The Salem Witch Trials: The Case against John and Elizabeth Proctor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The Magistrates, Ministers, Jewries, and all the People in general, being so much inraged and incensed against us by the Delusion of the Devil, which we can term no other, by reason we know in our own Consciences, we are all Innocent Persons.”

–Petition of John Proctor

Summary Overview

In 1692, the villages of Salem Village (present-day Salem, Massachusetts) and Salem Town (present-day Danvers) became embroiled in the pursuit of alleged witches or heretics among their residents. Nineteen people were executed for witchcraft, one died after being crushed to death during his questioning, and seven more died in prison awaiting trial after a special tribunal was created to address the accusations. Prominent farmer John Proctor was one of the few to oppose the trials and was summarily accused, along with his wife, Elizabeth, of witchcraft. Despite a petition to church leadership in Boston, he and his wife were both found guilty. John was later executed.

Defining Moment

From the fourteenth until the seventeenth centuries, witch-hunts were a common practice across Europe. Outcasts, non-Christians, and accused heretics were accused of witchcraft and executed. Though the practice had mainly disappeared by the end of the seventeenth century, the fear of the devil had crossed the Atlantic and embedded itself in Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Puritans who lived there.

In 1688, Salem Village, which was constantly fighting for independence from the richer Salem Town, was granted their own church. Village elder John Putnam brought Reverend Samuel Parris to the town in the Massachusetts Bay colony to serve as its minister. Parris brought with him his family and a Caribbean slave named Tituba. In 1692, Parris’s daughters began to exhibit strange symptoms, including hallucinations, convulsions, and outbursts of nonsensical words. The Puritans were a deeply religious people who believed in the presence of the devil. The girls had been seen learning the stories and fortune-telling games that Tituba had brought from Barbados. When their doctor diagnosed witchcraft and the townspeople asked the girls who had brought the devil upon them, it was not difficult to believe it was Tituba when the girls pointed their fingers in her direction.

As the girls began accusing more townspeople (mostly women) of torture and witchcraft, Salem launched a series of criminal proceedings against the accused. Fear settled on a town already tense from village bickering, conflicts with American Indians, and a recent smallpox outbreak.

Many of those accused had had past quarrels with Reverend Parris. Among those was John Proctor. Although he was considered an upright citizen and a man of faith, Proctor doubted the veracity of the girls’ claims of witchcraft and was outspoken in his criticism of the trials themselves. He argued that the trials were created based on nothing more than a hoax.

Meanwhile, Proctor’s young maidservant, Mary Warren, began to demonstrate the type of fits that the other girls suffered. Proctor dealt with her affliction harshly, which led Warren to claim that her employer was a heretic. Proctor had already developed a reputation for his outspoken manner and was a recognized critic of the stern and demanding Samuel Parris, making his indictment by the people of Salem more likely.

The paranoid villagers then turned on Proctor and his wife, with many of the afflicted accusers joining in the claims that the couple had also been involved with the devil’s work. Several of the girls who had already accused others also claimed that Proctor, through his apparition, inflicted evil upon them as well.

Proctor wrote to the Boston clergy to appeal his case, but he was ultimately executed. John Proctor was the first man at the time to be accused of witchcraft. Elizabeth, his wife, was spared only because she was pregnant. Proctor’s children, Elizabeth’s sister, and her sister in-law were also accused of this crime. Three centuries later, playwright Arthur Miller would use Proctor as inspiration for his classic historical drama on the trials, The Crucible.

Author Biography

John Proctor was born on October 9, 1631, in Suffolkshire, England. When he was three years old, his parents, John and Martha, immigrated to the New England colonies, settling in Ipswich in Massachusetts Bay Colony and living on a large and productive farm. The Proctor family became one of the wealthiest in the area. The younger John Proctor remained there for thirty-one years before he and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to nearby Salem to work on a farm of his own. He and Elizabeth had two sons and a daughter.

Proctor was a large man with an outspoken personality. Although wealthy, he was not one of the more popular figures in Salem at the time. In addition to his farm, he operated a tavern in which Salem’s elders only allowed him to serve strangers, not villagers, as alcohol was forbidden by the Puritan faith. Proctor was also embroiled in a rivalry with one of Salem’s largest families, the Putnams. Proctor was one of many who disapproved of the Putnams’ choice for minister and opposed Parris’s installation. Historians have long speculated that the opposition led by Proctor against Putnam and the accusation of witchcraft within the Parris household was hardly a coincidence.

