Salem Witch Trials - Spectral Evidence

A group of girls between the ages of 12 and 20, known as the "circle girls," listened to the stories of Tituba (a West-Indian slave, likely from Barbados, who was owned by Rev. Samuel Parris). The group, from Salem Village, included:

  • Ann Putnam, Jr. 
  • Mary Walcott 
  • Elizabeth Hubbard
  • Betty Parris
  • Abigail Williams
  • Elizabeth Booth
  • Mercy Lewis, and 
  • Mary Warren.

Tituba’s stories were apparently lurid, which made the girls excited but caused them to feel guilty. Around January of 1692, they began to fall into trances. Sometimes they screamed and cried out. They even started throwing things around the room. They weren’t behaving like good Puritan girls.

The local physician, Dr. William Griggs, couldn’t find anything physically wrong with the girls. He concluded they must be under the influence of witchcraft.

Witchcraft? To a person, living in the 21st-century, this is a highly unusual conclusion to come from a doctor. The Puritans, however, believed in witchcraft and had no trouble accepting Dr. Griggs' "diagnosis."

Puritans also believed that witches could tempt or seduce people to become witches themselves. It was conceivable, within such a world view, that acting-out young people were struggling not to become witches themselves.

Parris questioned the girls. Relentlessly, he tried to find out who had afflicted these young people. Who was the witch among them?

Finally, nine-year-old Elizabeth ("Betty") Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams (Samuel Parris’ niece) identified Tituba as the culprit. The slave, who lived in the Parris home, had regaled the girls with stories and magic.

As a slave, Tituba was the logical choice. Of course, given her status, she had no one to defend her.

But the accusing girls - known as the “afflicted” ones - did not stop with Tituba. They also accused the town beggar, Sarah Good, another easy target. Sarah Good, in turn, accused another Salem Villager, Sarah Osburne.

The two Sarahs had something more in common than just being accused as a witch. Neither of these two women attended church (which was not an acceptable lifestyle in the eyes of their Puritan neighbors).

On the 1st of March, in 1692, the three accused women were brought to the meeting house of Salem Village. An assembled tribunal would determine whether there was any evidence of witchcraft against them. Magistrates John Hathorne (the great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne) and Jonathan Corwin presided over the inquiry.

While this proceeding was supposed to be informal, and objective, such events in 17th-century America were not like legal hearings today. The accused, trying to defend themselves, would have to answer the judges’ questions in public.

Hathorne, in particular, was more accusatory than impartial.

Seemingly supporting the accusers, Hathorne’s questions implied that he presumed the three women were guilty. Not only did he urge the women to confess, he encouraged them to name other witches. Years later, his great-grandson Nathaniel - who changed the spelling of his name to add a “w” - would be highly critical of such actions.

Not only did the magistrates handle this pretrial in suspect ways, they even allowed “spectral” evidence in the hearing. Such evidence, in 1692, was “evidence” that only the accused could see.

How could that be? Because the person who did the tormenting - that is, the accused - would not do the tormenting himself or herself. The tormenting would be carried-out by the accused’s “specter” (which could even take the form of a bird). It was the “specter,” not the person, who bit, pinched or otherwise tormented the accusing girls.

If this sounds far-fetched, as evidence in a court of law, consider this. Spectral evidence could not be seen by the judges, the audience or the accused. It could only be “seen” by the accusers. 

Even viewing such proceedings in light of 17th-century customs, it is fair to ask how spectral evidence could be allowed in court, let alone accepted as fact. But ... such were the rules in place during the legal proceedings in Salem during 1692.

In a deposition, before the pretrial began, Ann Putnam, Jr. swore under oath that the specter of Sarah Good tried to turn her into a witch by telling Ann to sign the Devil’s book. She also testified later, during the trial:

I saw the apparition of Sarah Good, which did torture me most grievously, but I did not know her name until the 27th of February, and then she told me her name was Sarah Good, and then she did prick me and pinch me most grievously, and also since, several times, urging me vehemently to write in her book, and also on the first day of March, being the day of her examination, Sarah Good did most grievously torture me, and also several times since, and also on the first day of March 1692, I saw the apparition of Sarah Good go and afflict and torture the bodies of Elizabeth Parris [Jr.], Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard. Also I have seen the apparition of Sarah Good afflicting the body of Sarah Bibber. (Testimony of Ann Putnam, Jr., given on June 28, 1692.)

John Hathorne questioned Sarah Good at the March 1st hearing:

(H) Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?

(G) None.

(H) Have you made no contract with the Devil?

(G) No.

(H) Why do you hurt these children?

(G) I do not hurt them. I scorn it.

(H) Who do you employ then, to do it?

(G) I am employing nobody.

(H) What creature do you employ then?

(G) No creature. But I am falsely accused.

Every time Sarah Good denied the accusations against her, the accusing girls engaged in convulsive fits. Screaming, they claimed that Sarah Good’s specter had attacked them in the courtroom.

These antics were considered strong evidence of Sarah’s guilt.

The same types of questions and answers produced the same types of behavior during the magistrate’s examination of Sarah Osburne.

Then Tituba testified, beginning on March 1, 1692.

Although she initially denied the same types of questions which Hathorne had put to the two earlier witnesses, Tituba suddenly changed course. Thereafter, she mostly gave Hathorne the answers he wanted to hear. (This change-of-course may have resulted from the reported beatings which Samuel Parris inflicted on Tituba during the days before the hearing.)

Among other things, she said:

The Devil came to me and bid me serve him.

Tituba’s testimony was beyond sensational. It is fair to believe that what she said—and how she said it—changed the course of the inquiry, giving credence to what may have seemed outlandish accusations before she told her story.

Telling Hathorne that she had signed the Devil’s Book, Tituba also said she had seen the names of Sarah Good and Sarah Osburne. (This, parenthetically, is interesting testimony coming from a witness who signed her name by making a mark because she could not read.) In addition, she claimed, there were six more names which she could not see.

People in the meeting-house room were stunned to hear this testimony. Who were the six other witches?

Life, in Salem Village, thereafter took a decidedly downward turn as people became more and more suspicious of each other. A real "witch hunt," with devastating consequences, was about to begin.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5184stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jun 02, 2016

Media Credits

Clip from "In Search of History - Salem Witch Trials" - online, courtesy History.com.  Copyright, History Channel, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes.

A&E Home Video

DVD Release Date:
April 26, 2005

Run Time:
50 minutes

Full documentary available, in DVD format, though Amazon.com and other retailers.


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"Salem Witch Trials - Spectral Evidence" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jul 18, 2019.
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