Religion, Women, and Witches: Puritan Gender Norms and the Accusation of Witch Craft in Salem, 1692


  1. Introduction

The Salem Witch Trials are often looked at, in the United States, as one of the most interesting and shocking examples of mass hysteria. It has continued to be of significance in history, literature, and pop culture. The Salem Witch Trials were not the case of witch hunts, through the Middle Age, witchcraft accusations and punishments affected the lives of thousands of individuals, and disproportionately targeted women. Exact numbers are hard to come by but one source dates witch hunts back to the eleventh century, and those who died range from hundreds of thousands to millions, and of these about eighty percent were women.[1] “Evidence from about 7,500 witch trials in diverse regions of Europe and North America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries shows that nearly 8o percent of accused witches were female, and, in parts of England, Switzerland, and what is now Belgium, women accounted for over nine out of ten victims.”[2]

This misogynist assault on women through witchcraft prosecutions continued in the “new world” in Salem Massachusetts in 1692, and Salem, like the other witch hunts was fueled by religion. Although the Puritans hoped to set themselves apart from their European counterparts and hoped to find a safe place to practice their purer form of Christianity, they brought much of their traditions and folklore with them. This connection between religion and how it has affected women, and often time tried to control their behavior is not unique to the Salem Witch Trials, in the 19th century religion was still used as a way to prevent women from public speaking and from trying to get the vote. That being said this is an event that highlights these connections and shows how this hysteria and radicalism was enflamed by puritan beliefs. The Salem Witch Trials highlight how beliefs embedded in religion help to control social groups, in this case women. The goal of this research is to show how the trials helped to justify and strengthen the beliefs of the Puritan church, how Puritan beliefs were tied to gender norms and how they looked on women, and how this also helped to keep women in control and further their desire to keep women quiet, humble, and obedient. The questions that this research will try to answer are how did religion play a role in the reasoning for the witch accusations? Why were women the majority of those who were targeted? How did views on women contribute to the trials? The lenses that will play a major role in this research will be gender, religious, and also cultural lenses.

The Salem Witch Trials were spurred on in 1691 after two young girls started to exhibit signs of something potentially demonic. The girls in question were the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, the minister in Salem Massachusetts. The young girls exhibited “bodily contortions and complaints of pains throughout her body—of pinching sensations and of sharp, knife-like pains.”[3] The stories became more intense and soon the girls described having visions as well as physical pain. After bringing in physicians and taking the more logical and medical routes they came up with no good answers for what might be ailing the girls and began to look for more answers in the realm of supernatural activities. Puritans believed it was very plausible that the devil might be involved and that he was using townsfolk to help in his misdeeds, therefore witches were more than likely in Salem. Unlike many European witch hunts, Salem believed that the physical presence of the devil and demons was very plausible. Gossip, rumors, and inquiries spread and eventually they found the most likely suspects in Sarah Goode, Sarah Osbourne, and Parris’s slave, Tituba. It was not long before Tituba confessed and weaved a tale detailing all of the ways the devil had attached himself to Salem. The other two women continued to deny their involvement in witchcraft. Tituba’s confession helped to prolong her life but Sarah Osbourne died awaiting trial in jail and Sarah Goode was one of the first to be hanged for witchcraft. It seemed like that might be the end of the trials but they continued to spread with townspeople accusing neighbors, friends, and even family members. The trials also expanded to neighboring towns such as Andover and Ipswich so the involvement of the devil in New England became a very real fear for the villagers and it spread and became a very real threat to the puritans in the area. Many started to question if their sins were enough to solidify their pact with the devil.  The trials spanned from February of 1692 and extended to May of 1693, within that period of time over one hundred people were imprisoned, many more accused, twenty were executed, and some others died while in prison. Of those whom were executed only five of them were men, the majority of those accused and tried were women. Although there were many of examples of witch trials before Salem, these set themselves apart in several ways. Much work has gone into the study of the Salem Witch Trials and the many dimensions that it has. In many ways the trials helped the Puritan towns to control the population, specifically the women, and helped correct sinful behavior or to try and execute those who were harmful to the Puritan faith and what they stood for.

