S is for Spectral Evidence

One of the greatest travesties of justice in American history was that spectral evidence was allowed as court testimony during the Salem Witchcraft Trials in 1692. Spectral evidence is based on the visions, hallucinations, or dreams of the accuser. Today, it is inconceivable that any sane person would consider this type of evidence as valid, and there were some in colonial New England who would have agreed

A specter is a spirit or ghostly apparition that causes torment to its victims. The problem is that others cannot see the specter even though they may observe the alleged victim writhing in pain. Only the “victim” and perhaps a few of her friends were privy to observe the specter. This evidence was considered admissible at the time because the Puritans believed that the Devil and his minions were at work and powerful enough to send their evil spirits to lead pure, religious people astray.

An accused person’s spirit or spectral shape could also appear to the victim in a dream while the accused’s physical body was in a different location. Sometimes the specter appeared as an animal, called a “witch’s familiar.”

The young girls accused hundreds of men and women of witchcraft in 1692 as they relayed their stories of spectral visitations to the courts. They reported past visits of specters and gave reports of being tormented. Many times, the girls also fell to the ground in the courtroom, writhing and gyrating as they complained of spectral molestations from those they accused.

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

The girls’ courtroom fits, complete with shrieking and horrifying convulsions brought them a great deal of notoriety and fame. They were even brought to other villages to help authorities determine if anyone was a practitioner of witchcraft. These young girls exerted the power of life and death in the villages and were responsible for over twenty deaths and hundreds of ruined lives and fortunes.

While many villagers, including some clergy, attempted to object to this travesty, the accusations didn’t end until word got out that the governor’s wife was on the list of the accused. The Salem witchcraft hysteria quickly faded away, but hundreds of lives were left in ruins.

Life did not end well for the accusing girls. Ann Putnam Jr., whose parents manipulated her to testify against their long-standing enemies, made a full confession after her parents’ death. Others were said to have had mental disorders during their adult lives while a few simply faded into history.

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