Which Witch?

In a small and fairly unremarkable town in the colony of Massachusetts, three women, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba were brought before local magistrates to answer charges of witchcraft on March 1, 1692. We know the town pretty well now—it’s called Salem, and 319 years ago today, their famous witch trials officially kicked off.

Most of us know the basic story: a group of girls and teenagers from the village used to get together to hear stories from Tituba, the minister Samuel Parris’s slave. But what started as innocent fun to pass the time during the long, bleak winter took a sinister turn when Parris’s daughter, Elizabeth, and niece, Abigail, started having fits and claimed they were being tortured by invisible entities. Soon, other girls in the circle began copying their behavior, and before long they were pointing fingers at Tituba; Sarah Good, a local vagrant; and Sarah Osborne, a woman who rarely went to church meetings. After being interrogated for several days, the women were sent to prison. Other accusations followed, and started to include well-respected members of the community, including some who, coincidentally enough, were having disputes with the afflicted girls’ families.

The paranoid church elders, hell-bent on eradicating Satan from their community, wound up arresting 150 people from Salem and surrounding villages and towns (including Sarah Good’s four year old daughter). Twenty-six went to trial and were convicted. Nineteen of the accused were executed by hanging, and one man, Giles Corey, was crushed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Of the first three accused, only Tituba survived the hysteria, which finally died away in mid-1693. Good was executed, and Osborne died in prison. Tituba, however, confessed to being a witch and was forgiven and her life spared, because that, after all, is the Christian thing to do.

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