Boston and Salem Witch Hangings

In 1692, when a group of Puritan girls claimed to have unnatural fits that were attributed to witchcraft, the accusations set off a series of events that would lead to hundreds in Salem Village being accused of witchcraft and nineteen being executed. But even before the infamous witch trials in Salem Village, four women were hanged for witchcraft on Boston Common.

Boston Common Hangings

The first woman executed in Boston for witchcraft was Margaret Jones of Charlestown. In 1648, the midwife Jones was hanged on an elm tree on Boston Common. She was followed by Alice Lake of Dorchester in 1651, and then by Anne Hibbens in 1656. Hibbens was the opinionated sister of Governor Richard Bellingham who is said to have been excommunicated from the church for speaking her mind. An Irish-Catholic woman, Mary "Goody" Glover, who could not recite "The Lord's Prayer" in English - only in Latin - was the final person executed in Boston for witchcraft. In 1688, she scolded a 13-year-old child who had accused Glover's daughter of stealing. The girl and her brother went into fits, claiming sharp pains and being struck deaf and dumb. Glover confessed to being a witch, but her last words were reportedly, "I die a Catholic."

Salem Witch Trials

In 1692, the claims of witchcraft started up again, this time in Salem. "Struggling against the hardships of a dangerous frontier and guided by severe doctrines of strict religious teachings, Puritans in Massachusetts believed the Devil lurked within everyone... to doubt the existence of the Devil was the same as doubting their culture, their religion, and their God," Larry B. Pletcher wrote in the book It Happened in Massachusetts.

The first few people accused in Salem were on the fringe of society: a black slave, a beggar, and a promiscuous woman. The first person executed was Bridget Bishop - a flamboyant tavern keeper who was often a source of gossip in the town. But before the hysteria died down, hundreds of people were thrown in jail, including some prominent citizens. Eighteen people were hanged on Gallows Hill, and one man who refused to plead either innocent or guilty was slowly crushed to death by stones.

Several prominent ministers, include Increase Mather, argued against spectral evidence and lack of solid proof. In October of 1692, Gov. William Phips limited reliance on such evidence and stopped the executions. The survivors were eventually pardoned and cleared, and in 1711, families of survivors were paid financial claims.

Cotton and Increase Mather

The irony is that one of the most prominent figures in the witch trials, Boston preacher Cotton Mather, about 30 years later would be on the side of science. Mather (son of Increase Mather) had investigated the Goody Glover case of 1688 and had written a book, Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, that had served as a reference in the Salem Witch Trials. When Boston was hit with a smallpox outbreak in 1721, Mather advocated inoculation, still experimental at that time, to limit the spread of the disease. However, his involvement in the Salem hangings and his persecution of Quakers were enough for some people to discredit inoculations, Robert J. Allison wrote in his book A Short History of Boston.