In all, about two hundred people were accused of witchcraft, underscoring the mania that developed after the original Parris claims. John Proctor, however, mistrusted the growing hysteria and made his opinions well known. Several of the afflicted girls accused Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, bringing about her incarceration. When Proctor himself defended his wife at the trial, he was himself accused by the girls, who claimed his apparition had caused them harm.

Prior to Elizabeth’s accusation, Proctor’s maidservant, Mary Warren, had developed fits similar to those of Parris’s children and other apparent victims of witchcraft. Proctor believed that Warren was faking her affliction. Rather than provide treatment, he beat her whenever the symptoms arose. Not surprisingly, Warren—who would also be accused of witchcraft—joined the other afflicted girls and denounced her employer, making Proctor the first man to be so accused.

While in jail awaiting judgment, Proctor wrote to the clergy in Boston, asking them to intercede. The church leadership there was uneasy about the Salem trials and gave Proctor’s case careful consideration. In particular, they explored the girls’ claim of Proctor’s apparition as evidence, eventually concluding that spectral evidence was not admissible. However, Proctor was found guilty while he awaited their response and hanged in August 1692. Elizabeth Proctor, however, was pregnant and therefore avoided execution. Meanwhile, without physical evidence of witchcraft, the trials came to a close in 1692. In 1697, Salem officials apologized for the trials, promising reconciliation. Nearly twenty years later, Proctor’s family received the largest compensation, 150 pounds, for what they had endured.

Document Analysis

The 1692 trial of John and Elizabeth Proctor, both accused of witchcraft, was significant for a number of reasons. It underscores the hysteria that was prevalent during the relatively short period in which the Salem witch trials took place. Four individuals claimed that the Proctors had somehow bewitched them. Additionally, the case provided multiple examples of “spectral evidence” that was at the core of most of the previous accusations. Furthermore, it highlighted many of the ulterior motives of the accusers.

In 1692, Betty, the daughter of Samuel Parris, started to exhibit strange symptoms that included hyperactive behavior, delusions, fever, and physical contortions. Some modern scientists have argued that her symptoms may have been real, brought about by ingestion of rye that was contaminated by the ergot fungus. Others have argued that her behavior was psychosomatic. A popular book by Boston minister Cotton Mather, published about the same time as the childrens’ symptoms began, described an Irish woman whose supposed witchcraft caused similar symptoms in her victims. It is thought that the girls either consciously or unconsciously mimicked the symptoms described in the book.

Not long after Betty fell ill, her cousin Abigail Williams, who was also living in the Parris household, developed similar symptoms. Shortly thereafter, two girls with whom Betty and Abigail often played, Mercy Lewis and Ann Putnam, started to display symptoms akin to those of their friends. The village doctor examining each of the girls could not determine the cause of their perceived ailment and, in the absence of a medical explanation, offered a supernatural one: The girls had been attacked by the devil.

Suspicion regarding the witch who had enabled the devil’s work in the Parris household focused on Tituba, the Parris family’s Caribbean slave and open practitioner of magic. However, as Tituba’s case was investigated, more of the Parris girls’ friends became afflicted, including Mary Warren. Meanwhile, Tituba and two other women confessed under duress to being witches and incriminated others in the village as well. The afflicted girls also began to accuse people in the village, including Elizabeth Proctor. The first accusation against Elizabeth was made by Mercy Lewis. Mercy Lewis’s personal history was marked by traumatic experiences and social maladjustment. She had witnessed her parents’ murder during the ongoing conflict with nearby American Indian tribes. After being orphaned, she first went to live with Reverend George Burroughs in Maine and then with Thomas Putnam in Salem. With the Putnams, Mercy struggled to find acceptance in the Salem community, as did her friends. Some historians believe that the girls, if they knowingly and falsely acted afflicted, were acting out of personal insecurity.

Mercy Lewis’s accusation against Elizabeth Proctor was typical of many of the charges against the Proctors and others. In her deposition, she claimed that the apparition of Elizabeth Proctor appeared before her, bit and pinched her, and attempted to force her to sign the devil’s book, a book in which the names of those who pledge to worship him was kept. A few weeks earlier, Ann Putnam made similar claims about Elizabeth Proctor, saying that Elizabeth’s spirit came before her and choked, pinched, and bit her to make her sign the book. Ann claimed she had no knowledge of who Proctor was until she saw Elizabeth in town after the incident.

