A horrible incident of foul gossip in 1692 resulted in twenty people being executed and more than two hundred people being accused of witchcraft, before common sense eventually prevailed the following year in 1693. In one of the most bizarre incidents in American history, the Salem Witch trials would become synonymous with what happens when mass hysteria and paranoia shape decisions of the courts. It is also the best example of why spectral evidence and the absurd claims of ‘affliction by supernatural forces’ should be excluded from court proceedings and how easily in can lead to injustice.
The initial events grew out of pointing fingers and innuendo around claims of witchcraft being practiced in Salem. When a number of young girls became strangely ill in February 1692 with fever and aches and pains, it easily could have been put down to the flu. Unfortunately with this strange development came violent screaming and uncontrollable fits where the girls contorted their bodies into peculiar positions and even crawled under furniture. To make matters worse they were heard uttering strange sounds and complained about being pinched or pricked with pins. In an attempt to explain this bizarre behavior and after finding no sensible medical explanation, a local doctor who had examined the girls blamed the supernatural, in particular witchcraft. (In the late seventeenth century, Salem was a place that easily believed in the evils of the world. Salem’s church leaders played an integral part in making sure people placed their piety ahead of wrongdoing to prevent their eternal damnation.) Under pressure to explain their strange behavior (probably fearing being called witches themselves), the girls blamed three women for afflicting them. So began one the most infamous witch hunts and trials of all time.
The first three women to face charges of witchcraft were Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. They were seen as outcasts in the community, which made them easy targets for people in Salem to spread rumours about them being witches. But Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, vigorously denied being witches. However, Tituba declared that the devil had indeed come to her and bid her to serve him. Why she confessed this to the court is up for debate. It is believed she did it to avoid being further beaten and avoid the ordeal of going to trial. But in admitting to being a witch she damned all three to jail.
In the months that followed others were arrested for witchcraft unrelated to the afflictions of the young girls in Salem. A firestorm of paranoia and mass hysteria spread throughout Salem with accusing fingers pointing everywhere. No one it seemed was above suspicion, not even the most religious folk. When a loyal churchgoer in Salem by the name of Martha Corey was charged with witchcraft, people began to panic. The assumption was made that if she could possibly be singled out as being a witch, then anyone in Salem could too.
Examination of a Witch (1853) is a historic painting by T.H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials.
As more complaints of witchcraft were reported to the authorities, dozens of people from Salem and the surrounding areas were brought in for questioning. Many of those who were accused were simply unable to defend themselves given the biased nature of those in charge. Authorities would allow an array of evidence, such as hearsay, foul gossip and other unsupported assertions such as dreams and visions to help build a case for a guilty verdict, that in a court of law today would be excluded without a second thought. A weak or timid defense by those on trial, given what was at stake, was also almost definitely a one-way ticket to being hanged. Even when an accused woman by the name of Rebecca Nurse, had presented a sufficient enough defence to return a not guilty verdict, the presiding judge in the Nurse trial decided to reconvene the jury to reconsider the facts again. To many people’s surprise, except the judges, the jury came back out with a new verdict of guilty.
In a famous incident at around about the time the witchcraft trials were being conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the respected minister Cotton Mather cautioned the court to tread carefully with each case, but in doing so failed to denounce the use of spectral evidence- testimony that involved dreams or visions, which was one of the most single contentious issues of the trials. This, of course, meant that with his initial pleas of caution largely overlooked, the court could use any evidence it saw fit and the summer and early autumn of 1692 turned into a frenzy of executions carried out on Gallows Hill. In all nineteen people were hanged, and an elderly old man was crushed to death with heavy stones.
It seemed for a while that there would be no end to the trials until the respected educator and then president of Harvard College, Increase Mather (the father of Cotton Mather), begged the court that there was no place for testimony that involved dreams or visions. He went on to record in a publication concerning the trials that “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.”
In response to Increase Mather’s appeal, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay, William Phipps, finally put an end to the stormy proceedings by suspending the trials, and releasing all the people charged with witchcraft by May 1693. One has to be a little cynical and wonder whether or not he would have suspended the trials if his own wife had not been questioned for witchcraft?
There is so much more that we can say about what followed the trials. In a nutshell though, many of those involved openly apologised for what they had done and sincerely showed great remorse. The rights and good names of those accused would also be restored. In time, the Massachusett courts would also declare the Salem witch trials as unlawful in 1702. It was bravely admitting that its biggest mistake was that it failed dismally to protect the accused by allowing evidence that no court of law today would ever consider. Even more outrageous was the fact that the accused were not allowed to have legal counsel. In time, in our world, Salem would become a symbol of an old medieval world that had gone mad; and that if we are to take anything from the tragedy, it is that we have since learnt to safeguard and improve our legal system.
I originally wrote this article for Sean Munger’s website. You can view it here.