Abigail Williams: The Mysterious Afflicted Girl

Abigail Williams was one of the first afflicted girls in the Salem Witch Trials.

Despite the fact that she was one of the main accusers during the Salem Witch Trials, not much is known about Abigail Williams before or even after the trials ended.

What historians do know is that Abigail Williams was born on July 12, 1680. At the time of the Salem Witch Trials, Abigail was living with her uncle, Reverend Samuel Parris, his daughter Betty Parris and Parris’ slaves Tituba and John Indian. It is not known why Abigail was living with the Parris family but many historians assume her parents had died.

William’s troubles began in the winter of 1691/2, when some of the afflicted girls were reportedly experimenting with fortune-telling techniques, specifically a technique known as the “venus-glass” during which the girls dropped egg whites into a glass of water and interpreted whatever shapes or symbols appeared in an attempt to learn more about their future husbands.

According to the book A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft by local minister, Reverend John Hale, on one of these occasions the girls became terrified when they saw the shape of a coffin in the glass.

Shortly after the incident, in January of 1692, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began behaving strangely, having fits, screaming out in pain and complaining that invisible spirits were pinching them. Ann Putnam, Jr., and the other afflicted girls soon started experiencing the same symptoms.

Tituba and the Children, Illustration by Alfred Fredericks published in A Popular History of the United States, circa 1878

At the end of February, Reverend Samuel Parris called for a doctor, who is believed to be Doctor William Griggs, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with the girls and determined they must be bewitched, according to Samuel Page Fowler in his book Account of the Life and Character of Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem Village:

“Mr. Parris appears to have been much astonished, when the physicians informed him, that his daughter and niece were, no doubt, under an evil hand. There is evidence that Mr. Parris endeavored to keep the opinion of the physicians a secret, at least, till he could determine what course to pursue. At this time, Mary Sibley, a member of his church, gave directions to John Indian how to find out, who bewitched Betsy Parris and Nabby Williams. This was done without the knowledge of Parris. The means used to make the discovery, was to make a cake of rye meal, with the urine of the children, and bake it in the ashes, and give it to a dog to eat. Similar disgusting practices appear to have been used to discover and kill witches, during the whole period of the delusion.”

Just a few days after the witch cake incident, the afflicted girls named three women they believed were bewitching them: Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osbourne.

The women were arrested and examined on March 1, 1692. During Tituba’s examination she confessed that she was a witch and warned the court that there were other witches in Salem. This confession confirmed the colonist’s greatest fears that the Devil had invaded the colony and sparked a mass hysteria and a massive witch hunt in Salem.

After news of the witch hunt spread throughout the colony, Reverend Deodat Lawson, the previous Salem minister, returned to Salem in mid-March to find out more about the suspicious activities in the village.

Lawson witnessed and published a firsthand account of one of Abigail Williams’ fits in his book A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village:

“On the nineteenth day of March last I went to Salem Village, and lodged at Nathaniel Ingersoll’s near to the Minister Mr. P’s House [Reverend Samuel Parris]…In the beginning of the evening I went to give Mr. P. a visit. When I was there, his kinswoman, Abigail Williams, (about 12 years of age), had a grievous fit; she was at first hurried with violence to and fro in the room (though Mrs. Ingersol endeavored to hold her) sometimes making as if she would fly, stretching up her arms as high as she could, and crying, whish, whish, whish, several times; presently after she said, there was Goodw. N. and said, Do you not see her? Why there she stands! And said, Goodw. N. offered her the book, but she was resolved she would not take it, saying often, I wont, I wont, I wont take it, I do not know what book it is; I am sure it is none of God’s book; it is the Devil’s book for ought I know. After that, she ran to the fire, and began to throw fire-brands about the house, and run against the back, as if she would run up chimney, and, as they said, she had attempted to go into the fire in other fits.”

The following day, Sunday, March 20, Abigail Williams disrupted services in the Salem Village meetinghouse several times due to the presence of accused witch Martha Corey. Corey had been accused of witchcraft the previous week and a warrant had been issued for her arrest on Saturday, March 19.

