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

Evidence

Examinations

Prison

Court of Oyer and Terminer

Superior Court of Judicature

Aftermath

Legal Process:

  • When an individual filed an official complaint to the court about a suspected witch, a magistrate would issue a warrant for the arrest of the accused person. 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, and Bartholomew Gedney, of Salem Towne; and Thomas Danforth of Boston.
  • If the complaint was deemed credible, the magistrates issued a warrant for arrest and 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 person 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 accused is indicted by the Grand Jury, he or she was 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.

Evidence:

puritan woman specterSpectral Evidence – Used by the “afflicted girls” and several others in their accusation against suspected witches, spectral evidence is a form of evidence based upon 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 no where 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 basis for the use of 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 which were conducted intermittently between the years 1599 and 1694. Specifically, the booklet covered the case of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender, who were 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 then 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 Village “afflicted girls” were being 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 the hand of a witch touched the body of the person whom they had bewitched, that person would immediately become well and could identify the witch. After reciting a prayer, Barnard then blindfolded the accused who were 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 of being 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 who had been 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 that came 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 trails. 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 in birthmarks, warts, moles, or any outstanding swelling or discoloration of the skin was suspect as 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, his or her body would be searched for any 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 and 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 actually blunt or dull. Out of fear people sometimes cut off their warts, moles, and other bumps in order not to be suspect as a witch. However, these tactics helped very little, because the scars that were 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.

Examinations:

Witch Water Float Test

Witch Water Float Test

In the 1692 witch trial era, when someone was “examined,” this usually meant is 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 on 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 midwives to see if the accused had a “witch’s teat,” which were birth marks, 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 surely the mark of the Devil. The accused were then questioned by the magistrates, who generally assumed a presumption of guilt.

Other tests and torture were also utilized against accused witches in the examinations and at trial. 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 that the Devil would never allow his subjects to recite the Lord’s words in full. 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 obviously die, and the midwives would know it was not a witch, yet if the victim floated, there would be a trial held.

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