The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America

Article excerpt

In the year 1692, an event occurred that is remembered to this day among the great calamities of American History. In the small hamlet of Salem village, (now Danvers, MA) in the household of the local minister Samuel Parris, a young girl was observed acting strangely. It was not long before the strange behavior was pronounced the result of witchcraft. Soon, the mysterious behavior spread to other young girls in the village, and eventually to huge areas of the Bay Colony. The Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692 had begun. The ensuing witch trials affected people throughout not only Essex county, (where Salem village was located) but also Middlesex and Suffolk counties, and even frontier areas of the Bay Colony in what is today the state of Maine. It was by far the largest witchcraft hysteria in the history of the English colonies in North America.

The effects of the Salem Village witch trials were devastating: 141 people imprisoned, 19 people executed, and two more died from other causes directly related to the investigations.1 The Salem witch trials would account for a quarter of all people executed for the crime of witchcraft in the history of New England,2 and would furthermore prove to be the very last time anyone was ever legally accused of witchcraft in New England as well as the last time in the history of the English colonies that a suspected witch was convicted and executed.3 In addition, the Salem trials proved distinctive in that they implicated people from many walks of life not typically named in witchcraft trials. Church members, merchants, and even clergymen were both tried and executed as witches in 1692. And all of the executions relied heavily on standards of evidence and trial procedures that were controversial even at the time. The unique nature and gravity (at least by colonial American standards) of the Salem witch trials led many of our colonial forefathers to seek lessons from the sad events of 1692. As we shall see, all thought that the Salem trials were a grave miscarriage of justice - even those most in sympathy with the trials declined to defend them entirely. But what is most interesting is not even that those most sympathetic to the trials should still see them as the travesties they were, but rather that even to the trials' worst critics, the reality of witchcraft continued to be taken seriously.

Perhaps the first work composed in reaction to the Salem witch trials was written by Boston minister Samuel Willard, and entitled Some Miscellany Observations on our Present Debates respecting Witchcrafts, in a Dialog Between S&B ("S & B" probably standing for "Salem and Boston"). This work was followed shortly by an unpublished piece intended to circulate in manuscript composed on October 8, 1692 by a Royal Society Fellow named Thomas Brattle, and usually referred to today as "The Letter of Thomas Brattle, FRS."4 The two works are unique in that they are the only two that circulated prior to Gov. Phips's ban on publications relating to witchcraft, promulgated on October 12, 1692.5 Indeed, more than likely it was these two works that spurred Phips to issue the ban.

Willard's Dialog was written in October of 1692.6 Although Willard was from Boston, the work was published in Philadelphia. Furthermore. Willard did not put his own name to the work, but instead attributed it two of the most prominent men who had fled the Bay Colony amidst accusations of witchcraft in 1692: Salem merchant Philip English and Boston sea captain John Aldin (called "P.E." and "J.A." respectively).7 In October of 1692 Willard clearly felt a stand needed to be taken against the miscarriage of justice being perpetrated by the Salem witch trials, yet he obviously felt the environment too charged to do so publicly.

The Dialog consists of a point-by-point refutation of the procedures and standards of evidence used in the 1692 trials, in the form of a conversation between "S" and "B." It recognizes only two types of evidence that are in and of themselves grounds for conviction of witchcraft: un-coerced confession of the suspected witch, and the testimony of two "humane" witnesses. …

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