CLEARING THE LAST WITCHES
The largest witch-hunt in American history began in January 1692. Four girls from Salem Village, Massachusetts, began to exhibit strange behavior, and when they were asked to identify the source of their affliction, they named three women as witches. Today we would say they were suffering from hysteria, and a few days’ rest might have spared Salem three centuries of notoriety (while at the same time depriving it of a major tourist attraction). But to the Puritan mind, witchcraft was undeniably real.
Dozens of people had previously been convicted of witchcraft in New England, but what made the Salem episode uniquely tragic was the uncritical acceptance of “spectral evidence”—dreams or visions. Such evidence was considered as reliable as eyewitness testimony, and a special court eventually convicted 27 people and hanged 19 of them. Gov. William Phips dissolved the court after prominent citizens began to criticize the proceedings.
Earlier this year, descendants of five accused witches who were executed—Bridget Bishop, Susannah Martin, Alice Parker, Margaret Scott, and Wilmot Redd—petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to declare them innocent. Of all those hanged, they are the only ones not already specifically exonerated. In 1711, responding to petitions from the victims’ families, colonial authorities absolved 21 of the 27 who had been convicted. The other 6, all of whom were hanged, had no families in Massachusetts to plead for them, so their convictions stood. In 1957 a resolution cleared those six, but for uncertain reasons it specified only one, Ann Pudeator, by name.
The measure now pending would add the names of the last five hanging victims to the 1957 resolution. Most Massachusetts residents seem to think it’s about time. As one says, “After 309 years, they deserve the ink. If it were me, I’d want my name written into the law.”