In this autumnal season, we Americans tend to reflect on our colonial past. Our favorite heart-warming legend is of course the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving — a story of generosity, community and gratitude that we continue to celebrate annually. However, there is another puritanical history that tends to haunt us in October: the Salem witch trials.

From 1692-1693 in colonial Massachusetts, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft by the government and 20 were executed for the crime. There are several circumstantial factors that contributed to the mass paranoia and tragic deaths. An influx of refugees from King William’s War with French colonists; a recent smallpox epidemic; the threat of attack from Native Americans; a growing rivalry with the neighboring sea port of Salem Town and the simmering tensions between leading families in the community created the perfect storm of suspicion and resentment among the residents of Salem Village. Whatever these various contributing causes, though, one thing is ultimately responsible for the unjust execution of innocents: a flawed justice system.

Spectral Evidence

Probably the most striking difference between the witch trials and modern legal proceedings is that the court accepted spectral evidence; in fact, most of the evidence against the accused was spectral. Spectral evidence is evidence based upon dreams and visions of the spiritual realm. In January of 1692, Reverend Parris’s daughter Elizabeth (age 9) and niece Abigail Williams (age 11) began having fits. Their bodies contracted and convulsed; they screamed, threw objects and hallucinated. Whether these fits were contrived out of boredom or vindictiveness or were the symptoms of some undetermined illness, the local doctor and the village at large soon had a diagnosis: these girls were the victims of witchcraft.

The Puritans of the time believed that physical realities had spiritual causes. If a farmer experienced a bountiful harvest, it was because God had blessed him. If, however, the crop failed, either God had abandoned him as a sinner, or the Devil (and the Devil’s servants) had interfered. Because of this worldview, witchcraft was not a stretch for the people of Salem Village.  Eventually several others, mostly young girls, claimed to be suffering from the same supernatural ailments. When those accused of witchcraft were tried in various courts, they could be convicted based on purely spectral conjecture. If a supposed witch touched a convulsing victim and the victim claimed that their symptoms were suddenly gone, the accused was found guilty and likely executed. These Puritans took “shaky evidence” to a whole new level.

Local Magistrates

Starting in March of 1692, the accused were brought before local magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin. Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth also attended several of the hearings. Hathorne and Corwin interrogated the accused, relied heavily on spectral evidence from the accusers and often pressured the alleged witches into confessing guilt and naming others. From March to May, these magistrates examined dozens of accused witches and sent most to jail. However, at this point, the proceedings were merely investigative and no one was executed.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer

In May, Governor William Phips established a Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide). The court consisted of William Stoughton as Chief Magistrate, Thomas Newton as the prosecuting attorney, Stephen Sewell as clerk (an early court reporter!), several other appointed judges and a grand jury. The accused had no defense attorneys but were able to call upon witnesses. The court relied heavily on spectral evidence and on the finding of the local magistrates’ investigations. On June 10, Bridget Bishop became the first person to be executed for witchcraft on what would later be known as Gallows Hill. Eighteen more people were hanged; seven of the accused died in jail and one elderly man was pressed to death by stones under the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

Superior Court of Judicature

Cotton Mather, a respected minister, and Increase Mather, Cotton’s father and president of Harvard College, condemned the use of spectral evidence in these trials and argued: “It would be better that ten suspected witches may escape than one innocent person be condemned.” In response to the Mathers’ pleas (and probably also to his own wife being accused of witchcraft) Phips prohibited further arrests, released many from jail and dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer in October. He replaced it in January of 1693 with a Superior Court of Judicature with William Stoughton as Chief Justice, Anthony Checkley as Attorney General and Jonathan Elatson as Clerk of the Court (another proto-court reporter!).

In this court, spectral evidence was disallowed and only 3 out of 56 were found guilty by grand juries. In May of 1693, Phips pardoned all accused of witchcraft. By 1711 the trials were determined unlawful, the victims were exonerated and the families were paid restitution. However, the damage was done.

It is tempting to dismiss this unhappy time in our history as a flaw of antiquated law, a failing of the puritanical local government and culture. However, it is worth pointing out that a similar incident occurred in the U.S. relatively recently: the McCarthyism paranoia of the 1950’s. Also, as remote as the Salem witch trials and even McCarthyism seem now, it is important to remember no legal system is perfect. Our justice system is a living, breathing organism open to interpretation and manipulation, and it does not look too terribly different from the Salem courts. We must learn from the horrors of the past and continually evaluate our legal processes to ensure that the innocent go free and the guilty are taken to justice. Our generation is not immune from the potential threat of mass hysteria and legal failings; we must guard against it. Spooky to think about…

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