The primary sources of the Salem Witch Trials offer a wealth of information on these infamous trials.
These sources include official court records as well as several books, diaries and letters written by the various people involved in the trials.
Many of these primary sources were published in the latter half of 1692, while the trials were still going on.
Hoping to stop further arrests and to calm the hysteria, Governor Phips banned the publication of all books regarding the Salem Witch Trials in late October of 1692, as he explained in a letter to William Blathwayt of the Privy Council:
“I have also put a stop to the printing of any discourses one way or another, that may increase the needless disputes of people upon this occasion, because I saw a likelihood of kindling an inextinguishable flame if I should admit any public and open contests.”
Many historians have pointed out that this ban is essentially the first government cover up in American history and was designed to stifle the growing opposition to the trials because it was a threat to the government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
The majority of these primary sources were critical of the trials and made strong arguments against how the trials were conducted.
In order to defend its actions, the Massachusetts government asked Boston minister Cotton Mather to write a book about the trials in which he justified the trials and the way they were conducted.
Mather’s book was published in late October of 1692, after the ban had taken affect but included a disclaimer explaining that the book was authorized by the colonial government.
Even though the ban was in effect, it couldn’t stop the circulation of some unpublished letters criticizing the trials and the ban was eventually broken with the publications of various books by people who were either involved in or had witnessed the events of the trials.
The following is a list of primary sources of the Salem Witch Trials:
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♦ A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village by Deodat Lawson
Published in 1692, this 10-page narrative by Deodat Lawson is about Lawson’s personal observations of the events at Salem in the spring of 1692.
Lawson had a personal interest in Salem because he had been the minister at Salem Village from 1687 to 1688 but was denied the position of full minister after several parishioners objected to his permanent tenure as a result of ongoing disputes between the parishioners.
The narrative was written after Lawson had been invited to Salem to serve as a guest preacher for the sabbath service on March 20, 1692 and his sermon was interrupted several times by some of the afflicted girls in attendance.
Since this type of behavior was so unusual for young children in Puritan society, Lawson decided to dig deeper into the events at Salem village and, as a result, wrote what became the first eyewitness account of the Salem Witch Trials.
After spending a month in Salem, Parris returned to Boston where the manuscript was published by Boston publisher Benjamin Harris and “sold at his shop, over-against the Old-Meeting-House.,1692.”
In 1704, Lawson wrote another account of the Salem Witch Trials, a sermon titled “Christ’s Fidelity the only Shield against Satan’s Malignity,” aka “Witchcraft in Salem,” which was published in London in 1704.
♦ Robert Pike Letter to Judge Jonathan Corwin
On August 9, 1692, Robert Pike, the Massachusetts Bay councilor and Salisbury magistrate, wrote a personal letter to Judge Corwin expressing his concerns with the admission of spectral evidence in the trials.
In the letter, Pike argues that spectral evidence is unreliable because these alleged visions and apparitions are “more commonly false and delusive than real, and cannot be known when they are real and when feigned.”
Pike goes on to argue that spectral evidence is considered unreliable evidence for three specific reasons:
1. Apparitions and visions are sometimes caused by delusion.
2. The devil himself can appear in the shape of a person without their knowledge.
3. Even if an apparition was real, it is impossible to know whether it is real or a delusion.
Pike also points out how illogical it is that these accused witches would plead innocent but then incriminate themselves by using witchcraft openly in the courtroom, as the accusers stated they were doing, and suggests that the accusers were delusional or possibly possessed.
It is not known what Corwin thought of the letter since there is no record of a reply or response.
Although Pike previously supported the testimony of several accusers against Salisbury native Susannah Martin, he eventually came out against the Salem Witch Trials and also signed an affidavit in defense of another accused Salisbury woman, Mary Bradbury, who was his son’s mother-in-law.
Pike’s letter to Corwin was later republished in a number of books, such as Salem Witchcraft by Charles W. Upham and The New Puritan: New England Two Hundred Years Ago by James Shephard Pike.
♦ Thomas Brattle’s Letter to an Unnamed Clergyman
On October 8, 1692, Thomas Brattle, a Boston merchant, wrote a letter to an unnamed English clergyman in which he criticized the Salem Witch Trials.
In the letter, Brattle criticizes the methods in which the accused are examined, points out the unreliablity of confessions from the accused, denounces the use of spectral evidence and criticizes the practice of relying on the “afflicted girls” for information on suspected witches.
Brattle supports his argument against spectral evidence by stating that it is actually the work of the devil:
“I think it will appear evident to any one, that the Devil’s information is the fundamental testimony that is gone upon in the apprehending of the aforesaid people…Liberty was evermore accounted the great priviledge of an Englishman; but certainly, if the Devil will be heard against us, and his testimony taken, to the seizing and apprehending us, our liberty vanishes, and we are fools if we boast our liberty.”
Brattle also argues that consulting with the afflicted girls for information on their alleged supernatural knowledge is absurd:
“It is true, I know no reason why these afflicted may not be consulted as well as any other, if so be that it was only their natural and ordinary knowledge that was had recourse to: but it is not on this notion that these afflicted children are sought onto; but as they have a supernatural knowledge; a knowledge which they obtain by their holding correspondence with spectres and evill spirits, as they themselves grant. This consulting of these afflicted children, as abovesaid, seems to me to be a very grosse evill, a real abomination, not fitt to be known in N.E.”
The letter circulated widely in Boston at the time and continues to be studied due to its reasoned and secular arguments against the trials.
The letter was later published in a number of books, such as Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648-1706 by George Lincoln Burr and What Happened in Salem: Documents Pertaining to the 17th Century Witchcraft Trials by David Levin.
♦ Some Miscellany Observations on Our Present Debates Regarding Witchcraft in a Dialogue Between S & B by P.E. And J.A.
Published in mid-October of 1692, this 16-page book by Samuel Willard criticizes the use of spectral evidence in the Salem Witch Trials.
The book is structured as a debate between “S and B,” which stands for Salem and Boston, with Willard’s views being represented by Boston.
While both sides agree that witches exist, Boston argues that the accused witches should only be convicted if sufficient evidence is found while Salem argues that spectral evidence is sufficient.
Boston goes on to argue that spectral evidence is insufficient because the afflicted girls are possessed, not bewitched, but Salem argues that they were indeed bewitched because they display the “seven signs of one bewitched.”
Boston then counters that this argument is tricky because it is possible to be both bewitched and possessed at the same time:
“I dispute not that ; though I find force to be very confused in this point : but supposing them bewitched, they may be possessed too: and it is an ordinary thing for a possession to be introduced by a bewitching, as there are many instances in history do confirm.”
The book was published under assumed names to protect Willard from being prosecuted. The initials “P.E. And J.A.” are the initials of Philip English and John Alden who were two accused witches who had fled Salem.
The book was also listed as having been published in Philadelphia when it was actually published in Boston as another way to avoid prosecution.
The book is located in the records of the Massachusetts Historical Society and is also available on the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project website.
♦ The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England by Cotton Mather
Published in October of 1692, this book by Boston minister Cotton Mather discusses a number of witchcraft cases in New England during the 17th century, including the Salem Witch Trials.
The book is considered both a justification for and an official defense of the verdicts in the Salem Witch Trials.
In the book, Mather states that New England is under attack by the Devil and argues these instances of witchcraft are proof of that claim.
Mather goes on to explain that a witch who had been executed 40 years prior had warned the Massachusetts Bay Colony of a “horrible plot against the country by witchcraft” which Mather states finally seems to have been uncovered in Salem, the first settlement of the colony:
“And we have now with horror seen the discovery of such witchcraft! An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the first-born of our English settlements.”
The book contains descriptions of the six most notorious cases of witchcraft: George Burrough, Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Martha Carrier and a witchcraft case in England against Rose Cullender and Amy Duny.
Although Mather wasn’t directly involved in the Salem Witch Trials, he gave the judges advice on what is considered acceptable evidence of witchcraft by the church, attended some of the executions and even intervened in one of the executions after Reverend George Burroughs recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly upon the ladder and dissent began to grow in the crowd.
