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Salem Witch Trials a Mysterious Horrific Events in America

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From February 1692 to May 1693, the town of Salem in Great Britain’s Massachusetts Bay Colony was plagued with the concept of suspected witchcraft and devil interference in a town where settlers had deemed to be a peaceful place to worship God and practice the ways of pure Christianity, free from the persecution that would result if such actions were performed across the Atlantic ocean. For sixteen months, hundreds of men and women were accused of being associated with witchcraft; possessing townsfolk and cursing individuals who would not take the time of day to supposedly perform God’s work to those who needed it most. Such an event in American History is arguably the biggest influence to modern court trials, as it brought to light the importance of substantial evidence required for a justified sentence to be declared upon an individual.

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The first historical evidence of the use of witchcraft is found in the Christian Bible in the book 1 Samuel, supposedly written between 931 and 721 B.C.E. The book reads that Saul, King of Israel, requested the assistance of a witch to conjure the spirit of the late prophet Samuel to protect the Israeli army and help them defeat the opposing Philistinian army. When the spirit of Samuel was summoned, he prophesied that both Saul and his son’s would die in the near future. The following day, during battle with the Philistines, all four of his sons were killed. Out of greif, King Saul took a soldier’s sword and stabbed himself in the chest, committing suicide. (1 Samuel 28-31:1-25, 1-11, 1-31, 1-13)

Although the evidence proves that the use of witchcraft occurs much sooner, the idea of it didn’t become popular until the 14th century in England, and didn’t become a disinterest until the 17th century. Despite the fact that it was no longer a topic of interest, the strange concept made its way into British territories that were colonized such as the United States and other parts of Europe. Countries like Germany, France, and Sweden all had similarly structured trials to that of the ones in Salem. It was the Puritans who had brought witchcraft to the American colonies, though, most likely from both the culture it had stirred up in the mother country and the presence it had in the Bible.

Puritans were dubbed as such due to their desire to break away from the corrupted Church of England and purify Christianity as a whole and worship it free of persecution. In 1626, a group of Puritans led by Roger Conant founded the town of Salem in Massachusetts. 65 years after its founding, in 1691, the town split up into what was considered to be Salem Town and Salem Village. Salem Town was along the coast and was a prosperous trading center with London, and consisted of upper-class men with higher incomes and their families. Salem Village, which was technically still a part of Salem Town, consisted of farmers and lower income families. 

Salem village itself was divided as well, with blacksmiths and carpenters residing on the side of town closest to Salem Town (although there was a three-hour walk between the two). Although the time Salem split and the reason why are unknown, it can be inferred that it occurred before the 1670s, because in 1672, Salem Village requested a church to be built in their part of the town, which signified total independence from Salem Town, according to some of the townsfolk. After previous objections, the colonial government gave them permission to build a Puritan church and hire a minister, as well as a small committee that would maintain the taxes of the new ministry. The first three ministers that were hired were not able to perform proper traditions because they were not officially ordained. It wasn’t until November 19, 1689 that Salem had an ordained minister; his name was Reverend Samuel Parris.

Parris was born in 1653, and had aspirations of becoming a merchant planter in either London or Barbados, but when he was unsatisfied with the results mercantile life brought him, he joined the career of a minister. When he became the minister at the church in Salem Village, he was disliked by many of the churchgoers. Although he was not favored for his personality, he was respected as a minister due the shared values of both him and the Village’s members of the church. Parris rejected the formerly accepted ideology of the “Half-Way Covenant,” where no-churchgoers who had been baptized in the past and their children were allowed to become full members. Instead, the eligibility of being baptized into the church was only to proclaimed believers and their children. 

This exclusion of non-religious individuals from the church further divided Salem Village, creating a more-noticeable difference between those who attended church and those who did not. Because of this new division, Parris’s church attendance had dropped, which caused hostility amongst the members of the church and the village officials. So much so the committee was run out by the village officials and a new one was put into place, who stunted the flow of tax to the church and to the minister’s salary. It is unclear how this predicament, as well as others, subsided. All that is known is that these issues made a contribution to the multiple witchcraft accusations made in the Village.

The first accusation of witchcraft in Salem Village was recorded to be in February of 1692, when Parris’s nine-year-old daughter Betty and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams began to undergo fits of uncontrollable screaming, unusual acts of violence such as throwing objects, and the body being able to contort into odd positions. Girls such as twelve-year-old Ann Putnam Jr and seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard. Village doctors were not able to draw the fits to a particular disease, so the four girls were diagnosed as victims of witchcraft. Many women were accused of practicing the act of witchcraft on the four girls, one of which was Sarah Good.

