1692 October 8

Salem Witch Hunt Begins to End: Governor Bans Use of “Spectral Evidence”


The infamous 1692 Salem Witch Hunt began to end on this day when Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor Phipps banned the use of “spectral evidence” at the trials of suspected witches.

The Witch Hunt began in early 1692 when several young girls began acting a bizarre ways, and when questioned eventually said they were influenced by witches. Soon many others were accused of being witches, and the hysteria spread. Eventually twenty people convicted of being witches were executed. The first was Bridget Bishop, hanged on June 10, 1692.

The interrogation of suspected witches began with the question, “What evil spirit have you familiarity with?” It was echoed during the Cold War when HUAC and other communist-hunters asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Over the years, many different theories to explain the Salem witch hunt hysteria have been offered: mental illness; a medical epidemic; political repression (see the Cold War analogy below); patriarchy; social class tensions; conflict over shifting cultural attitudes among the Puritans; and outright fraud. The energetic debate continues, with two new books published in 2015.

During the Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s, many Americans equated the anti-Communist hysteria with the Salem Witch Trials. The great American playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, making that equation. The play opened in New York City on January 22, 1953. Miller himself was subject to the anti-Communist “witch hunt.” He was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on June 21, 1956, and was cited for contempt of Congress when he refused to name other people as Communists. He was convicted of contempt, but the conviction was overturned on August 7, 1958.

In January 2016 a team of researchers announced that they had identified the spot where the Salem Witch Hunt victims were hanged. The site, known as Proctor’s Ledge, is on a small, wooded city owned plot of land behind a Walgreen’s pharmacy. The location had actually been identified about one hundred years earlier, but this information was neglected and then forgotten. The research team, known as the Gallows Hill Project, also determined that the hangings were not conducted on a gallows. Instead, a rope was probably thrown over the limb of a large tree.

Read the best new book on the subject: Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692 (2015)

Read: Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (2002)

Visit the memorial to the Salem Witch trials: http://www.salemweb.com/memorial/memorial.shtml

Learn more about the trials: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/salem.htm

See the film based on Arthur Miller’s play: The Crucible (1996)

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