Massachusetts: Salem Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This town was the site of the infamous witch trials of 1692. It was also the port of origin for trade with the Caribbean and Asia during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many historic buildings from that period still stand in Salem.

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Salem, MA 01970

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Salem’s place in American history has been ensured by the witch trials of 1692; however, its major contribution to America was as a pioneer in trade with Asia in the eighteenth century. With the huge profits from that trade, Salem shipowners and merchants built some of the grandest homes of the time, and a remarkable number of these houses have survived. Some of the most elegant houses in America’s Northeast–many of them designed by Samuel McIntire, a master of the Federal style–can be found in Salem, and Chestnut Street is architecturally one of America’s most important streets.

The Founding of the Town

The founding of Salem really began on Cape Ann, in an area near what is now Gloucester. A group of merchants from Dorchester, England–called the Dorchester Adventurers–arrived there in 1623 and 1624 and established a plantation. Everything went wrong. The fishing vessels met various disasters, the price of fish plummeted, and the men fell to bickering.

In 1625, Roger Conant was invited to come from Nantasket to take over the governance of the colony. According to John White, rector of Dorchester’s Trinity Church, Conant had a reputation as a “religious, sober, and prudent gentleman”; still, prosperity eluded the enterprise. Some of the settlers returned to England, while others went with Conant to a peninsula called Naumkeag in the autumn of 1626. (Naumkeag is an Indian word for “fishing place.”)

Back in England, the Dorchester Adventurers agreed to advance money to shore up Naumkeag, but only if a group of trustworthy men could be found to make the voyage there. John Endecott (spelling of the name later changed to “Endicott”) took up the challenge. Endecott arrived in Naumkeag on September 9, 1628, as the colony’s new governor, accompanied by about fifty people. Roger Conant and three men waded into the water and carried Endecott to land on their shoulders.

Not surprisingly, there arose some conflicts between the old planters and the new settlers, but Conant managed to smooth over the difficulties. In honor of the two groups’ compromise, the name of the settlement was changed to Salem (derived from the Hebrew word for “peace”).

The first winter after Endecott’s arrival was a terrible one. He suffered a personal tragedy when his wife died. The colony was overwhelmed with the problems of diseases imported by those who had made the sea voyage. With no medical facilities, the colony was decimated, with barely enough survivors to nurse the sick and bury the dead.

As the survivors persevered and the years passed, a schism developed between the Salem farmers, whose area became known as Salem Village (now Danvers), and the residents of Salem Town. For example, the farmers objected to the heavy burden placed on them by having to share the duties of keeping the night watch. Since some of them lived as far as ten miles from Salem Town, they argued to the Massachusetts’ General Court (the colony’s legislature) that the duty was unduly onerous. The court exempted from watch duties those living more than four miles away, but Salem Town paid no attention to the verdict, and in 1669 the town sued two farmers for refusing to participate in the watch.

Proximity to the town also played a pivotal role in the villagers’ desire to build their own church. Farmers and their families were expected to travel to Salem Town each week for religious services. In March, 1672, the Salem Town meeting allowed Salem Village to erect its own meetinghouse and hire its own minister. After a series of contentious relationships with three ministers (one of whom, William Burroughs, was eventually accused of witchcraft and hanged), the residents of Salem Village engaged Samuel Parris as their minister. It was in his home that the witchcraft proceedings apparently began.

The Witch Trials

Historians disagree about the source of the bizarre behavior of the ten girls and young women (ages ranged from nine to twenty) who “cried out” various Salem residents as witches. They even disagree on the facts of the inquisition. Chadwick Hansen, who believes that three of those hanged were indeed witches, says that a most important factor in Rebecca Nurse’s case was that she was questioned on the same day as Dorcas Good (a five-year-old who confessed to being a witch). Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum write that Dorcas Good was interrogated on March 23, 1692, and Rebecca Nurse a day later.

According to the Reverend John Hale, a pastor to the nearby village of Beverly and author of a book published in 1702 on the trials, one of the girls suspended an egg white in a glass in an attempt to learn her future husband’s occupation, only to be confronted by “a specter in the likeness of a coffin.” Two girls in Reverend Parris’s household–his daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail Williams–subsequently fell ill, as did several of their friends. Parris sought medical attention for them, but the physician was dumbfounded and concluded that the girls were bewitched.

