It’s the morning of June 10th,1692, in Salem, a coastal town 17 miles north of Boston, in the British colony of Massachusetts.
On a beautiful summer morning, birds sing in the treetops. And a warm breeze skips through the trees.
A lone horse and cart clatters past the thatched cottages and clapboard houses of this prosperous and growing town.
On board, behind the driver, a grim-faced sheriff with a musket keeps a close watch on his prisoner. She doesn’t look like much of a threat. She’s 60 years old and her weathered hands are bound tight. But the guard knows that looks are deceiving.
Because this woman, Bridget Bishop, is a witch.
As the sheriff rides along with his prisoner, townspeople line the street and jeer. But most have already made their way to the cart’s destination: Gallows Hill.
The driver whips the horse on as the cart creaks up the steep incline.
Up ahead, a slab of rock juts out of the slope. An oak tree looms over it. And against the trunk is propped a ladder and, hanging from a sturdy branch above, a noose.
When the cart arrives at the place of execution, the driver hauls on the reins.
Armed guards hold back the surging crowd. Some of the townspeople scream insults at Bridget, others pray for her soul. One man’s shrill voice carries above the uproar. He shouts a Bible verse, a command from the Book of Exodus which he repeats over and over: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.
Soon, the sheriff pulls Bridget down from the cart, pushes her toward the oak tree with his musket. As she climbs the ladder, crowd falls silent. Sheriff grabs the swaying rope, hooks it over Bridget’s head, tightening it around her neck.
Then, someone in the crowd shouts, “Confess!”. And in a thin voice, Bridget replies: “I am innocent.”
The crowd jeers again. Before Bridget can utter another word, sheriff wrenches the ladder away and Bridget's body falls.
Bridget will not be the last accused witch to die in Salem. In the weeks to come, this small and highly religious community in New England will execute 18 more innocent men and women.
And although the Salem Witch Trials as this series of events will come to be known will last only a few months, they will forever be notorious as a warning. A warning of what can happen when fear infects a community, poisoning the bonds that tie society together and even leading innocent people to lose their lives, as Bridget Bishop did on June 10th, 1692.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is June 10th, 1692: The First Execution of the Salem Witch Trials.
Act One: Cursed
It’s February 1692, four months before the hanging of Bridget Bishop.
In Salem Village, a rural community just north of Salem Town, Doctor William Griggs trudges carefully along a path that’s been shoveled out of the deep snow. With his medical bag tucked under his arm, he raps on the front door of the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, a local preacher.
The doctor feels a blast of smoke-warm air from the fire as a servant opens the door. The doctor quickly heads inside, grateful to be out of the cold. And in the hallway, he’s greeted by Reverend Parris himself, a sharp-faced man with long dark hair. The Reverend ushers the doctor up the stairs where the sick patients are waiting.
The trouble began a few weeks ago. After a hard winter, the Reverend’s daughter, 9-year-old Betty, and her cousin, 11-year-old Abigail Williams, began having strange and frightening fits. Girls screamed, barked, and threw things. They complained of being bitten or pinched by invisible forces. They contorted their bodies or fell suddenly limp.
Reverend Parris was deeply concerned by the girl's behavior. He tried praying, fasting, and singing Psalms. And when that didn’t help, he called in the local doctor.
Today, as Doctor Griggs examines the two girls, he finds nothing physically wrong with them. He tells Reverend Parris that he suspects something supernatural is behind their sickness. He says it’s the work of the devil. It's Witchcraft. And there is nothing he can do.
Hearing this, Reverend Parris is fearful but also pleased. He believes the Devil uses witches to attack the holy. And in the Reverend’s mind, this curse on his family is proof of their godliness. And he has another reason to be glad. As the Book of Revelations in the Bible predicts, the presence of the Devil among them suggests that God himself cannot be far behind. Reverend Parris thinks these fits mean the apocalypse is imminent and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is nigh.
But after the doctor’s diagnosis, Betty and Abigail’s symptoms worsen. As news spreads of the sorcery afflicting the Reverend’s household, more children in the village are struck down by the same strange demonic sickness; including two of Abigail and Betty’s friends, 12-year-old Annie Putnam and 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard. Soon, Reverend Parris interrogates the girls and pressures them to tell him the names of the witches who cursed them.
