How Skepticism & Rational Thought Sparked The End Of The Salem Witch Trials

How Skepticism & Rational Thought Sparked The End Of The Salem Witch Trials January 22, 2019

From Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Disney’s Hocus Pocus, the Salem Witch Trials have haunted popular culture since colonial times. It’s one of those stories that you never recall first learning about; everyone just seems to know some version of it. We’re drawn to it. We can’t let go of it. We are, many of us, fascinated by what happened all those years ago in colonial Massachusetts. It’s almost as though a spell has been cast on our collective consciousness. The Salem Witch Trials are a still-tender scar on our culture, a pock on our civilization that reminds us just how dark things can get.

Whether you have all the details right or not, most of you have some version of the events in your head. Suddenly-manic children concerned their parents and authorities. Their fits inexplicable, witchcraft was blamed and fingers were pointed. Over 200 people, mostly women, ended up being accused of witchcraft between 1692 and 1693 and many ended up convicted, tortured and hanged after court proceedings that more closely resembled a circus. In the end, it was the most destructive witchhunt in the US to date and has held on tight to that title since.

We don’t fully understand what led to all of this. It may have been misunderstood mental illness. It could have been the inevitable result of a largely misogynist society. It may have been the result of the anxiety induced by the warring and violence going on all around the new frontier. Some have suggested it was all due to ergot poisoning. Whatever the reasons, 19 people were hanged, 5 perished in prison, 2 dogs were executed and one man, Giles Corey, was tortured to death by pressing. Giles was placed naked in a pit, face up, as heavy stones were placed on top of him. As the weight increased, he was asked to plea – he could not be tried unless he entered a plea. Each time he was asked, he responded, “more weight”. Finally, the weight was so much that,

Giles Corey’s tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again. – Wikipedia

During the trials that actually ended up taking place, suspected witches were found guilty based on what is referred to as “spectral evidence”. Spectral evidence is just as it sounds: evidence from paranormal sources, visions and dreams. In other words, bunk. There was no other evidence, of course, because as we all know, witchcraft is not an actual thing for which there exists any evidence.

By all accounts, the lawmakers, authorities and accusers in Salem, Andover, Ipswich and Danvers were hellbent on nothing short of gendercide. So, how did it all come to an end? What changed? How were the Salem witch trials brought to a screeching halt less than two years after it all began?

Like most progress in the right direction, the answer is, more or less, science.

Governor William Phips had called for the Court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem Town May of 1692. These are the courts we’re most often referring to when we talk about the Salem Witch Trials. His involvement dwindled after that, as he took to the road often for work. When he finally returned, however, he realized his own wife, Mary, had been accused of witchcraft. Around this same time, our hero, Thomas Brattle wrote a letter criticizing the Salem Witch Trials. The letter was widely read and, when Governor Phips got his hands on it, the missive finally put an end to the nonsensical trials.

Thomas Brattle was an incredibly intelligent Harvard graduate who continued on at Harvard as a professor and researcher in science and mathematics. According to his Wikipedia entry,

Brattle made more substantial contributions to science than any other American of the day.

His work was so prolific that he even managed to impress Sir Isaac Newton.

Brattle prided himself on his ability to think rationally and to seek evidence for the things he believed. As such, he stood firmly against the use of spectral evidence in a court of law and became disturbed by its use in trials that ended with executions. He felt so strongly that he penned a letter that had a powerful ripple effect in Massachusetts law for many years to come.