This research will help add to the body of work that is already out there while also tying in some of the different studies and give a better idea of how religion, gender, and culture, and even race very much shaped the events of Salem. Many historians have examined specific parts of the witch scare but I hope to tie these ideas together. I would like to provide a base line that shows how a look at Salem can also give us an understanding of how religion has treated and controlled women and specifically making them behave in a certain way. Often times the Salem Witch Trials is used as a cautionary tale to show the effects of mass hysteria it is often times used to compare the McCarthy era blacklisting of potential communists in the 1950s. It can also be used as a case study to show how some of these negative connotations and stereotypes of women played a role in the trials and in many ways still exist today.  There are many gaps in the research of the Salem Witch Trials many of the historians who have written about the trials speculate much about the mindset of the accused and accusers. They also speculate as to where the folklore came from and even the origins of those like Tituba. Part of this has to do with the fact that they are still working with whatever records have been saved and which records those involved in the courts actually kept of the trial, the majority of what has been saved are the court records. In some instances there was trouble finding sources focusing on the lenses that this research is intending to do. Some of the sources that do look into this idea of women and witchcraft have looked at New England in general but not specifically Salem. Many accounts are simply detailing and piecing together the primary source material that is out there from the trials. For example there is much more information about the women involved than the men, it seems that often times there are not trial transcripts in the trials of men while often times women had much more lofty information left behind. Other sources attempt to use the trials to compare other historic events that focus on community hysteria. The book Salem Possessed talks about this in its preface “The Devil in Massachusetts, for instance, was consciously written in the shadow of the Nazi holocaust, while Author Miller’s 1953 play about Salem witchcraft The Crucible was of course a parable about McCarthyism.”[4] They also criticize twentieth century historians for ignoring the history of the ordinary people and only focusing on the trial transcripts and sermons of Parris. The sources that focused specifically on gender and religion were actually fairly scarce, maybe for this reason. Damned Women by Elizabeth Reis was one of the most essential sources because it highlights why women were disproportionately accused in the trials. Although this gives a good base more information about how the Puritans differed and what the basis of their religion was like. There is also a little bit of a gap in her research because she does ignore some of the social and economic motives that were involved in the witch trials, although this is not the focus of this research it does help to show why certain women might be targeted while others were not. Sources like the biography of Tituba focus more on the racial elements to the trial and the interactions with Native Americans, although they are not the focal point they do help to give an understanding of how complex the folklore that fueled the trials were.

  1. Historiography

It is of course important to the research to understand the Puritan religion, how it differed from its European roots and other religions of the time. One important source in that realm is the journal article “Satan’s War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692” by Benjamin Ray was helpful in detailing much of the inner turmoil going on in Salem before the trials began, which he believes played a role in who was accused. His in depth analysis of Parris, his more conservative church, and the opposition from other villagers helps to highlight the growing tension that was mounting before the trials even began. As the minister in Salem and also as the head of the household where the rumors of witchcraft began understanding the climate and the man himself are very important to understanding the church in Salem. Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts this book by Richard Weisman does not just focus on the Salem Witch Trials but it focuses on witchcraft and folklore as a whole in Massachusetts. Although this is a broader topic it will help to understand, even further, how Salem stood apart and why it was so different. This will also assist even further in studying the religious lens involved in this research. Because it is a broader source it will mean picking apart more than some of the other sources but it still provides much insight into the time period. Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692 is a book from Benjamin Ray, whose article is also included in this research project. In this book he elaborates on the multiple factors that culminated into what we now know of as the Salem Witch Trials. In the article he presented the religious and political tensions within the community which spurred on much of the conflict but in his book he does not just focus on religion as a factor. He does not blame one thing on the hysteria outbreak, rather he highlights all of the major stressors from the time and shows how this unique combination of belief, folklore, and internal struggle all played a role in the events that occurred in Salem.

Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England was an incredibly helpful resource because it was an early book specifically focusing on why the Salem Witch Trials often times focused on women. Elizabeth Reis, a women’s studies historian,  does an in depth analysis of how puritan beliefs contributed to the idea that women had the potential to be swayed by the devil and how they were seen as being more inherently sinful or evil. She also sets out to show how the witchcraft folklore, the trial proceeding, and punishments differed for men and women. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England by Carol F. Karlsen similarly delves into why women were often the focus when it came to witchcraft accusations. As opposed to focusing specifically on the events in Salem she looks into New England throughout the 17th century and discusses Salem but also other witch craft cases, this couples well with Damned Women as they focus on similar questions as to why women often played the role of the sinner, disproportionately so to men.

For the purpose of this paper it is also important to understand women and witchcraft as a whole as well as the Puritan religion. Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, a collection of essays by Elizabeth Reis, focuses on witchcraft in the United States as a whole. This focuses on women’s history and religious, examining how women have been involved in witch accusations and also alternative religions. Reis insights in Damned Women were essential to much of the research of this project and insights into women’s history of witchcraft before and after the trials will help show the how the belief has changed. Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism by Amanda Porterfield provides an in depth analysis of the Puritan religion in New England and what the Puritan religion taught women about how to act. This resource does not really discuss the Salem Witch Trials at all but it gives background to the Puritan religion and it also reflects on the possible reasoning men had for emphasizing certain traits in ideal Puritan women.

Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies set out to give more information about Tituba, the slave of Samuel Parris who was one of the first accused in Salem. Elaine G. Breslaw attempts to give the reader more understanding about Tituba, her roots, and her role in the trial. Breslaw makes the argument that Tituba’s confession and testimonies shaped the rest of the witch trials. Tituba blended folklore from her home with that of the English and Puritan folklore which ended up being unique from other witch hunts, both before and after Salem. This is one of the sources that does much speculating about Tituba’s origins and assumes much about what she may and may not be aware of. For instance she speculates that Tituba was aware of other trials for potential witches that occurred in Boston. This source is useful in detailing the folklore that shaped the trials and also showing how Tituba, as an outsider, very easily became a target of the investigations. Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and their Accusers by Marilynne K. Roach tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials through six women played a major role in the trials. Roach talks about how there are still gaps in records and things that we do not know about those who were a part of the events and wanted to shed light on some of these women. She makes the argument that much of what people know, or think they know, about these women boils down to stereotypes or might be more reflective of some of the fiction based on the trials, and by getting a better understanding of who some of these women really were as people we can understand the trials better altogether. Much like the book on Tituba, this book speculates on the motives and thoughts of the women she is talking about. Although these speculations are not factual the majority of the book will help to shed light on how some of the women tried for witchcraft were outsiders in some fashion and also shows what motives might be at play for those who accused these women.

Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum tries to focus on more of the social aspects of the Salem Witch Trials. The historians criticize the body of work that has already been written and discusses how the majority of primary source material they pull from are the court records and sermons from the church, but little has been done to research the villagers. They attempt to take a “history from below” approach to the trials. The writers believe there was a great social and economic divide in Salem and that played a role in the accusations by looking at the different social groups and feuds in Salem it could give a better understanding on the events that transpired.

The primary sources that were researched were the court records, although they do not reflect much of the gender issues surrounding the trials and Puritans in general. Many of the quotes used come from or are descriptions of those who were accused in the trials, because of the time the language and grammar are sometimes hard to understand. There are many gaps in the overall historiography, there is still a lot of Puritan writings to come by. Some of the sources focus on societal, economic, political, and cultural lenses. Although they did help to strengthen the research they were not the focal point, so for the purpose of this research they were not focused on. Because of how complex the trials were, and how many factors were involved, there are so many perspectives and arguments that can be made. The majority of the sources looked at did not necessarily focus on gender involved in the trials but the majority of them touched upon it because, the majority of the accused were women.


  • Research and Defense


Religion played a major role in the lives of these settlers in Salem. The Puritans hoped that this new world would bring them a place free of religious persecution, a place where they hoped to set themselves apart from their homeland in Europe. The Puritans believed that the Church of England was corrupt and as Reis puts it in Damned Women “Puritans cultivated a more vital, primitive faith, abolished certain Anglican religious rituals, and rejected the hierarchical ecclesiastical structures of the establishment.”[5] This was true for all of the Puritans but what was it that made Salem stand apart from the others? Salem Possessed elaborates on this and opens the door to why Salem was sometimes helpless in a crisis “structural defects in its organization rendered the village almost helpless in coping with whatever disputes might arise.”[6] There was much political and religious upheaval in the community and years before the trials it seemed to be in a constant state of flux. Although religion was important to this New England community they had issues with having a stable religious base as Satan and Salem points out “during the next seventeen years, three ministers came and went in Salem Village, as factions within the community contested each one in turn.”[7] Some of this had to do with internal conflict between families and social groups but Salem also had trouble receiving an ordained minister meaning that sacraments and baptisms were not possible, giving cause for much anxiety in the village. When Samuel Parris came to the town it meant that they finally had a minister who could perform these services, but he was also coming into a town that was divided and there would still be opposition to Parris from some of these certain factions. The members of the Salem Township church were small, when Parris arrived in 1689 there were only twenty-five members, almost half of them from one family. Many of the other villagers were either members at neighboring congregations or they were not members of the church at all. Parris’s arrival did not necessarily settle matters for the village, even though he was ordained it seemed that certain groups would find cause to dislike the minister. The first major talks about the devil in Salem in fact did not stem from witchcraft scares it stemmed from the political upheavals between Parris and those who had reason to oppose him. As Ray points out in his article “Satan’s War against the Covenant” there was much inner turmoil “and by the end of that year, his opponents had stopped his salary and effectively blocked the growth of his newly covenanted church. In response, Parris harangued his congregation, repeatedly warning that the devil was bent on destroying their church,”[8] this being a year before the trials started.

Parris established a more conservative congregation in Salem that differed from some of the other surrounding communities on example of this was in baptisms “unlike the large majority of Puritan churches in the Bay Colony, Parris and his congregation chose not to institute the Halfivay Covenant, which permitted the children of all baptized adults, even those who had not embraced the covenant, to be baptized.”[9] His challenge was also to bring more villagers into the congregation as there was concern that religion was becoming less and less important to those in Salem “in  a  time  of  declining religious fervor, Parris arrived in Salem Village with an evangelical mission to expand and enliven the new church. Like other young ministers of his day, Parris was a sacramentalist.  The  sacraments  were  the  core  of  the  church’s mission,  and  he  intended  to  make  the  sacrament  of  the  Lord’s  Supper  the cornerstone of church membership.”[10] Parris even tried to tell the congregation that his arrival alone was a sign that god was shining his grace upon the Salem community.

“Salvation and damnation were foreordained by God, not chosen by individuals – female or male—and only god knew who would end up in heaven or hell.”[11] Of course Puritans, and female Puritans in general were fearful of being sinners, and although it seemed as though there was a definite distinction between witches and sinners being sinful was still a sign of witchcraft and would put someone under suspicion of these activities. As Damned Women points out there was a distinction between how women and men felt “Lay women and men feared hell equally, but lay women such as Ann Fitch and Esther Bissell tended to believe that it was their vile natures that would take them there rather than the particular sins they may have committed.”[12] Sinning was almost impossible to avoid by puritan standards, especially for women because they were inherently sinful in nature, however witchcraft meant that they agreed to this pact with the devil “the witch acted aggressively. Her soul specifically chose the devil, instead of passively waiting for Christ, and she purposely allowed the devil to use her body.”[13] This idea of more aggressive women was something that was very much against what Puritans believed a woman should be. Women were meant to be passive and obedient, signs of the opposite made them more deviant in Puritan society, and potentially more sinister.

Many settlers brought many of their superstitions and folklore over to the new world with them. This coupled with interactions with Native Americans and folklore from other cultures, like Tituba whom was speculated to be from the Caribbean, meant that there was a blending of folklore centering around witchcraft. Tituba, The Reluctant Witch of Salem highlights this combination in Tituba’s testimony during the trials “the story told by Tituba is a blending of elements from several sets of witchcraft beliefs. The book, of course, was an artifact of literate societies only and the Devil a part of Christian theology. They would not be found in the pre-colonial Amerindian or African cultures. But the strong link to Satanism, the evil force, with its promise of power over others, was surprisingly rate in the English folk tradition or in New England. Few persons giving testimony in witchcraft cases in Massachusetts mentioned the devil.”[14] The book in this case refers to the “Devil’s Book” where the witch was expected to sign their name in blood to solidify their devotion to him.

