Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Salem Witch Trials

The Magistrates

Witchcraft was much too important to be left to one minister in a divided church, and Parris knew it. He would need help investigating the claims and examining the accused. He dutifully reported to Salem Town the accusations and requested that a magistrate take over the case. In a matter of days the affliction had moved from being a private medical matter for the Parris clan to being a colony-wide legal issue. It is hard to draw the line between the law and religion in 17th century Massachusetts; in fact, no line existed. Demonic possession was as likely to be attacked in the courthouse as in the meetinghouse. For the witches of Salem Village, men of the cloth held their fate in their hands.

Drawing of Salem Village's first meeting house
Drawing of Salem Village's first
meeting house

Two magistrates the nearest officials of what little government existed in Massachusetts rode out from the town to the village meeting house, each with different expectations, aspirations and beliefs. They were both good Puritans, of course, but one, John Hathorne, was perhaps a little more zealous than his counterpart, Jonathan Corwin. Neither had any formal legal training, but as members of the colony's legislature, they were as qualified as anyone in the colony to examine the witches. Massachusetts Bay Colony had no judges with formal legal training, nor was there anyplace in the New World where one could be found.

When the word got out that witches had been found in Salem, the magistrates began their research into how to conduct an investigation into the allegations. First, of course, they read their Bibles, which mentions witchcraft only in passing and does not define the term. Then they looked at historical literature, like the Malleus Maleficarum, or "Witch Hammer" (1486), "A Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft" (1608), Increase Mather's "Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences", and of course, "Late Memorable Provinces" by Increase's son, Cotton Mather.

Judge Jonathan Corwin's house still stands
Judge Jonathan Corwin's house still
stands

Once Hathorne and Corwin arrived in Salem Village in March 1692 they met with the minister and village leaders to explain the process. The problem the magistrates had was just how to go about proving witchcraft. They had easily come to agree that all suspects would be searched for "witch's tits" any kind of mark on the body that a witch could use to suckle a demon. The best evidence of witchcraft was confession by the witch, but torture was immediately ruled out as a means to extract an admission of guilt. If there was no confession, physical evidence that could be empirically tested was second best.

Painting of the examination of a witch
Painting of the examination of a
witch

Spectral evidence would also be allowed, Hathorne said. Cause and effect would be considered established when there was evidence of a curse and of the curse's result. Hathorne referred to this as "mischief following anger." In other words, a quarrel between neighbors followed by the death of one party's cow, for example, was sufficient to suspect witchcraft. Most importantly, Hathorne and Corwin would start with the premise that the Devil could not use an innocent's "shape" to perform evil. Thus, if a witch appeared to a victim in a dream and tormented the person, the witch could not be innocent.

Supernatural abilities on the part of the accused or a corresponding weakness in an area deemed holy were also evidence of witchcraft. An inability to recite the Lord's Prayer without error meant the Devil was in control of the accused's tongue and was compelling evidence of a person's guilt.

Two leading scholars of the phenomenon of the Salem witch hunts have stressed in their writing that it is unfair to merely shrug off the evidence accepted by the judges as naive and superstitious. Boyer and Nissenbaum point out in Salem Possessed that witchcraft was on the books as illegal by the laws of God, English common law and the statutes of Massachusetts, but it was a very difficult charge to prove. "This was because the evil deeds on which the indictments rested were not physically perpetrated by the witches at all, but by intangible spirits who could at times assume their shape. The crime lay in the initial compact by which a person permitted the devil to assume his or her human form, or in commissioning the devil to perform particular acts of mischief."

Having laid out the ground rules for the investigation, Hathorne, Corwin and Parris began to root out the Devil in Salem.

 

 

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