In his letter, Brattle explains the methods by which the evidence in the Oyer and Terminer court had been obtained:

First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fitt. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, tho’ not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fitts. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, tho’ of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft. One of the Salem Justices was pleased to tell Mr. Alden, (when upon his examination) that truly he had been acquainted with him these many years; and had always accounted him a good man; but indeed now he should be obliged to change his opinion. This, there are more than one or two did hear, and are ready to swear to, if not in so many words, yet as to its natural and plain meaning. He saw reason to change his opinion of Mr. Alden, because that at the time he touched the poor child, the poor child came out of her fitt.

and he wastes no time tearing it to pieces with the dry sarcasm all good skeptics love,

I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion. The Salem Justices, at least some of them, do assert, that the cure of the afflicted persons is a natural effect of this touch; and they are so well instructed in the Cartesian philosophy, and in the doctrine of effluvia, that they undertake to give a demonstration how this touch does cure the afflicted persons; and the account they give of it is this; that by this touch, the venemous and malignant particles, that were ejected from the eye, do, by this means, return to the body whence they came, and so leave the afflicted persons pure and whole. I must confesse to you, that I am no small admirer of the Cartesian philosophy; but yet I have not so learned it. Certainly this is a strain that it will by no means allow of.

I would fain know of these Salem Gentlemen, but as yet could never know, how it comes about, that if these apprehended persons are witches, and, by a look of the eye, do cast the afflicted into their fitts by poisoning them, how it comes about, I say, that, by a look of their eye, they do not cast others into fitts, and poison others by their looks; and in particular, tender, fearfull women, who often are beheld by them, and as likely as any in the whole world to receive an ill impression from them. This Salem philosophy, some men may call the new philosophy; but I think it rather deserves the name of Salem superstition and sorcery, and it is not fitt to be named in a land of such light as New-England is. I think the matter might be better solved another way; but I shall not make any attempt that way, further than to say, that these afflicted children, (as they are called,) do hold correspondence with the devill, even in the esteem and account of the Salem Gentlemen. for when the black man, i. e. (say these gentlemen,) the Devill, does appear to them, they ask him many questions, and accordingly give information to the inquirer; and if this is not holding correspondence with the devill, and something worse, I know not what is.

The throttling continues,

But let this pass with the Salem Gentlemen for never so plain and natural a demonstration; yet certain is it, that the reasonable part of the world, when acquainted herewith, will laugh at the demonstration, and conclude that the said S. G. are actually possessed, at least, with ignorance and folly.

He then attacks the confessions from some of the so-called witches, pointing out that, if they are truly under the influence of the devil, no words that come out of their mouths ought to be trusted. As such, there should be a great deal of doubt in the guilt of anyone the accused, themselves, point fingers at.

Brattle then insists that spectral evidence be heavily questioned,

The Salem Gentlemen will by no means allow, that any are brought in guilty, and condemned, by virtue of spectre Evidence, (as it is called,) i. e. the evidence of these afflicted persons, who are said to have spectral eyes; but whether it is not purely by virtue of these spectre evidences, that these persons are found guilty, (considering what before has been said,) I leave you, and any man of sense, to judge and determine.

He also talks about the possibility that innocents have already been executed,

As to the late executions, I shall only tell you, that in the opinion of many unprejudiced, considerate and considerable spectatours, some of the condemned went out of the world not only with as great protestations, but also with as good shews of innocency, as men could do.

When Governor Phips had read Brattle’s letter, he ordered that no court could use spectral evidence to find a person guilty. Soon after, he called for the dissolution of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. As the hysteria died down, people began to see reason. Charges were dropped, trials called off and apologies were issued. Victims of the witchcraft delusion pushed for compensation but were largely ignored.

Some of the convicted and executed were officially exonerated two decades later in 1711. One was exonerated in the 1950s. Sadly, it took 300 years before five convictions were overturned, the accused “witches” being exonerated in 2001.

This horrific story lurks in the dark corners of our culture, reminding us to use reason and rational thought and seek evidence before we set a chain of events in motion that cannot be undone. It illustrates how flawed a system of justice can be when we run it on blind faith in the authorities and the knowledge of the day. It shows, beyond any doubt, that the unending battle between science and pseudo-science is intricately intertwined with the justice system. Most importantly, it shows us that no matter how deeply we believe something to be true, we could always be wrong.

More reading/listening:

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Image: Public Domain/United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division

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