No Witches Were Burned During the Salem Witch Trials

Myth: People convicted of witchcraft were burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials

Not in Salem...

Not in Salem…

When you think about people disposing of witches a few hundred years ago, you probably imagine a woman tied to a stake jutting up from a pile of smoking wood. The burning of witches has become so ingrained in witch-hunt canon that it’s a cliché. But the truth of the matter is that the burning of people convicted of being witches wasn’t all that common in England. By the time the colonies were set up, English law forbade burning people alive, which meant that no witches could be burned in the American colonies as a result of the trials.

The Salem Witch Trials are probably the most well-known American witch hunt. They took place between 1692 and 1693 in colonial Massachusetts, just as the European witch hunts were winding down. Previous to the European hunts—which started around 1300—the ability to perform “magic” was more accepted. For instance, people would use “magic” to heal others. Of course, if magic could be used for good, it could also be used for evil. This way of thinking set the stage for the Salem Witch Trials.

You see, Salem was going through a rough patch in the years leading up to the hunt. Refugees flooded into the town in 1689 following England’s war with France on American soil. The war displaced many people living in New York, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, and the extra mouths to feed in Salem put a strain on the town’s resources. This, in turn, stretched the division between Salem’s rich and poor, causing heated arguments which the local Puritans blamed on the Devil.  There was also a major feud going on between two major families, the Putnam and the Porter families, the former of which included one of original accusers.  Many in the region sided with one family or the other in the feud, causing tensions to be extremely high.

That same year, Reverend Samuel Parris became Salem’s first ordained minister, an appointment that wasn’t well-received. Parris was also greedy, causing more controversy in the town.

In January 1692, three young girls began having “fits”—they would scream, mutter strange sounds, bark like dogs when addressed, become unable to concentrate on tasks given, and contort themselves into “impossible” positions. This began occurring after the girls started experimenting with fortune telling to try to figure out how their lives would end up and what their husbands would do for a living. (This sort of thing was quite common at the time, such as one tradition using mistletoe put under one’s pillow at night and then burned the next day.)

One of the girls was Reverend Parris’ daughter, Betty Paris (9 years old), and another was his niece, Abigail Williams (11 years old).  The third was Ann Putnam (12 years old), a member of one of the powerful families involved in the family feud going on in the region.

When prayer didn’t fix the problem, the Reverend called in a doctor who was unable to explain what was causing the fits.  He declared that something supernatural was affecting the girls. In February, the victims of the “devil’s work” confessed to a judge that three women were responsible for giving them fits: Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and Tituba, the Parris’ slave.

The women were interrogated, but only Tituba confessed to the crime. All three were later put in prison—not burned at the stake.

Even though the three suspected witches were put away, the people of Salem became paranoid. In a fit of mass hysteria- and probably a dash of simply taking advantage of the situation to get rid of enemies- fingers were being pointed at supposed witches left and right, even for the mildest of offenses. When the hunt ended, some 200 people had been accused of witchcraft. However, only 20 people were executed.

The first to be formally executed was Bridget Bishop. She was perceived as a promiscuous woman and a gossip. (Clearly, she must be a witch!) Though she pleaded innocent, the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer—the court set up to deal with the witch trials—found her guilty. On June 10, 1692 she was hanged on what would become known as Gallows Hill.

Eighteen more women followed in Bishop’s footsteps, swinging on Gallows Hill. Additionally, one elderly man named Giles Corey was pressed to death by heavy stones. Many more people were tried and sent to prison, and several of them died while incarcerated, including Sarah Osborne, one of the first “witches” convicted.

Funny enough, Tituba, who confessed to witchcraft right from the start, was simply let go a year after being imprisoned when someone paid to get her out of jail.

As the Salem Witch Trials demonstrate, the most common way to dispose of a witch was by public hanging. In Britain, witchcraft was considered “a crime against the government and a felony punishable by hanging.” As the American colonies were still under British rule at the time, hanging was how Salem dealt with the witches. Witches were also sometimes beheaded or drowned, and yes, sometimes burned alive in other parts of the world.

It’s likely that burning witches went down in history as the more popular method of execution because of what happened to the witches after they died. Authorities commonly burned the remains of the witch in order to protect themselves and the town against any evil she might wish upon them in death.

