August 19 (August 9, o.s.)

Massachusetts: Robert Pike, a justice of the peace and militia leader in Salisbury and member of the Massachusetts Council, writes a letter to his fellow councilor Jonathan Corwin, one of the Salem magistrates and a member of the Court of Oyer and Terminer that has been trying the witchcraft cases in Essex County.  In his letter, Pike expresses significant doubts about the conduct of the trials so far, particularly the use of spectral testimony.  He says that he believes apparitions, though they may be real, are more often either tricks of the Devil or the results of deluded senses in those who see them, and that they should therefore not be trusted as evidence.  He does not believe that the afflicted persons are merely lying, though he acknowledges that there are some who do believe so.  He rejects the argument that the Devil cannot appear in the form of an innocent person, a frequent rejoinder to the frequent defense of witchcraft suspects that they are being impersonated.  Although the argument that impersonation is impossible has substantial support among the leaders of the court and colony, particularly Chief Justice and Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Pike points out that it is rejected by many other leading figures, especially ministers.  He associates himself with the latter group.

Pike is no outsider or marginal figure; indeed, he is a highly respected local magistrate who collected much of the (non-spectral) evidence against witchcraft suspect Susannah Martin that led to her conviction and execution.  He encloses with his letter to Corwin an essay he has written on the subject of the legal issues involved in collecting evidence and testimony in witchcraft cases.  In it, he examines the activities of the afflicted persons in the present crisis and concludes that they are veering dangerously close to diabolical activity themselves by conversing with ghosts and acting as witchfinders.  He ultimately concludes that any spectral evidence relies ultimately on the word of the Devil, and is therefore fundamentally unreliable and not to be used in capital cases where the defendants plead innocent.  He even says that the evidence obtained through spectral means is so unreliable that it would be better to let a guilty person live until more substantial evidence against them is found than to risk putting an innocent person to death based only on Satan’s word.  He further points out that the common story of defendants spectrally afflicting sufferers at their own examinations and trials, a sure sign of guilt to the judges so far, makes very little sense when seen in the light of their own self-interest, and that it also makes little sense for the Devil to provide spectral evidence against his own witches, since they are so important to his plans.

There have been various grumblings throughout the colony about the conduct of the witchcraft trials, but Pike’s letter and essay are the first examples of doubts being expressed by a prominent figure with significant influence.

Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on August 19 (August 9, o.s.)  
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