2017. március 19., vasárnap
The Salem Witch Trials
After a long-break off from my blog, due to intensive college work and assimilation to university life in Boston, I decided to continue my blog with a trial, not only infamous in the state of my university, but also all around the globe. The Salem Witch Trials can be considered the most well-documented ‘witch-hunt trials’ of history. I take a step back from the 20th century trials I had been working on in the past few instances because I consider the Salem trials immensely intriguing and important cases. Reflecting upon such a case through the lens of the modern, civilized 21st century will be an interesting journey to embark on. I recently had the privilege to visit Salem with my family so I am going to include pictures that I took in the ‘haunted graveyard’ and all around the city that has a tourism built on the horrific events of the 17th century.
Although, belief in witches and witchcraft is highly unlikely today, the historical bearing of the case will be based on the belief that tainted the minds of several colonial Americans and led to the devastating mass execution of 20 innocent people, mostly women.
Salem, although the most widely recited witch trial of history, is not the first that occurred with documentation. 1647 marks the date of similar events occurring in Connecticut.
In order gain thorough understanding of the causes and the events of the Salem Witch Trials, one should carefully consider the historical context that surrounded it. In the mid-17th century, America was mostly inhabited by European settlers who, among other reasons, fled the Old Continent and colonized the new landmass with religious freedom in mind. It is, even today, a crucially significant aspect of the free American society. Nevertheless, religious freedom and the practice of religion in the 17th century Salem was based on Puritan ideology(English Reformed Protestants). Given the extremely religious mindset of the local population, the charges of witchcraft do seem likely and justifiable -to the people of that time-.
Last, but not least, many historians and experts on the events believe that the trials were conducted mainly because of political reasons. Their evidence for this theory is that the first people accused of witchcraft were the daughter and the niece of Reverend Parris, who was the leader of the community and had been subject of intense criticism by the public during the preceding period of the Witch Trials.
In January 1692 two Salem-based girls (Betty and Abigail) began to demonstrate strange symptoms that ranged from hysterical outbursts of shivering to throwing things all around the room. A local doctor, William Griggs, visited the house of Reverend Samuel Parris where the two girls resided. After inspecting the girls and thinking about the symptoms, he could not come up with any medical explanation. In the upcoming days the behavior of the two young girls continued and other women all around the town began to experience similar symptoms. The diagnosis of Griggs was ‘bewitchment’. And thus began the infamous, bone-shaking Salem Witch Trials, probably the most well-known legal event of the 17th century.
Judges and representatives of the prosecution:
William Stoughton - Chief Magistrate
Thomas Newton - Crown’s Attorney
Stephen Sewall- Clerk
Anthony Checkley- Attorney General
Jonathan Elatson- Clerk
Chronology of the Trial
February 1692 : Betty and Abigail Parris begin to demonstrate hysterical outbursts
February 1692: First three people are accused of witchcraft
March 1692: Accusations expand and more people are drawn to court
April 1692: Further accusations and interrogations of potential witches
May 1692: Lack of evidence saves some of the accused women
June 2, 1692: Formal trial - Court of Oyer and Terminel- opens
June 30, 1692: Court adjourns and verdict announced
July, 1692: Verdict executed; mass execution of charged ‘witches’
August, 1692: Executions continue
September, 1692: Further accusations and charges announced
January, 1693: Superior Court of Judicature finalizes the trials of the remaining people charged by witchcraft. Pardons are granted and lives are speared.
April, 1693: Salem Witch Trials terminate and court adjourns.
The trial had been preceded by a number of lengthy interrogations of the people potentially tainted by witchcraft. These were conducted mainly by government officials, such as Jonathan Corwin. The events that occurred between February 1692 and June 1692 were thus investigations that led to the accusation of more than 36 people. The list of accused ones grew out of two reasons. One was the fact that the already accused women were frightened and blackmailed and so primarily out of fear they either confessed the witchcraft, or even accused others as fellow evil worshippers. The accusations thus grew, however, no formal legal hearing or judicial sitting occurred until June 2. On May 27, 1692, however, a notion by government officials had been passed in regard of the establishment of ‘Court of Oyer and Terminal’ that aimed to arrive on a legal, official verdict of the accused people. This had been the center of the Salem Witch Trials.
The official trial - known to be conducted by the Court of Oyer and Terminal- began on June 2, 1692. It adjourned only until June 30th, however, the events had been continually progressing until April 1693.
The first person whose case received a verdict was Bridget Bishop. She was known to wander around the community in torn, black dresses, and the judge - within 24 hours of her trial!- considered her as a person committing witchcraft (without any evidence except for her behavior and her clothing!!) and the woman was executed in 8 days.
The court adjourned for a relatively long time and in the middle of June it published a point-by-point letter that mainly consisted of the linking of events to witchcraft and devil-worshipping. The will of God thus had been violated according to the government and to legal officials and, although in the light of the lack of evidence, the court continued its proceedings with further accused people. Meanwhile, throughout the summer, the list of ‘potential witches’ had been growing in number. It seemed that relief for the accused people will not come, since their accusations had been expanded in severity due to unfaithful devil worshipping. Nathaniel Saltonstall, a member of the court, resigned from his membership because he believed that there is a lack of strong evidence against the women and men on death row. Despite his resignation, up until September, further accusations characterized the bloody Salem Witch Trials.
The events of September, I believe, destroy all remaining grounds of a potentially credible and just trial. Giles Corey, after refusing to make a plea, had been subject to such an intense amount of torture - by placing immensely heavy stones on the person’s chest- that resulted in his death. The court had been continuously subject of sentencing death to the accused people by this time, and in cases, they even reintroduced charges against those released from their primary accusations. Perhaps due to the increasingly bloody events, from around October, executions stopped and no more trials were held. Historians, however, believe that an alternate reason for the immediate termination of the hearings could be that Governor Phip’s wife had been increasingly blamed for witchcraft among the people. This observation is highly credible in my opinion given the fact that the accusations had been continuously growing in number and severity throughout the summer and the fall, even though the trials have been getting bloodier in nature. No one was safe from the secular madness of the community.
Following the temporary termination of the Salem Trials, in January 1693, a Superior Court of Judicature led again by William Stoughton reintroduced the legal ground for the events. However, a change of nature in the events were to follow. All the previously charged people who have been in prison since September, and were waiting for their trials, had been found innocent and were to be released from prison.Another group were having their charges dismissed immediately. However, a remaining 17 people were tried in court and 3 of them were sentenced to death. Thus,the court’s conviction regarding the events of witchcraft had not been completely altered for the better. Despite the death sentences, no more executions were implemented because the Governor issued pardons for the people on death row. A death, however, still occurred during these events, since people were not to be released from prison until their jail fees were to be fully paid for the community, and a woman had passed away before repaying her ‘debt’.
The Salem Witch Trials finally concluded in April, after the remaining 5 accused women had their charges dismissed.
After careful research and hours of brainstorming devoted to the case I believe that a crucial aspect should be highlighted; historical context. What I mean by this is that in the 17th century America technology and legal doctrines were far from the state of development they are in currently. It is an important observation to point out, that the witch trials would have never even occurred if William Griggs would have diagnosed the girls of Reverend Parris on reasonable medical ground. Instead, due to the context of medicine that lacked the professionalism that we devote to it today, the doctor could not come up with any solution and cried out “bewitchment”. Without a doubt, such a shocking outburst is highly unlikely nowadays.
At the same time, if we apart ourselves from the lens of the 21st century and consider witchcraft credible -for the sake of further observation of the events- ,the trials’ legal standing is also highly questionable. The months of accusations and unprofessional preceding events are all undermining the potential acceptance of a fair judgement. It is extremely outrageous to consider that the first victim of the events, Bridget Bishop had her case opened and closed on the same day that gave her 8 days remaining alive before she was hanged due to the charges of witchcraft.
The central aspect of the American legal system is fair treatment of all accused people. The fair treatment reaches its peak when the role of evidence in the US judiciary is considered. Without a standing evidence that can’t be undermined, there is no real chance to arrive upon a verdict, especially if the charges are the most serious, that is, death sentence. When the Salem Trials are considered, this evidence brought up against Bridget Bishop - her clothing and her behavior- seemed to be enough for death sentence. In my view, such events are the complete contrary to what the US legal system stands for today. Justice, that is central to modern-day America, had been completely ignored during the Salem Witch Trials.
The case of Lydia Dustin, whose charges have been dismissed but who died in prison before repaying her jail fees, leads to further deterioration of the events of the Salem Trials. People accused with false charges and finally dismissed of those charges were to be kept in prison before they paid a particular fee to the government is immensely shocking if we consider the international agreements that bound today’s prison systems around the majority of the globe. Imagine if today’s news would be about a lady, accused of false charges, who have been kept in prison for almost half a year, would pass away within her cell, because government officials would not allow her release until she paid a particular of money to the state on the basis of ‘jail fees’. Public outrage would reach an indescribable extent in my opinion.
To conclude my newest blog entry, I believe the journey into a trial - or series of trials- that had been concluded centuries ago, was an interesting restart of my blog, and a major step away from the procedures of the 20th and 21st century trials. Religion and lack of technological and legal development or professionalism are important aspects of the Salem Trials through the comforts of our current day judiciary system. What happened in Massachusetts around 300 years ago is, I think, a reminder for all people interested in the judicial system of the 21st century; a reminder for the fact that our current state of court system is the accomplishment of a long journey. Separation of evidence from secular beliefs was crucial in modern society, since we cannot let lives of our fellow citizens depend on religious dogmas or radical conviction, because if we let that happen, no one can guarantee that our position of observer might not be shifted to the position of the accused one day.
Hopefully all of my beloved readers enjoyed the case as much as I did, and stay tuned for my upcoming entries that will cover the “Greatest Trials of History’.