Cotton Mather and the Salem Witch Trials (1692-93)



1686-89 -  Massachusetts is incorporated into the Dominion of New England

1688 - Glorious Revolution in England weakens authorities in the North American colonies

1689 - Cotton Mather publishes work on witchcraft and demonic possession + Governor Edmund Andros is arrested during the Boston Revolt

1692 - Salem witch hunt begins when a number of girls suffer symptoms of possession + The majority of witch trials take place

1693 - Governor Phips issues a general pardon

1697 - Judge Samuel Sewall apologies for his role in the witch hunt

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  • Salem is the most famous, most studied and most deadly of all British colonial witchhunts
  • 20 people lost their lives
  • Before 1692 witch hunting was not common in New England
  • Only 100 cases had been heard in the previous 50 years, and only 25% had resulted in executions.
  • Came about as a result of fear and scapegoating, particularly widespread because the events took place in a relatively small, isolated community
  • Due to isolation - heightened sense of fear (Devil)
  • Tensions between older settlers and newcomers, and between wealthier and poorer residents, fuelled the craze further.
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Political context

Weakened authority following the 1688 Revolution

  • First settlers in April 1630
  • Economy became stronger in the 1640s and 1650s - increasingly successful trade in fur and lumber + flourishing fish industry (growth of merchant class)
  • Government dominated by Puritans began to reject Charles II's attempts to establish CofE
  • Puritanism dominate faith - taxes paid to the Church, only church members and non-Puritans could be banished
  • Fiercely resisted attempts to revoke the Royal Charter and consolidate all New England colonies into one to centralise control
  • Sir Edmund Andros appointed governor of new Dominions of New England - unpopular due to unwillingness to allow local Puritans on his council
  • Glorious Revolution in 1687 - results in Boston Revolt against Governor (led by Cotton and Increase Mather)
  • Andros was arrested and Increase spent 1689-92 in England trying to get a good Governor, returned with Phips in 1692 (Trials had already began)
  • Massachusetts receives new treaty in 1691 but enforcement of: Voting eligibility based on property ownership, All officials were appointed by the Crown instead of elected, The governor could block any laws passed by the Council.
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Indian Threats

  • Indian attacks intensified towards the end of 17th century
  • Attacks more common after the overthrow of Andros - colonial defenses weaker and fewer troops available (Colonists regularly killed by attacking natives)
  • Over the winter of 1691-2 refugees fleeing Native American raids brought reports of massacres and predictions of savagery


  • Indians viewed as Devil's agents - sent by Satan to destroy their Godly community
  • Frequent attacks - inflamed fear of Devil and created a deep-seated paranoia among citizens
  • Fear of outside threats turned to fear of internal threats when women began to confess to witchcraft
  • Children may have been worried, contributed to accusations (Mercy Lewis' parents had been killed in Indian attack)
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Economic context

  • 1'st Indian war ruined the economy of Massachusetts, half of New England towns were attacked and Springfield burned to the ground
  • Rise in taxes under Governor Andros to pay for extra military assistance from England
  • Navigations Acts hampered the economic fortunes of the colony: 1'st Act in 1651, 1660, 1662 and 1673. Goods carried to England had to be on English ships, goods being transported from the colonies had to come to England first
  • Directed money away from Massachusetts and towards England
  • Fishermen had to pay higher fees to use English ships - virtually impossible to ship grain

Damaged a flourishing merchant class.

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Social context

  • Salem had some 600 residents and it was known for its many internal disputes, mainly about property, grazing rights and church privileges. The two majour settlements were Salem Village and Salem Town. 
  • The majourity of accusers came from Salem Village, which was largely agricultural and staunchly Puritan. The majourity of the accused lived in Salem Town, which was close to the main Ipswich road, had more contact with the otuside world and was made up of a wealthier merchant class.
  • Prior to the witch-hunt Salem Village had attempted to break away from the Town, but this was fiercly resisted by the TOwn, who relied on Salem's agricultural produce. 
  • There was a bitter feud between the two most prosperous families, the Putnams and the Porters. The Putnams wanted to sever the Village from Salem Town, establishing institutions of local government and worship. The Porters favoured closer ties. 
  • Families in Salem Village generally committed themselves to one side or the other. Disputes over lands often became tests of ‘clan’ loyalty.
  • These rivalries helped to drive accusations. 
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Influence of Cotton Mather

