The lore surrounding the witch trials of the 16th through 18th centuries is often shrouded in mystery and magic. In reality, witchcraft was, for the most part, not the reason people were accused, tried, and executed. However, those accusing others found many reasons - most of them ridiculous - to accuse someone of witchcraft.
Many of these reasons were beyond the accused's control, such as being born with a third nipple. Many others were just absurd, such as leaving old milk to spoil or slamming a door. No one was safe, but women, who made up 70% of all tried witches, were especially vulnerable and could be accused of just about anything.
Twenty people were executed in the 1692 Salem witch trials . Historians estimate that over 50,000 people, mostly women, were tried and executed in Europe for witchcraft between the 15th century and the 18th century. Here are some of the most ridiculous reasons people were accused of witchcraft.
Being Too Strong
George Burroughs already had bad blood with Salem before the witch hysteria of 1692 took over. He was a Christian minister assigned to lead the Salem Village Church in 1680. The previous minister had left his post because the people of Salem refused to pay his wages, and it didn't take long for George Burroughs to encounter the same problem.
When his wife died in 1681, he had to take out a loan from John Putnam for her funeral expenses. After two years, he was tired of the people of Salem refusing to pay him, so he went to the village to resign. At that time, John Putnam suddenly decided to arrest him for not paying him back for his wife's funeral a year prior.
As was the nature of Puritan Salem, gossip quickly spread about George Burroughs, even though neighbors helped pay his debts to get him out of jail. A decade later, when the people of Salem were being interrogated for names of potential witches, those rumors reared their ugly heads. In 1692, George Burroughs was issued an arrest warrant in his new home in Portsmouth, Maine.
On his way to Salem, a storm struck and spooked many of the horses, but Burroughs didn't get injured, which was considered a sign of his affiliation with the devil. Burroughs also made the mistake of mentioning he had a toad infestation at his new home, another sign of witchcraft.
Above all, George Burroughs was accused of having "superhuman strength" by nine citizens of Salem. Reverend Cotton Mather wrote in his account of the trial, "He was accused by nine persons for extraordinary lifting, and such feats of strength as could not be done without a diabolical assistance"
Many of the accusers said they commonly heard George Burroughs bragging about his strength - totally not normal male behavior. Mercy Lewis even claimed Burroughs carried her up a mountain to show her all the kingdoms of heaven and earth. Another witness claimed they saw him stick his finger in a barrel of cider and lift it above his head.
Because of the overwhelming "evidence" of George Burroughs's affiliation with black magic, he was executed by hanging in public gallows.Absurd accusation?
Having A Sour Personality
When Rachel Clinton was 10 years old, her father died, leaving her mother with five young daughters to take care of. She didn't marry until she was 36 and only did so in the hopes of receiving some inheritance. Unfortunately, the man she married took her money, cheated on her with their maid, and refused to support her financially. She was then forced to beg for money to survive.
In 1692, many citizens of Salem accused her of being a witch because of her "sour personality." After what Rachel Clinton went through, a sour personality seems perfectly understandable. She was found guilty, jailed, put in shackles, and was only to be released if someone paid her court fees and bail.
She was finally released in 1693, only to die penniless and destitute on the street a few years later. Rachel Clinton is one of the most tragic tales to come out of this bleak period of history as someone who was truly failed by everyone around her.Absurd accusation?
Laughing At How Stupid Witch Trials Are
Susannah Martin, like many others accused during the Salem witch trials, had a reputation and past convictions. Also similar to many of the convicted, family disputes over inheritance and land led to legal troubles and made her an easy target during the 1692 trials.
The girls who were "afflicted" by witchcraft - Mary Walcott, Abigail Williams, Anne Putnam Jr., and Mercy Lewis - quickly pointed the finger at Susannah Martin. Martin found the accusations so absurd, she couldn't help but laugh.
Reverend Cotton Mather found the situation to be no laughing matter, and recorded the exchange in the court documents as follows:
[Magistrate] (to the afflicted girls): Do you know this Woman?
[Abigail Williams]: It is Goody Martin she hath hurt me often.
Others by fits were hindered from speaking. Eliz: Hubbard said she hath not been hurt by her. John Indian said he hath not seen her Mercy Lewes pointed to her & fell into a little fit. Ann Putman threw her Glove in a fit at her.
The examinant laught.
[Magistrate] (To Martin): What do you laugh at it?
[Martin]: Well I may at such folly.
[Magistrate]: Is this folly? The hurt of these persons.
[Martin]: I never hurt man woman or child.
In July of 1692, Susannah Martin was executed by hanging alongside Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes.Absurd accusation?
Talking To Yourself
Sarah Good was accused of witchcraft for the simple reason that she was spotted around town quietly talking to herself under her breath. Sarah Good was pregnant at the time of her trial but was still found guilty. She was forced to wait out the rest of her pregnancy in jail. As soon as she gave birth, she was sentenced to death by hanging.
Her last words were directed towards the town's judge, Reverand Nicholas Noyes. She said, "You're a liar! I'm no more a witch than you are a wizard! If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink!"
Legend says that when Nicholas Noyes died 25 years later of a brain hemorrhage, he coughed up his own blood and drowned, leading some to suspect Sarah Good actually had some witchcraft up her sleeve.Absurd accusation?