Procedures, Courts & Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials

court house in Salem Massachusetts, Samuel Hill, 1790

Salem, Massachusetts courthouse in 1790, by Samuel Hill.

Legal Process




Court of Oyer and Terminer

Superior Court of Judicature


Legal Process:

  • When an individual filed an official complaint to the court about a suspected witch, a magistrate would issue a warrant for the accused person’s arrest. Before the Court of Oyer and Terminer was appointed, the sitting magistrates of the regular Salem court or village officials presided at the examinations, which functioned as preliminary hearings and decided whether there was enough evidence to hold an accused witch for trial. In the Court of Oyer and Terminer, these magistrates included Jonathan Corwin, John Hathorne, Bartholomew Gedney of Salem Towne, and Thomas Danforth of Boston.
  • The magistrates issued a warrant for arrest if the complaint was deemed credible. The individual was brought in for a public examination, essentially an interrogation, where the magistrates pressed the accused to confess.
  • Once the accused person was taken into custody, they were examined by two or more magistrates. If, after listening to testimony, the magistrates believed the accused was probably guilty, the accused was sent to jail for possible re-examination and to await trial.
  • The case would then be presented to a Grand Jury, where testimony would be made, and depositions entered into evidence.
  • If the Grand Jury indicts the accused, they are tried before the Court of Oyer and Terminer. A jury would then decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
  • If the defendant was found guilty, the Court would pronounce the sentence. In the Salem Witch Trials, guilty defendants were sentenced to be hanged on a specified date.
  • The Sheriff and his deputies carried out the sentence of death.


puritan woman specterSpectral Evidence – Used by the “afflicted girls” and several others in their accusation against suspected witches, spectral evidence is based on dreams and visions. During the trials, the accuser would give testimony that an accused witch’s spirit (specter) appeared to the witness in a dream or vision. In many instances, the spirit might appear as an animal, such as a black cat or a wolf. The dream or vision was then admitted as evidence. Even though the accused was nowhere near the “afflicted” person at the time, testimony was often given that the “witch” had bit, pinched, choked, or otherwise harmed the “afflicted” accuser.

As a basis for spectral evidence, a 60-page booklet entitled A Tryal of Witches, written by Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn, was utilized when the Salem magistrates were looking for a precedent in allowing so-called “spectral evidence.” The booklet was a report of the proceedings of the Bury St. Edmunds witch trials in Suffolk, England, conducted intermittently between 1599 and 1694. Specifically, the booklet covered the case of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender, accused of witchcraft, stood trial, and were hanged in Lowestoft, England, in 1662. Upon discovering that no lesser person than Sir Matthew Hale had permitted spectral evidence to be used in that case, the magistrates accepted the validity of spectral evidence, and the trials proceeded.

Touch Test – Utilized in AndoverMassachusetts, in September 1692, this evidentiary practice appears to have been exclusive to Andover. If the accused witch touched the victim while the victim was having a fit, and the fit stopped, it meant the accused was the person who had afflicted the victim. On September 7, 1692, the Reverend Barnard ordered all those accused of witchcraft to come together at the Andover meeting house, where the Salem Villageafflicted girls” were kept. Once the accused had all been gathered, he conducted the “Touch Test,” one of the most diabolical schemes of the witch trials. At that time, it was believed that if a witch’s hand touched the body of the person they had bewitched, that person would immediately become well and could identify the witch. After reciting a prayer, Barnard then blindfolded the accused, who was then forced to go near the “afflicted girls,” who would fall into fits and cry out, claiming they were under the curse of a witch when the accused drew closer. However, when the accused touched the girls, they would immediately come out of their fit and identify the person touching them as the one who afflicted them. This evidence was enough to cause the arrest of the accused as witches. After this event, warrants were issued for 18 men and women accused in the touch test.

Examination of a Witch (Close up)

Close-up of Examination of a Witch, by Thompkins Matteson, 1853

Witch Mark – A practice from England in the witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries, looking for witch marks, or devil’s marks, was also utilized during the Salem witch trials. The common belief was that a “witch teat,” or extra nipple on a witch’s body, permitted a familiar or imp to suckle human blood. It was also believed that these “witches” who bore these marks would not feel pain or bleed when the mark was pricked. In the minds of the Puritans, these marks might be disguised as birthmarks, warts, moles, or any outstanding swelling or discoloration of the skin that was suspected of being a witch’s mark. Even red spots, bumps under the tongue, or in private parts might be a witch mark.

After an accused witch had been arrested, their body would be searched for any peculiarities. Doctors and midwives were employed for these searches, which were frequently done before the judge, jury, and an audience. The examining tool was usually a sharp instrument such as a pin or needle; if an insensitive portion of the body did not bleed, it was designated a witch’s mark. It was later found that some of these so-called sharp objects were blunt or dull. Out of fear, people sometimes cut off their warts, moles, and other bumps to avoid being suspected of a witch. However, these tactics helped very little because the scars left were just as suspect.

Other Evidence – This included confessions of the accused, the testimony of a person who confessed to being a witch identifying others as witches, the discovery of poppets, books of palmistry and horoscopes, pots of ointments in the possession or home of the accused, and the existence of so-called witch’s teats on the body of the accused.


Witch Water Float Test

Witch Water Float Test

In the 1692 witch trial era, when someone was “examined,” this usually meant they were brought in for an investigation, separately from any others examined the same day. The first part of the examination generally included the accusers, who would demonstrate the effect that the accused, or their specters, were having on them at the moment or had in the past. Early in the examinations and trials, spectral evidence based on dreams and visions was allowed and used as evidence of guilt. Other accusers might testify to having witnessed the accused bewitching people, behaving oddly, or to their general character.

The examinations often included a doctor or midwife to see if the accused had a “witch’s teat,” which were birthmarks, moles, or other markings on the body that were thought to be marks of a witch or a devil’s mark. The accused were stripped of their clothing, and if unusual marks were found, the spots were pricked, and if no pain was felt or they didn’t bleed, it was undoubtedly the mark of the Devil. The magistrates then questioned the accused, who generally assumed a presumption of guilt.

Other tests and torture were also used against accused witches in examinations and trials. Sometimes the accused were asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer. It was believed that a witch would not be able to recite the prayer without making a mistake. Puritans believed the Devil would never allow his subjects to recite the Lord’s words fully. In another test called the sink or swim test, the suspect would be curled up in a non-breathable position with rocks tied to their ankles. If the victim sunk, it would die, and the midwives would know it was not a witch, yet if the victim floated, a trial would be held.