June 10 marks the anniversary of Bridget Bishop's hanging in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. Her story is more important than ever - here's why.
On Friday 10 June 1692, some time between 8am and noon, Bridget Bishop was brought to the gallows and hanged for witchcraft.
While Bridget was the first woman executed in Salem Village, she wasn’t the first to stand trial.
Before her, colonial women Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, and an enslaved woman known only as Tituba, had wild accusations thrown at them when the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, a minister in the village, started to have fits.
These women lived on the margins of society for various reasons:
- Sarah Good was homeless.
- Sarah Osborn was rumoured to have had premarital sex.
- Tituba was thought to have sailed from Barbados as the slave of Samuel Parris.
Bridget Bishop was thrice-married, twice-widowed and dressed differently (“a black cap and a black hat, and a red paragon bodice”).
In the book Salem Witchcraft, author Charles Upham writes that Bridget’s “freedom from the austerity of Puritan manners, and disregard of conventional decorum in her conversation and conduct, brought her into disrepute; and the tongue of gossip was generally loosened against her.”
It took two centuries to clear Bridget’s name.
Now, 327 years later, it’s easy to look at her hanging - and more than 50,000 others in Western Europe - as mad moments in medieval history.
Of course, we know now that the accused weren’t witches. We know now that they weren’t making sex pacts with Satan (although, it’s not a bad way to pass the time). And we know now that witches were mainly women - the outsiders - used as scapegoats to provoke fear and tribal division.
The allegations against Bridget Bishop - and everyone else hanged, burned, drowned, tortured, or executed for witchcraft - were #FAKENEWS.
But in the Middle Ages, any uncontrollable event or ruined crop or life-threatening disease was a witch’s doing. Witches causing death and destruction was as real to medieval men and women as the fact smoking causes cancer is to us.
Bridget’s death is a cautionary tale of what happens when “outsiders” fall prey to lies, repression and mass hysteria of a community ruled by fear.
Witch hunts persecuted the powerless. Society’s marginal members. Mostly, women.
Women who stepped outside their prescribed patriarchal rules became targets.
Tituba was likely South American Indian, but there are few records of her life. She became a central figure in the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, she confessed to ‘signing the devil’s book’. It’s clear that her confession was coerced - and that her American Indian background was significant to the Puritan responses.
The Conversation highlights this systematic oppression:
“This is why witch trials weren’t just about accusations that today seem baseless. They were also about a justice system that escalated local grievances to capital offences and targeted a subjugated minority.”
Sound familiar? In 2020, the anniversary of the first hanging in the Salem Witch Trials still matters.
It still matters because the groups campaigning for equality today - black people, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants and other non-white people - are still used as targets to divide and distract.
It still matters because predisposed biases still worm their way into the rational brains of communities.
It still matters because we still live within a system that marks people as outsiders, continually stimulates fear, then uses powerless minorities as scapegoats for the actions of those in power.
It still matters because Donald Trump has tweeted the words ‘witch hunt’ more than 300 times since his inauguration in 2017 - comparing historic injustice and stripping people of fundamental human rights to accusations made against himself.
It still matters because - while women like Bridget Bishop are no longer being hanged - innocent men and women are still dehumanised, oppressed and killed, 327 years on.
When prejudice is elevated to the point of murder and police need billions of dollars of military equipment to do their job, it’s clear that we’re living our own mad moment in history.
But - as we all know - change will come.
Words by Nina Cresswell