Some forms of magic were not uncommon within Puritan communities, there was evidence of some of the first “afflicted” by the witchcraft episodes may have been engaged in some forms of “white magic”. The fear of the unknown and the uncertainty if they would be some of the few chosen to be saved was enough to make some people look towards fortune telling to get hints as to what their fate might be. Betty and Abigail the first afflicted were engaged in some of these behaviors in the Parris household “they dropped the white of a raw egg into a glass. The shape of the blob, they hoped, would reveal something about their future lives. The girls thought they saw tragedies in the form of an egg white that took the shape of a coffin.”[15] This was not an uncommon practice but it might have made the girls worried if Samuel Parris or any of the other villagers found out about their activities, some speculate they suffered from guilt anxiety, enough to make them try to divert attention to others in the community. Later on when the girls were in the middle of their fits and many could not figure out what was the cause other types of magic were taken up to hopefully counteract the actions of the witch. Tituba and Mary Sibley decided to make a “witch cake”[16] Breslaw explains the reasoning behind this use of magic “the dog, bewitched by the cake, according to folklore, would then reveal the name of the witch causing the problem. The technique was of English origin, but the assumptions behind the experiment were widespread among most people.”[17] Unfortunately most Puritans saw any use of magic, even for good, to be a pact with the devil. So although this endeavor may have been for the good of the girls, it also put them in danger and implicated them as witches.

Now women had some more flexibility and opportunities to play major roles within the Puritan community, not to the extent of the Quaker religion but,

Although women could not participate in the congregational governance of the churches, they experienced conversion, they signed the covenant and joined the church (more frequently than their husbands), they studied the scriptures, they baptized and instructed their children, they used their considerable influences to promote religiosity in their households and communities. New England Puritanism could offer women spiritual fulfillment and even particular opportunities for organizing and controlling their family relationships.[18]


Some of this may have been due to the fact that their communities were so small women needed to play more of a role in day to day life but they had flexibility none the less. Women took on more economic responsibilities sometimes helping or fully running businesses women men were gone or their husbands passed away. However being full members in the church meant that they were able to constantly hear about how ministers in the Puritan faith felt about what a Puritan woman should be. Reis describes that  “Puritan ministers relied on images of female piety to characterize the way all Christians received grace, managed their feelings, and exercised authority. Thus in their use of female imagery to define humility, Puritan ministers did more than encourage wives to be submissive to their husbands; they all gave their listeners and readers a clear picture of their humble attitudes essential to all forms of Christian activity.”[19]  Some of the most influential Puritan writers were Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard and John Cotton. In Amanda Porterfield’s book on the Puritan writings she discusses how these writers were motivated to write and preach about women because of many of their own internal issues. “Hooker struggled to control a violent temper and used images of female humility to represent that control. Thomas Shepard used images of female humility to control his fear of abandonment and to represent his desire for love. John Cotton used images of female humility to represent both the restraint and the fulfillment of his ambition.”[20]

Whatever their reasons, women in the community took this to heart, especially since they had more cause to worry than others, Puritans believed that women were weaker and would be more likely to sin than men. The ideas that they preached made clear that “women’s feminine souls were seen as unprotected in their weaker female bodies, vulnerable to the devil’s molestations.”[21] It seems as though women internalized these ideas, which may have contributed to their confessions of witchcraft “Lay women and men feared hell equally, but lay women such as Ann Fitch and Esther Bissell tended to believe that it was their vile natures that would take them there rather than the particular sins they may have committed.”[22] If both women and men believed in the inherent sinfulness of women it helped add to the sheer number of female “witches” as opposed to the male. That coupled with the Puritan belief that the Devil was very much a real presence in their lives made the witch scare all the more shocking and widespread. “The vulnerable, perpetually unsatisfied, and yearning female soul, passively waiting for Christ but always open for the devil as well, implicated corporeal women themselves. The combination of a feminine soul and a weak female body made their situation worse, and puritans believed they were too susceptible to the devil.”[23]

So according to Puritan beliefs women were much more likely to be witches than men, this was not farfetched from the other witch trials, women always outweighed the men.  One article on witchcraft even escribed guilt to women based on their female anatomy,

One witch suspect in the Swiss canton of Fribourg contemptuously chided her judges for their naivete about female anatomy. After the prosecutors discovered what they took to be a devil’s mark on her genitals, Ernni Vuffiod informed them that “if this was a sign of witchcraft, many women would be witches.”  The same part of the female body received careful attention from judges at the Salem witch trials. The women examiners employed by the courts reported that they found on three suspects “a preternatural excresence of flesh between the pudendum and the anus, much like teats, and not usual in women.”8 A Scottish witch always was searched with similar thoroughness to discover “marks . . . between her thys and her body.”[24]


