Whatever happened to the accusers from the Salem witch trials?

June 15, 2007

Dear Cecil:

I've seen history shows about the Salem witch trials and the accusing girls' hysteria, but the narrative usually ends with the end of the trials. What happened to the accusers later? Did they recant or insist they told the truth? Were the girls shunned, or did people try to forget what had happened?

Let's see - 20 innocent people put to death, including 19 hanged and one crushed under stones. At least four others who died while imprisoned. The seizure of farms, equipment, and livestock from some of the families. Sorry, but you can't blame a lynching like that solely on the kids. A few of the players expressed remorse or otherwise paid a price, and collectively the colonists made a modest attempt to put things right. But if you're asking whether the guilty got their just deserts, e.g., disgrace, etc, the answer for the most part is no.

None of the accusers was tried, punished, or publicly reprimanded. Early in the trials one witness, Mary Warren, tried to back out, suggesting that the accusations were bogus. Her reward was to be sent to prison as a witch herself until she miraculously escaped the devil's clutches, confessed to her witchery, and was allowed to rejoin her fellow perjurers. Another accuser, Ann Putnam, made a public apology 14 years later - she asked the local parson to read a prepared statement in which she claimed she'd been deluded by Satan. A halfhearted measure, you may say, but none of the other girls did even that much.

One judge, Samuel Sewall, admitted he'd done wrong, but others, such as the presiding justice, deputy governor William Stoughton, remained stubbornly unrepentant. Members of the jury said they'd been unable to "withstand the mysterious delusion of the power of darkness and prince of the air." In other words, the devil made them do it. Though largely uncontrite, parson Samuel Parris, a driving force behind the witch hunt, did receive some punishment when the town, cash-strapped and feeling a little used, decided not to pay his salary. His congregation largely abandoned him, and he was finally paid about 80 pounds (roughly $24,000 now) to get lost.

Restitution was meager and long in coming, especially considering that even those found innocent had to pay their jailers for keeping them in prison. Owing about two shillings sixpence ($37.50) per week, many of those released had to mortgage their farms, borrow money, or sell themselves into indentured servitude. Philip English claimed 1,500 pounds in damages when his property was confiscated by sheriff George Corwin but was denied compensation. English got his revenge in the end, though. When Corwin died in 1697, English seized the body, holding it till the sheriff's family paid him 60 pounds 3 shillings ($18,045). After English himself died, the colony paid his heirs 200 pounds in compensation.

The colony declared January 15, 1697, as a day of fasting to repent the crimes, which I'm sure was a great comfort to the families and friends of the victims. Finally, in 1711 the sum of 578 pounds 12 shillings ($179,580) was allocated to compensate the survivors. The payouts seem a little hit-and-miss: some received 70 pounds and up, others got less than 8. An act pardoning only those witches whose families petitioned on their behalf was sent to the governor in 1710, but for unknown reasons he never signed it. Massachusetts didn't officially clear the names of all the convicted witches until 2001.

Confessions by witchcraft accusers historically have been rare, maybe because they figured they were in too deep or else honestly believed what they'd said. My assistant Bibliophage found just one instance, that of Elizabeth Blanchard of Littleton, Massachusetts. In 1720 she and two other children accused a local woman of tormenting them with witchcraft. No one was arrested, and years later the conscience-stricken Elizabeth came clean.

The Salem witch trials, incidentally, were no isolated incident. In 2004 Prestonpans, Scotland, pardoned 81 witches convicted in the 16th and 17th centuries for everything from allegedly brewing storms to sink King James VI's ship to owning a black cat. None of the descendants received any money, but a plaque was dedicated to the victims - small compensation considering that during Scotland's witch-hunting heyday 2,000 or more innocent people may have been executed.

More recently, Helen Duncan was arrested during World War II after holding a seance where she claimed the spirit of a sailor from HMS Barham told her his ship had been sunk. Problem was, the Barham's sinking was then still a military secret, and authorities feared Duncan might reveal details about the impending D-Day invasion, presumably also obtained from supernatural sources. She was tried under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and sentenced to nine months in jail. Although the act was repealed in 1951, the UK has refused to grant Duncan a posthumous pardon. With that ol' devil you never know.

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