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Cellar of the Salem Village Parsonage, in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts. The parsonage was built for George Burroughs in 1681. The new parsonage that replaced it in 1784 is in the background. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.

George Burroughs: Salem’s perfect witch

On 19 August 1692, George Burroughs stood on the ladder and calmly made a perfect recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Some in the large crowd of observers were moved to tears, so much so that it seemed the proceedings might come to a halt. But Reverend Burroughs had uttered his last words. He was soon “turned off” the ladder, hanged to death for the high crime of witchcraft. After the execution, Reverend Cotton Mather, who had been watching the proceedings from horseback, acted quickly to calm the restless multitude. He reminded them among other things “that the Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light” — that despite his pious words and demeanor, Burroughs had been the leader of Satan’s war against New England. Thus assured, the executions would continue. Five people would die that day, one of most dramatic and important in the course of the Salem witch trials. For the audience on 19 August realized that if a Puritan minister could hang for witchcraft, then no one was safe. Their tears and protests were the beginning of the public opposition that would eventually bring the trials to an end. Unfortunately, by the time that happened, nineteen people had been executed, one pressed to death, and five perished in the wretched squalor of the Salem and Boston jails.

The fact that a Harvard-educated Puritan minister was considered the ringleader of the largest witch hunt in American history is one of the many striking oddities about the Salem trials. Yet, a close look at Burroughs reveals that his character and his background personified virtually all the fears and suspicions that ignited witchcraft accusations in 1692. There was no single cause, no simple explanation to why the Salem crisis happened. Massachusetts Bay faced a confluence of events that produced the fears and doubts that led to the crisis. Likewise, a wide range of people faced charges for having supposedly committed diverse acts of witchcraft against a broad swath of the populace. Yet, there were many reasons people were suspicious of George Burroughs, indeed he was the perfect witch.

In 1680 when Burroughs was hired to be the minister of Salem Village he quickly became a central figure in the on-going controversy over religion, politics, and money that would span more than thirty years and result in the departure of the community’s first four ministers. One of Burroughs’s parishioners wrote to him, complaining that “Brother is against brother and neighbors against neighbors, all quarreling and smiting one another.” After a little over two years in office, the Salem Village Committee stopped paying Burroughs’s salary, so he wisely left town to return to his old job, as minister of Falmouth (now Portland, Maine).

George Burroughs spent most of his career in Falmouth, a town on the edge of the frontier. He was fortunate to escape the bloody destruction of the settlement by Native Americans in 1676 (during King Philip’s War) and 1690 (during King William’s War). The latter conflict brought a string of disastrous defeats to Massachusetts, and as many historians have noted, the ensuing war panic helped trigger the witch trials. The war was a spiritual defeat for the Puritan colony as they were losing to French Catholics allied with people they considered to be “heathen” Indians. It seemed Satan’s minions would end the Puritans’ New England experiment. Burroughs was one of many refugees from Maine who were either afflicted by or accused of witchcraft. In addition, most of the judges were military officers as well as speculators in Maine lands that the war had made worthless. Some of the afflicted refugees were suffering what today would be considered post-traumatic shock. Used to the manual labor of the frontier, Burroughs was so incredibly strong that several would testify in 1692 to his feats of supernatural strength. The minister’s seemingly miraculous escapes from Falmouth in 1676 and 1690 also brought him under suspicion. Perhaps he had done so with the help of the devil, or the Indians.

Bench in memory of George Burroughs at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Salem, Massachusetts. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.
Bench in memory of George Burroughs at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial, Salem, Massachusetts. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.

Tainted by his frontier ties, the twice-widowed Burroughs’s personal life and perceived religious views amplified fears of the minister. At his trial, several testified to his secretive ways, his seemingly preternatural knowledge, and his strict rule over his wives. He forbid his wives to speak about him to others, and even censored their letters to family. Meanwhile the afflicted said they saw the specters of Burroughs’s late wives, who claimed he murdered them. The charges were groundless. However, his controlling ways and the spectacular testimony against him at least raised the question of domestic abuse. Such perceived abuse of authority — at the family, community or colony-wide level — is a common thread linking many of Salem’s accused.

Some observers believed Burroughs was secretive because they suspected he was a Baptist. This Protestant sect had legal toleration but like the Quakers, was considered dangerous by most Massachusetts Puritans because of their belief in adult baptism and adult-only membership in the church. Burroughs admitted to the Salem judges that he had not recently received Puritan communion and had not baptized his younger children (both signs that he might be a Baptist). His excuse was that he was never ordained and hence could not lead the communion service, nor could he baptize children. However, since Burroughs left his post in Maine, he admitted he had visited Boston and Charlestown and had failed to take advantage of these rights there.

Even if he was not a Baptist, as a Puritan minister he was at risk. Burroughs was just one of five ministers cried out upon in 1692. Fully, 30 percent of the people accused were ministers, their immediate family members, or extended kin. In many ways, the witch trials were a critique of the religious and political policies of the colony. But that is another story.

Header image taken by Emerson W. Baker.

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