Salem Witch Trials

Halloween is almost here and all the lawn trimmings with ghouls, ghosts, and goblins are popping up. It is a great time for the kids and parents to “Trick or Treat” their neighbors on this annual event and for a lot of us it was the only time we saw some of them during the year. We look at this as fun time for the kids, but there was a dark side to this in the late 17th century. I am not referring to Halloween directly, but to the hysteria surrounding witches.

During this era, there was a section of Framingham known as Salem’s End. Today, what remains of this Puritan village is Salem End Road, which extends from Oregon Road in Ashland all the way to just short of Framingham State College.

So what’s the connection between the Salem Witch Trials and Framingham? For that, we have to dig a little deeper. We will start with William and Joanna Towne. William and Joanna (Blessing) Towne immigrated to the Colonies in 1640. They settled in Salem Village, Mass (now Danvers) with their children on a land grant. For our discussion today, I would like to focus on three of their daughters: Rebecca, Mary, and Sarah.

Around 1645, their daughter Rebecca married Francis Nurse, a “tray maker” by trade. The couple had eight children, four boys and four girls. Property boundaries often pit neighbor against neighbor, and the Nurse’s found themselves in a battle with their neighbors, John and Edward Putnam. Adding to the fire was the arrival of the Reverend Samuel Parris. The Nurse family, along with others in the community, protested that the Reverend was not hired properly and joined the “anti Parris” committee seeking his removal. As you probably guessed, the Putnams were on the “pro Parris” committee setting the stage for a major confrontation with Nurse and his committee.

Living in Puritan times it was easy, and probably convenient, to blame a person’s behavior on the influence of the Devil. The Reverend Parris had a daughter Elizabeth (sometimes referred to as Betty), and a niece Abigail Williams, who began to show signs of bizarre behavior. A third child, Ann Putnam (there’s those pesky Putnams again), was a friend of the two girls, and also showed similar symptoms. Reverend Parris was concerned, and finally summoned William Griggs, the local physician, to examine his daughter. Griggs could not find a cause for their affliction and suggested that they were bewitched. What the physician didn’t consider was Reverend Parris brought a slave named Tituba back after a trip to Barbados. Tituba would sit around the circle of girls at night and tell them tales of witchcraft and demons. Coming as no surprise, the girls were profoundly influenced by Tituba’s tales and would often act out with unnatural physical expressions and go into fits.

The stage is now set. Obviously witchcraft is at play here, or at least according to the Reverend Parris. The next step is to indentify the evil influencers. Elizabeth’s aunt, Mary Sibley, ordered Tituba to bake a “Witch Cake.” A Witch Cake is a rye concoction laced with the urine of the afflicted. It is fed to a dog, and if the dog exhibits the same behavior of the afflicted then they are deemed bewitched. I could find no record of the dog’s behavior, but we probably can assume they thought it was affected.

Now that they were considered bewitched, the girls were questioned about the names of the witches. Reluctantly, Elizabeth named Tituba. The other girls named Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good. Sarah Good was an elderly woman who didn’t attend church regularly, and Sarah Osborne was a beggar who uttered strange words to you if alms were not forthcoming. Not a particularly bright thing to do during that era I would imagine.

With the accusations in place, an investigation was in order. Two Magistrates from Salem Town were brought in and during the questioning; Elizabeth, Abigail, and as many as six other girls would scream and tumble in fits on the floor. Both Sarahs maintained their innocence, but Tituba confessed to being a witch. And with her confession, Tituba implicated the two Sarahs saying that along with her they had signed the Devil’s book. With this “evidence,” the three women were sent to a Boston jail.

The accusations of witchcraft did not stop here. In March of 1692, Ann Putnam accused Martha Corey of afflicting her. Shortly afterward, Ann and the girls testified that Rebecca Nurse appeared as a spectre “hovering over and torturing” the girls. The only problem was that Rebecca was a 71 year old woman and generally accepted as a kind and generous soul. She is quoted at the trial: “I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely, what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of that He should lay such an affliction on me in my old age?”

By the summer of 1692 nearly 200 people were convicted of witchcraft. Mostly on “spectral evidence,” or the appearance of the witches in a dream, or in the dark of night. This activity caught the attention of the Royal Governor, William Pheps, who sent his own Court of Oyer and Terminer to preside over the trials. The first person tried under this court was Bridget Bishop. She was convicted and hanged on June 10, 1692. Next on the docket were Sarah Good, Sarah Wilds, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin, and Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca was originally acquitted of the charges, but the girls went into their rage on the meetinghouse floor again and the charge was brought back for reconsideration. Rebecca’s hearing was failing, and she didn’t respond to a question. The Court took this non-response as an admission of guilt and convicted her. All five women were hanged on June 19, 1692.

Next of the Towne girls, Mary Easty, was convicted of witchcraft and hanged along with seven others on Sept. 22, 1692. Mary petitioned the court and ministers before her death not to save her life, but to stop the bloodshed of innocent people.

Finally, there is sister Sarah Cloyes (Clayes, and other spellings). Sarah was also convicted of being a witch and sentenced to prison in Ipswich. But she escaped, or some sources say allowed to escape, to Framingham’s Salem’s End where she was hidden by friends. She was also alleged to have hidden in the “Witches Caves,” in what is now the Ashland Town Forest, to avoid recapture. By this time, however, support for the trials was waning, and by May of 1693 the Governor had pardoned the rest of the accused. Sarah petitioned the court for compensation, and received three gold sovereigns for the deaths of her sisters. Moving closer to our time, the movie “Three Sovereigns for Sister Sarah” portrayed the lives of these three sisters who fell victim to the ignorance and panic of the time.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions