John Proctor sat in the courtroom, watching his pregnant wife, Elizabeth on the stand. Paranoia was sweeping Salem, and Elizabeth was being examined by a local judge on suspicion of witchcraft. Watching his wife withstand the heated examination was bad enough, but suddenly the tenor of the questions changed. Slowly, John realized that the questions the judge fired at his wife were more about his behavior than hers.
Proctor had spoken out vehemently against the trials—he thought the accusers were liars and had even beaten one of his servants for displaying what the town interpreted as signs of witchcraft.
It was just a matter of time before the 60-year-old merchant found himself in the crosshairs of Salem’s paranoia.
For most, the story of the Salem Witch Trials is one of women—wrongfully accused and convicted in a case of mass hysteria that’s still fascinating people centuries later. But scorned women weren’t the only victims of Salem’s angry mobs. No fewer than six men were convicted and executed. These “forgotten” men of the Salem Witch Trials found their lives in danger when convictions and old rivalries surfaced during a period of distrust and terror.
It’s still not clear why Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams began having fits in early 1692, or why their ailment spread to other girls in Salem. Whatever the cause, mass hysteria—a collective phenomenon in which a group experiences delusions, fear and perceived threat—seems to have been part of the mix.
For the most part, the men of Salem Village were involved in blaming, trying, and convicting the young women whose unusual behavior and outlandish accusations were at the heart of the trials. But soon, men like Proctor were among those being accused, sometimes by neighbors who had longstanding resentments against them. Take George Burroughs. The athletic Puritan minister had borrowed money from the Putnams, a local family, and took years to pay back his loan. Though he did repay it, the rivalry with the family continued and Burroughs moved out of Salem.
When accusations of sorcery and other paranormal behavior began to sweep through his old town, its residents turned against their old minister. They accused him of witchcraft and had him dragged back to Salem, where his physical prowess (a supposed symptom) was used as an excuse to convict him. Before his execution, he recited The Lord’s Prayer—a feat accusers thought was impossible for a witch—causing some onlookers to demand his immediate pardon. He was hanged anyway.
Others refused to participate in trials or accusations–and paid the price. For example, John Willard, Salem’s deputy constable, developed doubts about the guilt of some of the so-called “witches.” When he expressed those concerns, accusers turned on him instead.
Willard’s wife’s grandfather, Bray Wilkins, suffered from kidney stones. When he asked a local woman for medical help, she told him that his ailment was likely due to witchcraft. Wilkins recalled that Willard had looked at him strangely and decided he had caused the ailment. And when Wilkin’s grandson, Daniel, suddenly died, Wilkins claimed that Willard was responsible, an accusation seconded by Mercy Lewis and others.
The Putnams, the same family that harbored a grudge against Minister Burroughs, accused Willard of having killed their baby years before, when she had died at just a few months of age. (Willard was apparently her occasional babysitter.) These longstanding rivalries all led to accusations of witchcraft. He was hanged along with Proctor, Burroughs and another man, George Jacobs Sr.
Perhaps the most horrifying tale of Salem’s male accused is that of Giles Corey, an 81-year-old man who refused to admit innocence or guilt when he was accused of witchcraft. This stubborn refusal to stand trial—Corey did not wish to forfeit his estate to the government if convicted—horrified Salem Village; instead of waiting for him to enter a plea they decided to press him between two stones until he died. For days, he was tortured by the heavy weights. Corey, who had spoken out in support of his wife Martha when she was accused of witchcraft, died three days before his wife’s execution. Due to his refusal to stand trial, Corey died in full possession of his estate, which reverted to his heirs.
Men weren’t the only unexpected victims of the Salem Witch Trials: So were dogs, two of which were killed during the scare. One was shot to death when a girl who suffered from convulsions accused it of bewitching her. Another, supposedly a victim of accused men who fled from Salem before they could be tried and arrested, was put to death.
Today, many remember John Proctor’s name not because of his real-life story, but because he was made into a character in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible. The same goes for the other men of Salem—if their story is remembered at all, it’s as part of an exaggerated, supernatural story of how paranormal paranoia once swept a colonial village. But the truth about Proctor, Cory, Burroughs and the other men of Salem is just as horrifying as fiction.