Izzy’s RHI Paper


As she stood at the gallows, Sarah Good screamed, “You’re a liar! I’m no more a witch than you are a wizard! If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink.” Sarah Good pleaded innocent, but despite the lack of evidence against her, she was executed. Her experience is just one of many women that were accused of witchcraft. Throughout history, there have been countless witch hunts. What effect did witch hunts have on women in society? Why have women been targeted? What did the trials show us about how the justice system worked? By exploring the witch hunts in Europe and Salem, Massachusetts, we will see that witch hunts negatively affected women because they further marginalized an already marginalized group of people and minimized the voices of women in debates during trials.

Witchcraft in Europe
In the 1300s, witch hunts raged in Europe, and the idea of the Devil possessing humans to cause misfortune was very popular. Christians believed that the Devil could give witches the power to harm others in return for loyalty. Witch hunts were the culmination of social issues society was facing as people began to look for scapegoats, who ended up being women who did not follow society’s established guidelines. In Europe, witch hunts were actually written into law due to the commonality of them and governments often took part in the persecution of witches. Witch hunts did not just happen randomly, they were symptoms of societal issues and were normalized by the government.
Misogyny was ingrained into the guidelines and foundations of witchcraft. A famous text called Malleus Maleficarum was written and provided the structure and guidelines for witch hunts, but it was quite misogynistic. One of the sections is entirely focused on why witches are more likely women, stating “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours!” It was meant to be a guide for how to interrogate witches, but it promoted misogyny, mistreatment of women, and made women targets for witchcraft accusations.
Generally, it is believed that around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft in Europe, and between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed. Additionally, the ideals of the Protestant Reformation, specifically that of individuality, lowered the sense of community in Europe and played an important role in the prevalence of witch trials due to the rigid characterization of people as “good” or “bad”. Witch hunts in Europe began to simmer down as the rules became stricter and it became harder to convict people of witchcraft. Eventually, accusations did not often become more than rumors due to the expensive nature of persecution and going through the legal system. The increasing power of centralized courts and the decreasing power of the Church in Europe allowed for lawmakers to begin the decriminalization of witchcraft. As witch hunts decreased in Europe, they began to spike up in American colonies as misfortune was blamed on the devil’s doings.

The Salem Witch Trials
The Salem witch trials are a great example of the hardships women faced due to witch hunts. In America in the mid 1600s, many people had immigrated from Europe to the Salem area due to religious persecution. These people immigrating from the UK and Europe, having left their home countries due to religious unrest, were devoutly religious. These people were Puritans and followed the Christian faith, which means they had very rigid societal expectations, and were suspicious of anything outside of the norm. Puritans were Protestant Catholics who did not believe that the reforms of the church went far enough. They believed that God had chosen a select group of people and that one could not come back from sins. They were commonly described as living in a state of “spiritual anxiety” because they were never sure they were part of the chosen few and made it their goal to be chosen.
The influx of immigrants caused Salem’s resources to be spread thin, allowing for conflict and unrest in the village to spike. Salem’s agriculturally centered economy began to take a turn for the worse due to the sheer volume of people and the farms’ inability to produce food at a high enough rate. In congruence with the European ideas around witchcraft, the people of Salem believed that the Devil had something to do with their misfortune.
Adding to the conflict was the controversy around newly appointed Reverend Samuel Parris. Many citizens of Salem believed he was too greedy, and they did not like the direction in which he was taking both their Church and their town. He was supported by the very powerful Putnam family, and they were able to influence his decisions.
The Salem witch trials began in 1692, with three girls exhibiting strange behavior and claiming that they had been afflicted by witches. These three girls were Samuel Parris’ daughter and niece, Elizabeth and Abigail, as well as their friend Ann Putnam. Their fits of hysteria were described to include throwing items, making weird noises, and exhibiting contortions. Nobody could figure out a medical explanation behind their strange behavior, so people began to believe that they had been under the influence of the supernatural, or in other words, afflicted by a witch. The girls made the first three accusations against Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and Tituba. All three of the women were seen as outcasts in society and they did not fit social norms.
Tituba was an enslaved woman who worked for the Parris family and cared for their children. She often told stories of witchcraft, magic, and spirits. The original girls that were afflicted were supposedly regulars to her storytelling sessions. Tituba believed that if she confessed, she would receive a kinder sentence or would be freed, so she claimed to be guilty and stated that there were other witches in Salem. Unfortunately, she was put in jail and then sold back into the slave trade. She blamed Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good for coercing her into hurting the children, stating “goode good [Sarah Good] and goode osburn [Sarah Osborne] told that they did hurt mr Currens child and would have had me hurt him two [too] but I did not.” Her confession was a catalyst for the trials; they began to move forward at a rapid rate, as people believed they had official confirmation that there were real witches within Salem.
Sarah Good was born into a relatively wealthy family in 1653. She got married to Daniel Poole, who later caused her to become a widow. Poole was an indentured servant with large amounts of debt, which he left to Sarah, pushing her into poverty. She later got married to William Good and had two children with him. However, due to massive debt left by her late husband, the family was essentially homeless and was socially rejected due to their financial status. Her unpopularity made her a strong target for witchcraft accusations, and when she was accused by Elizabeth, Abigail, and Ann, there was a general consensus to convict her whether or not she was guilty due to her being a “nuisance”. Even her husband, William, testified against her, stating “it was her bad carriage to [me] and indeed say I with tears that she is enemy to all good.” Sarah Good’s financial and social situations never gave her a chance in Salem’s court, and she was hanged on July 19, 1692 right after the birth of her child. Her other seven year old daughter, Dorcas, was also convicted of witchcraft and was eventually released from prison, but not before being emotionally and psychologically scarred.
The third accused witch was Sarah Osborne, who was married to Robert Prince and had a large estate. Unfortunately, her husband died and left his inheritance to her to distribute between their two sons when they were older. Sarah hired an indentured servant named Alexander Osborne, and eventually married him. She attempted to gain the rest of her sons’ inheritance and in doing so, buried herself in a large legal battle. Her sons’ inheritance was defended by their neighbors, the influential Putnams, and she was eventually accused of witchcraft by Ann Putnam, the daughter of the family. There was very little evidence behind the accusation, and it was mostly due to her social and political wrongdoings. Her attempt to gain her husband’s full inheritance demonstrated her desire to upend the practices of inheritance and land ownership, and also showed that she was interested in disrupting the hierarchy of power by going against the Putnam family.
In May of 1692, Governor William Phipps established a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer that was solely focused on the witch trials. A woman named Bridget Bishop was the first person tried at the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Bishop had been married three times and was described as an independent woman who had been seen arguing with her husbands, wearing lots of black, and refusing to conform to other Puritan social norms. After being deemed guilty, she was hanged at Gallows Hill. One of the main determiners behind her conviction was the use of spectral evidence. Spectral evidence was the use of dreams or visions as evidence to why someone was guilty. This was very commonly used during the Salem witch trials, and was a hotly debated topic. Minister Cotton Maher and his son, Increase, denounced the use of spectral evidence, stating “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”
In 1693, Governor Phipps’ wife was accused, which pushed him to respond to the criticism of the trials and prohibit any future arrests on the count of witchcraft. However, the damage had been done, and 19 people had been executed with many others having been convicted.

Puritan Beliefs Targeted Towards Women Created Unfair Trials in Salem
Women were disproportionately affected by the Salem witch trials. 14 out of the 19 people executed in Salem were women. Additionally, in all of the witch trials across New England from 1638-1725, 78% of the accused witches were female. Oftentimes, accusations against men were due to their connection with a suspicious woman. Puritans, coming from a very religious background, believed that a woman’s role was to have and raise children, as well as to manage the household. If a woman stepped out of her expected role, she was often targeted. In Puritan society, women were looked at as dangerous and more evil than men because they imitated Eve. Women were considered intellectually, physically, and morally weaker than men and subject to deeper feelings and emotions, which made them more susceptible to being manipulated by the Devil. Additionally, there was a belief that women were more likely pawns of the Devil because they were unable to control their sexual lust. In Puritan beliefs, women that were not sexually satisfied by their husbands, were likely to turn to the Devil to satisfy their needs. According to Puritan beliefs, men were less likely to give into their “carnal lust” than women. The Puritan definition of adultery was “sexual intercourse with a married or espoused wife”, so any woman that cheated was an adulterer, but if a man cheated on his wife with an unmarried woman, he was not considered an adulterer. Often times, people that were accused of witchcraft were adulterers or older or unmarried women, because they were likely to have turned to the Devil to satisfy their sexual needs. In addition, there was a denial of religious authority to women. This was one of the main reasons more accused witches were women than men, because if Christ did not permit women to hold religious authority, then a woman would be quicker than a man to turn to the Devil and Satan.
In trial, there was little debate over someone’s innocence or guilt, especially if a woman was on trial. The accused were not listened to and the evidence of the accuser, even if it was spectral evidence coming from dreams, was prioritized. Spectral evidence was used to convict someone, even if there was no true backing to the claim other than something someone saw in a dream. People could very easily convict others, and especially women, that they had something against or thought of as weird or strange. Additionally, the concept of hearsay was very common during the Salem witch trials. Hearsay was basically a rumor, and rumors were considered evidence within the courts of the Salem witch trials. The evidence that was collected during the Salem witch trials was unreliable but was considered strong evidence against the accused.

The Impact on the American Legal System
The Salem witch trials had a lasting legacy on the American legal system and society’s roles of women. Being a cautionary tale, Salem’s trials had a policy of guilty until proven innocent. In moving forward with the American legal system in future years, lawmakers recognized the danger of this policy, and made it clear that being innocent until proven guilty is a vital piece of a fair trial. Additionally, lawmakers implemented the hearsay rule, which prevents the use of evidence from what is said outside of court. The last practice lawmakers established that was based upon the Salem witch trials was the requirement for a defendant to have legal assistance or a lawyer. In the Salem trials, defendants were not given that privilege. The overall takeaways from the Salem witch trials from a legal standpoint mostly encompass practices to ensure a fair and equal trial and the checking of power. American lawmakers learned from the Salem witch trials and put legislation into place in order to allow fair and equal trials for all people regardless of gender.
The struggles and inequality women faced during the Salem witch trials represented the idea that witch hunts negatively affected women. The misogynistic language within Malleus Maleficarum, the disproportionate number of women convicted of witchcraft, and the lack of voice women were given during the trials all proved that witch hunts targeted and oppressed women.

Photo by Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash