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.
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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.
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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.
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Accidentally Selling Spoiled Milk And Butter
Wilmot Redd, also known as Old Mammy Redd, lived in Marblehead, MA, and was the only person to get tried and executed for witchcraft outside of Salem during the 1692 trials.
She was known by her neighbors as somewhat of a curmudgeonly old woman, and rumors spread about her evil looks that could spoil milk. Wilmot Redd's husband made a small wage, so she turned to selling butter and milk for some extra income. Perhaps from carelessness or forgetfulness from her old age, some of the milk and butter she sold was sour.
This left a (literal and figurative) bad taste in her neighbors' mouths, further cementing her bad reputation and making her an easy target. Wilmot Redd was within the last group of people to be executed for witchcraft during the Salem trials in September 1692.
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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.