With Halloween right around the corner, now is the time to start thinking about some spooky bit of legal history—the Salem witch trials. It all began in 1692 when a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, began having fits and claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused others in the village of witchcraft. In the early 1600s the idea of witches and witchcraft granted by the devil was a long standing belief in Europe from as early as the 14th century. This made it easy for people to believe, especially with the harsh conditions the colonists lived in. They were often distrustful of their neighbors and other outsiders.
This first case sparked panic within the colony and a special court was created for witch trials. Clearly, the Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) did not use the best of legal practices. They tended to rely on spectral evidence (testimony about dreams and visions) rather than physical evidence. Bridget Bishop was the first of nineteen victims to be accused and hanged for witchcraft. Nearly 150 men and women were accused and put on trial over a period of a few months. These trials devastated many families within the colony and quickly fell out of favor with the colonists. In addition to the nineteen that were hanged, seven people died in jail and the husband of one of the accused (Giles Corey) was pressed to death by stones after refusing to enter a plea at his arraignment.
There were a number of different tests that the court would do to determine if someone was a witch or not. The most famous of these is the swimming test that consists of binding the person and throwing them into a body of water. It was believed that if they were a witch the water would reject them and they would float and if they were not they would sink. They would tie a rope around the person and pull them out if they sank—though accidental drownings did occur quite regularly. Another popular test was to have them recite a prayer and if they did so incorrectly it was taken as proof that they were a witch. The problems with this test are obvious, if the person was illiterate or nervous their mistakes were still taken as proof. Public speaking is hard enough without the threat of execution hanging over you.
Once the trials were cast in a negative light they slowed down quite a bit. Colonists realized the danger of these trials and how many innocents were being sentenced to death. By 1693 the trials were dwindling in intensity and all those accused had been pardoned and released from prison. Finally in 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the victims of the Salem witch trials and they were later deemed unlawful. Eventually the Massachusetts Colony restored the good names of those convicted and provided financial restitution to their remaining family in 1711. The legacy lives on in Salem, Massachusetts where the town has become a tourist location with museums and other attractions. It’s a part of history that should not be forgotten easily and highlights the importance of our legal system today.