What The Salem Witch Trials Teach Us About Believing Women

Photo: Classic Image/Alamy Stock Photo.

On March 1, 1692, 326 years ago today, colonial women Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, and a slave known only as Tituba stood trial for witchcraft in Salem Village, Massachusetts. That was the day that started it all — the wild accusations, the interrogations, and the deaths we now associate with the Salem witch trials. Today also marks the start of Women's History Month. There are plenty of uplifting moments that deserve to be celebrated this month, but it's also important to remember moments in history when women's voices were silenced.

In the months leading up to this first trial, two village girls, Betty Parris, 9, and Abigail Williams, 11, started to behave strangely, having "fits" (spasms) and making "foolish, ridiculous speeches." According to Salem Possessed by Paul Boyer, the town's physician suggested they were afflicted with witchcraft (in reality, the girls had been trying to teach other fortune telling), but for a while they found no one to blame. A month passed and the fits spread to more girls, most of whom were between the ages of 12 and 19. When pressed by adults, Parris and Williams finally named Good, Osborne, and Tituba as those responsible for their afflictions.

By the time they were accused, all three women lived on the margins of Salem's society. Good was left in major debt after the death of her first husband. She and her second husband were essentially homeless and had to beg for money and food. Osborne was in her 50s which, at the time, made her an elderly woman, and she was rumored to have had premarital sex with the man who'd eventually become her second husband. Tituba had been taken from Barbados or South America (there's little historical record of her life) to Massachusetts, and many of the villagers believed she knew a thing or two about witchcraft.

None of the women were valued citizens, and thus weren't likely to be believed if they denied their accusers. And, in The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, Marilynne K. Roach writes that the questioning they underwent during their trials was all but designed to intimidate. The men who lead the examinations sought to prove the women guilty, while the girls who'd accused them sat in the courtroom and identified them as witches when asked, occasionally crying out and contorting in one of their "fits."

During her questioning, Good insisted on her innocence and pointed the finger at Osborne to deflect blame. Osborne failed to convince the court of her innocence and didn't think to accuse anyone else. Tituba, who would eventually confess to various forms of witchcraft including flight and signing the Devil's book, initially claimed that Good and Osborne were responsible for the young girls' afflictions.

According to In The Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, by Mary Beth Norton, the subsequent trials took a similarly antagonistic slant (relentless questioning and very vocal accusers), indicating just how little the magistrates and larger community cared about hearing the women's testimony. It's fair to say that mass hysteria, inspired by a recent smallpox outbreak and the Puritanical fear of the unknown, was partly to blame for the frenzy of the witch hunts and trials. But, nevertheless, the accused were assumed to be guilty from the outset.

Osborne died in prison in May 1692. Good was among those hanged in the first mass execution of the trials. After giving her full confession, Tituba was imprisoned until April 1693. She was one of the last "witches" to be released.

In the past year, "believe women" has become a battle cry, and the definition of a "witch hunt" has been publicly debated. As arcane as 17th century Salem may seem to us, the stories to come out of that era demonstrate how long women have been waiting to be heard — and yes, believed.

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