After Burroughs was pushed off the ladder and hanged, Mather reassured the crowd that Burroughs wasn’t an ordained minister and that he was in fact guilty, which seemed to appease them and allowed the remaining executions that day to continue.
Some historians argue that the book doesn’t reflect how Mather really felt about the trials since his personal letters and diaries reflect a much more cautious view of spectral evidence and of the trials in general.
Robert Calef points out, in his own book More Wonders of the Invisible World, that Mather’s language in the book shows that the work was actually more propaganda than it was a historical account and that Mather wrote it as he did solely to please the government officials who had appointed him to write it:
“Martin is called one of the most impudent, scurrilous, wicked creatures in the world; in his account of Martha Carrier, he is pleased to call her a rampant hag, & c. These expressions, as they manifest that he wrote more like an advocate than an historian, so also that those that were his employers were not mistaken in their choice of him for that work…” Calef (276).
The Wonders of the Invisible World was the first official book ever written on the Salem Witch Trials and was only published because it was officially authorized and commissioned by the Massachusetts colonial government.
♦ More Wonders of the Invisible World by Robert Calef
Written in 1697 and published in 1700, this book by Boston cloth merchant Robert Calef denounces the Salem Witch Trials and Cotton Mather’s role in it.
The book was written as a response to Cotton Mather’s book Wonders of the Invisible World and contains evidence not presented in the trials, such as the juror’s apologies and some of the accuser’s confessions of lying.
The book also criticizes the use of spectral evidence and criticizes Puritans for their “unscriptual” belief in witches, arguing that the Bible makes no mention of witchcraft and therefore gives no basis for the existence of witches’ pacts with the devil.
Calef then concludes the book by stating that Mather’s actions were “highly criminal” and his beliefs in witches and witchcraft made him “guilty of of sacrilege in the highest nature…”
The book consists of five parts: Part 1: Cotton Mather’s account of Margaret Rule from the fall of 1693; Part 2: Letters to Mather and his reply relating to witchcraft; Part 3: The conflict between the Salem village residents and Samuel Parris; Part IV: Letters discussing whether the recent opinions about witchcraft are orthodox; Part V: a short history of the Salem Witch Trials written by Cotton Mather.
Calef wrote the book after a visit to Salem in the spring and summer of 1692, during which he witnessed and described many of the events of the trials, such as some of the executions.
In fact, Calef’s description of the execution site was one of many sources that later helped researchers identify Proctor’s Ledge as the site of the hangings in 2016.
The book was printed in London in 1700 and then later reprinted in Salem in 1823.
♦ Cause of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits by Increase Mather
Published around November or December of 1692, but postdated to 1693 to comply with Phip’s ban, this book by Increase Mather criticizes the court’s use of spectral evidence and other evidence, such as the touch test.
In the book, Mather argued that specters could take the shape of innocent people and therefore rendered spectral evidence invalid. Mather referenced scriptures from the Bible and historical stories to illustrate his point:
“Argu I. There are several scriptures from which we may infer the possibility of what is affirmed. I. We find that the devil by the instigation of the witch at Endor appeared in the likeness of the prophet Samuel…But that is was a demon represent Samuel has been evidenced by learned and orthodox writers: especially (e) Peter Martyr, (f) Balduinus, (t) Lavater, and our incomparable John Rainolde…And that evil angels have sometimes appeared in the likeness of of living absent persons is a thing abundantly confirmed in history…Paulus and Palladius did both of them profess to Austin, that one in his shape had divers times, and in divers places appeared them (k) Thyreus; mentions several apparitions of absent living persons, which happened in his time…Nevertheless, it is evident from another scripture, viz, that in, 2 Cor 11. 14. For Satan himself is transformed into an Angel of light. He seems to be what he is not, and makes others seem to be what they are not…Third scripture to our purpose is that, in Re: 12 10 where the devil is called the accuser of the brethren…”
Mather also argues that another cause of these visions and specters is that the afflicted persons might be possessed by evil spirits.
