Guilty Until Proven Innocent At Salem Witch Trials History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
In the 14th through 16th centuries and estimated 40 thousand people were executed for the crime of witchcraft and according to believers, it cam straight from the Bible in Exodus 22:18 which says Thou shall not suffer a witch to live. The Bible is the word of God and is infallible and believers had to live by it. Despite this strong belief in the Bible, early Christians were quite tolerant of Paganism and even witchcraft but as the Roman Catholic Church began to consolidate its power, heretics were looked at as the enemy.
By 1231, Pope Gregory the 9th instituted the inquisition which was designed to expose and punish heresy. That’s when the attitude towards witchcraft began to change and take on a more acceptable, violent attitude.
In 1484, Pope Innocent the 8th declared being a witch or a magician a crime and approved severe measures of punishment and ultimately death if a person was found to be either. All of the problems, from bad crops to bad weather, were blamed on witches and magicians. Witch hunts were usually conducted by the superstitious villagers as tensions grew amongst them and they use these witch hunts as a power tool to get rid of people they had issues with, real or imagined, with the authorities doing little or nothing to stop it.
Although the authorities were encouraging the locals to separate and rid themselves of witches, which caused them to turn on each other as they pointed out each other as witches, a witch hunt didn’t mean that people showed up at your door, knocked, and politely asked if there were any witches in the house. Once a person was accused of being a witch, they still had to provide some evidence in order to prosecute. The question was then, how do you prove that someone has cast a spell? The authorities needed some sort of tangible evidence such as test and signs that they were witches. In 1486 Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, published a guidebook on finding witches called the Mallei Maleficarum (Hammer of the witches). It stated that the sure signs of a witch were the devils mark or witches teats. This involve the physical inspection of a suspected persons body and was conducted only after shaving all of his or hers hair off, including the public area. It told frightening stories of women who would have sex with demons, kill babies, and even steal penises. It basically gave the definition of witchcraft as well as how to investigate, try and judge cases.
The idea of the devils mark was and an folk tail which was based in the idea that a witch had made a pact with the devil and because of that, he marked her body and gave her teats so she could suckle demons and evil spirits so if a person could find these marks, you could prove, with tangible evidence, that the person was a witch. They would then test the mark by piercing it with a needle or a pin and if pain were felt or the mark bled, there was not enough evidence the person was a witch. If, however, after poking the mark with a pin or needle the person did not fell pain or there was no blood, it was the acceptable view that the person might, in fact, be a witch. Another method was called swimming a witch and the theory was that water was pure and it would reject the evil in the witch causing her to float so an innocent person would sink. Needless to say, this test always ended with a victim. The Hammer of the Witch also encouraged torture as a way to get the accused person to confess to being a witch and also always ended in the death of the accused and was justified in the eyes of the law.
English magistrates considered witchcraft a crime against the Church and the State. From Henry the 8th forward, the King is the head of the Church meaning the political leader is also the head of the Church of England so when you turn your back on the God and the church, you are also turning your back on your King. This made witchcraft an act of treason and a capital offense. Witch hunts continued through the 17th century with neighbors accusing neighbors as thousands were murdered.
In 1629, King Charles the 1st of England granted a group called the Puritans a charter to settle and govern in English colony in Massachusetts Bay. Their goal was to create a new and more perfect society based on the principles of the Bible with no separation of church and state. The Puritans remained British citizens and continues to believe that witches existed. This idea of the existence of witches was central to their belief system and they thought about it on a regularly and were genuinely worried about witched living among them. It was no surprise that the Puritans engaged in witch hunts just as they had in England.
The first witch trial in Massachusetts was not in Salem but was actually in Charlestown in 1648 when a midwife and healer named Margaret was accused of witchcraft. It was believed that she could cause death and sickness with just her touch, foretell the future and that she had a witches teat. She was hanged in 1648 and although other cases followed, it would be 40 years before a witch trial would get widespread public attention. In 1688 four Boston children were presumed to be possessed by Goodwife “Goody” Ann Glover. She was an Irish slave sold to Oliver Cromwell in the 1650’s and her husband dies there. She moved to Boston where she becomes employed as a housekeeper. At some point, four of the five children became sick and their doctor found “nothing but a hellish Witchcraft could be the origin of these maladies.”(SITE HERE) She was arrested, tried and convicted as a witch and sentenced to hang.
The investigator for this particular case was Cotton Mather, a Boston Minister, who wrote a book titled Memorable Provinces, in which he describes in detail the behavior of the witch and the possessed children. This particular book was believed to have had a huge effect on the people of Salem. About 500 people lived in Salem and they had strong religious practices. Add to their beliefs the circumstances in Salem at the time and you have a village that is ripe for conducting witch hunts of its own. At the core of the Puritanism was a strong belief that women were to be docile as mothers to their children and as servants to their husbands. They had the idea that a woman was submissive and simply by her very nature, a woman was more likely to enlist in the devils service. They were not allowed to be Ministers and therefore were more likely to join the devils cause.