Since there wasn’t enough time in the day to arrest Corey and warrants weren’t served on Sundays, Corey was free until Monday and decided to attend services, which upset the afflicted girls, according to Rev. Deodat Lawson:

“On Lords day, the Twentieth of March, there were sundry of the afflicted persons at meeting, as Mrs. Pope, and Goodwife Bibber, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcut [sic], Mary Lewes [sic], and Doctor Grigg’s maid. There was also at meeting, Goodwife C. [Corey] (who was afterward examined on suspicion of being a witch.) They had several sore fits in the time of public worship, which did something interrupt me in my first prayer, being so unusual. After psalm was sung, Abigail Williams said to me, Now stand up, and name your text! And after it was read, she said, It is a long text…And in the afternoon, Abigail Williams, upon my referring to my doctrine, said to me, I know no doctrine you had, If you did name one, I have forgot it. 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.”

Also according to Lawson’s account, On March 31, the colonists held a public fast due to the suspicious activities in the village, during which Abigail Williams claimed she saw witches having a sacrament that day at a house in the village. Abigail said she saw the witches eating and drinking flesh and blood, which appeared as red bread and a red drink.

This claim came up again during Elizabeth Proctor and Sarah Cloyces’s examination on April 11, 1692, when Judge Danforth asked Abigail Williams about it, according to court records:

Q. Abigail Williams! did you see a company at Mr. Parris’s house eat and drink?
A. Yes Sir, that was their sacrament.
Q. How many were there?
A. About forty, and Goody Cloyse and Goody Good were their deacons.
Q. What was it?
A. They said it was our blood, and they had it twice that day.

It was during this examination that Abigail Williams and the other afflicted girls turned on John Proctor and accused him of witchcraft as well.

It is not known why exactly the girls accused John Proctor but it is suspected that it was because Proctor was an outspoken critic of the girls, often calling them liars, and reportedly stated they should be whipped for lying.

In Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible, in which Abigail Williams makes an appearance as a major character, Williams is portrayed as having an affair with John Proctor and accuses Elizabeth Proctor of witchcraft so she can marry John herself after Elizabeth is executed.

It is unlikely that this actually happened due to the age difference between the eleven-year-old Abigail Williams and the 60-year-old John Proctor at the time. There is also no proof that Williams and Proctor even knew each other before the witch trails began.

Yet, Miller wrote in an essay for the New Yorker in 1996 that he was convinced John Proctor had a relationship with Williams. He explained that he based the entire play on this idea after he read about how Williams tried to strike Elizabeth Proctor during her examination but instead brought her hand down gently and softly touched Elizabeth before screaming out that her fingers burned:

In this remarkably observed gesture of a troubled young girl, I believed, a play became possible. Elizabeth Proctor had been the orphaned Abigail’s mistress, and they had lived together in the same small house until Elizabeth fired the girl. By this time, I was sure, John Proctor had bedded Abigail, who had to be dismissed most likely to appease Elizabeth. There was bad blood between the two women now. That Abigail started, in effect, to condemn Elizabeth to death with her touch, then stopped her hand, then went through with it, was quite suddenly the human center of all this turmoil.”

The Proctors weren’t the only people Abigail Williams accused of witchcraft. As one of the main accusers during the Salem Witch Trials, Williams accused about 57 people of witchcraft, according to court records:

Arthur Abbott
John Alden, Jr
Daniel Andrews
Sarah Bassett
Bridget Bishop
Edward Bishop
Sarah Bishop
Mary Black
George Burroughs
Sarah Buckley
Martha Corey
Giles Corey
Elizabeth Colson
Sarah Cloyce
Martha Carrier
Bethia Carter Jr
Lydia Dustin
Mary Easty
Martha Emerson
Phillip English
Mary English
Thomas Farrer
John Flood
Elizabeth Fosdick
Sarah Good
Elizabeth Hart
Dorcas Hoar
Abigail Hobbs
William Hobbs
Deliverance Hobbs
Elizabeth Howe
Rebecca Jacobs
George Jacobs, Jr
George Jacobs, Sr
Susannah Martin
Sarah Morey
Rebecca Nurse
Sarah Osbourne
Alice Parker
Sarah Pease
Sarah Proctor
Benjamin Proctor
William Proctor
John Proctor
Elizabeth Proctor
Ann Pudeator
Susannah Roots
Mary De Rich
Wilmot Redd
Sarah Rice
Mary Toothaker
Roger Toothaker
Mary Warren
John Willard
Sarah Wildes
Mary Witheridge

Even though Abigail Williams accused many victims at the beginning of the trials, especially in March, April, and May, she only testified against eight of them: Mary Easty, George Jacobs Sr, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor, Mary Witheridge and John Willard and gave her last testimony on June 3, 1692.

Abigail Williams’ testimony against George Jacobs, Jr, circa May 1692

After that date, Williams disappears from the court hearings, for reasons unknown. It is possible her uncle, Reverend Samuel Parris, sent her away to prevent her from further participating in the witch trials, just like he sent his daughter away, but there is no evidence of this.

Of the people Williams accused and/or testified against, 15 were executed, one was tortured to death and the others either died in jail, were pardoned, were found not guilty, escaped jail or evaded arrest all together.

After the witch trials ended, several members of Reverend Samuel Parris’ congregation fought for years to have Parris dismissed from the church due to his role in the Salem Witch Trials. His dissenters submitted a list of problems they had with Parris, which included a number of issues that were directly related to Williams and the afflicted girls.

These problems involved the dissenter’s inability to attend church during the witch trials because of “the distracting and disturbing tumults and noises, made by persons under diabolical power and delusions, preventing sometimes our hearing, understanding, and profiting by the words preached” and also Parris’ “easy and strong faith and belief of the affirmations and accusations made by those they called afflicted.”

In November of 1694, Parris responded to these claims by writing an essay, titled Meditations for Peace, in which he stated that God tried to teach him a lesson by allowing the witch hunt to begin in his family.

The essay also states that the fact that some people in his household were accusers (Abigail Williams and Betty Parris) and the accused (Tituba) in the Salem Witch Trials was also a personal reprimand from God.

The essay also excused Betty Parris and Abigail Williams’ behavior during the trials by stating that the Devil sometimes not only afflicts people in the shape of innocent people but also deludes “the senses of the afflicted that they strongly conceive their hurt is from such persons, when indeed it it not.”

As for himself, Parris acknowledged that using “one afflicted to inquire by who afflicts the others, I fear may be and has been unlawfully used, to Satan’s great advantage.”

These acknowledgments did nothing to help Parris or his cause. In 1697, Parris’ dissenters won and Parris was dismissed from his job as minister of the church. He left Salem Village shortly after, taking Betty Parris and, most likely, Abigail Williams with him.

Neither Abigail Williams or Betty Parris ever apologized for their roles in the Salem Witch Trials. Ann Putnam, Jr., was the only afflicted girl who did when she submitted a written apology to the church in Salem Village in 1706.

Although Betty Parris later married and raised a family in Sudbury, Mass, there are no records indicating what happened to Abigail Williams after the Salem Witch Trials ended.

The book The Salem Witch Trials: a Day by Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege states that Williams died in 1697:

“Abigail Williams, haunted to the end, apparently died before the end of 1697 if not sooner, no older than seventeen.”

Yet, there is no proof of this though and this particular claim seems to be a vague reference to an anonymous afflicted girl mentioned in Reverend John Hale’s book A Modest Inquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft.

In Hale’s book, published in 1697, he mentions an anonymous afflicted girl who suffered from “diabolical manifestation” until her death and died a single woman. Since only three of the girls, Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard and Mary Warren, are unaccounted for in the records at the time, it is possible Hale was referring to Williams.

The location of Abigail Williams’ grave is unknown.

The site of the Salem Village Parsonage, where Abigail Williams lived at the time of the Salem Witch Trials, was excavated in 1970 and is open to visitors.

Abigail Williams Historical Sites:

Salem Village Parsonage Archaeological Site (home of Rev. Samuel Parris, Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Tituba)
Address: Rear 67 Centre Street, Danvers, Ma (site is accessible via a cart path)

Former Site of the Salem Village Meetinghouse
Address: Near corner of Hobart and Forest Street, Danvers, Mass. Historical marker on site.

Former Site of the Salem Courthouse
Address: Washington Street (about 100 feet south of Lynde Street), opposite the Masonic Temple, Salem, Mass. Memorial plaque located on Masonic Temple.

Hill, Francis. The Salem Witch Trials Reader. DaCapo Press, 2009.
Fowler, Samuel Page. An Account of the Life, Character, & C., of the Rev. Samuel Parris of Salem Village. William Ives and George W. Pease, 1857.
Mather, Cotton. The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England. John Dunton, 1692.
Lawson, Deodat. A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village; Which happened from the Nineteenth of March, to the Fifth of April, 1692. Benjamin Harris, 1692.
“Browse the Salem Witchcraft Papers Name Index.” Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, University of Virginia, salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/salemSearch.htm?q=Abigail%20Williams&rows=10&start=0