Hanged June 10, 1692


Hanged August 19, 1692

"Mr. Burrouhgs was carried in a cart with the others, through the streets of Salem, to execution. When he was upon the ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his innocency, with such solemn and serious expressions as were to the admiration of all present. His prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord's Prayer) was so well worded, and uttered with such coposedness and such (at least seeming) fervency of spirit, as was very affecting, and drew tears from many, so that it seemed to some that the spectators would hinder the execution."

- Account by Robert Calef

Burroughs has often been portrayed in popular accounts of the trials mainly because some of his accusers claimed that he was the "ring leader" of the witches and also because of the especially dramatic nature of his execution in the presence of the Rev. Cotton Mather. Recent research by Mary Beth Norton has revealed that in order to understand George Burroughs' role in the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to see the connection between the witchcraft episode in Salem Village and the war that was taking place in Maine's northeastern frontier. In her book, In the Devil's Snare, Norton writes, "Burroughs, in many ways the key figure in the entire affair, linked Salem Village and Falmouth, Essex County and Maine, the Wabanakis and the witches."

George Burroughs was born to a rather well to do family in Suffolk, England in about 1652. At a young age he left England for Massachusetts Bay Colony and was raised by his mother in the town of Roxbury. He later attended Harvard College and graduated in 1670. He then moved to Maine and started preaching in Falmouth (now Portland) until Indians attacked the town in 1676 forcing him to leave. Eventually, in 1680 he was called to Salem Village to be the new minister.

Ann Putnam, Jr., Burroughs' initial accuser, was not personally acquainted with him, but she had most likely heard about him from Mercy Lewis, a 17 year-old servant in the Putnam family. Lewis was a refugee from the Indian attacks in Maine and knew Burroughs as a child. Ann Putnam, like many other accusers, probably turned gossip into a formal accusation.

Ann claimed that Burroughs, was the leader of the witches and had sided with the Wabanaki Indians and, moreover, that he bewitched Sir Edmond Andros's troops. In the eyes of the local gossips, Burroughs' perceived ties to the Indians and Satan were seen as one and the same in. Norton explains that he was described as "black," a term that suggests a connection both to the "black" Indians and to Satan, known as the "black man." Word spread that Burroughs had survived several brutal attacks by the Indians when nearly all the other defenders at the fort where he was stationed were murdered, people became suspicious -- did Burroughs survive by witchcraft?

Ann had probably heard through a chain of gossip that Burroughs was jealous that Andros employed Deodat Lawson in a position that Burroughs had wanted. Soon after, Lawson's daughter and wife died. Ann told the grand jury that she had seen the ghost of Mrs. Lawson, who told her that Burroughs had killed her and her daughter because of a disagreement between him and her husband.

Another factor working against Burroughs was the fact that his first two wives had died. Members of the Putnam family testified that he was cruel to his wives, one of whom was related to Judge Hathorne. Ann Putnam claimed that the two wives came to her as visions and told her that Burroughs had killed them and that he was indeed working for the Devil. Burroughs was also known for his superhuman strength. Men at the trial testified that they had seen him "put his fingers into the Bung Barrall and lifted it up, and carried it round him and set it downe again." Others claimed that he was able to effortlessly lift up a six-foot gun using one hand. His brute strength was more proof of his allegiance with the devil.

All this testimony led the court to conclude that Burroughs was indeed a sorcerer and was in fact the leader of the witchcraft-related events. On April 30, 1692, Burroughs, together with several others, was accused of witchcraft. Thomas Putnam and Jonathan Walcott signed the original document of complaint stating the charges. Burroughs was charged with "high suspicion of sundry acts of witchcraft done or committed by then upon the bodies of Mary Walcot Marcy Lewis Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Eliz. Hubbard and Susan Sheldon." On May 4, 1692, he was forcefully taken from his home in Wells, Maine, to Salem, and put in jail.

Boyer and Nissenbaum suggest that Burroughs was used as a scapegoat. By attributing to him the role of the ringleader, the witchcraft problem was no longer associated with the community of Salem Village but was put upon the shoulders of one man, George Burroughs.

Bernard Rosenthal has also pointed to Burroughs' reputation for having unconventional religious beliefs. In Salem Story, Rosenthal, stresses the significanceof the fact that the Rev. Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather, both prominent ministers in Boston, did not agree with Burroughs' religious convictions. Rosenthal concludes that the Mathers approval of Burroughs' conviction as a witch may have concealed suspicions that he was in fact a Baptist and a witch.

Cotton Mather was at this time known for his cautionary writings on the use of spectral evidence in the trials. However, as Rosenthal suggests, in Burroughs' case Mather put aside his views on the unreliability of spectral evidence, further suggesting that Mather's hatred of Burroughs was based on Burroughs' role as a religious dissident.

For this reason, scholars have traditionally seen Burroughs as the one person executed for witchcraft for his religious beliefs. On August 3, 1692, many testified against Burroughs. Elizabeth Hubbard, Mercy Lewis, Susannah Sheldon, Mary Walcott and Ann Putnam all claimed that he had come to them and tried to force them to sign his book which Elizabeth said was written in words "as red as blood." Accused witches such as Abigail Hobbs and Mary Warren also charged him with bringing them into the world of Satan. He was the "ring leader of them all" holding the meetings in Salem.

Burroughs' trial was the only one attended by Increase Mather. Mather believed that if someone could perfectly recite the Lord's Prayer then he or she was not a witch. However, as Robert Calef writes in his book More Wonders of the Invisible World, "Mr. Burroughs was carried, through the streets of Salem to Execution; when he was upon the Ladder, he made a Speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions, as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord's Prayer) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness, and such (at least seeming) fervency of Spirit, as was very affecting, and drew Tears from many ( so that is seemed to some that the Spectators would hinder the Execution)".

Nathaniel Hawthorne describes this scene in his powerful story Main Street and refers to Burroughs as going to a "martyr's death". Hawthorne depicts Burroughs as an innocent victim of the terrible trials. When the crowd calls for the execution to be stopped Hawthorne continues "Ah no; for listen to the wise Cotton Mather, who, as he sits there on his horse, speaks comfortable to the perplexed multitude, and tells them that all had been religiously and justly done, and that Satan's power shall this day receive its death-blow in New England". Calef recorded that, "Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a Horse, addressed himself to the People, partly to declare, that he [George Burroughs] was no ordained minister, and partly to possess the People of his guilt; saying, That the Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light." In doing this he reassured the crowd of Burroughs' guilt and the execution proceeded.

Written by Amy Nichols (2001) and Elizabeth Whelan, 2002


Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature

An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia

Spring Semester 2002

Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed, 1977.

Calef, Robert. More Wonders of The Invisible World, 1700.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Main Street, 1850.

Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil's Snare, 2002.

Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story, 1993.