Overall, Mather’s main problem with the use of this spectral evidence is the religious consequences of it:
“To take away the life of any one; meerly because a spectre or devil, in a bewitched or possessed person does accuse them, will bring the guilt of the innocent blood on the land.”
Mather finished writing the book on October 3, 1692 and sent it to Governor Phips and presented a summary of the book to the assembly of ministers in Boston for their approval.
The manuscript circulated widely in Boston before it was finally published. Before its publication, Mather added a postscript that strongly supported the use of confessions as evidence, stating:
“More than one or two of those now in prison, have freely and credibly acknowledged their communion and and familiarity with the spirits of darkness.”
♦ Truth Held Forth & Maintained by Thomas Maule
Published in 1695, this 260 pamphlet by Salem shopkeeper Thomas Maule criticizes the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts Bay for their treatment of Quakers and for their mismanagement of the Salem Witch Trials.
In the pamphlet, Maule criticizes the use of spectral evidence in the trials, argues that many of the accused witch’s confessions were forced and states that God would adversely judge the prosecutors of the Salem Witch Trials.
On December 14, 1695, Sheriff George Corwin arrested Maule for printing the pamphlet “without license of authority”, and seized the 31 copies in his possession. Corwin then took Maule to the Salem jail and then burned the confiscated copies (Hildeburn 305.)
On December 16, 1695, Maule was brought before the council for printing the book but refused to answer any questions. The remaining copies were ordered to be burned.
Maule was finally tried in 1696 and acquitted of all charges.
♦ A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft by John Hale
Written in 1697 and published posthumously in 1702, this book by John Hale, who was the pastor of the Church of Christ in Beverly, Mass, is a critique of the Salem Witch Trials.
The book discusses various witchcraft cases in New England from 1648 to 1692 and includes the events that led up to the Salem Witch Trials, many of which Hale witnessed firsthand.
Some of the events described in the book include how some of the “afflicted girls” dabbled in folk magic and fortune-telling techniques shortly before they became ill, what the afflicted girls symptoms were, how Tituba baked a “witch cake” with the help of a neighbor to identify who was bewitching the girls, how Tituba’s confession prompted officials to examine more suspects and also includes brief mentions of other accused Salem witches.
Hale concludes the book by stating that it was Satan, not witches, who hurt and tormented the afflicted girls.
Hale first became involved in the Salem Witch Trials when, on March 11, 1692, he was asked by Reverend Samuel Parris to observe the afflicted girls symptoms in order to determined what was wrong with them.
Hale later attended many of the court cases, often prayed with the accused and supported the work of the court but ultimately reconsidered his support when his wife, Sarah Noyes Hale, was herself accused of the crime on November 14, 1692.
♦ Court Records
The court records from the Salem Witch Trials include examinations of the accused witches, depositions, testimonies, petitions, formal examinations, arrest warrants and death warrants.
These court records are available on the website of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project and were also published in a book, titled The Salem Witchcraft Papers which was edited by Paul S. Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum.
♦ The Cotton Mather Papers
Reverend Cotton Mather was a prolific writer and kept a diary from 1681-1724, wrote and published numerous sermons, and wrote many letters.
Mather’s collection of papers include a number of letters and diary entries related to the Salem Witch Trials, such as his many letters to the judges of the trials, his letters to the other ministers involved in the trials and his letters to his grandfather, John Cotton.
Some of Mather’s letters were later published in a multi-volume book, titled The Mather Papers and his diary was published in a book, titled Diary of Cotton Mather, 1681-1724, along with many of his letters.
Mather’s letters to the Salem judges and to his grandfather are also available on the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project website.
Mather’s entire collection of papers are also located in the records of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
♦ Samuel Parris’ Sermons
Reverend Samuel Parris, pastor of the Salem Village church, delivered a series of sermons between 1689 and the autumn of 1692 related to the Salem Witch Trials.
