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BY ROBIN FARMER
The True Legal Horror Story of the Salem Witch Trials
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

More than 300 years ago, twenty people were put to death for the “crime” of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. The most horrific part? The Salem Witch Trials happened under the auspices of “the law.”

To understand and commemorate this dark period in our country’s legal history, we’re looking back at the court proceedings and laws during the Salem Witch Trials and their impact on the American legal system.

From Hocus Pocus to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it’s clear that people love witches. In fact, witches are the most popular adult Halloween costume year after year. But those frivolous and fanciful witches we know today—cackling in black garb and pointy hats with broomstick in hand—have evolved a great deal over the past several centuries.

More than 300 years ago, it was a felony to practice witchcraft in the American colonies, defined by English law as acting with magical powers bestowed by the Devil. But it wasn’t until legal failings, mass paranoia, and Puritan religious and societal rules converged against a backdrop of economic and political uncertainty that the most horrifying witch-hunt against innocent people occurred in Colonial Massachusetts. 

During the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft. Twenty of those people were executed, most by hanging. One man was pressed to death under heavy stones, the only such state-sanctioned execution of its kind. Dozens suffered under inhumane conditions as they waited in jail for months without trials; many of the imprisoned were also tortured, and at least one died in jail before the hysteria abated in 1693.

So much of the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials comes down to the failure of the court and the laws during that time: Laws that made such things as visions, dreams, and even the testimony of spirits permissible evidence. And a court that accepted accusations so flimsy they would seem laughable today if they weren’t so horrifyingly unjust…

Accusations Spread

The Salem Witch Trials occurred just as Europe’s “witchcraft craze’’ from the 14th to 17th centuries was winding down, where an estimated tens of thousands of European witches, mostly women, were executed. 

The chilling mayhem unfolded during the winter of 1692 in Salem Village, now the town of Danvers, Massachusetts, when three girls allegedly having strange visions and fits were “diagnosed” with bewitchment by a doctor.

“Many modern theories suggest the girls were suffering from epilepsy, boredom, child abuse, mental illness, or even a disease brought on by eating rye infected with fungus,” according to The History of Massachusetts blog. Sheer vindictiveness is now considered a plausible explanation as well.

The girls blamed their odd behavior on three women considered social outcasts, including Tituba, a slave, whose confession may have been coerced. Soon a wave of witchcraft allegations throughout the year swept up more than 200 accused witches, including at least one child.

Local magistrates questioned the accused and determined whether any charges were to be brought against them. As paranoia spread, residents of Salem soon found themselves facing accusations from friends, neighbors, and families.

“Bearing false witness and committing perjury were considered felonies in Salem; under normal conditions, those convicted of such charges were prosecuted in public forums. During the witch trials, however, individuals convicted of perjury could save themselves from public humiliation by accusing their neighbors,” according to the First Amendment Encyclopedia.

The Puritans believed physical realities had spiritual causes. For example, if the crops failed, the Devil may have played a role. With this worldview, it was not a stretch for them to accept 'spectral evidence' of spirits and visions—which was the primary evidence used as proof of guilt during the Salem Witch Trials.

Evidence points to several factors that may have contributed to the mass hysteria: “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 seaport of Salem Town, and the simmering tensions between leading families in the community created the perfect storm of suspicion and resentment.” Many historians believe the “witches” were also victims of scapegoating, personal vendettas, and social mores against outspoken, strong women.

Of course, underpinning it all was the Puritans’ deeply held and extraordinarily influential religious beliefs—which were also central to their legal system.

Early Witchcraft Laws

The so-called Witchcraft Act of 1604 served as the primary English law for witchcraft, deeming it a felony. A witch convicted of a minor offense could be imprisoned for a year; a witch found guilty twice was sentenced to death.

In 1641, the General Court, the legislative body of the colony of the Massachusetts Bay, wrote the Body of Libertiesthe first legal code established in New England. This collection of civil and criminal laws and rights included witchcraft among its capital offenses. Citing Biblical sources for its authority, it stated: “If any man or woman be a witch that is, hath, or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death. Exod, 22. 188; Deut. 13.6, 10; Deut. 17. 2, 6.”

In practice, few witches were executed in Colonial America prior to the Salem Witch Trials. In the English tradition, clear and convincing proof of a crime was needed for a conviction. Confessions, especially with other evidence and testimony of at least two trustworthy people, constituted the best proof.

Though the Salem Witch Trials predated the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights protections by almost a century, legal scholars say the accused witches were largely “deprived of the rights to which they should have been entitled under English common law.”

Changes in the American Legal System

During the epidemic of witchcraft accusations in Salem, the legal process changed. The trials followed the temporary suspension of the Colony Charter due to political and religious tension between the colony and England. A new governor and a new charter from England arrived in 1692, but the General Court did not have enough time to create any laws.

On May 27, 1692, Governor William Phips ordered the establishment of a Special Court known as the Court of Oyer and Terminer (which translate to “to hear” and “to determine,” respectively) to decide the cases. Without specific colony laws, the judges accepted “spectral evidence,” which included testimony about dreams and visions. 

The Puritans believed that physical realities had spiritual causes. For example, if the crop failed, the Devil may have played a role—and Satan could not take the form of an unwilling person. So if anyone claimed to have seen a ghost or spirit in the form of the accused, that person must be a witch. With this worldview, it was not a stretch for Puritans to believe in spectral evidence, which was the primary evidence used as proof of guilt.

In October, Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, denounced the use of spectral evidence: “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned,” he said. Not long after, Governor Phips dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. 

In January 1693, the newly created Superior Court of Judicature began hearing the remaining witch trials. The judges could not accept spectral evidence and most of the remaining trials ended in acquittal. Phips pardoned the rest.

Enduring Lessons

In 1957, Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692: “The General Court of Massachusetts declares its belief that such proceedings, even if lawful under the Province Charter and the law of Massachusetts as it then was, were and are shocking, and the result of a wave of popular hysterical fear of the Devil in the community…” The Massachusetts state legislature was still exonerating accused witches as recently as the early 2000s.

Today, the Salem Witch Trials continue to capture popular imagination. Less than 20 miles from Boston, Salem has turned its dark history into a thriving tourism industry, with witchcraft-themed shops, eateries, tours, and several museums. 

The town commemorates the tragedy of that era with the Salem Witch Trial Memorial and has preserved many buildings and other historic sites associated with the trials, so future generations—and jurists—can learn how mass hysteria can lead to mass injustice.

Robin Farmer is a professional writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Learn more about the (much less scintillating) history of New England Law | Boston here.