These anxieties shaped a woman’s identity and if a woman was accused of witchcraft it meant that they would have to prove that they had not only avoided signing the Devil’s book but they would have also had to prove that they were not involved with other sins. Being free of all sins, during Puritan times, was already difficult to prove but this would have been close to impossible for women whom already were believed to carry sin with them because of their weak nature. There was a definite distinction between witches and sinners but there was a grey area as well, and a woman, anxious and worried about damnation might see any of her sins as a sign that she had unknowingly colluded with the devil. In her cell while awaiting execution Mary Etsy wrote “The lord above knows my Innocencye … as att the great day win be known to men and Angells. I Petition to your honours not for my own life for I know I must die, and my appointed time is sett but the Lord he knowes it is that if it be possible no more Innocent blood may be shed.”[25] Even though she did not believe herself guilty of witch craft she did not petition to save her life.

Alice Lake was a great example of these anxieties playing a role in her identity. Lake was a local in Dorchester Massachusetts and it had been known that she engaged in sexual activities which she then became pregnant. She also attempted to abort the unwanted pregnancy, as it was a sign of her sins. She was executed very soon after her child had died. Lake did not confess to engaging in witchcraft, if she had she more than likely would have been spared. “Lake believed that her sexual transgression was enough to make her a witch” “she had covenanted with him through the commission of her sin.”[26] She accepted her fate and accepted that should would face public hanging and she believed her sins were enough to make her execution valid. The “derogatory cultural images of women fueled witchcraft accusations and proceedings, and women’s guild over their perceived spiritual inadequacies could even lead them to confess to specific transgressions they apparently had not committed.”[27] Lake would have also been considered a deviant because of her sexual transgressions, many of those accused often fell into this category of deviance.

Another group whom would have fell into this category were those outside the Puritan faith. Quakers, of course Quaker women specifically also fell under the category of suspicion during the witch trials. Although Quakers are usually seen as being a peaceful, pacifist, religious groups they did pose a threat to the Puritan communities. One of the inherent beliefs within the Quaker Religion was that people were born with an inner light an idea that differed from the Puritans quite a bit. Puritans thrived off of the constant fear and anxiety their flock had involving damnation. These anxieties were not a part of the religion of the Friends, Sue Friday discusses this idea in her article “the Quakers attempted to eliminate all rituals. They could afford to do so because they were not burdened to such a degree with worldly or spiritual fears and insecurities. Their theology emphasized victory over sin, the dominance of the spiritual over the temporal, and provided far easier access to a comforting connection to God.”[28] There was also more equality within the Quaker religion, specifically involving women being allowed to preach. As Klaits mentions in his book on the witch trials “women who assumed to preach gods world called into question not only the hierarchal relations between preacher and hearer but the ordered relations between husband and wife and magistrate and subject”[29]  Women who were able to speak and preach out in public were in a sense, a threat to the natural order of the Puritan religion it went against their beliefs in women being humble and quiet.

Aggression was a trait in women that could be seen as a potential sign that the woman had made a pact with the devil and committed herself to witchcraft. In many of the cases women who were accused were outcasts or deviant to Puritan culture in some way. There was tension among families as well so if a woman potentially was on the bad side of one of the families this could also put them in danger of being accused. Breslaw sums up how the original women accused were outliers in the community Tituba, of course for her difference in race and nationality put her in a lot of danger as anxiety over potential witchcraft mounted but “the accused were commonly older women of the lower classes or less productive members of the community who were disliked in some way. Like Sarah Osbourne and Sarah Good, they were often disagreeable, outspoken women, misfits who had been in trouble with their neighbors and the courts before.”[30] Sarah Good was homeless often begging by going door to door she was seen as filthy and mean by the majority of the townsfolk. Sarah Good also had a sharp tongue, another quality not appreciated by Puritan society, on the day of her execution she was quoted as saying “”You’re a liar! I’m no more a witch than you are a wizard! If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink!”[31] Osbourne on the other hand had not attended the church in quite some time, something that was noticeable in a small village community, she also had issues with the Putnam family, who were some of the first to accuse her of witchcraft ties, “they are almost always described as deviant—disorderly women who failed to, or refused to, abide by the behavioral norms of their society.”[32] If patience and obedience were essential to the ideal Puritan woman, it was very clear that many did not fit the bill this alone was enough to condemn them.

