On this Day:
On April 22, 1692, Edward Bishop is jailed for proposing flogging as a cure for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts.
In January 1692 mass hysteria erupted in Salem Village, Massachusetts, when the specter of witchcraft was raised after several young girls became unaccountably ill. They claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft.
It began in January 1692 when 9-year-old Elizabeth (Betty) Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams (the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village) began having fits, including violent contortions and uncontrollable outbursts of screaming. After a local doctor, William Griggs, diagnosed bewitchment, other young girls in the community began to exhibit similar symptoms, including Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott and Mary Warren. In late February, arrest warrants were issued for the Parris’ Caribbean slave, Tituba, along with two other women–the homeless beggar Sarah Good and the poor, elderly Sarah Osborn–whom the girls accused of bewitching them.
During the ensuing chaos, many Puritan ministers quoted Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and encouraged their flocks to oust the evil in their midst. The hysteria only increased when noted Boston minister Cotton Mather joined in the fray. During the trials held in Salem town in Essex County, the accused were slandered with little recourse and denied rights that should have been granted under English common law.
More than 300 years later, the Salem witch trials testify to the way fear can ruin lives of innocent people and the importance of due process in protecting individuals against false accusations. With the Bill of Rights in place, interpretations of the First Amendment consistently ruled that slander and defamation were not protected by the Constitution.
Time Period Of The Salem Witch Trials
To understand the events of the Salem Witch Trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village families and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, combined with a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion.
Soon, prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem; their names had been “cried out” by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England – the practice of witchcraft.
It was virtually impossible to disprove charges of witchcraft in Salem, and defendants were convicted with no evidence other than personal accusations, the presence of a “devil’s mark” on their bodies, or because they failed one of the so-called “witch tests.” The courts accepted spectral evidence, that is, evidence based on otherwise invisible spirits that the accusers claimed to be able to see.
Historical Background of the Witch Trials
In June of 1692, the special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. Presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton, the court was made up of magistrates and jurors. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem who was found guilty and was hanged on June 10. Thirteen women and five men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October of that year.
The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the “witchcraft” court, did not allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem Witch Trials were over.
As years passed, apologies were offered and restitution was made to the victims’ families. Historians and sociologists have examined this most complex episode in our history so that we may understand the issues of that era and view subsequent events with heightened awareness. The parallels between the Salem Witch Trials and more modem examples of “witch hunting” like the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s, are remarkable.
First, a Story:
“He wondered at the atrocities human kind was capable of committing. The majority of those housed below were ill, mentally or physically, not witches. Most were poor victims–the outcasts of society; or the opposite, people so blessed, others coveted their lives.”
― Brynn Chapman, Where Bluebirds Fly
Second, a Song:
Reading Through History has produced a video providing a brief introduction to the Salem Witch Trials, including significant figures, potential causes, and outcomes of the event, courtesy of YouTube.com. I hope you enjoy this.
Thought for the Day:
“Deprived of my shackles, I was unable to find my balance and I tottered like a woman drunk on cheap liquor. I had to learn how to speak again, how to communicate with my fellow creatures, and no longer be content with a word here and there. I had to learn how to look them in the eyes again. I had to learn how to do my hair again now that it had become a tangle of untidy snakes hissing around my head. I had to rub ointments on my dry, cracked, skin, which had become like a badly tanned hide. Few people have the misfortune to be born twice.” ― Maryse Condé, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky