Season of Anguish: The Formal Proceedings Conducted During the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 -- By: Dean George Lampros

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 56:2 (Fall 1994)
Article: Season of Anguish: The Formal Proceedings Conducted During the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692
Author: Dean George Lampros

Season of Anguish: The Formal Proceedings Conducted During the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692

Dean George Lampros

In February of 1693, the newly appointed royal governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, wrote a letter to the Earl of Nottingham, summarizing the proceedings against the suspected witchcrafts that had taken place at Salem the previous year:

About twenty people were condemned and executed of which number some were thought by many persons to be innocent. The court proceeded in the same method of trying them, which was by the evidence of the afflicted persons, who when they were brought into the court as soon as the suspected witches looked upon them instantly fell to the ground in strange agonies and grievous torments,…upon [which] they made oath that the prisoner at the bar did afflict them and that they saw their shape or spectre come from their bodies, which put them to such pains and torments.1

In early October of 1692, Thomas Brattle, in an anonymous letter to the Court of Oyer and Terminer, complained that “the prisoner at the bar is brought in guilty, and condemned, merely from the evidences of the afflicted persons.”2 These “evidences of the afflicted persons” included not only their grotesque torments in court, but also their subsequent testimony that a specific specter or apparition was responsible for their pains. By October this powerful combination of torment and testimony had resulted in the incarceration by the authorities of well over one hundred and fifty men and women, many of whom were presumed innocent by their communities. Nineteen individuals had been hanged, and one old man who refused to enter a plea had been pressed to death. Of this twenty, fully a third were church members. Moreover, it was against the revered opinion of the Puritan brethren both living and dead and amidst admonition from the Boston clergy and protest from the condemned, that the civil authorities had proceeded throughout the crisis upon the unorthodox belief that whosoever was represented by a diabolical specter must have secretly covenanted with the Devil.

Given such behavior on the part of the authorities, it is no surprise that many, upon contemplation of this tragic episode, have anathematized both judge and juror, just as Nathaniel Hawthorne once condemned his ancestor John Hathorne, who was one of several magistrates who both conducted the preliminary examinations and then later served on the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer. He had “the persecuting spirit,” Hawthorne wrote, and “made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches that their blood ma...

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