Not too long after the Salem Witch Trials, in 1702, the General Court declared that the trials had been unlawful after many of those involved in the convictions confessed that they had made their decisions in error. In 1711, the heirs of the victims were given £600 to ease the blow of losing a loved one, and the victims’ good reputations were restored. It wasn’t until 1957, however, that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events.

As for the original little girls who started the whole thing, one of them, Ann Putnam, later apologized in 1706, stating:

 I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ninety-two; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several people for grievous crimes, whereby their lives was taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though, what was said or done by me against any person, I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.

And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humble for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, whose relations were taken away or accused.

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Bonus Facts:

  • While the Salem Witch Trials and many other witch hunts around the world, had a higher percentage of women accused of witchcraft, men were also sometimes accused, as shown in the case of Giles Corey. Interestingly, though, in Russia there were far more males accused of witchcraft than females.
  • During the trial of Sarah Good, her four-year-old daughter, Dorothy was questioned. Dorothy was reasonably frightened, and her mumbled answers were taken as evidence against her mother.
  • The trials faced some controversy when it came to the evidence they established against the defendants. Many people came forward with “spectral evidence”—that is, dreams and visions they had that proved the accused was a witch. (I wonder why having “visions” weren’t counted as witchcraft? ;-)) Minister Cotton Mather and his father, Harvard administrator Increase Mather, protested the use of spectral evidence after the first hanging. However, the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer ignored their requests. It wasn’t until October that the Special Court was abolished and a new one set up which disallowed spectral evidence. The new court only condemned three people out of 56 accused.
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  • So you claim that since it was against the law to burn people at the stake at the time of the trails it didn’t happen? So apparently Colonial America was a great place to live… there weren’t vigilantes and no one ever broke the law!

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Aaron: You are taking a small quote and seemingly ignoring the rest of the article. Read the whole thing and if you like, peruse the references. What happened to the people involved is well documented and nobody was burned at the stake.

  • “…English law forbade burning people alive, which meant that no witches were burned in the American colonies.”
    That statement, and its conclusion is ridiculous.
    A is illegal, therefore A never happen(s/ed).
    If that was even a remotely plausible conclusion, there’d be no need for criminal courts/lawyers/jails/etc.
    (Not to mention it was English law, that may or may not have been closely followed in any particular circumstance.)

    • Daven Hiskey

      @dabble53:I added “as a result of the trials”, as people seem to be getting hung up *crickets* on that sentence. Thanks for pointing out the ambiguity. 🙂

  • Nice article thanks.
    I’ll show this to all those new agers that think they burned at the stake in Salem. LOL.

    It’s kind of sad that she cops out in the end and wants to blame the whole thing on Satan. Your choice, your culture, if you want a scape goat. Go get a goat.


  • Since the beginning of society sorcery and witchcraft has been related to cause misfortune, diseases, death, extortion, etc. upon its victims. It’s a growing practice that has been expanded worldwide and has no limitations or restriction to its practitioners. But why would a practice that has brought so much controversy in all times, and death through history still be allowed to be practiced? Why would such a practice call so much attention and demand (to the point that even teenagers are practicing it) if it weren’t effective, possible or real? We are talking that these sorceries have been blamed of killing innocent people with their supernatural powers. Perhaps the best way to solve this problem it’s by prohibiting its practice worldwide. If victims can’t prove what these practitioners have done to them, because it is all made by paranormal powers, then why should we allow such a bizarre practice to be used in our societies? It has always been associated with an easy way to acquire wealth. It has also been related to healing powers, finding love and good luck and if it is possible to achieve any of that, why wouldn’t it be possible to be used to do the opposite?

    • Woah Diana Katz. Slow down there. Are you really, in this day and age, talking about banning witchcraft? By your own words almost every religion in the world should be banned since almost every religion in the world has “brought so much controversy…and death” and even Christianity has “been related to cause misfortune, diseases, death, extortion” as you put it. It sounds to me like the witches that were hanged weren’t the ones killing/harming people. It was the puritans who did that by crying “Witch!” and then hanging those poor people on Gallows Hill. And I certainly wouldn’t gauge if something was real or not by whether or not teenagers were doing it.
      I don’t mean to start a fight in the comments section here, I was just a bit flabbergasted when I read that woman’s comment.
      Loved the article though! 🙂

    • It was banned. Therefore, 20 people and 2 dogs died in Salem and countless more in Europe in the late medieval period and countless more in Africa, India and the Middle East today. Fostering hatred and difference has never helped a society.
      Check the law in your area. Witchcraft was probably illegal until much later than you think. In most places it wasn’t until the 1950s that these dangerous laws were repealed.

