Today in Legal History: Salem Witch Trials

On February 29, 1692, the first arrests were made in the Salem Witch Trials. The Salem court of Oyer and Terminer (hear and determine) accepted evidence that no modern court would: spectral evidence and witch marks. Spectral evidence involved reports of what would sound like hallucinations to modern jurors. The witnesses would describe their visions of the accused cavorting in their spectral forms. Witch marks were evidence that animal familiars had been suckling on their master. These marks often looked like moles, bruises, and birthmarks.

There were other ways in which the Salem trials would not meet constitutional muster. The accused were not allowed an advocate or witnesses on their own behalf. Though they were allowed to present evidence, speak on their own behalf, and question their accusers, without counsel, the accused were ill prepared to defend themselves effectively. No appeals were available.

Although witchcraft was not actually a crime at the time of the first trial, criminalizing witchcraft was made retroactive. Accused awaiting trial had to pay their own prison expenses, including the shackles; if they could not, prisoners were kept in small rooms the size of coffins.

The first trial was delayed because one judge felt the witch marks and spectral evidence were inadequate proof. Nathaniel Saltenstall resigned the bench in protest.

Six months later, the hysteria ended after the main accusers denounced the new governor’s wife as a witch. The governor shut down the proceedings as a result. Those who had lost their property did not regain it. Nineteen had been hanged.

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Salem Witch Trials

salemexamofIt is that time of year–getting “colder than a witch’s . . .” and all that.  Talk turns to goblins, ghosts and witches.  It’s a good time for those in the legal world to study the Salem witch trials.  (more…)