The last days of the Salem hysteria

Another significant change occurred in October 1692: the English government granted Massachusetts a new charter that gave jury power to all males in the community. Formerly only church members had the right to sit on a jury, thus ensuring that the opinions and beliefs of the church would determine the fate of the accused. Now that juries would be drawn from the general public, who tended to be more aware of social problems than the Puritan elite, the accused stood a better chance of not being put to death. As an extension of this new provision, on November 25 a superior court was created to hear cases. The court did not have its first hearing, however, until a full year later. In the meantime jails were being packed to full capacity as accusations of witchcraft continued to circulate throughout the colony. The general court finally decided to issue an emergency plan to deal with people who were languishing in jail cells. On December 16 the court passed a special act to allow trials for the remaining accused witches.

Several of the judges involved in the new hearings had also sat in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, yet no one ques

Sir William Phipps put an end to the witchcraft executions by shutting down the court of Oyer and Terminer. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

tioned whether these men had sent innocent people to the gallows. Instead the focus was on the use of spectral evidence and the girls' courtroom antics, rather than on the credibility of the judges involved in the previous trials. The girls immediately encountered a different reception when they were called to Gloucester in November for the trial of a young woman who was supposedly possessed by the devil. In their usual fashion the girls declared that the young woman had been bewitched by three other Gloucester women. Yet village officials took no steps to imprison or try the women. On the journey home from Gloucester the girls met with even greater indifference. While crossing a crowded bridge they passed an old woman and proceeded to go into fits. They screamed that the woman was a witch, but to their surprise not a single person reacted to their hysterics—they were treated as if they were invisible. People walked around them and went about their business, causing the girls to realize their reign was ending. When they returned to Salem not one girl had a public fit or made another

The Crucible

In 1953 American playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, a drama based on the Salem witch-hunts. Featuring characters drawn from actual participants in the trials, The Crucible addresses the complex moral dilemmas of John Proctor, who is wrongly accused of practicing witchcraft. Through a depiction of the mass frenzy of the witch hunt, Miller examined the social and psychological aspects of group pressure and the effect on individual ethics (knowledge of right and wrong), dignity, and beliefs. The play has been interpreted as a thinly disguised critique of Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious investigations of communism in the United States in the

1950s. In a personal experience reminiscent of (similar to) the Salem trials, Miller himself was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1957. Although he admitted that he had attended a meeting of communist writers, he refused to identify anyone he had met there and denied ever having been a member of the Communist Party. As a result, Miller was found guilty of contempt of Congress, a conviction that was later overturned. The Crucible is still performed throughout the world and was most recently adapted as a feature film in 1996, with Daniel Day-Lewis starring as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams.

accusation. With the girls now effectively silenced, the courts acted to free and pardon the remaining prisoners.

On January 3, 1693, during a special trial, charges against thirty of the accused were dismissed on the basis of insufficient evidence, namely the fact that spectral evidence had been the primary evidence against them. When the jury inquired as to how much worth they should grant spectral evidence, Judge William Stoughton responded, as quoted by Frances Hill in A Delusion of Satan, "As much as of chips in wort," which meant it should be worth nothing. Twenty-six more people were actually tried, but only three women were found guilty. Since they were developmentally handicapped and mildly retarded, they could not formally defend themselves during the trial. Thus the women became convenient scapegoats: the court was determined to find someone guilty to show that the judges had not been wrong in the previous trials. All three were sentenced to be hanged immediately as a symbolic end to the trials. At this point Phipps stepped in and granted a reprieve for the women as well as five others who were still awaiting executions ordered by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. In response, as recounted by Hill, Stoughton stormed off the bench and screamed in fury: "We were in a position to have cleared the land . . . who is it then that obstructs the course of justice I know not; the Lord be merciful to the country."

The following April the remaining defendants were freed after a superior court hearing in Boston. In May Phipps demanded the discharge of all prisoners awaiting trial, many of whom had been forced to stay in jail until their families could pay their fees. By this time several people had perished in the intolerable conditions and others were so financially ruined that they could not pay for their own freedom. Prisoners were charged dearly for maintenance, clothing, fuel, transport to jail, court and prison fees, discharge from jail, and even reprieve from execution. By autumn people were petitioning for waivers on their fees and were asking to be placed under "house arrest" so they could care for their families or receive the care they needed themselves. Phipps granted an amnesty to some prisoners, but innocent people had already been robbed of property, family, health, money, and social standing. Many did not live to tell the tale or recover from the devastation. Apologies and reprieves from the courts simply came too late. In just one year twenty people had been executed and countless others had lost their lives in jail cells. The Salem tragedy had reached enormous proportions, and nothing could undo the destruction.

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