  • This should definitely include that Sarah Good was in fact hanged.

  • Historian Carol Karlsen writes in her book “The Devil in the shape of a woman” that it was Dorcas Good, not Dorothy Good, who was thrown in jail because of her mother. Selma R. Williams writes about Dorcas Good in “Riding the Nightmare”:

    “The child, tainted by being the daughter of a witch, was thrown into prison with her mother, despite having given supporting testimony. Starved, confined for many months, and probably chained along with other witches, she was spared the gallows, but driven mad for the rest of her life.” Sad tale.

    I’m currently writing a project on the whole ordeal. Quite interesting! And yes, they WERE hanged, whatever people may ignorantly claim. Pick up a history book, it’s educational 🙂

    • “Dorcas” was a mistake made on one piece of paper by one magistrate. The girl’ correct full name was Dorothy. You might be interested in a book “Six Women of Salem” by Marilynne K. Roach for your project.

  • Good to know, here in Australia we didn’t have witches which is interesting!

    • Yes there are witches, in Australia. They came out here back in the 1800’s

      • First, why the 1800s?
        Second, modern witchcraft and the Salem accusations are not associated in anything but name. People who call themselves witches today do not mean the same thing as the executioners believed during witch hunts. Modern witches are not what women were accused of being in 1692.

    • The civilisation that brought the Christian concept of witchcraft to Australia arrived in 1788, nearly 100 years after Salem, during which time the world changed a lot. Australia was also never an oppressively religious society like Salem was, and Australia has always observed separation of church and state.

  • Though I realize that no witches were burned at the stake in Salem, I have records of at least one person executed that way in the colonies, that of Thomas Cornell for alledgedly murdering his mother. This was the same Cornell family for which Cornell University would eventually be named.

    • I take that back, I just checked some more and it says he was hanged, not burned at the stake. I guess the other source was one of those that got carried away with “witch execution” meaning burned at the stake. Sorry!

  • Me and a buddy used to laugh when we read about the Salem Witch trials in Junior High. We couldn’t walk past each other in the hall without cracking up -Tibitchuba

  • One fact that is blatantly missing is the fact that this occurred in the village of Salem, not the town of Salem. The town of Salem was a sea port, and was used to hearing all sorts of stories from various sailors and the village was 12 miles west of the town who were not very friendly to any seafarers who wished to settle there.

  • Interestingly, one of the men hanged in Salem in 1692 was my ancestor, Samuel Wardwell. A farmer from Andover, Mass. His wife was jailed with him for some time; the family lost their farm; the son eventually sued the colony and received almost 36 pounds for his loss. There are several good books written about the witch trials; one book is about Rev. Samuel Seawell; the only minister to recant his accusations of guilty for all 25 people killed that summer and fall. He spent the rest of his life attempting to get the other ministers of the colonies to recant, which did not happen. His living ancestor wrote the book, her dissertation for her PhD in American History.

    I think Samuel was a brave man. He was accused and innocent. His sons survived and they some how went north to Maine, where his descendants lived and my great grandfather was born; eventually making his way to Ohio.

    • Thanks for sharing. Because of the strained economic tension, one of the major drivers of the witch trials was real estate. In those days, when you were imprisoned, your land was forfeited to the state and auctioned off upon conviction (on top of paying room and board to the jail!) This meant that a conniving neighbor who wanted your land could simply point their finger at you and make a go for it. Land-hungry parents would actually manipulate their kids to accuse others for a chance to buy land on the cheap. This obviously happened to your ancestor.

      The article didn’t mention that what really stopped all the hoopla was when the governor’s wife was finally accused – at that point, he was like “We’ve gone too far,” and put an end to the admission of spectral evidence in the courts, which is what put an end to things. Politics!

