Unlike the failed justice in these famous 17th century trials, there is no imperfect justice with God.
by Colin D. Standish and Michelle LaMar
In the bitter month of February 1692, mass hysteria, superstition, and greed plunged the strict Puritan village of Salem, Massachusetts, into a frenzy that would become one of the most shocking travesties of justice the New World has ever seen.
It all seems to have started when Reverend Parris’ East Indian slave, Tituba, began entertaining Abigail Williams and Betty Parris (the minister’s young niece and daughter) with exciting tales of voodoo and magic during the long New England winter. Soon their friends joined in the forbidden diversion, even taking part in simple “spells.” Around this time, Abigail and Betty began exhibiting strange behaviors—they convulsed, contorted their bodies into unnatural shapes, barked like dogs, hid under furniture, and fell into trances. The local doctor could find nothing wrong with them and suggested that the girls were “bewitched.”1
The Puritans believed that witches could “send out” their spirit or “spectre” to torment others, in an attempt to coerce them to join the devil’s side. More girls (mostly from the group that had been Tituba’s audience) began exhibiting similar symptoms of being “afflicted.” Encouraged to name the “witches” that were tormenting them, they pointed the finger at Tituba and a couple of local outcasts who were unaware of the girls’ activities—Sarah Goode and Sarah Osbourne. Soon the accusations were increasing almost daily (ultimately almost 200 would be accused).2
The motive for the accusations is unclear, but it is thought that perhaps the girls were afraid of getting in trouble for their dalliance with the “dark arts,” and eagerly cast the blame on others, or perhaps they were honestly deluded. Others have suggested that the low social status of unmarried women meant that these girls would be attracted to the attention and power they were now receiving as “God’s Fingers”—lauded by their village as a crucial means of discovering where Satan hid among them. Whatever the reason, the accusations were serious: witchcraft was seen as a crime against the Church and the State, punishable by hanging. A special court—the Court of Oyer and Terminer—was convened to examine Good, Osborne, Tituba, and the fast-growing number of accused witches.3
The chaotic trials that followed would be considered a farce by today’s standards. The accused were guilty until proven innocent (which was nearly impossible). Additionally—despite much controversy—“spectral evidence” was allowed in court. This meant that if one of the girls claimed or acted as if she were being tormented by a witch’s spectre, it was considered evidence in court. The “afflicted” girls had fits during court, especially when an accused person claimed innocence. In unison they would mimic every movement and word of the accused as if forced to do so, cry out that some unseen person or bird was with the accused, or they would faint. More than once the jury found an accused person innocent, but the girls’ resulting uproar forced them to re-consider and condemn.3 This spectral evidence was the foundation on which people were condemned to die.4
Any who voiced skepticism about the girls’ “affliction” or the trials were almost sure to be soon accused themselves. Others accused were wealthy landowners, and once accused of witchcraft, their land was forfeited to the government, available for purchase. Historians now suggest that grudges, greed, and politics were motivating factors behind many of the accusations, and that some parents may have even incited their children to accuse specific people for their own benefit or retaliation.5
If an accused person confessed—as Tituba and many others quickly did—they were seen as penitent and received leniency, whereas asserting innocence was seen as being still under Satan’s control. Those who maintained their innocence were the ones executed. Many confessed to save their lives and in turn accused others (as they were strongly urged to do). These confessions confirmed in the people’s minds that there were witches among them, and that the trials were justified.6
The trials continued almost a year. Skepticism finally started to grow when the girls began accusing powerful people who were not seen as likely to be witches, and more of the accused refused to save themselves with false confessions. Some recited the Lord’s Prayer perfectly at their execution, something a witch was supposedly unable to do, also fueling the growing doubt.7
In January 1693, a new court was convened that did not allow spectral evidence, and the trials quickly ended. The rest of the accused were granted pardon. But 19 had already been hung. The 20th victim, Giles Corey, refused to plead innocent or guilty, knowing a trial could not proceed without a plea, and that his land would remain in his family. He was forced to lay on the ground with a board placed on top of him and weight was gradually added over a period of days in an effort to “squeeze a plea out of him.” He was ultimately crushed to death. Many more sat in decrepit jails for months and lost everything they owned.8
Eventually, the trials were seen as a mistake, and those who had been accused and even executed were understood to have been victims of a terrible injustice. Twelve of the men who had served as jurors in the trials signed a petition asking the “forgiveness of you all, whom we have justly offended.” A few years later, Anne Putnam, Jr., one of the most active accusers, stood before the church asking forgiveness for being deceived into accusing innocent people. She was the only “afflicted” person to apologize.9
To be continued…
1. Moss, K. David, The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2008.
Taken from Last Generation, Vol. 25 No. 3. Last Generation is a vibrant 32-page soul-winning magazine published six times a year. To subscribe, call (540) 672-1996, Ext. 283.