Taking a Chapter from The Salem Witch TrialsFebruary 25, 2011 Marina Y Sanchez Freelance Columnist
The Salem witch trials were a series of hearings before county court trials to prosecute people accused of witchcraft in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex in colonial Massachusetts, between February 1692 and May 1693.
Hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned. Many of these were hung.
Why did this travesty of justice occur? Why did it occur in Salem? Nothing about this tragedy was inevitable. Only an unfortunate combination of an ongoing frontier war, economic conditions, congregational strife, teenage boredom, and personal jealousies can account for the spiraling accusations, trials, and executions that occurred in the spring and summer of 1692
When a prominent figure in the village daughter became strangely ill with no explanation. She dashed about, dove under furniture, contorted in pain, and complained of fever.
At the time, however, there was another theory to explain the girls’ symptoms. Cotton Mather had recently published a popular book, “Memorable Providences,” describing the suspected witchcraft of an Irish washerwoman in Boston, and Betty’s behavior in some ways mirrored that of the afflicted person described in Mather’s widely read and discussed book. It was easy to believe in 1692 in Salem, with an Indian war raging less than seventy miles away (and many refugees from the war in the area) that the devil was close at hand. Sudden and violent death occupied minds.
Talk of witchcraft increased when the playmates of the child began to exhibit similar unusual behavior. So when a doctor was called to examine the girls, he suggested that the girls’ problems might be a supernatural origin. The widespread belief that witches targeted children made the doctor’s diagnosis seem increasing likely.
The number of girls afflicted continued to grow, rising to seven. According to historian Peter Hoffer, the girls “turned themselves from a circle of friends into a gang of juvenile delinquents.” The girls contorted into grotesque poses, fell down into frozen postures, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. In a village where everyone believed that the devil was real, close at hand, and acted in the real world, the suspected affliction of the girls became an obsession.
The first accusations were put on a slave girl from Barbados, a social misfit that was a beggar, and another who was old, quarrelsome, and had not attended church for over a year.
At the examinations of the first accused, the young girls described attacks by the spirits of the three, and fell into their by then perfected pattern of contortions when in the presence of one of the suspects. Other villagers came forward to offer stories of cheese and butter mysteriously gone bad or animals born with deformities after visits by one of the suspects.The magistrates, in the common practice of the time, asked the same questions of each suspect over and over: Were they witches? Had they seen Satan? How, if they are were not witches, did they explain the contortions seemingly caused by their presence? The style and form of the questions indicates that the magistrates thought the women guilty.
Soon, according to their own reports, spirit forms of other women began attacking the afflicted girls. Women and children were being accused of practicing witch craft. And after sentencing, being stuck in jail with the damning testimony of the afflicted girls widely accepted, suspects began to see confession as a way to avoid hanging.
Jails approached capacity and the colony “teetered on the brink of chaos” when Governor Phips returned from England. Fast action, he decided, was required. Phips created a new court to hear the witchcraft cases. Five judges were appointed to the court. The judges were to credit confessions and admit “spectral evidence” (testimony by afflicted persons that they had been visited by a suspect’s specter). The judges also decided to allow the so-called “touching test” (defendants were asked to touch afflicted persons to see if their touch, as was generally assumed of the touch of witches, would stop their contortions) and examination of the bodies of accused for evidence of “witches’ marks”.
The accused witches had no legal counsel, could not have witnesses testify under oath on their behalf, and had no formal avenues of appeal. Defendants could, however, speak for themselves, produce evidence, and cross-examine their accusers.
However when one was accuses, they would admit to it and claim to blame another villager and their “witch” influence on them.
Persons who scoffed at accusations of witchcraft risked becoming targets of accusations themselves. One man who was openly critical of the trials paid for his skepticism with his life. John Proctor, a central figure in Arthur Miller’s fictionalized account of the Salem witch-hunt, The Crucible, was an opinionated tavern owner who openly denounced the witch-hunt. He thus became a target and accusations were brought upon Proctor. Proctor fought back, accusing confessed witches of lying, complaining of torture, and demanding that his trial be moved to Boston. The efforts proved futile. Proctor was hanged. His wife Elizabeth, who was also convicted of witchcraft, was spared execution because of her pregnancy (reprieved “for the belly”).
By early autumn of 1692, Salem’s lust for blood was ebbing. Doubts were developing as to how so many respectable people could be guilty. The educated elite of the colony began efforts to end the witch-hunting hysteria that had enveloped Salem. This came about when ones that were considered devout Christians and then accused of witch craft would not plead guilty and stayed steadfast to the truth of not being witches.
By the time the witch-hunt ended, nineteen convicted witches were executed (LINK TO LIST OF DEAD), at least four accused witches had died in prison. About one to two hundred other persons were arrested and imprisoned on witchcraft charges. Two dogs were executed as suspected accomplices of witches.
After years of reviewing the cases involved, it was determined that most of the accused lived to the south of, and were generally better off financially, than most of the accusers. In a number of cases, accusing families stood to gain property from the convictions of accused witches. Also, the accused and the accusers generally took opposite sides in a congregational schism that had split the Salem community before the outbreak of hysteria.
The witches disappeared, but witchhunting in America did not. Each generation must learn the lessons of history or risk repeating its mistakes. Salem should warn us to think hard about how to best safeguard and improve our system of justice.