Saturday, October 24, 2009


It’s nearly Halloween, and this guide to the Salem Witch Trials (that we’re reprinting in two parts) certainly seems appropriate for the season!




Some persons (many of them ministers and other fairly well-educated persons) were uneasy about the types of evidence used to convict and condemn witches in trials held in New England during colonial days. Five main types of evidence were allowed in the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692, although use of any of these types of evidence was frought with difficulties:

1. Physical evidence, such as an effigy, image, or charm made and employed by a witch in an effort to cause harm to an intended victim.

· The acceptance of physical evidence presupposed that witches (and the Devil) existed, and that they were capable of causing harm to victims by magical means. Even in 1692, these were points that not everyone was willing to concede.

2. Examinations of the witch's unclothed body to uncover witch's marks (i.e., unusual, unnatural protuberances that could be used by the Devil to suck the person's blood and thus seal a deal between himself and that witch).

· The judges at Salem thought the witch's mark could be used by the Devil as a suckling point (the body's natural suckling points, being creations of God, were not fit for devil's work). It was known even then, however, that even god-fearing persons as they age can develop odd bodily protuberances, so such evidence was not normally of itself enough to convict a person of the crime of witchcraft.

3. Self-incrimination (a witch's confession, either voluntary or induced by torture).

· Self-incrimination also presented problems which were recognized even in 1692. There was always the danger that a mentally unbalanced person might confess to witchcraft simply to attract attention to him or herself. There was also a danger that a person might confess as a witch in order to commit a form of suicide (although no one at Salem who confessed to witchcraft was executed).

4. Accusation (self-incriminations often also involved the naming of fellow witches).

· Confessing witches often incriminated others (usually in an effort to curry favor with judges or secure better conditions of incarceration). However, since witches by definition were servants of Satan, the great deceiver, it seemed uncertain even in 1692 if their testimony could be trusted.

5. Spectral evidence (the testimony of the witch's intended victim that the witch's spectral body was the cause of his or her torment).

· Spectral evidence was the most problematic of the types of evidence allowed at Salem. It hinged on three wobbly assumptions: 1. that a witch could send (or allow Satan to send) a spectral double of him or herself to torment an intended victim; 2. that this spectral double could not be sent without the witch's consent; and 3. victims of spectral violence could both see their spectral tormentors and act as reliable witnesses to that torment. Once again, even contemporary observers had questions about the admissibility of spectral evidence. Two main problems troubled contemporary observers:

· A. Did the Devil really need a witch's consent to send a spectral double of that person (a witch is, after all, by definition a servant of Satan)? and

· B. Were afflicted persons (persons tormented by spectral doubles) reliable witnesses against their tormentors? After all, afflicted persons were obviously under great strain during episodes of spectral torment. Finally, it could be (and was) argued that afflicted persons were themselves under Satan's control, and thus not reliable witnesses.

A caution to the researcher: there is still no widespread agreement among historians as to the causes of the witch trials at Salem, and not even complete agreement as to whether all the persons (19) hanged as witches were innocent of the charges against them (that is, some of them apparently did practice on a regular basis what we would nowadays refer to as folk medicine). The careful researcher will need to consult a variety of sources before he or she makes a judgment about the proceedings at Salem.

Copyright © 2009 by St. Louis Public Library. All rights reserved.

Thomas Pearson
Special Collections Dept.
St. Louis Public Library

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