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10 June 2010

On this day in history: First execution in Salem witch trials, 1692

Between February 1692 and May 1693, the fear of witchcraft drove the communities of three counties in the colonial state of Massachusetts into a panic that cost the lives of at least twenty-five people.

The hysteria began when two young cousins, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams (aged nine and twelve respectively) began to suffer from uncontrollable fits and behave in an unruly manner. Soon other girls in Salem village began behaving in a similar manner. With no obvious explanation for this behaviour, the villagers suspected that it was the work of witches.

Initially, three women had accusations levelled against them. Each woman lived on the margins of the dominant puritan society: Tituba a servant of non-European ethnicity who accused the other two while under interrogation; Sarah Good, who relied on charity to survive; and, Sarah Osborne, who married her indentured servant and rarely attended church.

Over the next few months, a spate of accusations resulted in a series of arrests in Salem and nearby villages. Those arrested included two churchgoing women: moral propriety was no longer a protection against accusation. By the end of May, the magistrates held sixty-two people in custody. Early the next month the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem to prosecute the cases.

The first case brought before the Chief Magistrate, William Stoughton, was that of the fifty-nine year old Bridget Bishop, who had a reputation for being outspoken and dressing in a flamboyant manner by puritan standards. Her trial took place on 2nd June without a counsel for the defence. She was found guilty the same day and sentenced to execution by hanging.

On the 10th June 1692, Bridget Bishop was hanged - the first of fourteen women and four men to suffer that fate before the hysteria had run its course. In October 1711, the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (the grand title of the state legislature) passed an act exonerating twenty-two of the executed, but not Bridget Bishop. 1957 another act exonerated the rest of those executed as a result of the witch trials, but only one - Ann Pudeator - was named. Finally, in 2001 the Court passed an act declaring all the accused to have been innocent.

The University of Virginia hosts the web pages of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project - an excellent collection of primary source materials.

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