Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
Born in Watertown, Massachusetts in about 1643, Sarah Warren married Robert Prince, a Salem Villager who purchased a 150-acre farm next to Captain John Putnam's. Putnam was Prince's neighbor and also his brother-in-law and the executor (along with Thomas Putnam) of his will. When Prince died prematurely in 1674, he left his land entrusted to his wife Sarah with the provision that upon their coming of age, it be given to his and Sarah's two sons -- James, who was six-years-old at the time, and Joseph, who was two. However, soon after her husband's death, Sarah hired an indentured Irish immigrant by the name of Alexander Osborne as a farm hand and paid off his indenture. Rumors spread about Sarah and Alexander's living together and eventually the two were married. Sarah, then attempted to overtake her children's inheritance and seize control of the estate for herself and her new husband, thus breaking her deceased husband's will. Legal battles ensued between Osborne and her children, who were the rightful heirs of Prince's land and were defended by the Putnams. Such conflict continued until February of 1692 when Sarah Osborne became one of the first three persons accused of witchcraft in Salem.
Sarah was accused by Thomas and Edward Putnam, Joseph Hutchinson, and Thomas Preston for afflicting Ann Putnam, Jr., Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard. Unlike the other two women accused with her, Tituba and Sarah Good, Osborne never confessed to witchcraft nor attempted to accuse anyone else. In her own defense, she was the first defendant to assert in her defense the theological claim that the devil could take the shape of another person without their compliance -- a view that eventually prevailed and brought the Salem trials to a halt. Nonetheless, Osborne never came to trial because she died, shackled in prison on May 10, 1692 at the age of 49.
Why was Sarah Osborne accused of witchcraft? To answer this question, we must look closely at the society in which she lived and at her reputation in it. Historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum argue that many of the accused witches were perceived as upsetting established "patterns of land tenure and inheritance." Sarah Osborne fits this profile. Not only was Salem Village aware of her fornication with Alexander (an obvious Puritan sin), but by endeavoring to gain full ownership of her late husband's estate, she disregarded her society's set practices of inheritance and land tenure, and challenged the tradition of strong, extended family alliances. By aspiring to deny her two sons of their wealth and social position, she threatened the growth and stability of Putnam family alliances in Salem Village.
Is a woman who betrays her society's social and family conventions worthy of an accusation of witchcraft? Not in today's society, but in seventeenth century New England these offenses were socially and economically serious, and a threat to the divinely sanctioned social order. Specifically, the Putnam family's economic interests and inheritance grew less secure by Sarah's attempt at social and economic independence. Consequently, but not surprisingly, it was members of the Putnam family who accused Osborne.
While such theories may offer explanations as to why Sarah Osborne, as opposed to her husband Alexander, was accused of witchcraft, we might also ask why she was actually convicted. If only 19 of the approximately 160 people accused were actually executed, what prevented Sarah Osborne from surviving? Unlike Tituba and Sarah Good who both confessed to witchcraft and falsely accused Osborne, Osborne did not confess nor did she accuse anyone else, and hence unknowingly at this stage, she closed an opportunity that might have saved her. Even though it later became apparent that the way to survive an accusation was to confess and to point fingers at others, Sarah Osborne repeatedly affirmed her innocence. When asked by local officials why she practiced with the devil, Osborne responded with bewilderment that she "was more like to be bewitched than that she was a witch." Ultimately, it was her refusal to compromise her integrity that cost Sarah Osborne her life.
Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed, 1974.
Carol F. Karlson, Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 1998
Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story, 1993