When his wife was jailed, John Proctor came to her defense. During the trial, he derided the process, claiming the accusers’ affliction was nothing more than a sham. Of course, Proctor’s criticism of the young girls’ claims left him open to suspicions that he himself was a witch, and the girls wasted no time in doing so. Ann Putnam, in April 1692, testified that not only had John Proctor’s spirit tortured, pinched, and choked her, but that he had done the same to her friends Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, and others.

The girls who accused Elizabeth and John Proctor appeared to be both prolific in their accusations and consistent in each case. When accusing the Proctors, their claims were based on what is called spectral evidence—they never said that John and Elizabeth Proctor directly attacked or bewitched them but instead insisted that their apparitions were involved. The girls made similar claims when accusing others—Ann Putnam was one of the girls who made the most accusations, citing spectral evidence in the cases against Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, Tituba, and Martha Carrier. In fact, she actually stuck pins into her flesh on several occasions, later saying that the spirits of the accused caused the wounds.

Why the Hysteria Began

Historians offer a wide range of alternative explanations as to why these girls began to accuse so many individuals, including John and Elizabeth Proctor, of attacking them via apparitions. Some argue that the girls were simply playing a prank on an unsuspecting public. Others suggest that they may have been prodded by parents to accuse certain villagers based on interpersonal and/or political rivalries. Ann Putnam’s example provides clues about this latter theory.

As explained earlier, Ann Putnam resided in the household of the most influential religious leader in Salem, the Reverend Parris. A large number of those whom Ann accused, including John Proctor and his wife, were individuals with whom Reverend Parris had had disagreements. She also accused George Burroughs, in whose household her friend Mercy Lewis lived. In fact, Ann’s accusations were often added to bolster cases against suspected witches. It has been therefore argued that Ann Putnam and her friends were embroiled in a conspiracy against those who opposed Reverend Parris and others in his circle. In addition to the girls’ testimony, a local man, Joseph Bayley, also pointed the finger at John and Elizabeth Proctor collectively. He claimed that one day, as he and his wife rode past Proctor’s tavern, he was hit in the chest by an unseen but powerful force. When he turned around, he saw John and Elizabeth Proctor in their house, a great distance away, looking at them. He claimed to have been hit by a similar force in another incident, this time by an apparition of a woman he identified as Elizabeth Proctor. In both incidents, according to Bayley, his wife did not see the apparitions who attacked him, even when he could see them clearly. Of course, neither Proctor could be physically connected to the scene, as they were in jail after being arrested.

Linnda Caporael, who in the 1970s first introduced the theory that ergot fungus played a role in the girls’ affliction, suggested that Bayley might have been one of the victims of such contamination. Then again, Bayley was at the time traveling en route from his home in Newbury to Boston and prior to his perceived assault stayed at the home of Thomas Putnam, one of John Proctor’s biggest rivals in Salem.

The growing hysteria in Salem in 1692 led to the imprisonment of more than 150 Salem villagers. William Phips, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, was absent at the time, leaving management of the colony’s affairs in the hands of the church magistrates. When he returned, Phips found that the magistrates overseeing the witch cases in Salem were overwhelmed, having placed those accused in prison to await a trial. Phips authorized the creation of a Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) to review each case of suspected witchcraft. Based on the format used against accused witches in England many years prior, Phips’s court would act as a sort of grand jury, reviewing the evidence against each suspect. The evidence included the depositions shown above as well as any depositions and petitions supporting the defendant’s innocence. Phips placed the court in the hands of his lieutenant governor, William Stoughton. Stoughton was a known zealot on the issue of witchcraft and welcomed the use of spectral evidence to convict suspected witches.

Among the documents submitted to the court regarding the case of John and Elizabeth Proctor was a petition of individuals who defended the Proctors. Nathaniel Felton Sr., his wife Mary, and his son Nathaniel Felton Jr., who were neighbors of Proctor, signed a petition that stated simply that in the many years of living alongside the Proctors, they never encountered any illicit or un-Christian behavior. Sixteen others also signed, including John Endecott, a relative of the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, as was typical in the cases of the Salem witch trials, there was a considerably larger volume of evidence and testimony against the Proctors than in favor of them. Once the evidence was reviewed, the colonial leadership would defer to the local leaders to put the accused on trial.

