Trial of a Witch at Salem by H. S. Smith, 1892
Trial of a Witch at Salem by H. S. Smith, 1892.
The Salem Witch Trials were a series of hearings that resulted in the execution of twenty individuals and the imprisonment of more than one hundred fifty others on charges of witchcraft, from February 1692 until May 1693. Countless others were accused during the hysteria which swept across colonial Massachusetts. All proceedings were investigative until Governor William Phips (1650-1695) established the Court of Oyer and Terminer to handle the hearings on May 27, 1692. Over the course of the next five months twenty-six people were convicted, before the court was disbanded in October. The Superior Court of Judicature took over the proceedings in January and another three people were found guilty, but they were later pardoned. May of 1693 saw the last of the trials in which all five accused were found not guilty. What had begun as an investigation into the strange illnesses of the Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and several other girls in Salem Village, erupted into widespread panic fueled by fear, jealousy, and religious extremism. It was not until spectral evidence and the touch test were no longer permitted that the fervor began to wane, as it became harder to present concrete evidence against the accused.
In wake of the tragedy the courts were criticized and many sought forgiveness for their involvement. A petition was presented to the General Court, in 1709, for the reversal of attainder for twenty-two people who were convicted. A bill was passed in 1711 reversing judgement on those listed in the 1709 petition. However, there were six convicted people who were not cleared until 1957 when their descendants urged the General Court to formally declare their ancestors innocent. While an act was passed declaring the accused innocent, it only mentioned one of them by name. Those five remaining names were added to a resolution that was passed in 2001, finally declaring all of the accused as innocent.
The Salem Witch Trials were a tragic episode of American history that has become an example of the dangers posed by extremism and lapses in due process. The paragraph, written by John Ridpath (1840-1900), that accompanied this illustration, in Columbus and Columbia: A Pictorial History of the Man and the Nation, admonished the role Reverend Samuel Parris and Cotton Mather played in the atrocity, calling Mather "chiefly responsible for the horrors and crimes that ensued." Ridpath describes the hysteria as a diseased delirium of the mind that persisted until fear finally gave way to reason.