“In the latter end of the year 1691, Mr. Samuel Parris, Pastor of the Church of Salem Village, had a Daughter of Nine, and a Niece of about Eleven years of Age, sadly Afflicted of they knew not what Distempers; and he made his application to Physicians, yet still they grew worse: And at length, one Physician gave his opinion, that they were under an Evil Hand. This the Neighbors quickly took up, and concluded they were bewitched.”
-Rev. John Hale, A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft
The story of the Salem Witch Trials describes a scene of young girls rolling on the floor, screaming in pain, and shouting at specters. A doctor visits and declares that witchcraft has caused these strange afflictions. The hunt for witches begins.
But what is the real scene and who is this doctor? No one knows. Primary sources give vague details on these first afflictions and never name the doctor who diagnosed witchcraft. There also remains a question of how soon after the start of the afflictions was the diagnosis of bewitchment and which person determined the nature of the girls’ suffering.
The first instinct of Rev. Parris and his wife were to pray for their daughter Betty and niece Abigail Williams when the afflictions began, but they also consulted local physicians. Rev. Hale’s account written in 1697 implies several doctors visited the Parris home to check on the girls before one ultimately diagnosed witchcraft. Without a source confirming the name of the doctor, speculation points to William Griggs, a physician living on the Salem Village-Beverly line. Every history of Salem that names the physician uses Griggs, as he was the only physician in the area of the afflicted in 1692, so this post is to give a biography made of the little information known about this man whose words start almost every narrative of the Salem Witch Trials.
William Griggs (?-1698) was in his late 70s in 1692. His second wife Rachel Hubbard was in her mid-sixties. They married in 1657. After their marriage they lived in Rumney Marsh (present day Revere, MA) and Boston before moving to Salem Village by 1690. Rachel was a member of Boston’s First Church, the same church Samuel Parris belonged to when he lived in Boston until 1689. As far as his medical training, Griggs was probably self-taught and he worked to establish his practice in Salem Village where he possibly diagnosed the bewitchment of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams.
Shortly after the diagnosis, two other girls began to suffer: Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard. Elizabeth worked for Isaac Griggs, William’s son from his first marriage, in Boston until Isaac died in 1689. She moved to the home of her great-aunt, Rachel Griggs to work as a maid for her relatives. Coincidentally, an accuser lived in the home of the man who (probably) confirmed the suspicions of witchcraft.
There is a book by Enders A. Robinson that claims the witch trials were a conspiracy led by Thomas Putnam and included William Griggs. While this theory is not a common one among historians, there is evidence that the accusations against certain individuals were beneficial to Griggs. Elizabeth Procter sometimes worked as a midwife, meaning Procter was a competitor to Griggs. One accuser, Elizabeth Booth, provided damning testimony against John and Elizabeth Procter. Booth once claimed the specter of her stepfather appeared to her and she reported, “that Elizabeth Procter killed him because my mother would not send for Doctor Griggs to give him physic & also because she was not sent for when he was first taken sick.” What this testimony says is first, both Griggs and Procter were seen as figures to provide medical service and Griggs was not always the choice of families in need of a physician. The testimony also indicates that the specter of Elizabeth Procter claimed that had the Booth family sent for her sooner, Procter could have helped. If this testimony is accurate and Procter was qualified to assist the sick and Procter provided competition for Griggs, the accusations certainly helped his practice, especially when Griggs’ niece joined the accusers against Procter. There is also testimony referring to Roger Toothaker, another accused suspect, as a doctor that describes his work in Beverly, close to the home of Griggs. Toothaker died in jail, but Griggs probably appreciated the loss of another potential competitor.
While the accusations certainly assisted Griggs, they nearly harmed him as well. Rachel Griggs’ specter allegedly afflicted some of the accusing girls, however, no legal action occurred against her.
There is very little information on Griggs and who he was, yet he appears in narratives as the man who ignited the Salem Village community’s hysteria. While naming Griggs makes for a simpler story, no evidence confirms the depth of his involvement in the trials. It appears likely that Griggs diagnosed the girls, but regardless of who first said “they were under an Evil Hand,” the personal motivations behind accusations appear in the doctor’s biography. Many of the accusations of 1692 include such motivations that allowed the community to turn against itself; money, land, competition, and feuds turned into the accusations and executions. Looking solely at Griggs, it appears that personal motivation played a large role in his tolerance and acceptance of the trials, although one must wonder what potential consequences further legal action against Rachel Griggs could have caused. These factors were an easy trap for anyone to fall into, and the promise of better business took Griggs into the Devil’s snare.
George Lincoln Burr, “From “A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft,” by John Hale, 1702,” In Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706, New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1914.
Bernard Rosenthal, Records of the Salem Witch-hunt, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Marilynne K. Roach, The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2002.
Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Frances Hill, The Salem Witch Trials Reader, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2000.
Emerson W. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.