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The BG News
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November 30, 2023

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New witch trial facts found

From June through September of 1692, 19 men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another 18 people were convicted but not hanged. During this time 145 men and women were accused of witchcraft in 22 different towns in Massachusetts.

Another man, over 80 years old, was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Everyone is familiar with the tale’s history.

But Marybeth Norton has uncovered new questions and answers that she presented to University students Friday.

Norton, a professor of history at Cornell University has been named one of the founding mothers in the new studies of the Salem Witchcraft Crisis. Her own ancestor, Ann Bradbury, was one of the accused witches who was set free when her husband bribed a jailer.

Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1997, Norton has dedicated four years to research and writing to answer questions that focused on identifying the accusers and the accused people.

Reading 18,000 court cases, Norton was looking for a way to compare the events of the trials.

“I wanted to see the contrast to what happened,” she said. “So the first thing I did was set up a daily and weekly calendar so that when I was taking notes, I would enter specific dates. I could tell you what day someone was accused, what day they went to trial. I could tell you all that happened on a particular day. There was a real rhythm to it.”

Through Norton’s calendar notes, she found that almost all the witchcraft accusations were made on Mondays, after the Sunday sermon. She set up files for each of the accusers so that every bit of information she found on an accuser was in her computer files. But Norton didn’t focus her research on just women accused of witchcraft. In fact, she said, 25 percent of the accused witches were men.

“I was still interested in the men that were accused in 1692 because you wouldn’t think of men as being witches,” she said.

Reverend George Burroughs was one man that Norton focused her studies on. Former minister of Salem Village, Burroughs was a prominent personality being accused of witchcraft, which Norton believes started the skepticism of the trials.

“George Burroughs was the highest status man that was convicted,” she said. “I thought Burroughs would be important because I read in letters that people thought he was a great healer. He was their leader.”

Seeking answers to understand why Salem was different and why the accusations spiraled out of control, Norton tried not to identify with the accused as she poured over court documents.

“I put myself in the shoes of the judges and the accusers,” she said. “They are the actors. They were making the decisions. I wanted to know what their motivations were.”

Norton began to believe that the Salem Witchcraft Crisis was a way for people to blame the wars of the time on the devil.

“Many of the accused had background in King Philips War and the Indian war,” she said. “Most of the women were from prominent families that had their homes and family wiped out on the New England frontier. All of their relatives were killed and many of them became servants in Salem. They played this out in the courtrooms of Salem in 1692.”

According to Norton, it was easy to buy into a universal idea of witchcraft.

“To blame the war, to believe that the devil was behind the war was such an appealing answer for them,” she said.

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