Eventually, the girls name three women: Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; Sarah Osborne, an impoverished elderly woman; and Tituba, a West Indian slave working in Reverend Parris’s home. On March 1st, 1692, all three women are arrested and charged with witchcraft.
Osborne and Good maintain their innocence. But after several days of repeated beatings from her owner, Tituba confesses. She tells the local magistrates, “The Devil came to me and bid me serve him”. But with her confession, Tituba also claims she isn’t alone. She insists that there are many other witches in Salem, hiding in plain sight, waiting for the perfect opportunity to perform the Devil’s work.
It’s March 20th, 1692, a few weeks after the first three women were arrested for witchcraft.
In the Salem Village meetinghouse, a church service is underway and the building is packed. In the second-floor gallery, an old woman named Martha Corey looks down on the pulpit, where the minister looms over his congregation, his voice booming with the talk of demons, hellfire, and damnation.
Since the confession of Tituba, fear and mutual suspicion have seeped into everyday life in Salem. Many more young girls have fallen ill with the demonic sickness, and villagers fear there are other witches among them, plotting evil schemes. But not everyone in Salem believes the hysteria is real. Many believe the girls are lying and simply seeking attention.
Today, as the minister asks God to save the people of Salem, Goodwife Corey nearly rolls her eyes. She is a pious woman and a pillar in the community. But she doesn’t believe these girls. She has scoffed at their claims from the beginning, dismissing them as nothing more than childish lies and fantasies.
Just then, someone catches Goodwife Corey’s eye: young Abigail Williams sitting in the pews below with her family. While the other villagers listen to the minister in reverential silence, little young Abigail fidgets wildly.
Goodwife Corey watches as Abigail chews her lips and picks at her nails. Beneath the rough wool of her dress, her skin itches. Abigail glances around the room from face to face until she locks eyes with Goodwife Corey.
At that moment, a flush of anger surges through Abigail who lets out a howling scream. Everyone in the congregation turns to stare as Abigail clambers up onto her seat. Her family tries to hold her down and quiet her, but the girl squirms free.
She points up to the gallery and cries out: "Look! Look where Goodwife Corey sits… suckling her yellow bird between her fingers!"
Hearing this, the congregation gasps. Goodwife Corey knows exactly what Abigail is suggesting, and so does everyone else. She is accusing her of witchcraft.
And soon, Goodwife Corey is taken in for questioning by the local magistrates. She will stand trial where she will be convicted of witchcraft and later executed. And she isn’t the only one.
Over the coming weeks, the witch hunt in Salem will turn into a frenzy; dozens of innocent villagers will be accused, especially those who express doubt and skepticism; and in the end, many of these innocent souls will be put to death.
Act Two: Hysteria
It’s April 18th, 1692, in Salem Town.
60-year-old Bridget Bishop wanders among the trees of the apple orchard behind her home. Chickens dart around her feet as she scatters grain from a bucket.
Then, she hears a hammering on her front door; it’s so loud she can hear it all the way out here in the orchard. Immediately, she suspects she knows who it is and why he’s come.
Bridget calmly pours out the last of the grain on the ground as one final treat for her chickens and then walks toward the house to greet the constable who's here no doubt to arrest her on charges of witchcraft.
As the witch-hunt has spread through Salem, people in both the town and the village have been all too willing to incriminate others. Everyone remembers what happens to Goodwife Martha Corey. When she expressed doubt about the sorcery claims, girls accused her of being a witch. She’s still in jail, awaiting trial. And many people have decided it’s better to join in the frenzy and name names, rather than end up accused, behind bars themselves, facing execution.
And therefore, Bridget isn’t surprised they’ve come for her. She has a reputation for being stubborn and argumentative. Bridget knows that in times like these, that’s all it takes to attract an accusation of witchcraft.
The day after her arrest, Bridget’s hearing takes place at the meetinghouse in Salem Village. There, the local magistrates will determine whether there is enough evidence for her to be sent to trial.
The meetinghouse is packed to the brim with spectators. Among them are Bridget’s accusers, the girls at the center of this witch panic. And today, they are ready to put on quite the show.
