At the center of the Salem witch trials were a core group of accusers, all girls and young women ranging in age from nine to 20, who screamed, writhed, barked and displayed other horrifying symptoms they claimed were signs of Satanic possession. Often referred to as the “afflicted girls,” they included members of prominent village families, as well as domestic servants and refugees of King William’s War, a long-running conflict that pitted English settlers against Wabanaki Native Americans and their French allies.
Historians have offered numerous possible explanations for the Salem accusers’ actions, including economic hardship, deliberate fraud, mass hysteria, mental illness or convulsive ergotism, a condition caused by a fungus that grows on rye and other grains. But the truth is undoubtedly more complex, and impossible to know.
Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and Abigail Williams
In January 1692, a doctor was called to the home of Reverend Samuel Parris, the Puritan minister of Salem Village (present-day Danvers, Massachusetts), after his nine-year-old daughter, Betty, and her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, began exhibiting strange symptoms, such as convulsing, barking and speaking unintelligible words. Betty and Abigail soon accused Tituba, the enslaved woman owned by Samuel Parris, whose subsequent confession launched a full-blown witchcraft crisis in Salem.
Betty never attended the subsequent trials; her parents sent her away to live with family to avoid the uproar. Samuel Parris was dismissed from his job as minister in Salem Village, and settled with Betty and the rest of his family in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Betty later married a shoemaker and had five children; she died in 1760. Abigail, on the other hand, played a prominent role in the Salem witch trials, accusing a total of 57 people of witchcraft. She gave her last testimony before the court in early June 1692, and no record exists of her life after the trials.
Ann Putnam Jr.
The 12-year-old daughter of Thomas Putnam and his wife, Ann Carr Putnam, became one of the most prolific accusers of the trials, naming and/or testifying against more than 60 people. A scion of one of Salem’s most prominent families, and a close ally of Parris, Thomas served as a key instigator of the witch trials; he wrote many of the depositions for the afflicted, including his daughter and later his wife, Ann Putnam Sr.
After her parents died suddenly in 1699, Ann Jr. was left to look after her seven younger siblings. In 1706, while seeking to join the Salem Village church, Ann offered the only known apology of any of the Salem accusers, stating that she had been deluded by the devil, and that she desired “to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness from God and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offence.” She was allowed to join the congregation, but died from unknown causes just nine years later.
Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth was an orphan who worked as a maid in the household of her aunt, Rachel Griggs, and her husband, William Griggs, the doctor who first attended the afflicted girls in the Parris household. Elizabeth joined Betty, Abigail and Ann Jr. among the first four accusers, and went on to testify against 29 people in the Salem witch trials, 13 of whom were executed. Known for her tendency to go into trances in the courtroom, she claimed frequently to be tormented by the specters of the accused.
Compared with the Parrises and Putnams, Hubbard had little family or economic support, and faced an uncertain future as an orphaned domestic servant. Historian Carol Karlsen has argued that Hubbard and some of the other accusers in similar circumstances may have wanted to “focus the communities’ concern on their difficulties.” After the trials, Hubbard disappears from the historical record.
The 16-year-old daughter of Captain Jonathan Walcott, leader of the Salem Village militia, was related to the Putnam family by marriage; Ann Jr. was her step-cousin. The Walcotts lived next door to the Parrises, and Mary’s other aunt, Mary Sibley, had encouraged the baking of the “witch cake” that led to Betty and Abigail’s accusations against Tituba. Perhaps predictably, Mary Walcott joined the core group of accusers by March 1692, and went on to see numerous visions and suffer apparent afflictions at the hands of accused witches. Other times, she sat in the courtroom and knitted calmly while other afflicted girls had fits around her.
Of the accused witches Walcott testified against, 16 were executed, one (Giles Corey) was pressed to death and another died in jail. After the trials, Mary Walcott married a local man, Isaac Farrar; Rev. Samuel Parris performed the ceremony. She had six children, and died in 1752, at the age of 77.
Mercy Lewis survived a bloody raid in 1689 by Wabanaki Native Americans in Casco Bay (present-day Portland, Maine), during which both of her parents were killed. By early 1692, the 19-year-old was living in Salem Village and working as a servant in the household of Thomas and Ann Putnam Sr.
Shortly after Ann Jr. was afflicted, Lewis began showing signs of affliction as well. She eventually accused nine people of witchcraft and testified in 16 cases, including that of Rev. George Burroughs, a former minister of Salem Village who had relocated to Casco Bay, where Lewis had briefly worked for him as a servant. Lewis’ experiences, along with her uncertain future as an orphaned servant and her connection with the Putnam family, could have played a role in her actions.
In his book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trial and the American Experience, historian Emerson W. Baker argues that Lewis and other accusers “may have been suffering from what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress syndrome,” writes Baker. After the trials ended, Lewis gave birth to an illegitimate child; she married in 1701 and moved to Boston with her husband and child.
At 20, Mary Warren worked as a servant in the household of John and Elizabeth Proctor. Though she began showing signs of affliction early in the crisis, she apparently recovered after John Proctor, an outspoken critic of the witch trials, threatened to beat her. Soon after that, Warren herself was accused of witchcraft.
Brought before the judges in April 1692, she was confronted with her past statement that the “afflicted persons did but dissemble,” or fake their symptoms. In response, the afflicted in the courtroom went into severe fits, and Warren responded with similar behavior. She later rejoined the ranks of the accusers and testified against the Proctors, whom she claimed had tricked her into signing the devil’s book, and numerous other accused witches. Warren’s fate after the trials is unknown.