Growing Church Unease and the End of the Trials

Although they did not directly intervene when the number of defendants entered the hundreds, the Puritan church did seem somewhat uneasy about the situation in Salem. John Proctor added to this discomfort by writing to the Boston clergy to protest his own jailing. On July 22, 1692, Proctor wrote to the council of ministers, including Increase Mather, Cotton Mather’s father. Cotton Mather was a firm believer in witchcraft and a close friend of and minister to three of the five judges on the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Increase Mather, however, was an intellectual; he was the president of Harvard College and a prominent liaison to the English government.

John Proctor’s plea cited a number of key issues regarding both his specific case and the trials themselves. First, Proctor referred to the accusers as individuals with “enmity” toward him. The judges involved with the trials, Proctor said, were quick to condemn the accused due both to their zeal to combat witchcraft and the fact that witchcraft was perceived to be running rampant in Salem. He then took issue with the girls themselves, whom he identified as people who “have lately confessed themselves to be Witches.”

Proctor’s next argument was a pivotal one for the Salem witch trials. As mentioned earlier, the accusations against John and Elizabeth Proctor were similar to others made by the girls. The stories told by the girls, as well as the testimony of those who supposedly witnessed the girls’ affliction, could not be corroborated by physical evidence. In each deposition, the girls claim that John and Elizabeth Proctor came to them as apparitions when the attacks occurred. Bayley’s testimony was also dubious, according to Proctor’s petition to the council: “We were committed into close Prison,” wrote Proctor, when the alleged attacks on Bayley took place.

Proctor continued his petition by saying that countless individuals, he and his wife included, were being tortured and murdered in light of nothing more than groundless accusations. He cited the case of his son, William, who was also accused and hung until “Blood gushed out of his Nose” when he did not confess. William was then unbound, Proctor observed, when his torturers showed rare mercy. The brutality demonstrated toward the accused, Proctor said, was akin to the horrific acts conducted by the Spanish Inquisition, which began two centuries prior but continued through the early nineteenth century.

John Proctor’s letter concluded by calling upon church magistrates to intervene on behalf of the accused who, in addition to enduring physical torture and false imprisonment, lost their standing and financial resources because of their alleged crimes. Proctor asked the magistrates to move the trials to Boston, where more level heads might prevail as the evidence was read. If they could not move the trials, Proctor suggested, the council might replace the magistrates who oversaw the trials in Salem. In either case, Proctor argued, the lives of innocent men and women were hanging in the balance, and without intervention, innocent blood would be shed.

Proctor’s letter was significant in that it prompted the church to examine the use of spectral evidence in the trials. Increase Mather and other members of the church leadership met after receiving the petition to discuss this issue. Shortly thereafter, Mather attended the trial of Reverend George Burroughs to witness firsthand the use of spectral evidence. Burroughs was the only Puritan minister to be charged and, according to his accusers, was a ringleader of the Salem witches. Over time, Mather began to believe in Burroughs’s innocence and to doubt the reliability of spectral evidence.

Thanks in large part to the petition of John Proctor, the church leadership in Boston developed an interest in the trials. Some members of the council even spoke out against them, but there was no intervention. Spectral evidence, used against the Proctors, was tolerated even though it was highly suspect. Even Mather, though critical of spectral evidence and likely beginning to doubt the trials themselves, never spoke out against the proceedings or the magistrates overseeing them.

Despite the council’s growing opposition to spectral evidence, Governor Phips held his ground, at least for a time. Proctor’s letter failed to gain him or his wife exoneration, and he was executed on August 19, 1692. Thereafter, Phips changed his mind on spectral evidence. However, his change of heart was not the result of the council’s actions or Proctor’s letter. Phips’s wife was accused of witchcraft, with townspeople offering spectral evidence. In October 1692, Governor Phips declared that spectral evidence was inadmissible in the trials. Without any additional evidence, those who were awaiting execution were summarily freed and the trials came to a close.

While he was awaiting his fate in jail, John Proctor crafted his last will and testament. Strangely, he did not name his wife as a beneficiary of his estate, which had been seized during the trials. Elizabeth was therefore left with very little when she was released. Four years after her husband’s execution and her release, she wrote to the Massachusetts General Court. In her petition, she reminded her leaders that she and her husband were wrongfully imprisoned during the Salem witch trials. She said that her husband was in fact delivered a will by another party, in which he signed away his estate without compensation to Elizabeth. She asked the General Court to assist her, and the General Court obliged. She and her family were given 150 pounds, a much larger sum than other accused witches received.

