Top of page

Evidence from Invisible Worlds in Salem

Share this post:

Exactly 328 years ago yesterday, authorities in Salem, Massachusetts executed 5 people, making the nineteenth of August a particularly bloody day in the history of the Salem Witch Trials. Those people were Reverend George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., John Proctor, and John Willard. Salem’s witch hysteria lasted from early 1692 until the following year and led to the indictment of over 150 people and the execution of 20, 19 by hanging and one who was crushed to death (Craker, p. 333).

One of the reasons that the witch trials stand out in the history of early American law is that the court admitted spectral evidence to the proceedings. Spectral evidence was testimony in which witnesses claimed that the accused appeared to them and did them harm in a dream or a vision. Contemporary witch lore held that witches could project themselves spiritually, either directly or with the aid of Satan, in order to harm their victims from afar. The witch’s victims might then see a spectral image of the witch approach them as an apparition. The specter of the witch could pinch, bite, or choke its victims, or otherwise harass them while the witch remained in a remote location. Its appearance might be that of the witch or of an animal acting as the witch’s familiar. The court could then use the witness’s testimony of these events to support a conviction for witchcraft (Craker, p. 332).

A painting showing a trial for witchcraft, in a courtroom filled with shouting and arguing people.
Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for witchcraft, photograph of an 1855 painting by Matteson, Tompkins Harrison, 1813-1884 [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]
The accusers in Salem reported spectral attacks by many of the 156 people that were indicted for witchcraft. Adding a sensational quality to their reports, the accusers called out in fright and spoke wildly during the questioning of the accused, as though they were witnessing spectral goings-on that were invisible to other people in the courtroom.

The use of spectral evidence was introduced to the court by William Stoughton, the recently-appointed Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, who served as the court’s chief justice. According to Reverend John Hale, who witnessed the proceedings, the court based its use of spectral evidence on the opinion of Matthew Hale, a leading legal authority in England, who admitted spectral evidence in a criminal trial for witchcraft over which he presided. Record of that trial appeared in a 1682 publication called A Tryal of Witches taken from a contemporaneous report of the proceedings of the Bury St. Edmunds witch trial of 1662. Reverend John Hale noted that the Salem judges possessed and referred to a copy of that book as the justification for the practice.

The admission of spectral evidence was, however, a novelty in Salem. Until 1692, court procedure in Massachusetts operated under the rules of the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the 1648 Laws and Liberties, and the laws enacted by the Massachusetts General Assembly. The Salem Witch Trials took place at a unique time in Massachusetts colonial history. The Crown had abolished the colony’s old charter and replaced it with a new one in October of 1691, and at the time that the witchcraft accusations began to emerge, it was not yet clear whether any of the rules that had heretofore governed the colony’s courts were still in effect. This uncertainty allowed the new leadership to adopt the expediencies it preferred to bring the crisis to a swift conclusion.

In the interim between the old and new legal order, the new governor, William Phips, created a court to handle criminal proceedings, the Court of Oyer and Terminer, a body with seven judges, which he appointed Stoughton to lead. By October of 1692, with 20 people dead and many indicted people yet to be tried, Governor Phips intervened and ordered the court to stop using spectral evidence. He went further and dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer later that month.

Controversy surrounded the inclusion of spectral evidence in Stoughton’s court. The anonymous “Return of Several Ministers” that is reprinted in Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience is the answer the court received after soliciting the opinions of Massachusetts clergy on the legitimacy of its use. Their answer was convoluted and difficult to interpret. Cotton Mather, who may have drafted the “Return of Several Ministers,” seems to have distilled its determination in a letter to John Richards, one of the judges in the trials, on May 31, 1692. In it, Mather cautions that it can be used, but that one must not credit it more than it deserves since the Devil might well assume the image of an innocent person. Mather appeared to suggest that spectral evidence was sufficient to indict, but insufficient to convict (Craker, p. 336). One scholar argues that no one was executed on the grounds of spectral evidence alone by the time the governor suspended its use (Craker, p. 339).

An engraving of Cotton Mather from the shoulders up.
Cotton Mather, engraving by an unknown artist. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]
Nevertheless, many have seen Mather as a major influence on the way the court was conducted. Mather, the son of the president of Harvard College and an important young protestant minister, penned a work in 1689 called Memorable Providences, which detailed an account of a supposed attack by witchcraft on a young woman in Massachusetts. A contemporary of Mather, Robert Calef, claimed that it was Mather’s work that influenced the community’s views of witchcraft before the crisis in Salem. He noted that Mather pressured William Phips to appoint Stoughton as chief justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and that Mathers supported the investigations vocally, generally assuming guilt on the part of the accused. Calef leveled his critique of the witch trials as a rebuttal to Mather’s published account of them which appeared in 1693. In response to criticisms, Mather made this memorable statement about the choices the court made over the course of the tragic preceding year:

“What was done in the dark times of our troubles from the invisible world, all honest men believe, they did in conscience of the oath of God upon them, and they followed unto the best of their understanding as we are informed the precedents of England and Scotland and other Nations on such dark and doleful occasion. When they found the matter beyond the reach of mortals, they stopped” (Drake, p. 122, n. 122).

More about the legal background of witch persecution can be found in Clare’s post about regulating the unknown.

Secondary Sources

Craker, Wendel D. “Spectral Evidence, Non-Spectral Acts of Witchcraft, and Confession at Salem in 1692.” The Historical Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 (June 1997), pp. 331-358.

Drake, Samuel Gardner, 1798-1875, comp. The witchcraft delusion in New England: its rise, progress, and termination. Roxbury, Mass., Printed for W.E. Woodward, 1866.

Louis-Jacques, Lyonette. “Salem Witch Trials: A Legal Bibliography.” University of Chicago Library News, 29 Oct. 2012,

Werking, Richard H. “Reformation Is Our Only Preservation: Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (April 1972), pp. 281-290.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *