Despite the popularity of spectral evidence in the Salem Trials, no one was executed based on such evidence alone.
While witchcraft finds mention in English culture as far back as the 14th century, it was only in 1558 that it was considered an evil practice. Witches were thought to torment people by emitting evil particles from their eyes, which would travel to the victim. Since they supposedly carried out their misdeeds in the dead of night, evidence in such cases was usually hard to find. It was in this context that the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which was set up to investigate witchcraft in Salem, allowed the admission of spectral appearances as evidence. Let's understand the significance of spectral evidence.
In the 17th century, Massachusetts was a theocracy, which meant that the Bible was the final word of law regarding witchcraft, rather than the English statute. The problem began, when in the summer of 1692, in Salem village, the infant daughter and niece of the local minister Rev. Samuel Parris suddenly began convulsing in fits. The village doctor, unable to find any medical cause, diagnosed it as witchcraft. Presumably, under the influence of Parris, the girls claimed to have had visions of three women torturing them. These women, Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and Tituba, a slave, were the first to be arrested on the basis of spectral evidence. Many would soon follow.
- The concept of spectral evidence was based on the principle that the devil was powerful enough to send his spirit, or that of his followers, to lead innocent people away from the path of God.
- During the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, Chief Justice William Stoughton allowed spectral evidence to be considered, following a request by Rev. Cotton Mather. However, Mather believed that such evidence should be admissible only with solid evidence, as the Devil was said to be capable of impersonating an innocent person.
- It has been alleged that Rev. Mather may have advocated spectral evidence because he wanted to create publicity for his forthcoming book 'Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions'. However, he may have genuinely believed in such supernatural phenomena as well.
- The pamphlet 'The Tryal of Witches' from the Bury St. Edmunds case were used as the guide on how the Salem Witch Trials were to be carried out.
- The witnesses who claimed to have experienced dreams or visions of a person, were often the very same people who had accused her of witchcraft.
- The vision did not always involve the person seeing themselves harmed. Several witnesses claimed that they saw the spirit of the accused inflicting harm on someone else too. On some occasions, they claimed to have seen visions of an animal, called the Witch's Familiar.
- The manner in which the witnesses acted in court almost became a pattern. A witness would start staring into an empty space, and then claim loudly that they were being attacked by an apparition of the accused, which could be seen by nobody else. When the victim began protesting her innocence, the witness would start mimicking her actions, or even start experiencing fits.
- In some cases, witnesses reported visions in which the accused was attacking a victim who was often present in the courtroom itself. At that very instant, the victim would start behaving exactly how the witness described in her vision. These performances were most likely planned in advance.
- The motive of the witnesses was likely to have been personal enmity with the accused, or even their own safety, as once they had accused someone of witchcraft, they would be accused of perjury if they retracted from their complaint. So, to protect themselves from the law, they had no choice but to stick to their claim.
- As the Salem Trials drew to a close, the jury became suspicious of the rising number of spectral appearances as claimed by witnesses, especially after reputed members of society began to be accused. The final nail in the coffin was when Rev. Increase Mather, the father of Cotton Mather, expressed his disapproval with spectral evidence in his book 'Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accused with That Crime'. He argued that it was better to acquit ten suspected witches, rather than convict one innocent person.