One of the most traumatic events of colonial America was the witch hunt 1692. The documents such as arrest warrants and death orders from that time show about 160 cases of accusations but there are no transcripts of the actual trials. Historians pieced together from other, outside documents, what they believed lead up to the trials. It is believed it started in the kitchen of the Reverend Samuel Parris. In the winter of 1691 Reverend Parris were spending time away visiting people in the parish and so they left their daughter Elizabeth, who was nine, and her cousin Abigail Williams, who was 11, in the care of an Indian woman named Tituba. As she began to speak of her childhood she would share stories with the girls of magic and power. She even began to show them some tricks. The girls, even in their young age, knew this was something that she should not be doing and that they should keep quiet about. Well as the stories kept flowing, her audience grew to six more girls who would come to hear them. The girls then began to do things, such as scream out, attempt suicide, and throw things against walls, which brought concern from Reverend Parris so he had the doctor come examine them. The doctor found no physical symptoms and concluded this must be spiritual and under the evil hand of witchcraft. Because of the Puritans belief in witches, this was readily accepted because they believed that witches could convince other to become witches and interpreted the girls’ actions as physical attempts to fight to prevent themselves from becoming witches. At this point, the girls were pressured to indentify the witch whom had infected them and they eventually pointed out Tituba and because she was a slave, there would be no one that would stand up for her. The girls also pointed out two other women Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, this too was believable since neither one of these elderly women attended church.
On March 1, 692, the women were brought before an informal tribunal in order to establish if there was evidence of witchcraft. One significant difference between these court proceedings and our system today is the lack of involvement of lawyers. The accused was there were more depositions taken straight from accusers of crimes and a defendant was left trying to defend themselves against questioning from the judges.
The kind of evidence the Magistrate allowed in these proceedings played an important part in the trials that followed. All of a sudden they were willing to accept evidence that they would have never considered in previous witch trials in New England.
The most damaging decision of all was to allow spectral evidence, meaning the accused appeared only to the accuser in either some form or that of a specter that only the accuser could see. The girls began claiming they saw this with Sarah Good and that her specter tried to convince them to write in her book. With each denial from Sarah, the girls would cry and scream, claiming her specter was actually attacking them in the court. Needless to say, this was perceived as evidence that Sarah Good was in fact a witch. It would be the testimony y of Tituba that would change the course of the trial as she confesses almost immediately to doing witchcraft. Over the next three days, she would tell tales of talking animals and spectral visits to harm the children. She was basically telling them what she thought they wanted to hear. She told of a tall man from Boston who who told her to write her name in the devils book in blood. She was asked how many names were in the book. She told them nine names were in the book. Hers, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne and six names she could not see. This shook everyone because it meant that there were more witches in the village. In this atmosphere the accusations began to spread, but now the girls were not just accusing women from lower standard, but now, no one was exempt from being accused.
It wasn’t until a matronly woman named Rebecca Nurse, who hardly fit the image of a witch, was accused did Salem begin to split on the issue. Most of those who supported her were from the East, had more liberal views and were better off financially. In general, accusers were of lower status and lived in the Western part of Salem. 30 people signed a petition attesting to her character.
The youngest person to be accused was Dorcus Good, the daughter to Sarah Good. It became clear at this point that something needed to be done as so the witch hunts moved from statements and depositions to official trials. The trails continued much as the preliminary hearings had with judges accepting testimony and spectral evidence as fact and the girls continued their finger pointing. They loved the attention they ere getting in a time and place when women had now voice. Here they were, having the ears and attention of men hanging on their every word. The authorities did not check the validity of their accusations and even more people were sent to their deaths.
Eventually the girls began to accuse people who not thought of to be witches such as men, children, ministers and the upper class. Rumors began to circulate that they were going to accuse the wives of Reverend Mather and Governor Phips, and with that, the girls had gone too far. The Governor dissolved the court and moved the trials to Superior Court. Spectral evidence was no longer allowed and the remaining people were acquitted. Tituba was sold back into slavery as a way to pay her expenses.
Five years passed before the Salem community recognized its mistakes and on January 16, 1697, they held a public fast and all twelve jurors signed a petition as a public showing of their repentance. There were other significant dates that followed. In 1702 a modest inquiry into witchcraft was published by John Hale that expressed one of the most profound apologies. In 1706, Ann Putnam Jr, blamed the devil for her actions in taking innocent lives. She was the only accuser to ever apologize. In 1711 the Commonwealth on Massachusetts reversed the verdicts of 22 of the 31 people convicted, restoring their civil rights. The state paid 600 pounds in restitution to the survivors and their families. It wasn’t until 1957 that the remaining nine sentences were reversed.
There are several things about this have repeated itself throughout history and even in today’s society where fear and ignorance overshadows reasoning and common sense. These events had a profound effect on the nation’s justice system causing it to never again presume someone guilty until proven innocent.
Famous American Trials. (2010). Retrieved September 17, 2010 from Salem Witch
Salem Witch Museum. (2010). Retrieved September 17, 2010 from Salem Witch
Goody Glovers. (2010). Retrieved September 17, 2010 from Goody Glovers Story:
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