  • Cotton Mather was one of the most influential Puritan religious leaders in Massachusetts in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
  • He was a third generation colonist, his grandfather’s on both sides had been Puritan ministers who came to Massachusetts to escape religious persecution. 
  • Mather graduated from Harvard at age 15
  • He wrote more than 450 books and pamphlets and by the time of the Salem trials he had written a number of works on witchcraft.
  • In 1689 he published Memorable Providences relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions.
  • The book acted as a guide to those who conducted the Salem hunts
  • It included an extensive account of the Goodwin possesions, as well as a reprinted sermon of Mather’s warning against the presence of witches and advising on how to detect them
  • As a high standing member of the community and intellectual authority on Puritanism Mather’s warning against witches would have held great weight amongst Salem residents. His support of the trials, and of spectral evidence, would also be key in allowing them to escalate. 
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Goodwin Possessions

  • May have been a powerful influence on shaping Salem residents idea’s about witchcraft and possession.
  • The Goodwin family were devoted Puritans and lived in Boston. The daughter, Martha Goodwin, became afflicted by fits after accusing a servant of stealing. Mather believed that the servants mother, Mary Glover was a witch who cursed the family.
  • Glover was a typical outsider (she spoke only Gaelic and was a Catholic).
  • Martha, her sister and her two brothers all came to suffer fits. A doctor concluded they could only be the result of witchcraft, as all children felt pain in the same parts of their bodies at the same times, even when in separate rooms.
  • Mather’s description of their fits depicts the children as having violent, painful and uncontrollable contortions, which were grotesque and unnatural. (replicated by Salem girls)
  • When Glover was arrested dolls were found in her house, which she admitted to using for witchcraft. When one was given to her in court, the Goodwin children fell into fits and screamed out in pain. 
  • Mather interviewed Glover, who apparently named accomplices. Mather did not publish
  • The Goodwin case undoubtedly influenced events in Salem - to the minds of the colonists it proved that the Devil wanted to threaten Puritan families through witchcraft, and Glover’s admission of accomplices suggested that more witches were present in the colonies. 
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Trials and executions

Convictions easy due to:

  • Acceptance of spectral evidence
  • Accused were allowed a few resources to mount a defence
  • Good character petitions generally ignored
  • Long-standing and existing gossip accepted as evidence

Accused: Sarah Good, Sarah Osbourne, Tituba, Bridget Bishop (first to be hanged) , Rev George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin

  • Set up Court of Oyer and Terminer (specially convened to investigate a predetermined matter)
  • One of the judges resigned within a month - became suspicious about the legitimacy but replaced with a prosecuting lawyer

By 22nd of September, 19 had been hanged and one tortured to death

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Reasons for the end of the hunt


  • Following the execution of Bridget Bishop, magistrates Nathaniel Saltonstall and Thomas Newton resigned in protest of using spectral evidence.
  • Saltonstall would become a prominent critic of the Salem proceedings.


  • Thomas Brattle (a Boston merchant) wrote a letter to an English clergyman heavily criticising the Salem trials.
  • Samuel Willard (a Boston minister) anonymously wrote the pamphlet Some Micellany Observations.
  • These were instrumental in exposing the lunacy of the trials and helping to bring them to an end. 

Increase Mather

  • He presented the pamphlet Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits on 3rd October. It was critical of spectral evidence and he declared that evidence of witchcraft must be as clear as any other felony. The pamphlet also scripture and recent history to argue that genuine cases of witchcraft were rare.
  • Increase also made a number of sermons that were deeply critical of spectral evidence
  • As a prominent figure his opinion was influential with judges and Governor Phips, as well as the general Puritan community. As a result of his actions accusations began to slow down.
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Why did it become so widespread?

  • Deeply Puritan Society - fear of Devil and witches part of everyday life, just needed a trigger to set off hysteria
  • Dangers associated with Indian threat - heightened fear (some of accusers affected)
  • Role of Elizabeth Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putman - large number of witnesses volunteered (impact of children as victims)
  • Social divisions - resentment and jealousy part of daily life, majority of the accusers from less wealthy, more agricultural. Accused were social outcasts or resided in more prosperous parts
  • Role of individuals - Cotton Mather
  • William Stoughton's acceptance of spectral evidence - dubious evidence fully accepted and relied upon. (Increase and Phips scepticism ended things too influential)
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