The girls were unable to respond to questions about the source of their torments, leading Mary Sibley, the aunt of one of the afflicted, to persuade Tituba and John Indian (two slaves Parris had brought with him from Barbados) to bake a witch cake–meal mixed with the urine of the afflicted children. After being baked, it was fed to a dog, apparently in the belief that the dog would suffer torments similar to those of the bewitched girls. When Parris learned of this experiment, he denounced Sibley from the pulpit.

The cake apparently unleashed the tongues of the girls, because they were able to identify three tormenters–Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. According to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, writing in 1936, “At this point a good spanking administered to the younger girls, and lovers provided for the older ones, might have stopped the whole thing.” However, such an easy solution was not to be.

On February 29, 1692, the three women were arrested. On the following day, Judge John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, members of the provincial legislature, rode from Salem Town and began to question the women. Hathorne behaved more as a prosecutor than an impartial judge, as this passage from his questioning of Sarah Good illustrates:

Hathorne: Sarah Good, what evil spirit have you familiarity with?

Good: None.

Hathorne: Why do you hurt these children?

Good: I do not hurt them. I scorn it.

Hathorne: Who do you employ, then, to do it?

Good: I employ nobody.

Hathorne: What creature do you employ, then?

Good: No creature, but I am falsely accused.

While Good and Osborne protested their innocence, Tituba confessed, in somewhat lurid detail. She said that the devil who had come to her was “a thing all over hairy, all the face hairy, and a long nose.” She described a book he brought with him, in which she had made a mark, and broomstick rides with Good and Osborne. She also reported that the two women had familiars: Good had a cat and a yellow bird, and Osborne had a thing with “wings and two legs and a head like a woman.”

The three were sent to jail. Osborne died of natural causes in May. Tituba remained and was eventually sold, because she could not pay the jailer’s fees. (One of the additional hardships for the accused was that prisoners were required to pay for their lodging.) Sarah Good was one of those executed.

Two important legal issues were raised in these first hearings. The first (and one that was to haunt the proceedings) was that of spectral evidence–“specters” seen only by those afflicted. For example, Ann Putnam claimed to see a yellow bird on a preacher’s hat as it hung on a hook near the pulpit. The bird was visible to no one else. The other issue was whether the devil could assume the shape of innocent persons. While Sarah Osborne denied the charges against her, she speculated that the devil might have assumed her person to torment the children.

During the proceedings, the afflicted girls were in the courtroom and often burst out with reports of attacks by the accused or visions of the accused’s familiars.

The first three women named as witches could be described as outcasts: a slave and two old women of dubious reputations. The fourth woman identified as a witch, Martha Corey, was a member in good standing of the church of Salem Village. She had been accused by Ann Putnam, who was the most vociferous of the afflicted girls. The entire Putnam family was involved in accusations against forty-six alleged witches.

The accusations went on, and the jails filled, but there were no trials because, technically, Salem had no government. The Massachusetts Bay Company’s charter had been revoked by Charles II in 1684. The Reverend Increase Mather led a commission to England to negotiate a new charter. He returned in May, 1692, with both the charter and the new governor, Sir William Phips, whom he had chosen personally.

One of Phips’s first acts was to appoint a special court to deal with the witchcraft accusations. It began its work on June 2 and at that time tried just one person, Bridget Bishop, who was found guilty and hanged on June 10. The jailings, trials, and executions continued until October. During the course of the trials, one of the judges, Nathaniel Saltonstall, resigned, and one of the afflicted girls, Mary Warren, said that her testimony had been false and that the other girls “did but dissemble.”

The most controversial of the accusations was that against Rebecca Nurse, by all accounts a woman of great piety. When told that she was under suspicion, Nurse said, “I am as innocent as the child unborn. But surely, what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of, that he should lay such an affliction on me in my old age?” The jury initially found Nurse innocent, but the accusers unleashed hideous cries and one of the judges expressed himself dissatisfied with the verdict. The jury decided to reconsider. When asked to explain a statement she had made, Nurse apparently did not hear the question (being old and deaf) and stood mute. That convinced the jury of her guilt.

