Sunday, October 30, 2011

Witches, Halloween and Genealogy

"The Trail of George Jacobs" (my ancestor)
painting by T. H. Matteson,
this artwork depicts teenager Margaret Jacobs
accusing her grandfather, to save her own life

As someone with a family tree that goes back to Salem in the 1630’s, I have many ancestors who lived through the Salem witchcraft trials.  Now, anyone with colonial Essex County ancestry might have ancestors who lived through this infamous time period, and believe me, if they were alive in 1692 they were involved.  Everyone had an opinion, thousands attended meetings, and hundreds were imprisoned.  There were hundreds of citizens imprisoned on witchcraft charges, which meant that many hundreds more gave evidence against them, as neighbors and witnesses.

            Writers from 1692 tell us that so many people attended the trials and meetings cows were left to wander though the lanes, and children languished at home unfed and uncared for.  In the summer of 1692 farmers left their fields to attend hangings, court testimonies and inquiries, and their fields were left untended.  The Salem witchcraft hysteria was more popularly attended and gossiped about than any modern sports event or sensational TV trial, because people were afraid of their own family members being accused.  Like an insidious plague, the accusations were flying in Essex County, and even ministers and people from the highest social orders were being found guilty of witchcraft.

            I can’t imagine what life was like that summer of 1692, and the fear that people must have felt as their friends and neighbors were being led off to prison.  Very few people spoke against the trials, nor did they want to stand up in defense of their neighbors’ innocence.  Remember that when John Proctor spoke up for his own wife, he himself was hung as a witch.  When the popular Andover minister Frances Dane spoke against the trials, most of the female members of his extended family were arrested. 

            However, in the end, only 19 people were hung, several others died in prison, and one was tortured to death.  These are the names you will find in the history books.  By looking further into the trials, at the transcripts of the meetings and on the lists of the witnesses, you can find thousands of other names.  There were jurors, jailors, and even people who signed their names (bravely!) on petitions against the evidence.  Considering that the entire population of Salem Village (now Danvers) at this time numbered only 600 people, and 200 Essex county people were jailed.  This was a high percentage of citizens were involved in the hysteria, especially since this number didn’t include witnesses and complainants.

            The archives of Danvers hold most of the trial transcripts, and you can access some of them online at  The rest are in the Essex County archives.   Many good books about the Salem witchcraft hysteria are available in bookstores, libraries including “Salem Village Witchcraft: a Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England” by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, which is a collection of primary source documents from 1692.  My favorite is “The Wonders of the Invisible World” by Reverend Cotton Mather, written in 1693.   Mather’s book is one of the only firsthand accounts of the Salem witch trials, written mostly to defend his position as the chief persecutor of his neighbors, the supposed witches.

            By searching for surnames in the indexes of these databases and books, it is surprising how many family members and distant cousins I could find were involved with the trials.  Of course, no one kept track of the audience members and witnesses to the trials and hangings.  If there had been a guest book at these events, I suppose most of the adult citizens of Essex county would be found on the lists.  Remember that if you had Massachusetts ancestors during this time period, they might have been involved since trial and hearings took place in Gloucester, Andover, and even in Boston.  Just like everyone tuning into their TV sets to see the latest crime news, or just like neighbors who run downtown to see the latest thing going on in town (the Bruins in their Boston duck boat parade after winning the Stanley Cup?), our 17th century ancestors were no different from us.

Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Judge Samuel Sewall (1652 - 1730) is my 7th great grandfather. Although he figured prominently in the Salem witch trials, later in life, he publicly regretted his role.

  2. Elizabeth, there was a very good book about Judge Sewall written a few years ago. I went to the book signing at NEHGS and the author gave a great presentation. I have some Sewell first cousins.