Another example of this Bridget Bishop, the first person to executed because of the Salem Witch Trials, and she was a victim in more ways than one. Bishop was widowed twice over and was clearly in an abusive relationship, it was destructive that is was known all over the town, “the couple’s quarrels involved the neighbors and even the county court. Several times one or the other of the Oliver’s had called for their neighbor Mary Ropes to come witness the other’s bad behavior. On these occasions Goodwife Ropes saw, as she testified, Bridget’s ‘face at one time bloody and at other times black and blue.’”[33] She too was outspoken and did not take this abuse lightly, other testimonies stated that she fought back. According to townsfolk she had a sharp tongue and used unacceptable language against her husband “Bridget, wife of Thomas Oliver, presented for calling her husband many opprobrious names, as old rogue and old devil, on Lord’s day, was ordered to stand with her husband, back to back, on a lecture day in the public market place, both gagged, for about an hour, with a paper fastened to each other’s foreheads upon which their offense should be fairly written.”[34] She was also rumored to be running a tavern from inside her house and stood to gain much money from her late husband’s estate. When witchcraft accusations came about much of her “sins” were used against her. Historical records show a testimony from John Hawthorn,

“’Goodwife Bishop her Neighb’r wife of Edw: Bishop Jun’r might not be permitted to receive the Lords Supper in our church till she had given her the said Trask satisfaction for some offences that were against her .viz because the said Bishop did entertaine people in her house at unseasonable houres in the night to keep drinking and playing at shovel-board whereby discord did arise in other families & young people were in danger to bee corrupted & that the s’d Trask knew these things & had once gon into the house & fynding some at shovel-board had taken the peices thay played with & thrown them into the fyre & had reprooved the said Bishop for promoting such disorders, But received no satisfaction from her about it”[35]


Bishop was almost completely the opposite of what the Puritan community stood for, a reminder of sin; loud, wealthy, and independent. She was even accused as bewitching her husband which led to his eventual death. She also refused to confess to her crimes, confessions being one of the ways the community was able to validate its beliefs. “Behaviors that brought witches to the attention of their community were not simply random lapses from social norms. They were two types of dangerous trespass: challenges to the supremacy of god and challenges to prescribed gender norms.”[36] The church being the focal point of the community was also the one that escribed these gender norms they were completely linked “specific sins of New England witches: discontent, anger, envy, malice, seduction, lying, and pride.”[37] These sins would have been terrible for any Puritan but the specifically went against the ideas they had on what a woman should be like.

Not only did religion play a role in the Puritan idea of what women should act like but this was so embedded in their beliefs that the women themselves found it hard to believe that they were not witches, or at least so sinful that they were beyond salvation. Confessions helped strengthen the religious community because it helped validate their beliefs, it would also allow them to exhibit their forgiveness upon the sinners in their flock.  “It was the women who denied any collusion with Satan or those who initially confessed but later recanted who, by their refusal to admit complicity with the devil, displayed a measure of independence in the face of authority. Vehement denial and absolute refusal to confess, in effect, repudiated Puritan theology, contradicted the courts proceedings, and invalidated notions of proper female decorum.”[38] The differences in gender was also seen in the ways that confessions witches would have been punished for their crimes. “A confessing woman was a model of Puritan womanhood, even though she was admitting to the worst of sins, for she confirmed her society’s belief in both god and the devil.”[39]


  1. Conclusion



“The witch trials exemplify men’s inhumanity to women. The sexually powerful and menacing witch figure was nearly always portrayed as a female.[40] Not only in Salem, but in all of the witch trials around the world women were the most common to be found guilty of their crimes. The Salem scare was unique, mostly because it came at a time when witch scares were declining elsewhere. It was a complicated time and many causes can be contributed to why they happened, it seems that it was a cocktail of many different events; anxieties over violence with the Indians, religious changes within the community, gossip and conflicted between families, and even children going over their heads and deflecting blame. Whatever the causes might be it is clear that the Puritan religion and its views on women played a role in whom would be accused in the trials that came. Puritan writings and sermons had a very clear view on gender norms and how women should act within the religion and also believed that women were weaker and would be easily tempted by the devil and become witches. Women in Salem were supposed to be humble, quiet, obedient, and passive. It is clear that those who did not ascribe to one or any of these traits would be an easy target for accusations. Salem and religion in general are not unique into shaping the behaviors and views on women but it does show how much danger women could be in if they did not follow the traits that were designated for them.