On October 3, Increase Mather read to the Boston clergy Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, a direct attack he had written on the concept of spectral evidence. By the end of October, the special court was dissolved and the witch hunt ended.

By its conclusion, nineteen people and two dogs had been hanged, and Giles Corey (husband of Martha) had been pressed to death. No one is sure why he submitted to that incredibly painful end. The sentence resulted from his refusal to enter a plea either of innocence or of guilt; when the court asked him to plead, he had remained silent. Some say that he did so to protect his family’s property, since the property of a convicted witch could be confiscated. Others believe that he was denying the court’s right to try him.

An Important Center for Trade

Though the other chapter in Salem’s history–that involving trade with Asia–is not so well known, it is far more important in the history of the United States. In 1636, the Reverend Hugh Peter, who succeeded Roger Williams as Salem’s preacher, realized that the land in the Salem area was not suitable to farming and that a local industry was needed. Salem fishing boats were soon voyaging to Newfoundland and Cape Cod and bringing back mackerel, haddock, and cod. Though Salem ships were never involved in the infamous Triangular Trade (importing West Indies sugar and molasses to New England, sending New England rum to Africa, and bringing slaves to the West Indies plantations), several Salem fortunes were built on selling supplies (such as cod and horses) to the plantations.

Two men stand out among the early merchants. Philip English (who came from the Isle of Jersey) at one time owned outright or held a share in some twenty vessels trading in Barbados, Suriname, and the Channel Islands. English and his wife were later among those accused in the 1692 witchcraft trials, but they were able to escape to New York. The other prominent merchant was Captain John Turner, who died at age thirty-six after making a fortune in trade with Barbados and building a house later immortalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables.

The series of acts passed by the British Parliament in the 1760’s, which ultimately led to the American Revolution, divided the allegiances of Massachusetts’s two major ports. Salem tended to remain loyal to the British Crown, unlike its more radical neighbor, Boston. In fact, the British felt sufficiently safe in Salem to move the seat of the colony’s government there. When the General Court met in Salem, however, it supported Boston, and the community staged its own version of the Boston Tea Party. The governor returned to Boston.

During the American Revolution itself, Salem contributed to the maritime war effort in two ways. Over the course of the war, 158 Salem vessels were outfitted as privateers, authorized to capture British ships. Together they seized 458 British vessels. Some ships continued to trade while carrying letters of marque, authorizing them to capture British ships during commercial voyages.

Ironically, the news of peace was not entirely welcome in Salem because of the enormous profits many had realized in privateering. Chief among those was Elias Hasket Derby, whose wartime raids had made him America’s first millionaire. Derby’s prosperity continued after the war. In 1784, his ship Light Horse was the first American vessel in the Baltic, when it called at St. Petersburg with a cargo of West Indies sugar. Two years later, his ship The Grand Turk was the first to go from New England to Canton (China) via the Cape of Good Hope. He also sent ships to Calcutta, Bombay, and Manila. Though Derby had made his fortune in government-sanctioned thievery, he forbade his captains to transport slaves on his ships.

The chief rivals of the Derby family were the Crowninshields (though Elias Hasket Derby married Elizabeth Crowninshield and numerous Crowninshields trained on Derby ships). The Crowninshields themselves made history during their travels, though not in so economically rewarding a manner as the Derbys: In 1797, Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant seen in America to Salem. He paid $450 for it and charged adults a quarter and children nine pence to see it. The elephant refused to accommodate riders, shaking them off time after time, stole bread from the pockets of spectators, and took the cork from a bottle of porter, which it proceeded to drink. Crowninshield eventually sold the animal for $10,000.

By 1790, Salem, with slightly fewer than six thousand inhabitants, was the sixth-largest city in the United States. Salem ships opened up markets far and wide. A voyage to Sumatra resulted in Salem becoming, for a time, the pepper capital of America. In 1798, Captain Joseph Ropes opened trade in coffee with the Arabian community of Mocha, and by 1805 Salem was importing two thousand pounds of coffee a year.

