Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Those Were Hanging Times": Witchcraft on Display

[The following guest post was written by Goodson Law Library Reference Intern Kate Dickson, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Information & Library Science.]

In honor of Halloween, the books currently on display in the Goodson Law Library's Riddick Rare Book & Special Collections Room all focus, in one way or another, on the topic of witch trials. The first word that normally comes to mind at the mention of witch trials is "Salem," and the library has a number of interesting sources related to this topic. For example, the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, which is on display in facsimile, listed twelve crimes carrying the death penalty. The second of these—which was listed even before premeditated murder--provided:
If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death.
The provision remained in subsequent versions of the Body of Liberties, but was later disallowed by the crown.

A 1692 Massachusetts law entitled An Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits can also be viewed in the display. Section 1 of the Act provided a detailed description of what actions constituted witchcraft, and Section 2, interestingly, provided definition and punishment for a crime that might today be described as "attempted witchcraft":
[I]f any person or persons shall [attempt witchcraft], although the same be not effected and done, that then all and every such person and persons so offending, and being thereof lawfully convicted, shall for the said offence suffer imprisonment by the space of one whole year, without bail or mainprize, and once in every quarter of the said year shall in some shire town stand openly upon the pillory by the space of six hours, and there shall openly confess his or her error and offence, which said offence shall be written in capital letters and placed upon the breast of said offender.
The Act remained in effect until 1695, when it was disallowed for being inconsistent with a statute of King James.

The witch trails in Salem and surrounding towns, which took place in 1691/2-1693, resulted in the executions of at least twenty people, the first of whom was Bridget Bishop. An image of the original warrant for her execution can be seen in the library. It instructs the sheriff to convey her from jail to the place of execution and hang her, and warns that "hereof you are not to faile at your peril."

While the Salem witch trials are certainly the most famous in the United States, they were not the only ones occurring around the same time. In fact, they were predated by similar trials in England, which are described rather humorously in another book on display at the library, The Law’s Lumber Room by Francis Wyatt, published in 1898. He notes in the preface that:
There is a great deal of hanging in this book; that is only because those were hanging times. The law had no thought of mending the criminal; it ended him in the most summary fashion. The death of the chief actors was as inevitably the finish of the story as it is in a modern French novel.
In 1735, the British Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being was guilty of practicing witchcraft, thus ending the period during which witchcraft laws were based on a genuine belief in witches. In 1944, Scottish medium Victoria Helen McCrae Duncan, known as "Hellish Nell," was the last person convicted under this law of fraudulent witchcraft, for conducting séances in her home. On hearing the news of her trial, Winston Churchill sent this directive to the Home Secretary:
Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost of the trial to the state, observing that witnesses were brought from Portsmouth and maintained here in this crowded London for a fortnight, and the Recorder kept busy with all this obsolete tomfoolery.
An interesting book on the topic of Hellish Nell, The Strange Case of Hellish Nell: The Story of Helen Duncan and the Witch Trial of World War II, is on display at the library.

Come by the Riddick Room on Level 3 of the library to see these and many other books on witch trials. Happy Halloween!

--Kate Dickson, Reference Intern

1 comment:

Marguerite said...

Thanks for a fascinating story and display! Happy Halloween!