Sarah Osbourne

Accused of witchcraft in 1692, died in jail awaiting trial.

Last modified 08/08/2005

Sarah Osbourne is the name by which she is remembered, because that was her name at the time of her historical and notable death. She holds a place in American history, partly because of the circumstances of her late life and death, and partly because Arthur Miller chose to mention her in The Crucible and immortalize her.

She was likely born Sarah Warren, daughter of John Warrent of Watertown, MA. This is the parentage attributed to her by many sources associated with the literature on the witch trials of Salem in 1692. However, John Warren of Watertown, and his wife, Margaret, are not listed as having a daughter Sarah in the Genealogy and History of Watertown, MA because only 4 children were mentioned in his will of 1667 (this would have been 5 years after her marriage to Robert Prince.) Given that Sarah was married in 1662 and had her children shortly thereafter, it seems likely that she was born sometime around 1630-40. Since the 3rd of John and Margaret's 4 children was b. in 1628, it seems possible that Sarah was a younger sibling of the listed children. If these were her parents, there was an ominous family tradition at work. On Mar. 14, 1658-9, John was "warned for not attending public worship, 14 Sabbaths, each 5s.= £ 3. 10s. May 27, 1661, the houses of "old Warren and goodman Hammond" were ordered to be searched for Quakers." Perhaps piety did not run in the family.

Upon her marriage in 1662, she became Sarah Prince. Her first child, James, died very young. Her second child, born a few years later, was a boy as well, but he survived. They named him James too, perhaps in honor of the first child. She would have a daughter, Elizabeth, and a son, Joseph as well.

When Robert died in the winter of 1674, Sarah found herself with at three small children and a farm to maintain. To help, she bought out the remainder of the time on a redemptioner named Alexander Osbourne for fifteen pounds. He had come from Ireland, and had paid for his passage by indenturing himself for a period of years. She then employed him on the farm. Taking into account both his ethnicity and his status, it must have been shocking to the village when she married him.

As her boys grew older, they quite naturally expected to inherit the land and home explicitly left to them by their biological father. However, Alexander, and Sarah perhaps at his bequest, began to take legal action to have the property transferred to Alexander - even after the Prince boys had reached the age of majority. It appears that during the process, Sarah might have actually held - or at least sought - ownership of the property (a woman owning property was a notion for suspicion.) Again, ill feelings must have run through the community.

It might be worth noting that it is possible that Robert's sister, Rebecca, married a Putnam. This surname will be familiar to fans of The Crucible. If this is so, the Putnam family would have been Sarah's in-laws by her first husband.

Add to all this that the Osbourne marriage was, by few accounts, a happy one. The two sons alleged many years later, in 1720, that Alexander was abusive to both wife and children. They testified that he was cruel and barbaric, and had forced them by threat of violence, to relinquish their rights to the property. This is a point of some controversy, given that there were strong supporters of Osbourne, and that after the witch hysteria he remarried and took a respectable position in the community.

Whatever the case may be, in the early 1690s Sarah was unhappy, ill enough to be bedridden, and had stopped attending public worship. She was the target of much gossip and rumor. And a small town with volatile politics was struggling as it was growing but hemmed in by other towns, competing with the prosperity of nearby Salem Town. The neighbors were restless. She was among the first to be accused.

Sarah was listed on the very first warrant for arrest, along with Tituba and Sarah Good. The document was on display at the Essex Museum for the commemoration in 1992. In a preliminary examination by John Hathorne, she was questioned, and Hathorne himself wrote out the record:

"Sarah Osburne, upon examination, denied the matter of fact, viz., that she ever understood or used any witchcraft, or hurt any of the abovesaid children. The children named above, being all personally present, accused her face to face; which, being done, they were all hurt, afflicted, and tortured very much; which, being over, and they out of their fits, they said that Sarah Osburne did then come to them, and hurt them, Sarah Osburne being then kept at a distance personally from them. Sarah Osburne was asked why she then hurt them. She denied it. It being asked of her how she could so pinch and hurt them, and yet she be at that distance personally from them, she answered she did not then hurt them, nor ever did. She was asked who, then, did it, or who she employed to do it. She answered she did not know that the Devil goes about in her likeness to do any hurt. Sarah Osburne, being told that Sarah Good, one of her companions, had, upon examination, accused her, she, notwithstanding, denied the same, according to her examination, which is more at large given in, as therein will appear."

Another witness, Ezekiel Cheever, wrote in a different form:

"Sarah Osburn her Examination"

"What evil spirit have you familiarity with? - None.
Have you made no contract with the Devil? - No: I never saw the Devil in my life.
Why do you hurt these children? - I do not hurt them.
Who do you employ, then, to hurt them? - I employ nobody.
What familiarity have you with Sarah Good? - None: I have not seen her these two years.
Where did you see here then? - One day, agoing to town.
What communications had you with her? - I had none, only 'How do you do' or so. I do not know her by name.
What did you call her then? (Osburn made a stand at that; at last, said she called her Sarah.)...
(It was said by some at the meeting-house, that she had said that she would never believe that lying spirit any more.)
What lying spirit is this? Hath the Devil ever decieved you, and been false to you? - I do not know the Devil. I never did see him...
Why did you yield thus far to the Devil as never to go to meeting since? - Alas! I have been sick, and not able to go.
Her husband and others said that she had not been at meeting three years and two months."

Apparently, Sarah Good had not really accused Sarah, and the repeated assertion that she had was a prosecutor's trick. But Tituba accused her directly, of flying on a broomstick, and:

"Did you ever see the Devil? - The Devil came to me, and bid me serve him.
Who have you seen? - Four women sometimes hurt the children.
Who were they? - Goody Osburn and Sarah Good, and I do not know who the others were. Sarah Good and Osburn wouldhave me hurt the children, but I would not."

There was little chance that her case would be dismissed, and she was imprisoned awaiting a full trial. As with others early accused, she was kept in the Boston jail. Far from family and already in failing health, she died awaiting trial on May 10, 1692, before the summer of hysteria had reached its peak.

If you visit the memorials and museums of Salem today (or the actual site of Danvers, formerly Salem Village) you will find very few references to Sarah Osbourne. She wasn't hung, or pressed, or otherwise executed in a formal way. Had she been a bit healthier, she might have been. But even as it was, dying alone in a cell, with no one to believe you, having not been to church in a very long time and probably wondering about the state of her soul yourself, must have been a very painful way to die.

But she is far from forgotten. Go ahead.... google "Sarah Osbourne" and "witch"...


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