Monday, August 10, 2015

HGB Podcast, Ep. 61 - Salem Witch Trials


Moment in Oddity - Palm Sunday Case

The Palm Sunday Case is an unusual study in life after death. Mary Catherine Lyttleton was a beautiful young lady who caught the eye of Arthur James Balfour. It took some time, but the smitten Balfour eventually convinced Mary to marry him. Unfortunately, Mary caught typhus and died a few weeks after their engagement on Palm Sunday in 1875. Baldour was devastated and never married. In the early 1900s, several mediums began receiving messages through automatic writing that pertained to Mary Lyttleton and a brother of Arthur Balfour who had died in the Alps. These messages became long scripts. The mediums did not know these people, nor the story about Balfour and Lyttleton. They managed to find Balfour and one of the mediums revealed to him that Mary was trying to contact him to let him know that she still loved him in the afterlife. Balfour did not believe the medium at first, but after many sessions which revealed things the woman could not have known, he became convinced and died having experienced great peace and comfort. The details of the Palm Sunday Case were not revealed until 1960 and they are compelling because of the symbolism used by those trying to communicate from beyond the veil and because it would seem that several entities were working together to get the attention of the living. The idea that the communication came through automatic writing made it even stranger and the case certainly was odd.

This Day in History - Prize Fighting Rules Created

On this day, August 10th, the first prize fighting rules were formulated in 1743. Jack Broughton became known as the "Father of English Boxing" and he set some rules to paper that became known as the Broughton Rules. The sport of boxing had been around for over 5000 years, but this was the first time official rules were laid out. Rounds would last as long as it took for one fighter to be knocked down or out of the ring and the fight would end when one of the men was unable to rise after 30 seconds. Knockouts were not the only thing that could end a fight. Capitulation or police intervention could end fights according to the rules. Broughton's Rules lasted until 1839 when the London Prize Ring Rules changed the ring so that it was a 24 square-foot boxing ring with ropes surrounding it. Previously, spectators had formed the ring around the boxers. Many things were forbidden with this boxing. There was no kicking, gouging, biting, head butting and punches below the belt. Many of these rules still stand today and boxing is more popular than ever.

Salem Witch Trials

Some of the most infamous trials in American history revolve around a small town in Massachusetts named Salem. Salem and witches have become intertwined through the years and a study in human psychology surrounding the events of the Salem Witch Trials reveals a very heinous side to humanity. The use of the terminology "witch hunt" was inspired by the Salem Witch Trials. Today, we explore not only the historic events themselves, but what led several communities to turn on their neighbors leading to deadly results. We also will look at the tales of curses and hauntings that spawned from the Salem Witch Trials.

While the Salem Witch Trials are the most famous when it comes to hunting down witches, they were not the first. Thirty years before the trials in Salem, Hartford, Conneticut had its own witch hunt mass hysteria. Eight year old Elizabeth Kelly had died mysteriously after spending time with a neighbor named Goodwife Ayres. Before Elizabeth passed, she told her father that Goodwife was upon her and choking her, leading some to believe the little girl had been possessed by Goodwife. Such possession was termed "bewitchment" at the time. Hartford had some experience with witch hunting being that it was the first town in America to have hung someone for practicing witchcraft in 1647. Four other people were hung shortly thereafter. But it wasn't until Little Elizabeth's death in 1662 that hysteria would manifest for the first time. When all was said and done, there had been seven trials and four people were executed. In 1692, another witch hysteria broke out with no executions, but later in 1697 another hysteria led to eleven executions. So witch hunt hysteria and Puritans seemed to go hand in hand.