Soon, a guard marches the prisoner in. The moment the girls see Bridget, they collapse to the ground, convulsing. As the hearing begins, they shriek and scream like they’re being tortured. Later, they mimic Bridget’s movements, as if they’ve fallen under her control. Finally, when it’s their turn to give evidence, the girls tell the court that Bridget tried to tempt them to sign the devil’s book. The two presiding magistrates seem to believe it all.
For her part, Bridget insists that she’s done nothing wrong; that she’s never even met the girls she’s accused of cursing. She tells the court, “I know nothing of it. I am innocent. I know not what a witch is.”
One of the magistrates shoots back a hostile question: "How do you know then that you are not a witch?” Bridget doesn’t understand, so the magistrate tries again: “How can you know, you are no witch, and yet not know what a witch is?” Exasperated, Bridget replies: “I am clear, I'm clear if I were any such person, you should know it.” To the magistrate, this sounds like a threat. And soon, he sends Bridget to jail to await trial.
By the end of May 1692, Bridget is joined there by more than sixty other people all accused of witchcraft. Among them are men, women, and children, the oldest over 80 and the youngest just 4. And there’s no sign yet of an end to the hysteria. Every day seems to bring another accusation and another arrest.
To deal with this growing backlog of cases, the Governor of Massachusetts establishes a special court in Salem to try the witches. The first case to be heard is Bridget Bishop’s.
In the months after Bridget’s initial hearing, more than ten witnesses come forward. They give long testimonies detailing Bridget’s alleged crimes - how her spirit attacked them at night or bewitched their children or, in one case, sold them a cursed pig.
Bridget’s trial officially begins on June 2nd, 1692. And once again, she proclaims her innocence. But within a day, the judges find her guilty on five counts of witchcraft and sentence her to death. Eight days later, Bridget is removed from the jail in Salem Town and taken through the streets on the back of a cart to Gallows Hill, where she is hanged from the branch of an oak tree.
And in the months ahead, 18 more men and women will be convicted by the same court, face the same journey and suffer the same fate before reason finally puts out the fires of hysteria.
Act Three: The Hunt Ends
It’s May 1693, almost a year after the death of Bridget Bishop; the first person executed at Salem for witchcraft.
In the bleak and damp basement of Salem Town jail, a chained prisoner cringes in fear as she hears boots echo down the steps toward her cell.
The door swings open with a bang. Then the jailor stomps across the stone floor, kicking through an inch of water on the floor of the basement, sending a large rat scurrying off into the darkness. When he leans over the prisoner, she shrinks away in fear. But she is surprised when the jailor releases her from her chains and tells her she is free to go.
By May 1693, more than 200 people have been accused of witchcraft in Salem. Fourteen women and five men have been executed, at least five others have died in the hellish conditions of prison, and one man has been crushed to death while being tortured for a confession. But now, word has come down for all remaining prisoners to be released by order of the Governor of Massachusetts.
The Governor had no issue with the witch hunt when it was just impacting people he saw as social outcasts or misfits. But then the accusations hit closer to home.
Recently, rumors began to spread that the Governor’s own wife was a witch. With his family in danger, the Governor realized the situation was getting out of hand. He moved quickly to abolish the special court he had set up in Salem, replacing it with a new body operating under much stricter rules. This new court could no longer allow vague visions to be used as evidence to put people to death. And with these new rules in place, the cases against the accused witches quickly collapsed.
In the years to come, many of those involved will apologize for their roles in the deadly hysteria. In 1711, Massachusetts will pass legislation exonerating the victims and paying restitution to the families and survivors.
Though to this day, what brought about the mass paranoia in Salem is debated. Whatever the cause, the Salem Witch Trials remain a chilling reminder of how fear and suspicion can take over a community and tear it apart. The terrible cost of Salem’s paranoia was borne by the innocent men and women who were falsely accused; victims like Bridget Bishop, who was convicted of witchcraft and executed on this day, June 10th, 1692.
Next on History Daily June 13th, 1381. After years of political unrest in England, the people rise up against the ruling classes and storm the gates of London in the Peasants’ Revolt.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily,hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.