or possibly even mentally ill? Did any of the accusers suffer from what we would now characterize as mental illness?

In an average outbreak of witchcraft, only one or two people were usually accused. Salem was a massive aberration, so the usual factors were not as much in evidence in 1692. There were several persons whom the historic record shows to be mentally ill who were accused and who made accusations against others. But these were the exceptions. In general, accusations weren’t made against people who were known to be mentally ill, and the testimony of such people wasn’t accepted as credible.

To learn more about common factors for witchcraft accusations in colonial New England, I recommend the book, “Entertaining Satan,” by John Demos.

Why did Salem become the center of the witchcraft tourist trade when the actual events took place in what is now the town of Danvers?

Salem Village (Danvers) was ground zero for the witchcraft events of 1692, with virtually the entire 500-person population involved. Salem Town (now Salem) had several accused witches and the formal trials were held there, but the town escaped the social and religious maelstrom that followed. When witch times were over, Salem Village didn’t want to be reminded of those dark days. When the Village became independent in 1752, it was given the new name of “Danvers” and their association with the witchcraft was happily obscured. By the late 19th century, Salem became a tourist destination, and the witchcraft events took on a caricature of a non-threatening witch riding a broomstick and wearing a conical hat.

I find the Salem witch trials intoxicatingly interesting. Can you tell me the population and approximate land area (how big was the physical settlement) of 1692 Salem?

Salem Village in 1692 comprised of the present town of Danvers as well as most of the town of Middleton and the city of Peabody. According to my research, in 1692 the population of the village was approximately 550 people living in 90 houses scattered over an approximate 20-square-mile (52-square-kilometer) area. Today the population of those three communities is approximately 70,000.

Salem Town proper, which had an area of approximately eight-square-miles (21-square-kilometers), had a population of 1,400 persons in 1692. Today, the population is approximately 38,000.

What is a spectre?

In 17th-century witchcraft terms, a spectre is an active agent of a living witch. The spectre can interact with others but cannot generally be seen by anyone except the victim of the evil. In contrast, a ghost is the active agent of a deceased person.

What are some differences between European and English/New English witch-hunts? Who were the persecuted? How were they punished?

On the European continent, witchcraft was generally looked upon as a heresy against the church, and heretics were burned. In England and New England, witchcraft was a civil felony, and felons were hanged. Generally English witchcraft was a harder crime to prove; in all, perhaps 1,500 people in England and New England were put to death. On the Continent, there were massive witch-hunts which over three centuries resulted in deaths of tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people.

In England and on the Continent, a number of self-styled “witch finders” would go about discovering witches for fees. One of these was Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witch Finder General.” During the English Civil War, from 1645-1646, Hopkins used devious means and torture to discover scores of witches, of whom more than 70 were executed. His payment varied depending upon the number of found witches.

Hopkins is known to have used a trick knife with a blade that retracted into the handle. Victims didn’t bleed because the skin wasn’t broken and therefore were considered possible witches. Hopkins’s means of torture, like the swim test*, always ensured that there was no physical evidence that he had actually hurt the person to extract the confession. This supposedly made the confessions more credible.

* In the swim test, a victim was tied up and tossed into a lake or stream. Anyone who sank was not considered not a witch and was set free. (Of course, the victims often drowned.) If the person floated (and human bodies are generally buoyant), it was believed that the water rejected his or her non-christian soul, and execution awaited.

Do you know what these “fits” were that the girls were having? Was there a medical cause like perhaps something the girls ingested such as poisonous mushrooms or some other hallucinogen?

Approximately 15 years ago several researchers postulated that the afflicted ones were suffering from ergot poisoning from spoiled rye grain. Unfortunately, the symptoms, period of fits, and information on the general population does not accord with classic ergot poisoning.

It is my opinion that a massive clinical hysteria had much to do with the witchcraft troubles. New explanations often come about that reflect the particular time period of the theory’s origin. This theory became popular during the drug culture of the 1970s.

Did the British crown take any action on this matter or was it left to the colony?

Obviously there was a communication problem at that time in terms of asking for advice and receiving responses from the mother country. Even if there had been instant communication, the English government would most likely have kept its hands off what was considered a local problem. Governor Phips, as the representative of the Crown, was expected to take care of his provincial problems. Phips received some advice—when it was almost all over—that said “Do what you think is appropriate.”

What was the average age of the “witches”?

In the Salem cases, accused witches could be any age, from a four-year-old girl up to individuals in their 80s and 90s. As for the “afflicted ones,” most were adolescent girls between the ages of 6 and 16, though they were joined by some older women and by at least two adolescent boys.

Could you please explain who is buried in the Nurse family burial ground? When did the last burial take place? Is the property open for visits? Is Rebecca Nurse buried there?

According to solid family tradition, Rebecca Nurse’s body was brought back to her homestead for burial. She is buried somewhere in or around the family burial ground. In 1992, the remains of George Jacobs, another witchcraft victim whose body was uncovered at his homesite during the building of new houses in the 1950s, was reburied in the Nurse graveyard. There are a number of Rebecca Nurse’s relatives buried in the family graveyard, including sons, daughters, and in laws—most with unmarked graves.

The property, which includes the Nurse house and a re-creation of the Salem Village meetinghouse, is open to the public. See the TravelWise section for details.

Is there any modern medical explanation for the children’s behavior?

From 1692 to the present, various observers, researchers, and scholars have attempted to explain what caused the hysteria at Salem. The theories are many: backsliding New Englanders being punished by God, power-hungry clergy, the pranks of bored adolescents, socioeconomic conflict, ergot poisoning, and so on. It seems that every new generation reflects its own time in trying to explain what happened in 1692 Salem.

My feeling is that, although there were many factors involved in setting the stage, the witch-hunt was powered by clinical hysteria. You might want to read “Witchcraft at Salem” by Chadwick Hansen.

We’re doing research and found that a dog was hanged during the Salem witchcraft trials. Can you tell us more about this?

There are no legal records, but some contemporary 17th-century observers mentioned the fact that at least two dogs were put to death, probably in Andover, Massachusetts, for being bewitched. It could be that someone fed a “witch cake” to the dogs, and they started acting strange. Or, perhaps, they were simply rabid and it was looked upon as bewitchment. Unfortunately, historians have found few details.

Why were some of the accused convicted even after they maintained that they were Christians? How were the cases investigated? What evidence was found?

Generally, citizens made complaints against individuals, who were then brought before magistrates for preliminary hearings. When magistrates felt that there was sufficient evidence for a trial, the accused was jailed pending a hearing before a grand jury. And if those juries handed up a “true bill” (signifying evidence of misbehavior), a formal trial by jury could follow.

The formal trial followed 17th-century English precedents, in which the accused were not represented by lawyers but could question accusers and witnesses. Most, however, were not emotionally or intellectually equipped to defend themselves against a hanging court and hysterical witnesses—over 40 persons confessed to being witches.

The historical irony is that only those who did not confess to being witches were actually tried and convicted. And with spectral evidence, your accuser is the only person who presents and verifies your “crime.” So, you could say the afflicted girls provided the evidence while sometimes other confessed witches corroborated it.

What is known about Tituba?

If it weren’t for the Salem witchcraft proceedings, we would know nothing about Tituba. And precious little is known about her. Almost nothing is written about lower-class people of that era. There is evidence that suggests that Tituba was not black but an Indian.

After her imprisonment, Tituba was sold by the Reverend Parris, and the rest of her existence was lost to history.

Does “The Crucible” portray what actually happened in Salem?

This is my opinion: When someone watches a play, he knows that he is partially suspending belief and not observing accurate visual reality. The words, not the stage setting, are the most important component of the play. Miller successfully used the Salem witch trials as a vehicle to talk about witch-hunts in general, but the Miller play does not attempt to make a historical representation of the witchcraft events. It also gives a dramatized account of John Procter and Abigail Williams.

