Salem Witch Trials

There is a long history of witness testimony being given an excessive amount of weight in American trials. One prominent example of this is the Salem Witch Trials.

In January of 1692, two young girls (9-year-old Elizabeth Parris and 11-year-old Abigail Williams) from Salem Village, Massachusetts, began having fits, including violent contortions and uncontrollable screaming. Although a modern study suggests that these fits were the result of the children consuming the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat, and other cereals, at the time, the local doctor diagnosed bewitchment. Shortly thereafter, other young girls in the community began to exhibit similar symptoms, and three local women were arrested after the girls accused them of witchcraft. 

Two of the women denied using witchcraft, however, the third, Tituba, a slave from the Caribbean confessed, probably hoping to save herself by acting as an informer. As part of her confession, Tituba claimed that there were other witches in the community that had acted alongside her.

This led to mass hysteria within the town of Salem, and soon many more people had been accused of and arrested for witchcraft. In the trials that followed, the primary evidence that was used for a conviction was witness testimony. In fact, some of the witness testimony that was presented wasn’t given by people who had seen the accused practicing witchcraft, but by people who had had dreams or visions of the accused practicing witchcraft. Altogether 19 people were hanged for witchcraft, 7 accused witches died in jail, and one man was pressed to death by stones for refusing to plea.

Eventually the trials were deemed unlawful, and in 1711 Massachusetts Colony passed legislation that restored the good names of those convicted of witchcraft, as well as provided financial restitution for their heirs. In 1953, Arthur Miller used the Salem Witch Trials as the basis for his play “The Crucible,” which he published during the Red Scare (a time of growing fear against communism during the 1950s) in an attempt to remind Americans not to rely primarily on witness testimony when judging innocence or guilt.