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The Massachusetts legislature may soon write the final chapter in the strange story of a controversy which rocked the staid colony of Massachusetts Bay to its Puritan foundations more than 250 years ago.
A recently-introduced bill calls upon the legislators of the Commonwealth at long last to reverse legally the convictions of the victims of the most famous judicial injustice in American history--the Salem witch trials.
For all the notoriety which the judgment of history has fastened upon the Salem witch-hunts, the true story of the trials is a little-known one. It is an intensely dramatic story, numbering among its villains many of the great men of colonial Massachusetts. And in the hero's role stands a President of Harvard College.
The great delusion began innocently enough in 1691 in the little town of Salem Village along Massachusetts' north shore. To escape the gloom of a dreary New England winter, the young girls of the neighborhood began to gather in the evening at the home of the local minister, the Reverend Samuel Parris, who had several children of his own. The chief object of their attentions was the Reverend's servant, an aged West Indian Negro woman named Tituba. To those impressionable children from austere Puritan households, Tituba told romantic stories of the colorful land of her birth. All through the winter of 1691-1692, the girls sat entranced by the fire-side and heard chilling tales of voodoo charms, witches' curses, and the like.
Soon alarming things began to happen in Salem Village. In the spring of 1692, many of the regular members of Tituba's audience developed pronounced symptoms of hysteria. Their actions can doubtless be easily explained by modern psychiatry. But to the Puritans of Salem, indeed to any seventeenth century man, these were puzzling and frightening phenomena. The most plausible explanation seemed to be that the children had been bewitched. After all, everyone know the power of the Devil and no one doubted the existence of witches. Does not the Bible say: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."? And had not one of the most learned men of the day, the eminent Cotton Mather, recently published a voluminous work on the evidences of witchcraft?
These seeds of fear and distrust fell on fertile soil. For Massachusetts was just emerging from a period of extreme anxiety. Only a few years before, in the last years of England's ill-fated James II, the colony had lost its precious charter and had felt the weight of royal autocracy under the governorship of Sir Edmund Andros. Even as the witch craze began, Massachusetts representatives were at the court of the new King, seeking a new charter. And the memory of King Phillip's War, with its horrors of Indian savagery, was still fresh in many New England minds.
At any rate, it was not long before the strange behavior of the Salem girls goaded the town authorities to action. On March 1, 1692, Tituba and two other rather disreputable women of the neighborhood were brought to trial as witches. Surprisingly enough, Tituba readily admitted her guilt and identified the other defendants as co-conspirators in a plot to bewitch the devout Puritan community. Apparently enjoying the limelight into which she had been so unexpectedly cast, she called upon her exotic imagination to supply the judges with new tales of mystery. She told of elaborate witches' convocations which she herself had attended and gave the astonished courtroom a complete description of the art of broomstick navigation.
Arrest after arrest followed in the next few weeks, as the girls accused people at random during their hysterical trances. At first the victims were generally people of eccentric habits--many were not church members and the Puritan community had small sympathy for them. But as the craze spread, no one seemed safe from accusation. Even a minister, the Reverend George Burroughs, a Harvard graduate of the Class of 1670 and the former pastor of the Salem church, was seized. Soon scores of persons were under suspicion and no end was in sight. The matter became the concern of the whole colony and a special tribunal came to Salem to hear the cases. It consisted of some of the outstanding leaders of Massachusetts, headed by William Stoughton, Class of 1650, soon to become Deputy-Governor of the colony.
Then, on the evening of May 14, 1692, a ship docked in Boston Harbor. The sturdy figure of the Reverend Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, strode ashore, accompanied by Sir William Phips, newly-appointed governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. For four long years, Mather had been in England, leading the fight to secure a new charter for the colony. At last his mission had ended and he was ready to resume his Harvard duties again, as well as his numerous ministerial tasks.
The colony to which Mather now returned was in a turmoil over the great witch-hunt, which continued unabated; still no voice of authority had been raised against the trials. It would be pleasant to report that Increase Mather immediately flamed with indignation at the witchcraft craze, but the issue hardly seemed to rouse him at first. His long-neglected duties at Harvard absorbed his attention and he apparently saw no reason to question the verdicts of the duly-constituted authorities of the colony, men for the most part trained and educated at Harvard College.
So the arrests and trials went on and as spring lengthened into summer, the executions began. On June 10, the first witch was hanged on Salem's Gallows Hill. In July, five went to their deaths on the gallows, in August five more, and on a single day in September, eight men and women were hanged. Contrary to the legends which surround the trials, no witch was ever burned in Massachusetts. The only deviation from the hanging procedure same in the case of an 81-year-old man, Giles Cory. Arraigned on witchcraft charges before the Salem court, Cory steadfastly refused to answer any of the judges questions, even disregarding their demand that he plead guilty or not guilty. The magistrate made short shrift of the old man, however; he was pressed to death with huge stones for his stubborn silence.
Distrust of Trials
But if Increase Mather's conscience worked slowly, it at least worked surely. All through the summer, with the witchcraft mania reaching new heights, his doubts began to grow. The earliest sign of his increasing distrust of the trial procedures came in the middle of June when, with several other ministers, he responded to a request for advice from the judges. The group of ministers suggested that the courts evaluate carefully the so-called "spectral evidence"--that given by the afflicted girls of Salem; no one was quite ready yet to dispute directly the testimony of the girls, but their conduct was now an object of suspicion. On August 1, the Cambridge Ministerial Association, of which Mather was the most prominent member, met in the old Harvard Hall to discuss the matter further. The ministers adjourned without officially expressing their views, but asked Mather to prepare a report on the matter for a later meeting.
On October 3, Mather rose before the Cambridge ministers and read a long and scholarly paper, later published under the awesome title of Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits. At last his views had crystallized and he was determined to speak out. While still professing to believe in the possibility of witchcraft, Mather explicitly denounced the use of spectral evidence. And while emphasizing his great respect for the court, he cast doubt on many of the other tests the trial judges had accepted as proof. In an eloquent and memorable passage, Mather said: "It is better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent Person should be Condemned . . . It is better that a Guilty Person should be absolved, than that he should without sufficient ground of Convictions be condemned."
Mather's statement, which quickly circulated in the leading circles of the colony and was published in book form within a month, broke the back of the witchcraft hysteria. Several weeks later, the court which had tried the Salem cases adjourned, never to sit again. No more executions took place in the colony of Massachusetts; the following spring, Governor Phips pardoned 150 people who had been imprisoned on witchcraft charges. The fury of the mania subsided as quickly as it had come, when Puritan good sense re-asserted itself. Soon the witchcraft trials were but an ugly memory, though Puritanism has never lost the stigma which the witch-hunts placed on it.
Yet, to the story of Increase Mather's courageous fight for deconey and sanity, history adds a bizarre note of irony. A few years after the trials, a book appeared in Boston which denounced Cotton Mather, Increase's son, for his part in the Salem witch-hunts. But although Cotton's son, for his part in the Salem witch-hunts. But although Cotton's role had, in fact, been at best a rather ambiguous one. Increase reseswiftly and violently to his son's defense. Legend has it that a curious ceremony took place in Cambridge a few days after the appearance of the of finding book. With increase Mather presiding, copies of the work were consigned to the flames of a huge bonfire. For the first and only time in Harvard history, the smoke of bringing books rose over the Harvard Yard
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