In the film, given the nature of the medium, the audience assumes that if the setting and characters look real then the events portrayed are displaying reality. And most will take it for granted that the film presents the story as it truly occurred, which usually is not the case. The movie version of “The Crucible” as well as Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” are entertaining but poor history lessons.

What happened to the so-called “possessed” girls?

Most of those young women have been lost to history. The young ones married, changed their names, and moved away. Several remained in the area, however. Ann Putnam never married, but eventually made an apology for 1692 and became a full member of the Salem Village church. She was said to be “sickly” and is known to have died young. Elizabeth Parris married and moved about 20 miles from Salem Village to Concord.

How was witchcraft defined in the 17th century?

In the 17th century, witches were both male and female persons who had made a pact to serve the devil. In exchange, the devil passed along certain powers to the witches. According to confessed witch William Barker, the devil promised to pay all Barker’s debts and that he would live comfortably. The devil also told him that he wanted to set up his own kingdom where there would be neither punishment nor shame for sin.

What brought about the end of the Salem witchcraft hysteria? Did some of the judges refuse to convict for reasons of conscience?

There were a number of factors that ended the hysteria. The chief reason was that spectral evidence against the accused was eventually disallowed, which meant there wasn’t enough additional evidence to bring about convictions.

Are there any descendants of those 25 who died?

There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of descendants living in the U.S. today.

When did the people of Salem realize that they had made a grave error?

By 1693 it was recognized that incorrect procedures and invalid proofs had been used. Most people, however, still believed in witchcraft as a reality. Following the trials, the people felt that the devil was still loose among them but that he had deluded people into believing that innocents were witches.

Although by 1692 most learned people doubted the reality of witchcraft, there were scattered witchcraft accusations in America far into the 18th century.

Are you a witch?

No, I am not a witch although I have two Christian ancestors who were hanged as witches.

Are there any witchcraft laws today in Salem?

There are no Massachusetts statutes with respect to witchcraft. In 1992 the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a resolution acknowledging the good names of those condemned witches of 1692 who had not been previously exonerated.

What is the difference between a Puritan and a Pilgrim? Where did they settle?

“Pilgrim” is a modern term for a 17th-century Englishman who believed in complete separation from the Anglican church. Pilgrims generally settled in Plymouth Colony, south of Boston, and referred to themselves as “separatists.” Puritans were 17th-century Englishmen who wanted to purify the Anglican church by removing all traces of Catholic papist trappings, such as crosses, vestments, or anything resembling Catholicism. They generally settled in the Boston area starting around 1630. Plymouth Colony was absorbed into Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.

Why were they considered witches?

If you confessed that you were a witch, as Tituba did, they could use this as prima facia evidence. Over 40 people in 1692 did in fact confess and in some instances those confessing accused others. Also, the court tended to believe the afflicted—those who claimed to be tormented by the spectres of witches—and the spectral evidence exhibited within the court itself really made believers of those who were present. Judge Stoughton and other prominent officials believed that God would not allow the spectre of an innocent person to afflict others.

Were Salem witches ever burned at the stake?

No. According to English law, which prevailed in New England at the time, witchcraft was a felony punishable by hanging. In continental Europe witchcraft was heresy against the church and was punishable by burning at the stake.

Were any of the accused witches adherents of Wicca, modern-day “witchcraft”?

No. There’s no proof at all that the accused knew anything about Wicca. All the accused professed being Christians.

Was Giles Corey pressed to death because he wanted to hold onto his estate?

No. Although convicted witches might have had their personal estates confiscated according to the law, their land could be inherited. Corey was most likely showing his complete distaste for the court and its legitimacy. When Corey was indicted, he refused to enter a plea to be tried.

Where is Salem Village now?

Salem village became an independent town in 1752 and changed its name to Danvers.