To understand the thinking of the Puritans, we need to trace back their superstitions to the 14th century. The belief that the Devil would give humans power to harm other humans began in Europe. These beliefs traveled with the Puritans to the New World. Women were also considered weaker and easily tempted into sin. Puritans pointed to Eve for proof and they were fearful of strong willed women. The Puritans had a desire to purify the Church as well and they adopted rigid standards that were outlawed in much of Europe. This is why many moved to New England. Upon getting here, they discovered an unforgiving land where they had to live among people they considered to be savages. Imagine being religious to an extreme and you come to a place where dark skinned people wear little clothing and have what you consider strange practices. And some of these people try to kill you as well. There was culture shock and fear. Sickness also would sweep through towns in the form of plagues and yellow fever. Puritans did not understand medicine and disease and their superstitions led them to attribute all such things to an all powerful Devil. Puritans easily fell into moral panic in which fear of social order breaking down leads to extreme reactions.

This is the environment of 1692 Salem. When the young daughter and niece of Salem Village's minister Samuel Parris began having seizures and bizarre fits, the townspeople became worried. A local doctor was called in to diagnose the girls. His conclusion was that the girls had been bewitched. From our modern perspective, it is easy to laugh over such a diagnosis. Surely these girls were experiencing something else. There are many causes for seizures and even some have suggested Ergot poisoning from eating bad Rye bread. Ergot is an ingredient in LSD that helps initiate hallucinations. Even more odd was that five other young girls began exhibiting the same behavior. The girls were gathered together and questioned about who they had been spending their time with. Samuel Parris' Caribbean servant Tituba soon found herself in the center of the storm.

Tituba was an Arawak Indian from South America. As a young girl, she had been kidnapped and taken to Barbados where she was sold into slavery. Despite her portrayal as a black woman in most tellings of the narratives around the Salem Witch Trials, the documents from the trials do support an Indian history. It was sometime in Tituba's teens that she came to be a servant for Samuel Parris. No one is sure if he purchased Tituba or if she was given to him to settle a debt. There is speculation that Parris, who was unmarried at the time, may have used Tituba for more than just household chores. Tituba liked to tell stories and she would regale the young girls with strange tales. Perhaps she even taught some of them how to make herbal tinctures. It was something that Tituba did shortly after Parris's daughter went into fits, that thrust her into the spotlight.

Tituba used an old practice to see if she could figure out who had bewitched Samuel Parris' daughter. She mixed the young girl's urine with rye and baked a cake called a witchcake. She then fed the cake to a dog. The dog was then suppose to reveal who the person was that had afflicted the daughter. When the Reverend heard about this, he was enraged. Details are murky here. All the young girls claimed that Tituba had bewitched them, but one has to wonder why. Were the girls led to make this accusation by some adults? Did they do this based on the stories that Tituba had told them? Were the girls out to get Tituba? Reverend Parris would later beat Tituba until she confessed she was a witch, which is why we wonder if the girls were not guided in their accusations. Tituba was fearful about what would happen to her and probably believed that if she accused other women, she would somehow take the focus off herself. A homeless woman named Sarah Good and an elderly woman non-churchgoer named Sarah Osborne were accused of practicing witchcraft by Tituba. Tituba claimed that there was a thriving coven in Salem and the Salem Witch Hunt began.

By this time, seven young girls were afflicted with contortions, fevers and many complained that it felt like something unseen was biting and pinching them. Two of the girls, Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis, claimed that they saw witches flying around in the early morning mists. It was easy for the superstitious people of Salem to believe the girls and with Tituba and both Sarahs being outcasts, it was easy to believe that something was evil about them. The trials began for the three accused women and the afflicted girls continued their dramatics in the courtroom. The women were considered guilty and in need of proving their innocence. Tituba, probably out of fear for her life, confessed to all sorts of bizarre things including meeting Satan as both a man and a dog and claiming that she and other women road in the air on poles. Her claims that witchcraft was indeed being practiced fueled the flames. She accused more women of joining her in ceremonies.

