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Using the Salem Witchcraft Papers

(Adapted from Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenmbaum, Salem Witchcraft Papers vol. 1: 31-42.)

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) produced a transcription of all the then known court records of the Salem witch trials from the original manuscripts located in various archives. In 1977 in a landmark publication, historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum put into print the WPA typescript. This publication was titled: The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692. Edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. 3 Vols. (New York: De Capo Press, 1977) The Salem Witchcraft Papers (SWP) was the most complete compilation of the court records to date. In 2009 a new scholarly edition of the court records was published under the title Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt. General Editor Bernard Rosenthal (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009). The new edition included all the SWP documents as well as numerous newly located and previously unpublished documents. In 2003 the Electronic Text Center (now Scholars Lab) and Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at the University of Virginia published a digital edition of the SWP, with permission of the Da Capo Press, under the editorial supervision of Professor Benjamin C. Ray, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia. This edition, titled the Salem Witch Trials Documentalry Archive and Transcription Project, was supported by a major grant from the National Endowement for the Humanities and by grants from the American Academy of Religion, IATH, the UVA Spec Lab, and the Electroic Cultural Atlas Initiative. The digital edition of the SWP includes all the newly located documents as well as corrections to the transcriptions and corrections to the errors in the citations . It also includes images of most of the original manuscripts of the court records.

Types of records

Seventeenth century New England courts followed English law. The legal process involved a number of steps and each resulted in the issuance of a particular court record. Keeping records was mandatory in cases of capital crime. A Complaint against an individual was followed by a Warrant for the Apprehension of that person. The constable who made the arrest, signed his Return to the warrant, stating that he had taken the person into custody, usually jail. The magistrate then conducted an Examination or Preliminary hearing and often issued a Summons for witnesses to give testimony in court against the defendant. If the Examination found probable cause for the crime, the Attorney General then issued an Indictment which was presented to a Grand Jury for a hearing on the charge in the indictment. At this stage Attorney General selected the strongest of the written depositions as well as oral testimony to present to the Grand Jury. The purpose of the Grand Jury (sometimes called a Jury of Inquest in the Salem court records) was to rule whether there was strong enough evidence that the accused should be put on trial. If the Grand Jury deemed the evidence to be sufficient, the Indictment was classified as a True Bill, and the next step was a trial. At the trial, witnesses appeared in person and presented their evidence, and swore to it in court. The clerk of the court marked the depositions and testimonies used in the trial by the phrase Jurat in Curia, “sworn in court.” If the defendant was acquitted at the trial, the Indictment was marked Ignoramous, literally, “we have no knowledge of it.” If the jury’s verdict was guilty, the presiding magistrate pronounced the sentence. Witchcraft was deemed a capital crime, and in Puritan New England the sentence was death by hanging. The magistrate issued the Warrant for Execution which ordered the county Marshall and local Sheriff to carry out the execution, and the Sheriff’s Return stated that it was done.

Legal Terms Found in these Documents

Definitions adapted from Boyer and Nissenbaum,Salem Witchcraft Papers, Vol. 1, pp. 41-42.


The WPA transcription project organized the records of the Salem witch trials alphabetically according to the last name of the accused. The Salem Witchcraft Papers retains this arrangement as its default organization. In this online archive it is also possible to retrieve the documents according to the dates assigned to them, using the Archive’s chronological search tool found at Most records, such as complaints, warrants, and examinations were assigned dates when they were issued and thus there is no question about their dates. But many other records, such as depositions, testimonies, statements, and indictments were not dated. In most cases, there is relevant contextual evidence from other documents that resolves the issue, so approximate dates can be assigned to them.

In assigning dates to the undated documents I have followed the guidelines provided by Professor Bernard Rosenthal, General Editor, and Margo Burns, an Associate Editor, of theRecords of the Salem Witch-Hunt. As Rosenthal and Burns explain, indictment records, which were issued for use at a grand jury are undated. But for chronological purposes they may be dated according to other documents sworn to and dated at the time of the grand jury. Contextual evidence also indicates that some depositions, testimonies, and statements in support of grand jury may be dated to the day of the hearings. Other depositions and statements may have been written at the time of the examinations. For example, in cases in which depositions and testimonies refer to someone afflicted during an examination, usually a witness in the courtroom, this deposition was likely written on or close to the day of the examination since it refers directly to it. A few depositions and testimonies, however, have no contextual indicators, and such documents are dated according to the time of other relevant documents in the case file.

These considerations, and following the guidelines created by Rosenthal and Burns, result in four different dating classifications in the Archive’s Salem Court Records:


The typescript of the WPA transcriptions retained the irregular spellings, archaic use of letters, and old abbreviations of the original manuscripts. Boyer and Nissenbaum modernized the WPA transcriptions in order to make them more accessible to readers unfamiliar with the archaic conventions of seventeenth century writing which can be seen in the original manuscript records. For example:






The print edition also dropped superscript letters into alignment with the rest of the text and inserted apostrophes to indicate the contraction. For example:

Apart from these modernizations, theSalem Wwitchcraft Papers printed the documents just as they appear in the handwritten manuscripts, and they contain many archaic words and archaic meanings.

Salem Witchcraft Papers