      Anther interesting fact is that a latter descendant of the Putnam family is largely credited with saying, “Don’t fire till you see the whites of their eyes,” during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

  • Interesting to note that theres a good amount of proof that another inciting factor was that the area produced rye and it was a very rainy year meany rotting rye which produces LSD

    • Hi – The ergot on rye theory is very interesting, but science does not entirely back it up. So few people were “afflicted” that a form of mass food poisoning may not be likely. The patterns of the accusations by the afflicted – such as girls accusing people who cast doubt on their afflictions also seems to argue for other explanations.

      I believe I read at one point that for the ergot to be the problem, the population would also have to be vitamin A deficient. (Does anyone know more about this?)

      • Most sources believe the hysteria to be a form of group psychology rather than ergotism. Children would start to mimic the accusers, fall into fits, scream etc.when in the accusers came into the room. You can’t catch ergotism that way. The theory is interesting, but limited in scope.

  • *formally
    It wasn’t until 1957, however, that Massachusetts *formerly apologized for the events.

  • Leah Smock age 22 was burned alive as a witch in Battletown KY in Meade County in 1840. While she was alone at her parents farm a posse came to the farm and locked her in or tied her up in the smokehouse and set it on fire burning her to death. As far as it is known she is the only known person to have been burnt as a witch in the United States since Salem witches were hanged or stoned to death. Her ghost was seen by her mother and has been seen by numerous people every since. To get more info about Leah you can visit the Meade County Tourism site and go to Fishers Features Haunted Meade County and her story is on the page. There is very limited info on her on the internet but she is listed in a couple genealogy sites.

  • England outlawed burning at the stake in 1790 “The Treason Act,” yet this article claims that by the time the colonies were setting up, still under English rule, there was already a prohibition against burning. That timeline is not correct.

    • The Witchcraft Act of 1735 in England actually made it unlawful to accuse someone as a witch and made “witchcraft” itself not a crime. The only thing you could be charged with was a pretending to use witchcraft to commit fraud.

  • Does anyone know where the picture above was taken? It looks too refined to be old but it also looks authentic.

    • The photo is indeed authentic, it was taken when Jahann Adelgrief was burnt as a witch in Konisberg in modern Germany on the 11 October 1636

      • “The photo is indeed authentic, it was taken when Jahann Adelgrief was burnt as a witch in Konisberg in modern Germany on the 11 October 1636”

        that’s a good one. i am rolling on the floor and laughing out loud.

  • the ergot theory makes a lot of sense.saw a documentary,ergot was a haluconogenic mold that grew on rye during heavy rain seasons.
    asia and other countries that have few historical accounts of witchcraft are areas where rye was not a widely grown grain.

  • the pic posted looks like a disaster waiting to happen?i would think the lower beam would burn through,and the man on the platform,albiet roasted to some degree,would topple onto onlookers….?

  • sorry,afterthought,the ergot mold would likely have affected some of the grain,but not all,leaving some to develope symptoms and some not.and mass hysteria causing further mayhem

  • Curious though, were the accused witches only hanged? (With the except of those who were pressed to death or drowning.) Was purposeful food poisoning a factor in any of the deaths by chance or a possible theory?
    This article was very interesting and helpful by the way 🙂

  • Question is — what floats on water? A duck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • DIE When You DIE!!!

    I’ve heard a strange theory. The ones in charge of the Witch Trials were actually Masons, not unlike the people who control most towns and government politics now a days, and actually killed a group of people studying the bible in their homes in secret… because just like Vatican, they didn’t want them understanding how that book really works.

  • What about Anne Askew? She was english, but she was burned at the stake in London on 16 July 1546. Though she was the only one recorded to to tortured in the Tower and burned alive at the stake, it could’ve happened to others in England as well. The english also had Joan of Arc burned at the stake. They must’ve been very hypocitical back then, claiming they never burned anyone, and yet they have done so. In a Wikipedia page, I found this: “In England, burning was a legal punishment inflicted on women found guilty of high treason, petty treason and heresy. Over a period of several centuries, female convicts were publicly burnt at the stake, sometimes alive, for a range of activities including coining and mariticide.”.

  • Good metaphor for todays human behavior…Often the mere ACCUSATION is all that is needed to assume guilt. Stoke Fake News (CNN and MSNBC will do) to spread the phony rumors Rumors….and voila…you have a Witch