Soon the zealotry passed to the townspeople. They too began accusing neighbors of witchcraft. Long held bitterness came forward and before long, many innocent people found themselves in jail for witchcraft. Martha Corey, Sarah Cloyce, Mary Easty and Rebecca Nurse were added to the list. And then there was poor Dorcas Good. She was the four-year-old daughter of Sarah Good. She soon was accused of practicing witchcraft and unbelievably, she was thrown in jail for eight months. It was long enough for her to watch her mother be carried off to the gallows. The handful of girls that appeared to be afflicted by the spells of witches continued their dramatics. They twitched during trials and on the streets. They would shout out during church services and complain that the spirits of the witches were attacking them. Ann Putnam's mother even joined in revealing that repressed women can easily fall into hysteria if it means freedom from the constriction of their lives.

Unique tests were devised for revealing witches. One such test was used in Boston at the Frog Pond in Boston Commons. If a person floated on top of the water or could survive dunking that held them underwater for several minutes, then that person was deemed a witch. Nevermind that if someone drowned it proved they were not a witch, but they were dead so what would it matter. If you did manage to survive, you would be sent to the gallows. Boston itself hung four people in the Boston Commons. Confessing to being a witch could possibly save your life and many did confess and then pointed fingers at others in order to avoid the gallows. People were checked for witch marks, which were simply birthmarks or moles.

Bridget Bishop was the first to stand trial. On our ghost tour in Salem, we crossed through a parking lot that used to be her apple orchard. She created hard apple cider to serve in her tavern and many believe that her work as a barkeep is what put her under scrutiny. It gave the Puritans a reason to take this woman out. The girls and several neighbors claimed that Bridget's spectre tortured them and that they had seen her turn into a cat. Eight days after she was ruled guilty, Bridget was hung on Gallows Hill. People claim to smell the scent of apples and apple cider in this parking lot.

Rebecca Nurse's trial was next. This was an elderly woman who was mostly bedridden and yet the girls accused her of witchery. What some did not know is that Rebecca's family and the Putnams had years of disputes between them, so it's not surprising that she was accused by the Putnams. Rebecca was initially found not guilty, but the main judge sent the jury judges back and they changed their verdict to guilty after several of the girls threw themselves on the ground and convulsed when the not guilty verdict was read. Rebecca was hung with four other women on July 19th.

One man from Salem would accuse the townspeople of being silly. John Proctor and his wife were good people and they certainly did not believe that they were surrounded by people who had sold their souls to the Devil. Proctor owned a tavern and denounced the trials regularly. It's not surprising that soon he was accused and then his pregnant wife was accused as well. They were both convicted, but Proctor's wife was not hung so that she could have her baby. She managed to escape execution because she held on until the witch hysteria died down. Proctor however, was hung.

Unbelievably, Salem's ex-minister George Burroughs came under fire. He too was found guilty and he refused to confess. He was defiant until the end. After the noose was placed around his neck on Gallows Hill, he recited the Lord's Prayer perfectly. The townspeople were stunned because they believed witches were incapable of reciting the Lord's prayer. Although they were moved, the execution continued at the urging of Judge Cotton Mathers.

The story of Giles Corey is horrible. This man was very successful and owned large parcels of land. He and his wife were accused of witchcraft and we have no doubt that the goal was to obtain his land. If someone confessed to being a witch, they lost all their property. Giles had sons that he wanted to pass his property onto and he refused to allow the town to take what was rightfully his. He refused to confess, so the judges hauled him out for a little torture tactic they had devised called pressing. You see, if you are a witch, apparently you cannot be crushed to death. Giles was committed to not losing his property and so as the board was placed on his body and the first few stones were placed atop, he called for more weight. As the judges screamed for him to confess, he continued to yell for more weight even as his chest was weighted down. He was nearly dead when his eyes flashed open and he hurled a curse at the judges before he took his last breaths. His death proved he was innocent. And his curse would live on.

Three days after Giles death, his wife was hung along with seven other convicted people. These would be the last victims of the witch trials. In all, twenty innocent people lost their lives. Four people died in jail. Even two dogs were executed as witches. Nearly two hundred people had been accused and jailed and many would stay there because the law required that accused people had to foot their own care bills in jail. So if you couldn't pay your debt, you were stuck. Many wallowed in jail for months until family members or others would take pity. Tituba became the servant of another man who paid off her jail bill.

