Today in history: The warlocks of the Salem witch trials

As anyone who has taken American history can tell you, many of the colonists who helped establish Massachusetts were a bunch of lunatics who let their irrational, religious fear of witchcraft run wild in 1692, when they officially launched the Salem Witch Trials. From March 1, 1692 to May of 1693, at least 20 people were hanged or crushed to death for allegedly practicing black magic. Most, including first victim Bridget Bishop, were women, but six were men.

Here, 320 years to the day after the Court of Oyer and Terminer began the trials, are brief biographies of those alleged warlocks of Salem:

George Burroughs: Born in England but raised in Massachusetts, Burroughs dedicated himself to Christianity, eventually graduating from Harvard College with a degree in divinity and preaching in Salem. After leaving his parish there, Burroughs moved to Wells, Maine, but had to return to Salem after former foes accused him of witchcraft, which they said was evidenced in his “super strength.”

Burroughs was found guilty in the summer of 1692 and hanged on August 19th. Before he was hanged, though, Burroughs managed to eek out the Lord’s Prayer, a feat people thought impossible for a witch. No matter, though; the execution’s organizers insisted that was the devil’s work and promptly buried Burroughs in a mass grave.

George Jacobs, Sr: Damn. Jacobs’ family was cold: his granddaughter levied the fatal charges against him to save her own hide. A servant in his home, also accused, lent credence to the allegations, thereby successfully shifting suspicion to 72 year-old Jacobs. During the trial, Jacobs was accused of projecting a “specter” that beat his servants and family. A body examination revealing a “witches teat” on his shoulder — most likely a mole — sealed the deal and Jacobs was hanged alongside Burroughs and most of the other men here.

Jacobs’ ordeal was commemorated in Thompkins H. Matteson 1885 painting, “The Trial of George Jacobs.”

John Proctor: You’ll remember John Proctor from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” And like the character portrayed in that play, Proctor was known as a strong-willed business man who consistently and passionately denied the charges against him. Apparently he was quite convincing, because thirty-two of his friends and colleagues signed a petition to save him from the gallows. It was to no avail: Proctor too was hanged on August 19, 1692, mostly because he dared to challenge the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

John Willard: John Willard was a deputy constable who after seeing the horror of the dubious witch trials announced he would no longer arrest the accused. As if his subordination weren’t reason enough to hang him, the magistrates called a number of witnesses to the stand to condemn Willard. One, his grandfather-in-law Bray Wilkins, claimed Willard’s “evil eye” had made him and his grandson Daniel ill.

A woman named Mercy Lewis corroborated this story, telling the court, “I also saw the apperishtion of John Willard there greviously afflecting the body of Daniell wilkens who laid speechless and in a sad condition and John Willard tould me he would kill Daniell with in Two days if he could [all sic].” Daniel died, thus sealing Willard’s fate.

Samuel Wardwell: A Quaker born in Boston, Wardwell moed to Salem and later Andover to practice carpentry. While in the latter town, Wardwell and his son Eliakim had a few run-ins with prominent families who would later lead the charges against him, charges based on the fact that he had practiced fortune telling for fun. The real fact of the matter, though, is that Wardwell’s business had thrived, making him a rich man and the target of jealous rivals. During his trial in August of 1692, Wardwell first admitted to being a fortune telling witch, hoping this false confession would save him, but then recanted. He was of course found guilty and ultimately hanged in September.

Giles Corey: Another figure memorialized in “The Crucible,” the real Giles Corey worked as a farmer near Salem and had a reputation for being cantankerous, a reputation solidified in 1675, when he was found guilty of beating a farmhand to death.

When he was accused of witchcraft years later, Corey was about 80 years old and absolutely refused to participate in the trial because he knew they would kill him anyway, so what was the point? His defiance only increased public rage against him and for his trouble, Corey was in September of 1692 crushed to death between two rocks in a process known as peine forte et dure, even though it was already illegal in the Massachusetts colony. But, you know, the lunatics behind the Salem Witch Trials weren’t so concerned with legality as they were with sustaining their own social, economic and political stations.

Hmmm, sounds a bit like some more recent witch hunts, like the red scare, the pink scare and the ongoing terror scare. Perhaps we’re no better than the men and women who killed their comrades back in the 1690s…

For more on the Salem witch trials, check out the University of Virginia’s comprehensive archive. It’s horrifying.