The Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692
William Phips (1651–1695), Cotton Mather (1663–1728)
The law isn’t always up to the task. The Salem witchcraft trials are one of the most severe examples of the rule of law being overwhelmed by public hysteria, culminating in a complete failure of impartial justice.
More than two hundred persons were accused of practicing witchcraft in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, and were subjected to court-ordered torture, long jail sentences, or execution. The instances began in January 1692, when the daughters of a local priest began experiencing fits, making odd noises and contorting their bodies. The illness was “diagnosed” as witchcraft by a local doctor. Other young girls quickly followed suit, accusing specific women of cursing them.
Hundreds of women and men were hauled in to be interrogated.
Governor William Phips created the Court of Oyer and Terminer for trials claiming witchcraft in May 1692, when dread and paranoia were prevalent. However, none of the newly appointed judges had any legal training. Despite a lack of proof, the defendant in the first case, brought against an elderly local gossip named Bridget Bishop, was found guilty. “There was little necessity to establish the witchcraft, it being plain and infamous to all beholders,” evangelist Cotton Mather writes of the case.
By the fall of 1692, many members of the community had begun to doubt the legitimacy of the court’s decisions. When the governor’s wife, Lady Phips, was arrested, the governor put an end to the frenzy by prohibiting future arrests and dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. He pardoned everyone who had been accused of witchcraft in 1693. Whatever the underlying causes, Salem’s unfair persecutions of people seen to be “different” showed a legal system that failed to safeguard its citizens against hysteria-driven prosecution. Salem erected the Witchacraft Victims’ Memorial on August 5, 1992, three centuries later, to memorialize those convicted and killed for witchcraft. An Act Relative to the Witchcraft Trial of 1692 was enacted by the Massachusetts legislature in 2001, extending an earlier official exoneration.
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)