Fourteen years after the end of the trials, Ann Putnam stood before the congregation in Salem and made a formal statement of regret for the hysteria she helped create more than a decade earlier. She described how she knowingly caused the prosecution and deaths of many innocent people. In the document, read on her behalf by Parris’s successor, Reverend Joseph Green, Putnam claimed to be under the delusion of the devil at the time, saying that she had no motives to accuse those who were tried. Her confession is viewed by many historians as somewhat disingenuous, motivated not out of extreme guilt but by Green’s efforts to reestablish harmony in the congregation.

Still, Ann Putnam was the only member of the original afflicted girls who took such an action. Even though she retracted her accusations, she failed to provide any credible clues about her motives. Without a rational explanation for her actions or the actions of the other girls, the facts surrounding the underpinnings for the Salem witch trials remain a topic of much historical debate.

Essential Themes

Approximately 150 people were accused of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Many were executed, and many more were tortured and imprisoned. John and Elizabeth Proctor were among those who fell victim to the hysteria. Their case is significant among the others, helping to shed light on the possible motives for the mania that befell the village as well as leading to an end to the trials.

John Proctor was, by most accounts, accused for three reasons. First, he had a long-standing rivalry with the Putnams, one of the most powerful families in Salem and home to Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis, two of the most prolific accusers at the time. Second, he was among the small number of residents who opposed the installation of Reverend Parris, whose daughter was the first to display symptoms of bewitching. Third, John Proctor was a skeptic. He beat his own servant when she started to manifest fits and vigorously defended his accused wife by alleging that the witchcraft scare was a hoax.

The case against the Proctors—and John in particular—was also important because it helped hasten the end of the trials. The vast majority of the cases against the accused witches were built on spectral rather than physical evidence. John Proctor’s letter to Boston helped bring the issue to the attention of church leaders. Proctor appealed to their logic and rationalism rather than their religious devotion. Then again, the court was driven by individuals who believed so strongly in witchcraft that they allowed spectral evidence to be admitted. Still, Proctor’s petition piqued the interest of such influential leaders as Increase Mather, who after receiving Proctor’s letter, meeting with his peers, and attending George Burroughs’s trial, became convinced that such evidence was groundless. The Salem witch trials ultimately came to a close when Governor Phips’s own wife was accused based on the same type of evidence that jailed John and Elizabeth Proctor.

John Proctor was executed before his role in ending the Salem witch trials could help his own case. When Parris was succeeded by Reverend Green, a period of reconciliation was launched, marked by the sizable compensation presented to Elizabeth Proctor and the public apology by one of the Proctors’ accusers.

Bibliography
  • Alvarez, Kate. “Ann Putnam, Jr.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. University of Virginia, 2002. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.
  • Blackstone, Kenneth E. “The Salem Witch Trials: A Case Review.” Blackstone Polygraph. Blackstone Polygraph, 2009. PDF file.
  • Carroll, Meghan, and Jenny Stone. “Mercy Lewis.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. University of Virginia, 2002. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.
  • Dignan, Brendan. “Governor, Sir William Phips.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. University of Virginia, 2012. Web. 3 Jan. 2012.
  • “John Proctor.” Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials, 1692. University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, n.d. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.
  • “John Proctor, of the Salem Witch Trials.” House of Proctor Genealogy. House of Genealogy, 1945. Web. 2 Jan. 2012.
  • Linder, Douglas. “Cotton Mather.” Famous American Trials: Salem Witchcraft Trials, 1692. University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law, n.d. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.
  • Salem Witch Trials: The World beyond the Hysteria. Discovery Education, 2012. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974. Print.
  • Burns, Margo, and Bernard Rosenthal. “Examination of the Records of the Salem Witch Trials.” William and Mary Quarterly 65.3 (2008): 402–22. Print.
  • Godbeer, Richard. The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents. New York: St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.
  • King, Ernest W., and Franklin G. Mixon. “Religiosity and the Political Economy of the Salem Witch Trials.” Social Science Journal 47.3 (2010): 678–88. Print.
  • Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.
  • Pope, Victoria. “Myth vs. Reality.” US News & World Report. US News & World Report, 22 Dec. 1996. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

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