JAIL (GAOL) Salem Chair (with Peter McLean). 1992.


During the witchcraft proceedings of 1692, over 150 persons were jailed in Salem, in nearby towns, and in Boston. Persons who confessed to being witches were spared execution, but were locked up for months or a year or more. Those who did not confess were convicted of being witches and were jailed to await final sentencing. Heavy leg irons, chains, and other restraints were attached to prisoners in the cells, since witches were believed to have extraordinary escape powers.

Jail conditions were abominable. At least 4, and possibly 17, adults and children are known to have died there. Many others suffered great deprivation and trauma. Additionally, those imprisoned had to pay fees for their “lodging and feeding,” such as they were. Being removed from farm and subsistence work for months and years, and also being charged for their incarceration, bankrupted many families, forcing them to lose their land and homes. Fortunate victims either had large sums of money available to buy their way out of jail or escaped with the aid of sympathetic friends. We do not know the names of all of the persons jailed nor of others who lost their lives there or as a consequence of imprisonment.

The Gaol Chair: Access to jailed prisoners by family and friends was very free, although the distance to Boston made visitations to the jail there difficult. Information shared among the accused “witch” prisoners in jail and between them and visitors from in and around Salem, who brought news of new accusations, crying outs, testimonies, trials and convictions, surely ramped up the panic and paranoia among all. The Magistrates often interrogated the accused in the dungeons, not an environment conducive to truth and fairness.