The new NBC series, Who do You Think You Are opened on Friday with an episode featuring actress Sarah Jessica Parker on a journey to discover where she came from. Turns out, her ninth-great-grandmother was accused as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.
Esther Elwell of Gloucester was accused on November 5, 1692. Lucky for Esther, Governor Phipps had dissolved the Court of Oyer & Terminer on October 29, and the spectral evidence with which she was accused was no longer admissible in court.
Sarah Jessica Parker's trip down ancestry lane, and the incredibly beautiful spring weather we are enjoying as I write this, may inspire you to want to get out and about in Salem, and explore the Witch Trial History on foot. Here is a bit of history and a few relevant sites that you may want to include in your trek.
A shorter version of this article is printed in the 2010 Salem Visitor Guide.
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692
In the winter of 1692, Salem was a Puritan community overcome by fear. Fear of the bitter cold. Fear of disease. Fear of the Native Americans. Fear of the Devil, whom this devout Christian community blamed for any ill that came to their families. We know that this fear was the catalyst for a hysteria that swept through this region, from Boston to the south to the Andovers to the north. Hundreds were accused of practicing witch craft, 19 were hung, and one man was pressed to death.
Salem residents in the 18th and 19th century were, understandably, embarrassed by what happened here in the 17th century. The old gaol (jail) was torn down, any
evidence of a hanging tree or gallows were destroyed, and the city moved on into an era of incredible prosperity and success without looking back. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Salem developed into a destination for people looking for information on the Salem Witch Trials. Playwri Arthur Miller came to Salem to research his play, “The Crucible,” which used the people of the Salem Witch Trials to depict the anti-Communism Witch Hunt that was happening in America under the direction of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today the stories of the Salem Witch Trials are ingrained in the American story as a dark and regrettable period of fear and accusation. The City of Salem has worked to identify and preserve the sites connected to the Witch Trials of 1692 through plaques and, in the case of the Corwin House, architectural preservation.
The Corwin House, or “Witch House,” was built prior to 1675. It is the only structure still standing that has direct ties to the Witch Trials of 1692. This was the home of Judge Jonathon Corwin, who served as magistrate during the Trials. Corwin investigated the claims of spectral evidence and diabolical activity being called out against members of the community. While Corwin was one of the judges who performed the initial examinations of accused witches, recent research indicates that these examinations did not happen in the house. The Witch House is located at 310 Essex Street.
On April 11, 1692, Sarah Cloyce and John and Elizabeth Proctor were examined at the First Church in Salem, which was located near the current location of the Daniel Low Building at the corner of Essex and Washington Street. A plaque on the Low Building reads, here stood from 1634 until 1673 the First Meeting House erected in Salem. No structure was built earlier for congregational worship by a church formed in America. It was occupied for secular as well as religious uses… Today, the First Church in Salem congregation worships at 316 Essex Street in a stunning English Gothic church that was dedicated in 1836.
In 1692 the courthouse in Salem stood in the middle of what is now Washington Street near the intersection of Lynde Street. A marker on the Masonic Temple at 70 Washington Street reads: Nearly opposite this spot stood in the middle of the street a building devoted from 1677 until 1718 to municipal and judicial uses. In it in 1692 were tried and condemned for witchcraft most of the nineteen persons who suffered death on the gallows. Giles Corey was here put to trial on the same charge and refusing to plea was taken away and pressed to death. In January 1693, twenty-one persons were tried here for witchcraft of whom eighteen were acquitted and three condemned, but later set free together with about 150 accused persons in a general delivery which occurred in May. The original courthouse was torn down in 1760.
The Salem jail that was used during the Trials was located on St. Peter Street, which was then called “Prison Lane,” near its intersection with Federal Street. Today there is a plaque on the building at 30 Federal Street noting the site of the former jail.
The condemned were taken from the jail to Gallows Hill. (There is a park outside of downtown Salem called “Gallows Hill Park” at the intersection of Hanson and South Streets. However, historians’ opinions differ on the precise location of the executions.) The true location of the hangings and the victims' graves have been lost to history. It was unlawful to give the condemned a Christian burial, and it is believed that most were buried in a mass grave behind the hanging tree or gallows. Some historical reports claim family members would return by the dark of night to bring their loved ones home and bury them in unmarked graves on the family’s property.
The Salem Witchcraft Trial Memorial is where we remember the victims of the trials. Located on Liberty Street behind the Charter Street Cemetery, it has twenty benches, one for each of the condemned, that are each inscribed with the victim’s name, date of execution, and method of execution. The entrance to the memorial has the words of the condemned inscribed on the stones, with stones falling onto the words to symbolize the community’s refusal to hear the claims of innocence. Six locust trees, chosen because they are the last to flower and the first to lose their leaves, represent the stark injustice of the trials.
Salem has three cemeteries that are significant to the Witch Trials of 1692. The Howard Street Cemetery is said to be where Giles Corey was taken to be pressed to death, a torture chosen because he refused to stand trial. George Corwin, who served as the high sheriff of Essex County in 1692, and his brother Jonathon Corwin, the Salem merchant who lived in the “Witch House” when he served as magistrate during the trials, are both buried in the Broad Street Cemetery. A white obelisk marks their grave.
The Charter Street Cemetery is the final resting place for at least two members of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, including physician Bartholomew Gedney and magistrate John Hathorne, who was the great-great grandfather of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. Also buried here is Mary Corry, the first wife of Giles Corey, who died in 1684. Giles’ third wife, Martha Corey, was hanged for Witchcraft during the trials.
After the Salem Witch Trials were over, wealthy Salem merchant Phillip English returned to Salem. He had been accused in 1692, but escaped and fled to New York. Sheriff George Corwin seized English’s property, and when English returned to Salem in 1693 he found his home ransacked and his warehouses empty. Tradition says that after Corwin’s death in 169, English seized his corpse and held it until Corwin’s executors paid him reparations for his losses in 1692. In 1733 St. Peter’s Church was established through the generous support of Philip English. Upon his death, English was buried beneath the church chapel.
Hundreds were accused during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and there are thus hundreds of stories from the trials that stretch from Salem through communities in Massachusetts’ north shore and Merrimack Valley. You can learn more of these stories at the Salem Witch Museum, where an audio visual presentation provides an introduction to the Trials and the second exhibit addresses the evolving perception of Witches in the world. The Witch Dungeon Museum has a dramatic reenactment of one of the trials and a tour of recreated dungeons where you can see how horrid the conditions in the old jail were. The Witch History Museum tells more stories of 1692 through life-sized scenes. The Salem Wax Museum traces Salem’s history including the Witch Trials through self-guided scenes. Cry Innocent: The People Verses Bridget Bishop recreates the pretrial of Bridget Bishop, and the audience is the jury.
However you choose to learn the stories of 1692 and wherever your exploration of Salem and the surrounding communities takes you, there are crucial lessons of tolerance and perspective here to learn. It is these lessons that inspire the businesses and community of Salem to continue telling the stories of 1692 into the twenty-first century.