Were the Salem witches actually guilty?

We’ve all been told that the Salem witch trials – in which twenty people were put to death – were the low point in the judicial history of North America. Now a former Maryland prosecutor has reexamined the famous trials to conclude that – while the condemned may not have possessed supernatural powers – an evaluation of the evidence presented in court does indicate that at least some were, indeed, guilty of witchcraft.

In his new book, William Cooke “separates the morality of criminalizing witchcraft from the job of the colonial courts.” Though he believes outlawing witchcraft is an infringement of freedom of religion, it should be the colonial legislative – not judicial – authorities that are the subject of contemporary ire.

In an interview with Parapolitical, Cooke also explains how the witch trials at Salem helped evolve the legal system we have today.

PARAPOLITICAL: One interesting case in the Salem trials involves Giles Corey who was pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea on a charge of being a warlock. The tradition of pressing is interesting because it speaks to the evolution of common law and how the early courts viewed themselves. Can you briefly explain this tradition for our readers?

COOKE: Laws are generally made now by legislative bodies, such as Parliament, Congress, etc. Common law is judge made law. It survives today, but many old common law crimes, such as murder, have been codified by legislatures. In Maryland, where I practice, a few old common law crimes survive. They are false imprisonment, affray, obstructing and hindering, and riot. I am not aware of any more. They can be punished by any sentence that is not cruel and unusual. The courts decide what is cruel and unusual and in the case of false imprisonment have said, so far, that a life sentence isn’t cruel and unusual.

Pressing someone, of course, would be considered cruel and unusual today. But at the time, it was not or they just didn’t care. The basic idea was to punish you for not going along with the process. A felony conviction would allow the government to seize your property, but if you refused to enter a plea or stood mute, you could not be convicted. It is thought that this was a prime motivation for Giles Corey’s actions.

This problem came up again in 1818, in a federal mail robbery case out of Maryland, United States vs. Hare. Crushing the defendant to death was not seen as an option nor was letting him go. The court got around this by simply entering a not guilty plea and proceeding to trial. In 1825, Congress addressed the issue and passed a law that mandated that all other courts in the US do the same. You have to wonder why they didn’t think of that option before.

Read the full interview here.

10 Comments on "Were the Salem witches actually guilty?"

  1. No thanks

  2. BuzzCoastin | Mar 31, 2013 at 6:57 am |

    I think the witch trials pale in comparison to the modern imprisoning of Black people
    usually for buying, having or selling CIA provided drugs
    now that’s a witch hunt if I never saw one
    and at the very least this shows that justice in America
    has long been criminal

    • I work in the punishment industry as a language monkey (interpreter). I would’ve written “so called” “justice.” It’s beyond criminal. But, yeah.

      • BuzzCoastin | Mar 31, 2013 at 8:56 pm |

        though I appreciate the confirmation
        and I hope your position allows you to do some good
        what I really hope is
        you’ll stop collaborating with the criminals
        that enslave minorities in the name of Justice

  3. geminihigh | Mar 31, 2013 at 10:18 am |

    Years ago I recall watching a TV show on the Witch Trials that claimed there is a rock a few short miles in the woods outside of the Salem city limits covered in painted “satanic” (probably alchemical symbols) glyphs. A team of university of scientists were able to to get a sample of the paint used and determined that it dated back almost exactly to the era of the witch trials. I brought this up during my ninth grade honors lit class when we read “the Crucible” and my teacher thought I was lying, which still pisses me off. To this day I have not been able to find out where the show got this information of the rock from. Anyone here ever hear anything about this rock?

    • kowalityjesus | Apr 2, 2013 at 12:41 pm |

      Glad you’ve still got the fire under your bottom! But no I haven’t heard of it and frankly a find like that sounds perhaps too good to be true, though very deserving of promulgation if it were.

  4. i do think there was real witchcraft going on in Salem at the time of the witch trials. Anyone who knows about the occult and witchcraft knows that suggestion plays a large part. I believe they were also probably poisoned by ergot which might lead to a greater suggestibility and could also have a spiritual cause, too.

    • kowalityjesus | Apr 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm |

      The modern ‘rational’ mindset has its circuits blown by the notion of truth in a matter such as this. I would not doubt some devilish foul play at hand. Who are we to say the accusers were lying or out of their minds, disciples of hollywood?

  5. Daenerys_Targaryen | Apr 3, 2013 at 12:06 pm |

    Interestingly the Salem witch trials were distinct in space and time from those of Europe and probably influenced by the indigenous American witch trials like those among the Huron. For that same reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these women were practicing some kind of syncretism with their Amerindian neighbours as well as having brought Christian folk magic.

    Christians especially Catholics feel they have a unique guilt over witch trials that they needn’t have. The Church in western Europe forbade belief in witches to prevent such hysteria, following an intellectual Roman disdain for superstition, until the transition from the Medieval to the Early Modern Period and its social upheavals. ‘Witches’ were never a pagan religion, though I’m sure some of the accused happened to be heretics or shamanic practitioners (read Mircea Eliade etc for analysis of this hypothesis), but the pagans themselves were bigger witch hunters than were the medieval Christians. Same thing with the Injuns in the New World.

    History doesn’t work by linear ‘progress’.

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