The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History / Edition 1

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In late seventeenth-century New England, the eternal battle between God and Satan was brought into the courtroom. Between January 1692 and May 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, neighbors turned against neighbors and children against parents with accusations of witchcraft, and nineteen people were hanged for having made pacts with the devil.

Peter Charles Hoffer, a historian long familiar with the Salem witchcraft trials, now reexamines this notorious episode in American history and presents many of its legal details in correct perspective for the first time. He tells the real story of how religious beliefs, superstitions, clan disputes, and Anglo-American law and custom created an epidemic of accusations that resulted in the investigation of nearly two hundred colonists and, for many, the ordeal of trail and incarceration. He also examines life during this crisis period of New England history—a time beset by Indian wars, disease, severe weather, and challenges to Puritan hegemony—to show how an atmosphere of paranoia contributed to this outbreak of persecution.

Hoffer examines every aspect of this history, from accusations to grand jury investigations to the conduct of the trials themselves. He shows how rights we take for granted today—such as rules of evidence and a defendant's right to legal counsel—did not exist in colonial times, and he demonstrates how these cases relate to current instances of children accusing adults of abuse.

The Salem Witchcraft Trials, a concise history written expressly for students and general readers, contains much new material not found in the author's earlier work. It sheds important light on the period and shows that our horror of these infamous proceedings must be tempered with sympathy for a people who gave in to panic in the face of a harsh and desolate existence.

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Editorial Reviews

Richard A. Glenn
In the British film MONTY PYTHON AND THE QUEST FOR THE HOLY GRAIL, an unruly crowd accuses a woman of witchcraft. When the magistrate asks how the mob knows this woman is a witch, two replies are noteworthy. One young man remarks, "She turned me into a newt. I got better." The magistrate appears unconvinced until he hears the second response: "She looks like a witch." Now armed with irrefutable evidence, the magistrate acquiesces: guilt is assigned. Monty Python's story is satire; no legitimate jurist would convict on such evidence. Peter Charles Hoffer's THE SALEM WITCHCRAFT TRIALS: A LEGAL HISTORY is not. One can only wish that the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s were fiction; legitimate jurists indeed convicted individuals on much less evidence. Between January 1692 and May 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen people were hanged for having made pacts with the devil. One man was "pressed to death" under a pile of rocks for refusing to acknowledge the authority of the court. Others were ostracized, imprisoned including a four-year old, for eight months, and lost property because of their alleged flirtation with witchcraft. Peter Charles Hoffer, research professor of history at the University of Georgia and series editor of Landmark Law Cases & American Society, has authored a narrative on the Salem witchcraft trials: how religious beliefs, superstitions, clan disputes, and Anglo-American law and custom resulted in widespread false accusations, unwarranted punishments, and deaths. THE SALEM WITCHCRAFT TRIALS is written for students and general readers. The legal analysis is complete, but not overemphasized; the language is not technical. Hoffer does not comment on any of his sources throughout the analysis. His recently published book, THE DEVIL'S DISCIPLES: MAKERS OF THE SALEM WITCHCRAFT TRIALS, provides full scholarly citations for this narrative. The narrative divides into twelve chapters: two for the village and people of Salem; two for the accusers and their accusations; two for the judges and the law; four for the trials only five trials are analyzed, although others are mentioned; and two for the end of the epidemic and apologies. A chronology summarizes major events. In the early 1690s, Salem Village was a small community of five hundred persons, located ten miles from Salem Town. Two families dominated village politics: the Porters, who were the wealthiest family in the Village and had strong ties to Salem Town, and the Putnams, who desired to make the village a separate municipality. While that effort failed, Salem Village was permitted to open a Congregational Meeting House in 1672, and the Putnams chose its minister. The fourth minister, Samuel Parris, was chosen in 1689. By February 1692, a number of families with strong Porter associations refused to take communion. Additionally, the Winter of 1692 was especially bitter, and a high number of illnesses was recorded. Illness was associated with the Devil. The village needed somebody to blame for these occurrences, and the accusations provided a culprit. Hoffer dismisses the easy generalization that "women hating" led to the outbreak of accusations. "True, the targets of witchcraft prosecutions were overwhelmingly women . . . . Men of learning . . . agreed: suspected witches were either weak-minded wenches, easily misled by the Great Deceiver, or ill-tempered hags who asked the Devil for assistance." But, the author cautions, "[b]y reducing our story to a puppet show, in which superstition and antifeminism by turns manipulate the feelings and acts of the players, we demean the choices made by the accusers . . . ." Hoffer focuses instead on the importance of choice and contingency in Salem. The accusers chose some women but excluded others. Men were also accused, and some were convicted. Accusations in other New England towns did not lead to a similar panic. Contingency was even more critical. ". . . [T]he completely accidental arrival of a Barbados planter turned merchant turned lay preacher [Parris] and his African-born slave were the reasons the crisis took the form that it did." Hoffer's narrative attempts to "recover and reassert the human agencies of the characters in the Salem trials." The three groups most responsible for the trials included the young girls claiming to be bewitched; ministers of the Congregational Church the official church of the colony, and government officials: the governor, William Phips, and the magistrates. Betty Parris, the minister's daughter, raised the initial charge. She was soon followed by five other girls, most of whom had some allegiance to the Putnams. Class warfare may have been vital to the spread of the accusations: The Putnams representing the poorer farmer class may have encouraged the girls to focus their efforts on those associated with the Porters representing the wealthier merchants. Ministers, including Parris of Salem and Cotton Mather of Boston, fearing that the colony was under attack by evil forces, permitted the scare to become hysteria. The governor, hoping to calm public panic, authorized the trials. The magistrates, manipulated by fear, fashioned testimony so as to mold it into accepted categories, and pressed for convictions. Thus, personal animosity the Putnam clan, a true belief that Satan was on the attack the ministers, and political advancement the governor and the magistrates all contributed to the hysteria. The first few accusations were levied against marginal members of the community; the girls then accused respectable members of the community, followed by other prominent men and women in the colony including the governor's wife. Hoffer provides an analysis of the trials of five individuals: Bridget Bishop, the disreputable woman; Rebecca Nurse, the good wife; John Proctor and George Burroughs, the scoffers; and Giles Corey, the hard man who refused to take part in the trial and was pressed to death under a pile of rocks. The judgments against Burroughs and Corey, executed in the Fall of 1692, signaled a change in public sentiment. Burroughs, a former Congregational minister in Salem, recited the Lord's Prayer perfectly at his trial. This feat, supposedly impossible for a witch, caused one accuser to recant her testimony, blaming the magistrate for concocting the accusation. At Burrough's execution, his deportment was so serene that bystanders urged a stay of the sentence. Corey's execution was the last resulting from the trials; three convictions followed, but no executions. While certain clergy contributed to the mayhem, others were responsible for applying the brakes. A Ministerial Association, led by Increase Mather, pleaded with the governor to prohibit spectral evidence. Admitting such evidence made the Devil a creditable witness. More important, Increase Mather advanced the proposition: If evidence did not "infallibly prove" the crime, no conviction should occur. This requirement presaged the doctrine of "beyond a reasonable doubt." In short, it is better for one hundred witches to escape conviction than for one innocent person to be condemned. Governor Phips dissolved the court in October 1692 and granted pardons to all in May 1693. Robert Calef, a Boston merchant outraged by the trials, claimed that Phips finally called them off upon learning that his own wife had been accused of serving Satan. Ultimately, almost all of the participants acknowledged that they and not their victims had acted irresponsibly. Cotton Mather admitted that "errors" were made at Salem. Governor Phips blamed William Stoughton, the chief judge of the trial court, for the zealous prosecution of many innocent people. Samuel Parris offered a tactical retreat: confessing some misjudgment while blaming others for it. Perhaps he would have acted with better judgment if the witchcraft had not affected one of his own. William Stoughton never admitted any wrongdoing. Hoffer's analysis sheds important light on early American law. Rights that modern-day Americans take for granted--right to counsel, protection from self-incrimination, and rules of evidence, for example--did not apply in colonial times. Massachusetts criminal procedure, designed for speed, inexpensiveness, and social control, resulted in judge-dominated trials: Judges had complete discretion to determine what constituted credible evidence which resulted in the admission of spectral evidence; evidence that did not lend itself to a conviction was discarded. The girls, well aware of the symptoms of witchcraft, feigned illness, screamed, writhed in pain, and ducked to avoid "spectral rods"; in addition, prosecutors introduced bruises, bite marks, pinch marks, and other bodily injuries of the supposedly bewitched girls. The jurors, just as frightened of witches and just as credulous about the powers of Satan as anyone, were unwilling to refute the spectral evidence. In short, the Salem witchcraft trials were "dominated not by book law, . . . but by folk beliefs shared by the judges, jurors, witnesses, and even the accused." Every society has had important criminal trials. Some have altered the way people look at their society in general and their criminal justice system in particular. The Salem witchcraft trials may be one of those trials. Indeed, the trials "have become a metaphor for miscarriage of justice, superstition, and credulity. Mere mention of them calls up the specter of unprovable aspersions, the presumption of guilt, and the destruction of family and community." Today, both federal and state constitutions provide numerous procedural guarantees for fairness. Perhaps, in some way, the notoriety of the Salem trials is responsible for those guarantees. Peter Charles Hoffer has provided a captivating narrative of the actors and the actions that precipitated these trials. But THE SALEM WITCHCRAFT TRIALS is as much about the present as the past. This is Hoffer's most salient contribution to present dialogue. "We are not proof against superstition and rumormongering that brought about the tragedy at Salem." The "witch hunts" led by Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s remind us of the danger of false accusations based on rumor. Even today, we entertain similar fears and superstitions. Our victims are not witches, but members of a different race, citizens of a different country, homosexuals, or congregates of a religious minority. Twentieth century history is replete with examples of trials pitting overzealous religion against reason. The story is the same: rumor leads to fears, fear opens the windows of credulity, and fevered imaginations see witches and the Devil. Fear causes major upheavals in a society; Salem was all about fear.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700608591
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 10/28/1997
  • Series: Landmark Law Cases and American Society Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 708,534
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Table of Contents

Editors' Preface



1. Newcomers on the Road to Salem

2. The Village

3. Witchcraft Suspected

4. The Accusers

5. The Magistrates and the Suspects

6. The Judges, the Ministers, and the Law

7. The Disreputable Woman

8. The Good Wife

9. The Scoffers

10. The Hard Man

11. The End of the Trials

12. Apologies



Bibliographical Essay


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