June 10, 2016

Dear Liberty,

     "I am as innocent as the child unborn,” Bridget sternly confessed.  Unfortunately her confident statement did not prevent the jury from finding her guilty of the charge of witchcraft.  The jury’s conviction rang in Bridget's ears as the crowd's reaction turned into a loud roar.  She had been accused of witchcraft many times before, but earlier admissions for appeasement never seemed to grant satisfaction.  Some of the accused were not only admitting to their charges, they were indicting others as well, as a show of good faith in efforts to save their lives.  Bridget promised herself she would never capitulate again.

     Bridget was escorted back to her crowded cell to wait eight days before her execution.  Some of the women in the cell talked among themselves, while others cried or sat quietly praying.  One thing they all shared was fear.  The town of Salem had gone mad.

     The morning of June 10, 1692, started with Bridget being transported to Gallows Hill.  A crowd had gathered and seemed eager to watch the display of death about to transpire.  

     "Harlot," “Witch," “Sinner."  After a while, Bridget just tuned out the insults and accusations.  She gathered all the strength her 60-year-old body could muster as she stood tall and proud on the platform of the gallows.  Looking over the crowd she found a few compassionate faces.  Some with tears in their eyes.  Some with prayers on their lips.

     As the bag was placed over her head and the noose tighten around her neck, she already felt numb.  By the time her body was dropped through the hole, she was already gone.

     Bridget Bishop, tavern owner, immoral dresser (for a Puritan) and wife of a third husband, was the first victim of the Salem Witch Trials that started in the spring of 1692.  In February of that year, the Reverend Samuel Parris' daughter and niece, 9-year-old Elizabeth Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams, began experiencing contortions, fits, and screaming outbursts.  The Salem doctor diagnosed them as bewitched.  

     Since the 15th century, Europe had been engaging in witch-hunts, blaming witchcraft for similar unexplainable behavior.   Distinguished Boston minister and scientist Cotton Mather had recently studied similar unexplainable behavior of several children of a Boston family.  He published his work in Memorable Providences (1684), which many now believe greatly influenced the wide acceptance of these infamous trials.  All this may explain the doctor’s diagnosis.  Pressure soon mounted for the girls to name names.  

     The girls identified three women of lower status as their tormentors.  Tituba was the Parris’ Caribbean slave.  Sarah Good was a homeless beggar and Sarah Osborne, an elderly woman, had not gone to church for a year.  The women’s status allowed the community to easily believe the girls.

     On March 1, the three women were questioned.  Tituba confessed to speaking with the Devil, signing his book and agreeing to do his work.  She also began charging others as working with her.  While Good and Osborne maintained their innocence, all three were promptly jailed.

     As other girls started developing symptoms, more citizens were accused of witchcraft.  It was not long before some of the most pious, churchgoing people were accused.  Even Sarah Good’s 4-year-old little girl, Dorothy, was questioned and suspected of witchcraft.  As more were questioned and arrested, several confessed and accused others in the hope of sparing their own lives.

     While this was occurring, Cotton’s father and fellow minister, Increase Mather, was in England arguing for Massachusetts’ religious freedom.  As the president of Harvard University, he was chosen to represent the state in this important issue.  (see "Higher" Education)  Denying the state’s quest for liberty, King William and Queen Mary did allow Increase to choose the new governor.  Mather returned to America with Governor William Phipps in early May to a quickly growing chaos.

     Courts were so overloaded that newly appointed Phipps established a special court on May 27 of “oyer and terminer”, meaning to hear and to decide, for the trials.  The proceedings soon became such a spectacle that even evidence of ghostly and spirit visions, or spectral evidence, was allowed.  Cotton Mather quickly sent a letter to authorities urging them not to allow spectral evidence.  Being he was already very vocal in supporting the trials, his heed to exclude the questionable testimonies went largely unnoticed.  Days later, Bridget Bishop was hanged.  

     As more and more devout, upstanding citizens were accused and found guilty, many began to realize the insanity of the whole event.  Increase Mather perceived the miscarriage of justice and unlawful proceedings and spoke out.  At the end of the summer, he penned a tract entitled, Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, in which he contended it was “better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person should be condemned."  With this, as his son had done, he appealed the courts to exclude spectral evidence.  Another esteemed Boston minister, Samuel Willard, also distributed his argument, Some Miscellany Observations, which proposed the visions might very well be Satan himself disguised as an innocent person.  

     The two works were sent to Governor Phipps.  These essays, along with the fact that Phipps’ wife was questioned for witchcraft, persuaded Phipps to dissolve the current court in October.  He replaced it with the Superior Court of Judicature, which prohibited spectral evidence.  He also ceased new arrests for witchcraft.  Once that change was made, convictions became almost non-existent.  By the following January, the trials had stopped altogether, and Phipps had pardoned and released those still in prison by May, including the three convicted since October.

     During this time of insanity, a total of nineteen suspects were hanged and one was crushed under rocks.  There were also at least four that died in prison.  As tragic as this is for our country, the actions of just two predominate ministers helped limit the outrageous trials to about a 6-month ordeal.  Europe’s witch trials occurred for centuries and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.

     Over the years, many have tried to explain the hysteria displayed in the Salem Witch Trials.  In 1976, Science Magazine published a study in which fungus ergot was found to cause such symptoms as vomiting, muscle spasms and hallucinations.  This fungus is found in such things as rye and wheat under the same conditions that the Salem Puritans would have experienced in 1692.  Today others might read the symptoms and associate them with an affliction such as autism.

     Others contribute the hysteria more to opportunity.  There were divisions between residents due to a recent split in the church.  As with today, there was jealousy between rich and poor.  Some coveted other’s property and saw an opportunity to obtain it.  All this disunity reveals itself when looking at who the accusers were and who they specifically accused.

     Before we contend that we are more sophisticated than the Puritans, maybe we should review our current behavior.  Americans are calling other Americans their "enemy" just because they chose to support a different presidential candidate, even when they’re in the same political party.  Private business owners have been targeted and marked for ruin for not supporting certain political agendas.  State Attorney Generals are designing a way to fine, punish and imprison climate change deniers.  (see The Science Is Settled, Part II)  Christian business owners are specifically sought out, sued and bankrupted because they don't want to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.  (see We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service and What Is Love?)  It is 1692 all over again.

     Over time, several Salem witch jurors realized their mistake in convicting innocent people.  In 1696, many confessed they had been very wrong in their actions.  In January of 1697, a day of fasting was declared by the Massachusetts General Court.  They also ruled the trials unlawful, which prompted justice Samuel Sewall to deliver a public apology.

     We, as a nation, are as hysterical, irrational, and sinful as those in Salem during the trials.  The question at this point is will Americans ever wake up and repent as Massachusetts did.  God willing, we will.

     That’s my 2 cents.