In 1799, a group of Salem’s captains and supercargoes (seagoing business agents) formed the East India Marine Society. Their collections of artifacts from around the world (considerably augmented) are in Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States.

So prominent was Salem that a merchant in Quallah-Battoo thought Salem to be a country–and one of the richest in the world.

Salem never recovered, however, from the War of 1812. In 1807, its overseas fleet consisted of 182 sailing vessels; by 1815, it was down to 57. Joseph Peabody continued to compete in the China trade, but with his death in 1844, Salem’s importance as a port ended.

Home to a Famous Writer

A few years after this decline, Salem’s most famous citizen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, came to work in the Custom House (just opposite Derby Wharf). Hawthorne was the great-great-grandson of Judge John Hathorne, who had helped initiate the 1692 witch trials, but the author was so embarrassed by his ancestry that he added a w to the family name.

It was at the Salem Custom House that Hawthorne apparently contrived the plot for that most famous indictment of the Puritan culture, The Scarlet Letter (1850). In his introduction to that novel, he describes his view from the Custom House and the decay into which the port had fallen: “In my native town of Salem, at the head of what, half a century ago, in the days of old King Derby, was a bustling wharf–but which is now burdened with decayed wooden warehouses, and exhibits few or no symptoms of commercial life . . .”

Places to Visit

Salem continues to commemorate its two periods of fame in American history. The town logo is Witch City, and the police wear a sleeve patch with a witch on her broomstick highlighted against the moon. The city seal reads Divitis Indae usque ad ultimum sinum (to the farthest port of the rich East).

Salem sites associated with the witch trials include Jonathan Corwin’s home, also known as the Witch House, on Essex Street. Corwin questioned numerous accused witches at the house. The Witch Museum, housed in a nineteenth century church on Washington Square, presents a dramatization of the trials.

The city’s maritime history is evident in the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which includes the Custom House, related commercial buildings, and Elias Derby’s mansion, known as Derby House. Also, the maritime history collection at the Peabody Essex Museum is extensive.

Numerous historic homes, built by shipowners, merchants, and other prominent citizens, still stand in Salem. The section of homes on Chestnut Street between Sumner and Flint Streets is a state historic landmark district. One of the most notable structures on this notable street is Hamilton Hall, designed by Samuel McIntire and completed in 1805. Chestnut Street also boasts a home once occupied by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Other historic homes include six operated by the Peabody Essex Museum; they are located on Essex Street, Hawthorne Boulevard, and Brown Street. One of these, the 1804 Gardner-Pingree House, is among the best examples of McIntire’s work.

Salem’s most famous house, the House of the Seven Gables, stands at 54 Turner Street and has been restored to appear as it did in Hawthorne’s lifetime. For the novel, Hawthorne drew not only on the history of the house–once occupied by his cousin Susan Ingersoll–but also on his own family history; the story concerns persons descended from participants in the witch trials. Other historic structures are on the grounds of the house. One of them is Hawthorne’s birthplace, moved there from Union Street.

For Further Information
  • Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. Reprint. New York: MJF Books, 1997. Explores the sociological aspects of the witchcraft hysteria.
  • Flibbert, Joseph, ed. Salem: Cornerstones of a Historic City. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 1999. Five regional historians tell the story of Salem by focusing on different aspects of the town’s history. Includes seventy color photographs.
  • Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. Reprint. New York: George Braziller, 1985. Quotes extensively from the trial transcripts.
  • Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997. Hill, a British novelist and journalist, offers a detailed narrative of the trials.
  • Lebeau, Bryan F. The Story of the Salem Witch Trials. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997. Combines scholarly research with a dramatic narrative.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Examines the witch trials within the larger context of New England’s intellectual history. Originally published as The Puritan Pronaos (New York University Press, 1936).
  • _______. The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1921. Reprint. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1979. Documents the most prosperous days of the Salem seafarers.
  • Starkey, Marion L. Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. Reprint. New York: Anchor Books, 1989. A well-researched and readable account of the witch trials.
Categories: History