In the end, most scholars agree that while mass hysteria could have played a role, it is more than likely that people lied because of long standing property and church disputes. The emotions and horrible deaths of the innocent have tainted Salem. Not only is Salem now synonymous with outrageous hysteria leading to the deaths of innocents, but Salem seems to be victim to curses and hauntings. And the irony is that today, Salem is a mecca for those who practice Wicca and for pagans.

Giles Corey's curse was fairly simple. He hollered, "I curse you and Salem." It is said that Giles himself appears as an apparition before anything befalls the town. There was a huge fire in Salem in 1914. Giles appeared before several townspeople before the fire started. One has to wonder how that fire was started. Sarah Good called out a curse on Reverend Nicholas Noyes who was a part of the trials. She said to him, "I am no more a witch than you are a wizard and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink." Twenty-five years later, the good reverend had an aneurysm that poured blood down his throat to the point that he choked to death.

The John Ward House was used as a place of interrogation during the trials. We visited this during our ghost tour and it's a neat home that reminds us of a large cottage. The house sat across the street from the witch dungeon until it was moved in 1910. Today the house is used as storage for the Peabody Essex Museum. Full bodied apparitions have been seen and photographed in the house. One night, an employee was in the building by herself when she heard the door open and heard footsteps. She called out and got no answer. She investigated and saw nothing. She returned to what she was doing and heard the footsteps again. They seemed to be climbing the stairs towards her. She was afraid that someone had broken in and that she was in danger. She ran terrified from the building and never returned.

Sheriff George Corwin was the law during the Salem Witch Trials. He was the one who arrested those nearly 200 accused people. He interrogated the accused and sometimes even participated in the torture they underwent and many claim he enjoyed committing the torture. Corwin died shortly after the hysteria and he was buried in the basement of his home to keep it safe from villagers who would want to tear the body apart. The home was later torn down and the Joshua Ward House was built on the property. That house is claimed to be the most haunted location in Salem. People claim to feel as if some unseen thing is choking them. A woman in black has been seen here and men feel uncomfortable in the house. They are the ones usually attacked and many believe a female victim of the trials is seeking revenge against Corwin at his former home.

The Old Witch Gaol is reportedly haunted. Prisoners were starved and given no water. Several people died in prison due to the bad conditions. A building used by the phone company now stands where the Gaol used to be. Employees are reluctant to use the landlines in the building because occasionally the screams of the tortured come through the lines. People claim to have been touched and pushed inside the building. It is believed that one of the spirits belongs to an angry former guard. His full body apparition has been seen. Two beams were found when digging on the new building began. It is believed those beams were part of the dungeon. One is now on display at the Witch Dungeon Museum and employees claim the beam is a haunted artifact. Twice when the beam was photographed, a woman in eighteenth century clothing appeared behind the beam in the photos. Keep in mind that the trials took place during the seventeenth century.

Ghost Adventures visited the Witch House in 2011. The building is the former home of Magistrate Jonathan Corwin and stood during the witch trials. The batteries on their equipment kept dying. The investigators believe they captured an EVP of Bridget Bishop because the voice said, "Apple." They also picked up a child humming. Phantom footsteps are heard in the house by visitors and employees. Dark shadows are sometimes seen upstairs. Once when an employee was reading the names of those executed during the trials, a tin sconce flew off the wall.

Salem just seems to have a spooky air about it. Is it just because of its notorious past or are the undead very active in this city? Have we learned our lessons from the Salem Witch Trials or will humans continue to find scapegoats and accuse innocent people like we had during the Red Scare and when America relocated and imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II? Is Salem haunted not only by its past but by spirits? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:

Music in this episode is by Kevin MacLeod and his work can be found at

"Lost Time" Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

 "Past the Edge" Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

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