Some historians have accused Parris of causing the Salem Witch Trials by preaching many frightening and foreboding sermons that may have possibly caused panic among his anxious and stressed parishioners.
For example, in his March 27, 1692 sermon, Parris preached that the Devil had infiltrated the church:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ knows how many Devils there are in his Church, & who they are…. What is meant here by Devils. One of you is a Devil. And by Devil is ordinarily meant any wicked Angel or Spirit: Sometimes it is put for the Prince or head of the evil Spirits, or fallen Angels. Sometimes it is used for vile & wicked persons, the worst of such, who for their villany & impiety do most resemble Devils & wicked Spirits.”
Parris’ sermons are in his manuscript sermon notebook, located in the records of the Connecticut Historical Society, and were also published in a book, titled The Sermon Notebook of Samuel Parris, 1689-1694, which was edited by James F. Cooper and Kenneth P. Minkema.
♦ Salem Village Church Record Books
Like many churches, the Salem Village church kept records of the events at the church and the people involved. The records were written by the pastor of the church at the time.
Samuel Parris served as the pastor from 1689 to 1696 and wrote all of the records from that time period. He was replaced by Joseph Green, who wrote all of the records from 1697 to 1753 during the aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials.
The records describe events such as Mary Sibley’s confession to the congregation that she had instructed Tituba to bake what was later described as a “witch cake” in order to find out who was bewitching the afflicted girls.
Parris’ records also mention the absence of many of the dissenting parishioners during and after the trials, the excommunication of Martha Corey after her conviction of witchcraft and the efforts by some of the parishioners to remove Parris from his position due to his involvement in the trials.
Green’s records mention the failed attempt to revoke Martha Corey’s excommunication in 1702, Ann Putnam’s confession in 1706 to being “made an instrument for ye accuseing of severall persons of a grievous crime” during the trials and the successful attempt to revoke Martha Corey’s excommunication in 1707.
The Salem Village Church record books are in the Danvers Archival Center, First Church Collection, in Danvers, Mass and were also published in a book, titled Salem-Village Witchcraft which was edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum.
♦ Diary of Samuel Sewall
Samuel Sewall was one of the judges of the court of Oyer and Terminer, which was a special court set up to hear the Salem Witch Trials cases.
Sewall kept a diary, from 1672 to 1729, in which he described many of the events of the trials, such as Giles Corey’s death, the confession of Dorcas Hoar, the dismissal of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, his meetings the following year with some of the surviving accused witches, and his public apology for his role in the trials.
All 11 volumes of Sewall’s diaries are located in the records of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Massachusetts and were also later published in a multi-volume book, titled the Diary of Samuel Sewall.
Selected excerpts of Sewall’s diaries related specifically to the Salem Witch Trials, from volume five of his diary, are available on the website of the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.
For more info on this topic, check out the following articles on Salem Witch Trials secondary sources, the best Salem Witch Trials books and Salem Witch Trials websites.
Calef, Robert. More Wonders of the Invisible World. Salem: Cushing and Appleton, 1823.
Hildeburn, Charles R. “Printing in New York in the Seventeenth Century.” The American Historical Magazine, Vol 3, The Americana Society, 1908. 304-305.
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Hill, Frances. The Salem Witch Trials Reader. DaCapo Press, 2000.
Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706. Edited by George Lincoln Burr, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.
Ray, Benjamin C. Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692. University of Virginia Press, 2015.
Miller, Jon. “Deodat Lawson, ‘Witchcraft in Salem’ (1704).” Jon Miller, www.jonmiller.org/materials/2006/05/deodat_lawson_w.html
Goss, David K. Documents of the Salem Witch Trials. ABC-CLIO, 2018.
“Samuel Sewall Diaries, 1672-1729.” Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0243
“17th Century Documents & Books.” Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, University of Virginia, salem.lib.virginia.edu/17docs.html
“Deodat Lawson: A Brief and True Narrative.” History Department, Hanover College, history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/212law.html
“A Guide to the On-Line Primary Sources of the Salem Witch Trials.” 17th Century Colonial New England, www.17thc.us/primarysources/