There are of course gaps in the historiography of the Salem Witch Trials and specifically the historiography on Puritan religion and women. There are primary source materials that are difficult to find, specifically documentations on the sermons and writings of Puritan preachers of the time, only a few of Samuel Parris’s sermons have been found for use and fewer of some of the other most common writers of the time. There is also much more documentation of the court proceedings of the trials of women then there are of the trials of men, which means that there might be much more information out there to either strengthen or weaken the argument but it is hard to find. However enough has been researched to show that there is a strong connection between religions and gender norms that are set out for women. This research was dedicated to making connections between writings on Puritan culture, Salem Witch Trials, and witch hunts in general to show the long line of female persecution. This study specifically on the trials might also help to add to the information and help others make connections on how religion and women’s roles within different religious groups has changed or evolved.



















Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: New York University Press, 1996.


Boyer, Paul and Nissenbaum, Stephen. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.


Boyer, Paul, Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England, Cambridge: Northeastern, 1993.


Etsy, Mary. Letters from Prison. September, 1692.


The Examination of Bridget Byshop, 1692,


Friday, Sue. “Witchcraft and Quaker Convincements: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1692.” Quaker History 84, no. 2 (1995): 89-115.


Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.


Klaits, Joseph. “Sexual Politics and Religious Reform in the Witch Craze.” In Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts, 48-85. Indiana University Press, 1985.


Porterfield, Amanda. Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.


Ray, Benjamin C. Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2017).


Ray, Benjamin C. “Satan’s War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692.” The New England Quarterly 80, no. 1 (2007): 69-95.


Reis, Elizabeth. Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.


Reis, Elizabeth. Spellbound: Woman and Witchcraft in America. Rowman & Littlefield. Lanham 1998.  


Roach, Marilynne K. Roach. Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2013.


Weisman, Richard. Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts. Boston: University of Mass Press, 1984.



End Notes 

[1] Elizabeth Reis, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997) xv.

[2] Joseph Klaits, “Sexual Politics and Religious Reform in the Witch Craze,” In Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts, (Indiana University Press, 1985), 52.

[3] Elaine G. Breslaw, Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies (New York: New York University Press, 1996) 91.

[4] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974) xi.

[5] Reis, Damned Women, xiii.

[6] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974) 51.

[7] Benjamin C. Ray, Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015) eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 6, 2017), 15.

[8] Benjamin C. Ray, “Satan’s War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692,” The New England Quarterly 80, no. 1, 2007,, 70.

[9] Ray, “Satan’s War,” 74.

[10] Ray, Satan and Salem, 19.

[11] Reis, Damned Women, 1.

[12] Reis, Damned Women, 37.

[13] Reis, Damned Women, 107.

[14] Breslaw, Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem, 125.

[15] Breslaw, Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem 89.

[16] This is a mixture of rye meal and urine from the afflicted, it would be fed to a dog.

[17] Breslaw, Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem 96.

[18] Reis, Damned Women, xvi.

[19] Amanda Porterfield, Female Piety in Puritan New England: The Emergence of Religious Humanism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) 40.

[20] Porterfield, Female Piety in Puritan New England, 40.

[21] Reis, Damned Women, 5.

[22] Reis, Damned Women, 37.

[23] Reis, Damned Women, 94.

[24] Klaits, “Sexual Politics and Religious Reform,” 68.

[25] Mary Etsy, September 1692.

[26] Reis, Damned Women, 125.

[27] Reis, Damned Women, xv.

[28] Sue Friday, “Witchcraft and Quaker Convincements: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1692,” Quaker History 84, no. 2 (1995),, 90

[29] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 120.

[30] Breslaw, Tituba Reluctant Witch of Salem 139.

[31] Sarah Good, July 19, 1692.

[32]  Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998) 118.

[33] Marilynne K. Roach, Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers, (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2013), 18.

[34] Paul Boyer, Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England, (Boston: Northeastern, 1993) 56.

[35] The Examination of Bridget Byshop, April 19 1692, accessed August 10, 2017,

[36] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 119.

[37] Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 120.

[38] Reis, Damned Women, 142.

[39] Reis, Damned Women, 130.

[40] Klaits, “Sexual Politics and Religious Reform in the Witch Craze,”53.


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