Sarah Good came from a wealthy family, but when her father John Solart died, she was left without an inheritance. To further stress her economic burden, the death of her first husband Daniel Poole left her in a deep debt. She and her second husband William Good became homeless beggars, who eventually made their way to Salem Village. She was viewed by the rest for the townsfolk as an outcast, predominantly because of her lack of appearance at the church. When she would approach the doorsteps of residents of the Village and beg, she was reported to mutter Devilish curses upon the home under her breath when she was refused. During her trial, she claimed in her defense that she was reciting the Ten Commandments, but was proved to be untrue when she couldn’t recite any of them when she was asked to. She was found guilty and hanged on July 19, 1692.

Another case of the Salem witch trials was that of George Burroughs. After fleeing his home in Maine out of fear of hostile Native American tribes, Burroughs took residency in Salem Village, where he was soon hired as the second minister of the church by Village officials. After two years in the position, he attempted to relieve himself from the church after they would not ordain him in order to become their official minister. His departure from the church left him in a struggle with the local officials, and was later arrested for debt. When he was released after church members paid his bail, he was able to return to Maine. 

Residents of Salem Village accused Burroughs of being a warlock (a male witch), due to the fact that he was able to lift weights that were considered too heavy for an average person could lift, which later became a factor of interest during his interrogation. He was also questioned about his treatment towards his first two wives and his refusal to baptize many children when he was a minister. He was accused of being the “dark man” that were mentioned in many other accusations against the women involved in the trials. He was found guilty and on August 19, 1692, was taken to Gallows Hall and hanged. George Burroughs became both the first male and the first (and only) minister to be executed in the Salem witch trials.

By May of 1693, around two hundred individuals were accused of being associated with witchcraft, and twenty of them were executed. All trials were done through the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which was established on June 2, 1692 solely for the Salem witch trials. Because these trials occurred prior to the righting of the U.S. Constitution, many victims were denied what is now considered to be “basic rights,” both in and out of the courtroom. The court was established under Puritan religion, so judges accepted “spectral evidence” as a form of evidence in a trial, which included the retelling of visions and even dreams of the alleged witch or warlock performing acts of witchcraft. Other accepted forms of evidence was the Touch Test (which was when the witch terminated the fits with a touch, and was interpreted as something that only the one who inflicted the fit could do), and the Witch Mark (which was any mark the courts deemed unnatural, such as a mole or birthmark).

The Court was made up of both jurors and magistrates, and a common court hearing went something along the lines of this: a complaint would be filed to the court about an accused witch, and it was reviewed by the magistrates of the Court to declare if it was a credible accusation. If it was, a warrant of arrest was issued and was brought before the public for interrogation, and would be looked at by two more magistrates, and was either presumed innocent or guilty. If they were guilty, they would be put into jail to wait for another trial, which would be presented to a Grand Jury and they would decide their sentence. If found guilty, a magistrate would announce their hang dates.

In October of 1692, Increase Mather, president of Harvard College, and his son Cotton Mather dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer by declaring that spectral evidence was not a reliable form of evidence to be used in a court system. By January of 1693, the court was replaced by a Superior Court of Judicature, which is the same style of court that is used today in the United States. Appointed Chief Justice was William Stoughton, Attorney General was Anthony Chechley, and Clerk of the Court was Johnatan Elatson, all former magistrates of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Under the observance of these men, as well as others using the newly established system, only 3 of the 56 accused victims in custody at the time of the switch of court systems were found guilty, all others being pardoned. Eighteen years later, in 1711, all victims and their families were paid compensation for the result of the unlawful trials.

It is important to learn and understand about this event in United States history, as it opens the door to the imperfections that can and will occur in legal systems. Even though Salem changed their way of local government, they did not do it to further the future of the country, but to make sure those who were guilty were punished, and those who were innocent could go free. This system was kept and adapted by colonists in the 1770s because it was viewed as effective and practical, leading to the passing of both the Judiciary Act of 1789 which brought with it the establishment of the Supreme Court, as well as the Federal Rules of Evidence, put into place in 1972, . 

Even still, the Court had altered countless times before becoming the one we use today, and it is still expected to change in the future. Without the tragedy, casualties, and chaos that resulted from the Salem witch trials, the court system that the U.S. relies on would be almost nonexistent, and would be forced to rely on a court designed to disregard the unalienable rights United States citizens possess. Such disregard would have altered the rights given to us by the Constitution, which would have heavily altered the history we now study today. The trials, though unlawful, were arguably the foundation that started the construction of this country into the global superpower it is known as today. 

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