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Salem Witch Trials
Puritan New England

CULTURAL CONTEXT FOR "Young Goodman Brown"

In January of 1692, two girls of Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to exhibit disturbing behavior such as seizures, trances, and blasphemous screaming. Shortly thereafter, several other local girls began to exhibit similar traits. Unable to determine a physical cause, examining physicians attributed the bizarre behavior to Satan’s influence. The girls were pressured to reveal the identities of the witches who tormented them. They named three women: Tituba, the Carib Indian slave owned by the family of one of the girls; Sarah Good; and Sarah Osborne. Although Osborne and Good maintained their innocence, Tituba confessed to seeing the devil and claimed that there was a conspiracy of witches at work in the village. This revelation incited general hysteria, with townspeople accusing one another of witchcraft.
On May 27, 1692, the newly named governor, William Phips, selected seven judges to try the witchcraft cases. Appointed were Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, Jonathan Corwin, and John Hathorne [sic]. This seventh magistrate was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great–grandfather. Hathorne was responsible first for the examinations of the accused and then for their convictions and sentencing. The evidence used during these proceedings would not likely hold up in today’s courtrooms. Indirect confessions; supernatural attributes (such as “witchmarks”); the reactions of the afflicted girls; and, most controversially, “spectral evidence,” in which the devil could assume the “specter” of an innocent person, were admissible. There are similar specters in “Young Goodman Brown,” and it is certain that Nathaniel Hawthorne had more than a few misgivings about his ancestor’s role in the Salem Witch Trials, which ultimately resulted in the hanging of nineteen men and women.

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Contributing author: Molly Kalkstein

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