Deals with the Devil
Dateline: June 1692, Special Court of Oyer and Terminar, Salem, Massachusetts.
On this June day, there were no thoughts of enjoying the upcoming warm summer months. Rather, Bridget Bishop stood before the Special Court of Oyer and Terminar, a tribunal established by the new Governor of Massachusetts in order to address the dozens of accused witches. Earlier that same day, a grand jury endorsed an indictment against Bridget Bishop for not living a moral Puritan lifestyle; wearing black clothing; and practicing witchcraft.
Bishop was the first to be tried before the special court with the new Lieutenant Governor, Thomas Newton, as its Chief Magistrate. The court featured a prosecutor on behalf of the Crown, although Bishop was not allowed representation in her defense. Of course, only being allotted minutes between the indictment and trial beginning probably would not allow much of an opportunity for a robust defense by even the best attorney.
Apparently, the case against Bridget Bishop appears open and shut as the court convicted her of all charges that very same day. Within seven days, the Crown executed Bridget Bishop by hanging at Gallows Hill in Salem. Between June 1692 through September 1692, nineteen were put to death at Gallows Hill each having been deemed a witch.
Immediately following Bridget Bishop’s execution, the special court adjourned for twenty days to seek advice from the most influential Puritan ministers in New England for comment “upon the state of things as they then stood.” Good to see that the Court of Oyer and Terminar sought very specific guidance and avoided open ended inquiries which would allow church leaders to opine on whatever they wish. Oh. Wait. The leading Puritan minister of the day, Cotton Mather, obliged the court — more on Cotton Mather later.
How did Salem, Massachusetts become the epicenter of witch trials? Did covens of witches reside in the greater Salem area? Perhaps an early, undiscovered version of Hogwarts was located near Salem with the witches merely faculty and staff trying to make a living. Perhaps witches have been and remain among us while the Puritan ministers in Salem possessed a keener sense to uncover nefarious witch activity.
Perhaps, just perhaps, a community such as Salem in the late 1600s was poised to want to believe in witches and their actions. At this time in colonial New England, and indeed in Europe itself, widespread belief in the supernatural was the norm. Most believed that the devil engaged in the practice of granting people powers to harm others in return for their loyalty. Those who made such deals with the devil became witches.
Against this backdrop, the New England Puritans essentially trusted no outsiders. They had been forced to flee England and settled where they feared attacks from Native American tribes. Salem Village, where the Witch Trials took place, resented the adjoining, more affluent, Salem Town. Tensions ran high in the community with clear suspicion cast on anyone who did not fit in. A review of some of the charges against Witch No. 1, Bridget Bishop, confirms this attitude: Bishop wore black clothing which was against Puritanical norms, and, therefore, she must be a witch. Johnny Cash would not have done well in Salem.
Given these cultural and religious dynamics, any outsider or non-conformer could easily become a target. In 1692, these entrenched suspicions translated to allegations of witchcraft. In January 1692, two young girls had convulsions. A local doctor diagnosed them as “bewitched.” Side note: I suppose bewitchment was taught in medical school at that time. In February, a few additional girls demonstrated similar behavior. These girls accused three women of bewitching them: Tituba – a local slave; Sarah Good – a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborn – an elderly widow. All accused were “outsiders” in the Salem community.
All three accused were publicly questioned before local magistrates. Good and Osborn denied the allegations, but Tituba confessed. Tituba claimed there were other witches and she would name names if her life would be spared. The hysteria begins.
Within months, about 150 were named as witches. The accused agree to identify other witches and confess to being a witch in exchange for their lives. This vicious accusation cycle continues apparently until the Salem community started to run low on outsiders to accuse. When accused witches named Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse as fellow witches, both members in good standing in the Puritan church, it became personal for the Puritans. Clearly, these women should be above reproach. Besides, if good standing members of the church could be accused, so could others. Now jeopardy became real for all. Amazingly, the accusations thereafter virtually ceased as quickly as they started.
The precipitous rise and fall in interest to discover witches is of little solace to those accused in 1692. If the new Court of Oyer and Terminar functioned as a true court of law, then there must have been actual evidence to justify convictions. It turns out that the legal processes and rules of evidence in 1692 were slightly different than today’s procedures.
Typically, the accused would stand charged with afflicting witchcraft and making an unlawful covenant with the devil. The evidence could consist of testimony from the victims such as the young girls who had fits and convulsions. Notably, many of these young girls were members of families who were in land rights disputes with the families of the accused witch.
Then, of course, was the Touch Test. If the accused witch touched the victim having a fit and the fit stopped, then the accused clearly was the person who afflicted the victim. As explained by Puritan minister John Hale: “the Witch by cast of her eye sends forth a Malefick Venome into the Bewitched to cast him into a fit, and therefore the touch of the hand doth by sympathy cause that venome to return into the Body of the Witch again.” Now there is a perfectly objective test and an entirely reasonable explanation of how it operates. Convict them all!
