People were accused and executed for witchcraft throughout the colonies during the seventeenth century, but especially in Massachusetts. Today dressing in a witch's costume on Halloween is a way to make merry. But in the 17th-century Massachusetts Bay Colony, Puritans, who followed strict religious rules in their daily lives, lived in a pre-science era. Witches were real, and their doings explained what could not be otherwise explained. In the years preceding the Salem witchcraft trials Puritans ministers warned from the pulpit about demonic possessions and visits from Satan. Everyday reality mingled with an invisible world inhabited by these spirits, and religious values permeated every aspect of society. Satan was said to appear as a “black rogue,” or an Indian or an animal called a witch's familiar. For the Puritans, the devil and his witches affected the world in very serious ways.
Within a four-month trial period in the spring of 1692, 156 people from 24 Massachusetts villages were prosecuted as witches. Nineteen were hanged and one was pressed to death after refusing to confess. The trials began and were concentrated in Salem town. The evidence presented in the Salem witchcraft trials included confessions under torture, supposed eyewitness testimony, and physical inspections of the accused for moles and other blemishes, said to be marks of the devil. However, the scarcity of eyewitnesses and direct physical evidence made proving witchcraft difficult, and the most damning proof came from the admission of spectral evidence based on visions of the accusers.
Specters or spirits were visible to alleged victims of witchcraft, but only to the victims. The accusers, all young girls, alleged that some Salem residents had contracted with the devil and afflicted them. "The afflicted," as they were called, testified that a specter or ghostly apparition of the accused had appeared in the shape and likeness of the accused and tormented them. Since Puritans believed that the physical body of a witch could appear in one place while the witch's specter was in another, and since the devil could not assume the specter of an innocent person, the accused witch had no defense against this kind of proof.
Judge Samuel Sewall, a judge at the trials, is said to have reported the death of Giles Corey in this way: "About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press'd to death for standing mute."
I will not plead
If I deny, I am condemned already,
In courts where ghosts appear as witnesses
And swear men's lives away. If I confess,
Then I confess a lie, to buy a life,
Which is not life, but only death in life.
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A defendant who confessed and named other witches was allowed to live. And so, the accusations spread. For over seven months the jails filled with more and more accused. By September the witch hunt was slowing as respected citizens were executed, and the well-connected, including the wife of Massachusetts Governor William Phips, were accused of witchcraft. The educated elite of Boston began questioning the reliability of specter evidence. In October Harvard President Cotton Mather delivered a sermon to clergymen titled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men. Speaking of spectral evidence Mather said "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than one innocent person be condemned."
The use of spectral evidence in the Salem trials has drawn the attention of scholars interested in how evidentiary standards have evolved over time and in the use of expert testimony, as well as the attention of social scientists interested in crowd memory and mass hysteria. The Salem trials were conducted by lay magistrates with no legal training. Guilt was assumed. If a guilty verdict was not delivered, the jury was instructed to reconsider – and a guilty verdict would be forthcoming.
By the time of the Salem witchcraft trials, witches were no longer hanged in England. Nevertheless, magistrates in Salem found precedent for the admission of spectral evidence in the writings of Sir Matthew Hale, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Thirty years before the Salem trials, Hale presided at a 1662 witchcraft trial in Bury St. Edmonds, England, and his record of the trial, A Tryal of Witches at the Assizes, was cited by Massachusetts magistrates as a model for allowing spectrum evidence in the Salem trials. At the same time magistrates did look for other kinds of evidence, and the court did follow set courtroom procedures. In Judge Sewall's Apology, a biography of the only one of the nine witch trial judges to apologize for harm to innocent victims, Sewall is noted as explaining that the specter of the defendant would attack the accusers during the preliminary examination in front of those at the hearing, thereby guaranteeing the two witnesses required for a guilty verdict at trial.
Historians today have several explanations for the hysterical outbreak in 1692 Salem including class conflict in the Salem congregation, and the First and Second Indian Wars on the frontier of the New England settlement. Many of the accused were women from the "lower classes," and several scholars have suggested that charges of witchcraft were a way to control women who threatened the existing economic and social orders.
Probably the best known twentieth-century dramatization of the trials is Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible, which Miller is said to have written as an allegory of McCarthyism, when the excesses of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations blacklisted accused communists. Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture is one of many books in the Duke libraries that examines McCarthy and his witch hunting crusade. At least one writer has suggested that the Salem witchcraft trials have "disquieting the resonances in a post-9/11 world of extraordinary rendition and practices such as waterboarding."
Stop by the Riddick Room display cabinet on the main floor of the Goodson Law Library to learn more about the Salem witch trials and their English precedent.
--Marguerite Most, Reference Librarian and Senior Lecturing Fellow