In Search of Better Stories

The Witches

In the dark, cold winter of 1692 several young girls inexplicably began to manifest strange behaviours: spasms, cries of pain, loss of sight, strange visions, at times they became unmanageable, even belligerent. Disobeying parents and telling off the pastor in the church was unthinkable for an 8-year-old puritan girl of that era, but it this strange season it happened with disturbing regularity. What both tortured and emboldened these girls? Three possible answers lay before the troubled town of Salem. The girls were experiencing a physical malady, they were demon-possessed, or tortured by witches. Doctors came, and physical explanations were quickly ruled out. The nature of the girl’s ailments could only be diabolical. Leading questions were asked, the girls began to name names, and the witch hunt was on. In 9 months 14 women, five men and two dogs were all executed for being witches. During that frenzied nine months, many people opted to become bewitched to save their skins as the number of bewitched individuals increased so to did the number of accusations. The jails overflowed. Finally, the witch storm blew itself out, the sheriff quit, witch hunting was too exhausting. The governor’s wife was accused, and he wasn’t about to let her be prosecuted, and the desperate appeals of innocence from those who hung for their alleged crimes began to weigh on the collective conscience. Today everyone agrees that this was a gross miscarriage of justice. What can be learned? 

  • Defying authority was the bigger problem: The chief justice Stoughton and several of his judges were convinced already before the trials began that witchcraft was the problem. They were only interested in guilty verdicts. To declare one’s innocence was to challenge authority and ensure their wrath, that is what got you killed. 18 out of the 19 people of those executed maintained their innocence. It was only the ones who acknowledged their guilt in agreement with the judges that ultimately went free. This is how the whole fiasco managed to balloon so much. It didn’t take long to figure out that chances of survival increased with a confession, so people started admitted to the most inane stories of witchcraft one could imagine. In the interest of survival, they freely named names of others they suspected of being witches. When the trial ended, there were over 60 “guilty” witches stacked up like cordwood in the tiny prison. They all went free. 
  •     There was one accused witch, a 71 one-year-old man name Giles Corey, who defied the court by refusing to say the words “By God and country” at the beginning of his hearing. Without saying these words, the trial could not proceed. This stubborn refusal upended the proceedings and infuriated the judges. They found a way around the impasse, by digging up a medieval law for what to do with someone who refused to plead, as Corey had done. Turns out “pressing” was the legal way to get the indigent Corey to say the words “By God and country” and thus to be able to move forward with the trial. Pressing involves lying the victim on the ground, covering him with a board and putting increasingly heavy stones on the board until he either says the magic words that would allow the proceedings to continue or he dies. Corey was indignant to the end, having lots of choice words for his persecutors none of which resembled the words “By God and country.” 
  • “Justice” was more interested in having someone to blame: Life was hard in 1692. It was no picnic to live on the frontiers of Massachusetts. Sometimes people try to make sense of things by blaming others for their misfortunes. Witches must be why all the Indian attacks are happening, why I can’t solve the land dispute with my neighbour, why my child died etc. If we do away with the witches we do away with our problems was the conventional wisdom. It also helped to ease the conscience if own blamed people less desirable. With only a few exceptions the community purged itself of its nastiest people. 
  • There was a catastrophic failure in understanding what constitutes legitimate evidence: The primary flaw was in the acceptance of spectral evidence. The accused could press charges against someone if they felt that person’s ghost had harassed them. There was no way to defend against such charges. Chief Justice Stoughton had no reservations about spectral evidence, though increasing numbers of people did. Other inferior quality evidence used to damn a person was the discovery of slightly raised discolouration on an accused person’s body. These “Devils teats” were a clear sign of guilt. The “touch test” was another abysmal means of establishing guilt. 
  • The rule of law appears to be a bit of a joke.  Rebecca Nurse’s story is the saddest one of all. She was happily married to Francis for over 50 years, eight kids, many grandkids and great grandkids. She was named as a witch and accused based on spectral evidence. People could believe others were witches but not Rebecca. The trial was contentious, but the jury declared her “not guilty.” The judge was very unhappy with the verdict and told them to reconsider. During all the tumult of celebration on one side and disgust on the other, the judge ordered another accused witch to come in. Rebecca was surprised to see her prison mate at her trial and wondered allowed something to the effect of “what another one of us was doing here.” The jury under incredible pressure by the judge, asked Rebecca what she meant by “us.” was this the admission of guilt that the judge wanted? By using the pronoun “us” was she implicating herself as a witch? Rebecca then over 70 years old and nearly deaf did not hear the juries question so did not answer. The Jury took her silence as an admission of guilt and overturned their verdict. Phips, the governor, didn’t like the guilty verdict, so he reversed it again, Nurse was free, but only for a short while. When Phips left the colony, he appointed Stoughton as governor in his absence. Stoughton, the chief justice of the witch trials used his additional power as governor to secure the guilty verdict he wanted for Rebecca Nurse. 
  • Too many logical potholes and too many muzzled mouths.  One observer noted that If the witches were so convinced on their innocence why would they choose the courtroom to bewitch their victims? (The girls regularly disrupted court proceedings with outbursts)  This visible logical pothole was ignored, along with stories that consistently contradicted each other. There are dozens of questions that if asked would have assuredly unravelled the prosecution, but there was no one able or willing to ask them. Unfortunately, at that time in history, defence lawyers were not invented yet and the accused by, and large were scared out of their minds. Most people were scared out of their minds, to object to the hunt often resulted in finding oneself accused of witchcraft. 
  • I would do anything for love. Something ailed the original girls to be sure, but one factor that helped them carry on in their state of distress was love. Most of these girls received frighteningly little attention, and now all of a sudden the entire town was concerned for their safety and well-being. Never before in the history of Puritan New England had little children received such affection and care. Why stop it? For many of these girls they were only too happy to play their roles with distinction, the pay they received in affection was worth it.  

    In the end, the blame should go on Stoughton the chief justice. He, in my opinion, did everything wrong. He assumed guilt, had little patience for objections, badgered the accused, forced convictions, ignored good evidence, accepted terrible evidence, and condemned the innocent without a hint of remorse or even sober second thought. He failed to listen to a growing chorus of clergy and other learned men who warned him of clear points of concern in the whole debacle. Even though the entire affair was admitted to be a terrible mistake within decades of the events, Stoughton remained untouched for his gross negligence in the whole incident. That is a shame.

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