In addition, accused witches would be examined for moles and blemishes anywhere on their bodies. If the mole or blemish was insensitive to the touch, it would be deemed a “witch’s teat”. Discovery of a witch’s teat would be admitted as de facto evidence of witchcraft.
The most compelling evidence remained spectral evidence. The afflicted person would testify to seeing an apparition or shape of the person supposedly afflicting them. The Puritans taught that people needed to give permission to the devil to allow their shapes to be used to afflict others. The Court of Oyer and Terminar ruled that if the afflicted victim saw an apparition of the accused or in the shape of the accused, such constituted evidence that the accused witch had been complicit with the devil.
Re-enter Puritan minister Cotton Mather. During the twenty day court recess after the conviction of Bridget Bishop, Mather penned a multi-point open letter addressing the use of spectral evidence at witch trials. For context, Cotton Mather previously published pamphlets about witches and reliance on spectral evidence to establish deals with the devil. Yet, surprisingly, many points in Mather’s open letter cautioned about the reliability of spectral evidence, the need for corroborating evidence, and the inherent unfairness to the accused in reliance on presumptions.
Unfortunately, there was more. Cotton Mather’s open letter began with encouragement to the court and prosecutor that they were doing God’s work to protect “our poor neighbors, that are now suffering by molestations from the invisible world.” The honorable rulers of the court have been charged by God to detect abominable witchcrafts. In closing, the laws of God and the wholesome statutes of the English nation mandated the speedy and vigorous prosecution of all those who have rendered themselves obnoxious.
These introductory and closing sections served as the clear signal to the court. Trials proceeded with those in charge now performing a service not merely for the community, but as God mandated. Years later, after use of spectral evidence became widely criticized, Cotton Mather republished this letter, but left out the introduction and closing points leaving only his very own “criticisms” of spectral evidence. What an upstanding man of the cloth!
Attending the Salem Witch Trials and executions, Cotton Mather proved himself shrewd on many fronts. One convicted witch, George Burroughs, made a speech prior to his execution at Gallows Hill. Burroughs had served as minister to the Salem Puritan congregation ten years earlier. Burroughs proclaimed his innocence while questioning what will become of those who knowingly falsely accused others or participated in the mockeries of a real trial. Burroughs closed by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Those gathered about were awestruck as witches supposedly could not be able to recite that prayer. Rumblings emerged questioning Burroughs’ guilt. Burroughs was nonetheless hanged.
Sensing the unease among the crowd, Cotton Mather declared that the devil himself rested on George Burroughs’ shoulder and dictated the Lord’s Prayer for Burroughs to repeat. The fine minister warned those gathered that the devil could transform himself into an Angel of Light to trick people to do his bidding. According to Cotton Mather, the crowd had just witnessed the devil at work through George Burroughs. Apparently, there was no “bottom” for Cotton Mather.
The Salem Witch Trials continued from June 1692 through September 1692. During this time, approximately 150 were imprisoned; 19 were tried, pronounced guilty, and hanged; and one refused to plead at his arraignment and then tutored to death by peine forte et dure. On October 12, 1692, the Governor ordered cessation of all trials in the Special Court of Oyer and Terminar. The Governor disbanded this special court on October 29, 1692.
I have given thought to whether mediation would assist for those embroiled in the Salem Witch Trials. I have ideas regarding how the parties might want to structure any resolution and how to monitor any agreement. One conceptual challenge is more fundamental. For a successful mediation, all stakeholders need to be represented and ultimately buy into the process.
The person accused of being a witch would readily agree to participate if for no other reason than to avoid the fate at Gallows Hill. The supposed victim most probably would agree in order to get their life returned to normal or at least stop having fits. The Puritan church leaders would be necessary to ensure acceptance of any result in the church community. Local civic leaders, probably also Puritan church members, may need a say in the process and probably want to best ensure stability in their community. The Governor’s office probably needs to be included and would participate as the Governor recently convened the Oyer and Terminar Court and it appears to be of questionable success. But there is one more.
The devil appears to be a necessary stakeholder. The devil could lose the deals with the accused witches and presumably would want recompense. But how do you get the devil to mediation and why would the devil participate? The devil’s history may suggest a willingness of engagement. We have all heard about cutting “deals with the devil”. In fact, the accused witches supposedly have already cut such deals with the devil. The devil is a negotiator, always looking for a new or better deal. Here is an opportunity to expand the devil’s network. Here is an opportunity for the devil to change the negative image of dealing with the devil. I think the devil would welcome the opportunity to participate. Admittedly, there may still be trust issues in third parties dealing with the devil and the mediation will need a separate breakout room dedicated to the devil. But as a stakeholder, I suggest securing buy in from the devil can be achieved.
As for the substance of achieving a successful resolution through mediation of the Salem Witch Trials, I fear the devil may storm out of negotiations claiming that Cotton Mather lies too much.