Witch And Witchcraft, a person supposed to have formed a compact with Satan, and the practice of the powers thereby acquired. The term witch, though applied to both sexes, in strictness denotes a female, wizard being the appropriate term for a male. The belief in witches, as formerly entertained in Christian countries, supposed Satan to be in rebellion against God and in warfare against the church, and to exercise his malevolent influence through the agency of human beings, who by formal compact had agreed to become his subjects and to serve him. Such persons became possessed of supernatural powers, including the ability to injure others, to read their thoughts, to call up the spirits of the dead, to transform themselves into the likeness of animals, to be present in apparition at a distance from the actual locality of their bodies, to fascinate by a look, etc. They were supposed to bear upon their bodies a " witch mark," affixed by Satan, which was known by the point where it was made becoming callous and dead. - The subject of witchcraft has been treated generally in the articles Demonology and Magic, and in this article a more particular account of the Salem witchcraft will be given.
At the time of the settlement of the country the belief in witches was general, and unknown diseases, extraordinary occurrences, or circumstances not explainable upon known theories, were commonly attributed to the influence of the devil and the agency of witches. Witchcraft was regarded as the blackest of crimes, and the punishment of death was inflicted on persons convicted of it. Several persons were executed as witches in Massachusetts prior to the extraordinary outburst at Salem: The latest instance had been the hanging of an Irish woman in Boston in 1688, accused of bewitching four children belonging to the family of a Mr. Goodwin. During the winter of 1691-'2 a company, consisting mostly of young girls, was in the habit of meeting at the house of the clergyman, Mr. Parris, in Salem Village (now Danvers Centre), for the purpose of practising the arts of necromancy, magic, etc. They soon began to exhibit strange actions, exclamations, and contortions, at times being seized with spasms, dropping insensible to the floor, or writhing in agony. The village physician declared the children bewitched, an opinion in which a council of the neighboring clergymen, including Mr. Parris, concurred.
Being pressed to make known who had bewitched them, the girls first accused an Indian woman named Tituba, a servant of Mr. Parris; Sarah Good, a woman of ill repute; and Sarah Osburn, who was bedridden. They were brought before the magistrates for examination on March 1, 1692. The excitement became extreme, and spread through the neighboring country; others were accused, and the most eminent clergymen and laymen encouraged the prosecution, in the belief that Satan was making a special effort to gain the victory over the saints. But few had the wisdom and courage to resist the delusion. A special court of oyer and terminer was appointed for the hearing of the cases, but the trials were a mere mockery. It opened at Salem in the first week of June, and several sessions were held, the last opening on Sept. 9. Nineteen persons, among them some of the most pious and reputable citizens, were hanged, the first executions occurring in June and the last in September. Six were men, including one clergyman, and thirteen were women.
Giles Corey, a man upward of 80 years of age, for refusing to plead, was pressed to death. (See Peine Forte et Dure.) A reaction in public sentiment now began to set in, and though at a court held in January, 1693, three persons were condemned, no more executions took place; and in May the governor discharged all then in jail, to the number, it is said, of 150. Mr. Parris, who had been one of the most zealous prosecutors, was dismissed by his church in 1696, although he acknowledged his error. - See " Salem Witchcraft," by Charles W. Upham (2 vols., Boston, 1867).