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.
Not Hearing Well Enough
Rebecca Nurse was accused of witchcraft at the age of 71. Even the judge and jury doubted her guilt, since she had been a respected member of Salem for many decades and had eight children, as well as many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
During her trial, the girls who accused her would break into fits whenever Rebecca Nurse spoke or waved her hands. However, the judge still found her not guilty, which caused an uproar from spectators and the girls who were allegedly being bewitched.
To clarify, Chief Justice Stoughton asked Rebecca Nurse a question about something she had said during her trial as an attempt to quell the hysterical crowd. She was partially deaf in her old age and didn't answer the question because she didn't hear it. The jury assumed this was a sign of her guilt, discussed her case again, and found her guilty.
Rebecca Nurse was excommunicated from Salem and publicly executed soon after. This outraged many of her friends and neighbors and was seen as the first spark to ignite doubt of the witch trials' legitimacy amongst the people of Salem.Absurd accusation?
Slamming The Church Door
Sarah Cloyce was not suspected of being a witch until her own sister was named guilty at her trial for witchcraft. When the verdict was announced, Sarah Cloyce marched out of the church and slammed the door.
What may seem like a common demonstration of angst among young people was seen by the Puritans of the 17th century as an obvious sign of witchcraft. Sarah Cloyce was immediately accused of conspiring with the devil. She was sent to jail with her two sisters, who were also accused of being witches, and awaited her sentence. Both her sisters were found guilty and executed, but Sarah Cloyce was eventually found innocent and released from jail.
She spent the rest of her life working tirelessly to clear her sisters' names posthumously. She was ultimately successful. In 1712, nine years after Rebecca died, both of Sarah's sisters were cleared of their charges.Absurd accusation?
Someone Claiming A Yellow Bird Is Suckling Your Fingers
Martha Corey already had a controversial past long before the witch trials began. She allegedly had a mixed-race baby out of wedlock, which, unsurprisingly, was not well-received by the 17th-century Puritans. After raising the child in solitude, she married and had another child. When that husband died, she married Giles Corey, another Salem character with a checkered past.
Giles Corey had been tried for the murder of one of his farmhands in the past, but that was really no problem in the eyes of the Salem courtroom. When Anne Putnam, Jr. accused Martha Corey's spirit of visiting her in the middle of the night, however, Martha Corey was in trouble.
Her official sentence could not be delivered until Monday, since Salem law forbade work on Sundays. Martha Corey did as she always did on Sundays - she went to church. It was there Abigail Williams claimed she saw a yellow bird flying around Martha Corey, suckling her fingers and whispering in her ear. Reverend Deodat Lawson recalls the events in his book:
In sermon time, when Goodwife C. was present in the meeting-house, Ab. W. [Abigail Williams] called out, Look where Goodwife C. sits on the beam suckling her yellow bird betwixt her fingers! Ann Putnam, another afflicted girl, said, There was a yellow bird sat on my hat as it hang on the pin in the pulpit; but those that were by, restrained her from speaking aloud about it.
This was the last straw for the people of Salem. Martha Corey was tried, found guilty, and executed.Absurd accusation?
Having A Third Nipple
Prosecutors of witches had a collective conniption over a third nipple, which they referred to as "the witch's teat." They believed witches used this third nipple to feed their familiars. Moles, birthmarks, and other imperfections of the skin were also seen as "the devil's mark" and could be enough of a reason to be accused of witchcraft.
Having a third nipple, or a "supernumerary nipple," happens in 1 out of 200 women. Even Anne Boylen had one, tying her to witchcraft, which was one of the many reasons King Henry VIII gave for her execution.
When women heard rumors of witch trials, they would often cut off moles, birthmarks, or third nipples to avoid prosecution. Eventually, scars were seen as marks of witchcraft, too.Absurd accusation?