Twenty people were put to death during the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692, one of them pressed to death by heavy stones placed atop him until his ribs snapped and he suffocated. He just wouldn't enter a plea, even of not guilty to the charges. So long as he held his silence, authorities would not be able to seize his land or estates. He was, as the Puritans might have said, silent unto death.
Salem is synonymous with mass hsyteria. How is it that authorities put a score of people to death based on evidence that makes Halloween look like a national holiday?
Eve LaPlante's, Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall (Harper Collins, 2008), provides answers.
Sewall was one of the judges who sentenced the convicted witches to death. He was also a lifelong diarist. Sewall, a distant relative of Sewall's, recreates Sewall's world. We see man not so much intoxicated by God, but living in the daily dread that he might not be among the elect. Damnation was ever present in Sewall's mind. Every sign, every act, was a token reflecting the hand of an omnipotent God. In his diary, Sewall reflects what I call the paradox of Puritanism: he writes intimately of his longing for God's approval, writing directly to the God he presumes can know his thoughts and innermost longings; yet this intimacy reflects the terror that God will reject the writer. I believe, Sewall writes, help thou my unbelief. The diary entries are really entreaties to a God that is neither seen nor heard but nonetheless believed to be ever present.
In the early 1690s, Boston and its environs were periodically swept by illness. Quarantines were not uncommon. Hardy Puritans who believed they had been transplanted here to establish a city on a hill, were left to wonder about why illness came from God to rebuke them. And so, too, with the French-Indian wars. Why did God permit Catholics and pagans to decimate God-fearing villages, burning houses, killing and capturing men, women and children? And what of infant death? As Sewall watched one child after another or his die shortly after childbirth, he felt chastened. Evil was afoot, he knew it. In the name of God, something must be done.
Fenster does a good job capturing the grim contours of Sewall's life and the broad pressures to do something, almost anything, to justify the harsh ways of God to men who put their faith in the unseen.
The witchcraft trials ended almost abruptly as they began. The evidence against the so-called witches was, you see, largely "spectral." What this meant is that folks were convicted based not on what they were themselves observed to have done, but based on what the Devil did when assuming a form similar to theirs. Often, witches were identified by hysterical young women, or folks who bore quotidian grudges against them. Sewall lacked legal training but nonetheless knew that spectral evidence had no foundation in law.
Years after the trials and executions, Sewall publicly repented of his role in the trials. He stood in an open church in the pew belonging to his family, and asked the forgiveness of God and his community. He was, apparently, the only judge to do so. Others went to the grave no doubt believing that they had battled the Prince of Darkness on this new frontier.
Fenster's book is well-researched and well-written. Her bibliography has me hungering to learn more. What's more, the book chastens. We may not be Puritans any longer, but I suspect we just as susceptible to mass illusion. Lawyers will appreciate anew the significance of the law of evidence. We really must insist that when a client's liberty and life is on the line, the state acts based on competent evidence. Fear and terror can be lethal.