On Salem: the scapegoat

Catherine Brekus tells the disturbing story of George Burroughs.



Catherine Brekus tells the disturbing story of George Burroughs.

When George Burroughs became the minister of Salem Village Church in 1680, he was supported by some of the families, but he was strongly opposed by the Putnam family. The Putnams were a well-to-do family, they were large, and they had a lot of power in the village. So from the initial time that George Burroughs began his ministry, the Putnams opposed him. They thought he was not strict enough religiously. They were behind the group who eventually decided to just stop paying his salary.

So when the witchcraft panic began, Ann Putnam was Thomas Putnam’s daughter, and she is the one who initially named George Burroughs as a wizard and, in fact, claimed that she had seen him in a vision leading Satanic masses right next to the church that he used to lead. So I think it’s no accident that Ann Putnam, the daughter of Thomas Putnam, decided to single out George Burroughs, who her father had always despised.

So there were always personal issues at stake in Salem and, I think, in all witchcraft trials. We can talk about larger-scale issues like economic change or political conflicts, but witchcraft accusations always started out of conflicts between individuals. And Thomas Putnam, in particular, was very angry at a number of people in Salem and he personally swore out accusations against 35 witches, and helped write 120 depositions against people in Salem who he believed had been involved in witchcraft. His own story was that he had come from a very wealthy family, and the family’s fortunes were declining. And so he and his family definitely felt economically insecure, and they were looking for people to blame.

And at that point, people in Salem decided that the reason they were having all these difficulties was that they had had a minister back in the 1680s who had actually been associated with Satan. And so he became a scapegoat for all the problems in the village.

There were also all sorts of stories swirling about him. He had been in Maine during some Indian raids where more than 200 people had been killed, but he had survived. There were many survivors of those Indian raids who had fled to Salem, and there were stories that maybe he had made a pact with the devil in order to save himself during those Indian raids. 

So George Burroughs, I think, is an example of the other side of Christianity in this panic. There were a number of people who were arguing in the name of Christianity that witches had to be put to death. George Burroughs, as one of the accused, argued that the people of Salem had betrayed their Christian faith by persecuting innocent people. So the story is that, as he was climbing the ladder that would take him to the gallows to be hanged, that he exhorted people not to send any more innocent people to death – and that he said the Lord’s Prayer out loud. So he went to his death praying.

There were people in the crowd who, when they heard this, wanted to rescue him – but this is the other side of Christianity, Cotton Mather, who was a very prominent minister in New England, was attending Burroughs’ execution. And when it seemed as if the crowd wanted to rescue him, he was on his horse and he started exhorting the crowd not to believe that Burroughs was a genuine Christian. And he said, “You have to remember that the devil can come clothed like an angel.” And so at that moment, George Burroughs was put to death.