American History / Church/State / Rule of Law

Remembering Salem’s First Victim

SALEMOn this day in 1692, Bridget Bishop stood trial for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts.  She was the first of many to be tried and, ultimately, was the first to be hanged as a result.  She was convicted based on charges made by people she said she never met in a place she had never been.

Her trial and conviction were based on the swooning of her accusers based on imagined spectral advances by her.  Judge Hawthorne asked, “How is it that your specter hurts those in this room?” Bridget replied, “I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is.’ Hawthorne turned this answer to his advantage by asking, ‘How can you know, you are no witch, and yet not know what a witch is.’ She replied, ‘I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it.”

In total, 14 women and 6 men were accused, tried, convicted and executed on the crime of witchcraft, based largely on “spectral evidence” including allegations that the defendant had tormented accusers in their dreams.  On October 12, 1692, Massachusetts Governor Phips brought an end to the trials.

By January 1697, Massachusetts had declared a day of fasting due to the “unlawful” trials.  In 1711, the Massachusetts Colony restored the good names of the condemned and provided financial restitution to their heirs.

The lessons of Salem are many.

  1. The danger of mass hysteria especially when it overtakes our judicial process.
  2. The danger of mixing church and state.  It has been said that the trials were “the rock on which the theocracy shattered” in America.
  3. The danger of discounting scientific explanations, as the “afflicted” at Salem may have been suffering from LSD-like symnptoms due to contaminated Rhye (although this was not known at that time).

In sum, Salem is about the triumph of fear over reason.

While Salem today is a quaint New England town, the spectre of its past sufaces in periods of hysteria from McCarthyism to Bush-Cheney; and reminds us of importance of the rule of law in protecting the accussed from mob justice and the intolerance that fuels it.

The anniversary of the ending of the trial by Governor Phips is celebrated by secularists as “Free Thought Day.”

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