Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
Sarah Good was born in 1653 to a well off innkeeper named John Solart. However, her father's estate was tied up in litigation that left Good virtually nothing. Her first marriage was to a poor indentured servant named Daniel Poole who died in debt in 1686. Her second marriage to William Good was doomed from the outset because the couple had to pay for the debts of first husband Poole. The Goods were homeless, renting rooms in other people's houses, and they had two young children. William worked as a laborer around Salem Village in exchange for food and lodging, but it became increasingly difficult for the family to find a place to stay as Sarah's reputation for and being socially unpleasant spread throughout the town. The family was regarded as a nuisance to the town, and by 1692 they were virtually beggars.
Good's position as a disreputable and marginal member of society made her a perfect candidate for witchcraft accusations. On February 29, 1692, the first warrant was issued for the arrest of Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba. The three were accused initially of afflicting Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, and later many other accusers came forward to testify about injurious actions and spectral evidence against Good. Good was the first to testify in the Salem Witchcraft trials, and Bernard Rosenthal in Salem Story asserts that Good was specifically chosen to start the trials off because most people were in support of ridding Salem Village of her presence. Even her six-year-old daughter Dorcas was frightened into testifying against her, and although her husband did not call her a witch, he said that he, too, had reason to believe she was close to becoming one, thus, perhaps, protecting himself from accusation. One of Good's trial records quotes William Good as saying, "it was her bad carriage to [me] and indeed say I with tears that she is enemy to all good." Despite the overwhelming sentiment against her, Good adamantly denied Magistrate John Hathorne's accusations. When Hathorne in the pre-trial hearings asked, "Why do you hurt these children?" Good responded, "I do not hurt them. I scorn it." She also stated repeatedly, "I am falsely accused."
Although Good never confessed, she did accuse Sarah Osborne of afflicting the girls after witnessing the accusers fall down in fits in the courtroom. Historians generally agree that this accusation by Good was one of the first and strongest legitimizations of the witchcraft trials. Only one person came forth to defend Good. When one of the girls accused Good of stabbing her with a knife and produced a broken knife tip to prove it, a man came forward showing that it was his knife from which the tip had been broken in the presence of the accusing girl. Far from invalidating the girl's testimony against Good, Judge Stoughton simply asked the girl to continue with her accusations with a reminder to stick to the facts.
Good was condemned to hang but was pardoned until the birth of her child. Her daughter Dorcas was accused of witchery and was imprisoned for over seven months. Although the child of six years was eventually released on bond, she was psychologically damaged for the rest of her life. Good's infant died in prison with her before Good was hanged. Her execution occurred on Tuesday July 19, 1692. According to local tradition, when Good stood at the gallows prepared to die she was asked once more by Rev. Nicholas Noyes, assistant minister in the Salem church, to confess and thus save her immortal soul. Far from confessing, Good is said to have screamed, "You're a liar! I'm no more a witch than you are a wizard! If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink!" It was this constant refusal to confess that Bernard Rosenthal believes led Good to the Gallows, even more so than all of the accusations against her.
The way in which Good has been portrayed in literature is worth mentioning because it sheds light upon how the Salem Witch Trials have been popularly imagined and how the accused witches were and are viewed today. Good is always depicted as an old hag with white hair and wrinkled skin. She is often said to be sixty or seventy years of age by the same writers who clearly state that she was pregnant and had a six-year-old daughter. Even accounts from Salem Villagers and magistrates at the time refer to her as an old nuisance, hag, and bed-ridden. How did such a misconception arise? Perhaps her hard life did have such a physical effect on Good that she did appear extremely aged. On the other hand, witches are described in literature then and now as being old wicked women. If Good was to represent the typical witch worthy of execution, then it is not surprising that all of the stereotypes would be accordingly attached. Good was a marginal woman and no doubt a nuisance to her neighbors. However, the Salem trials were conducted unfairly, with a presumption of guilt, and little evidence. Marginality is not worthy of hanging, and Good was never proved to be nor did she confess to be a witch.
Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Karlson, Carol. F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.