In the pale light of a waxing full moon I ascended the walkway to Smith-Cadbury Mansion. My stroll past the old Hopkins home allegedly spooked by a “blue lady” and the apparition of a Quaker gentleman put me in the frame of mind for a scary story. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, didn’t disappoint. He delivered the final chapter of his trilogy of terror on the Salem Witch Trials. I attended his “A Conspiracy of Witches” lecture on October 24th in the kitchen at the Society’s headquarters.
Of the three installments on the “Essex Witchcraft Crisis”, as people in the 1690s called it, I found this one the most terrifying. Mr. DiCamillo’s use of imagery in depicting of Abagail Williams’ vision of a coven of witches gathering on her guardian’s property gave me chills. The pontifications of a sinister figure she viewed among them vowing to destroy Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to raise it up again in the name of Satan added to the dreadfulness. Interestingly, the most frightful parts of this program didn’t involve the supernatural. The most unsettling segments concerned the conduct of society itself.
As with the other lectures in the series, Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing anecdotes about the events. The most gripping concerned the fate of George Burroughs. When asked if he had any last words while standing on the gallows, this convicted witch recited the “Lord’s Prayer.” As people believed witches didn’t possess the ability to pray the on-lookers became confused. They turned to a renowned witchcraft “expert” among them. Cotton Mather utilized some specious logic to justify the execution continue as scheduled.
Mr. DiCamillo’s depiction of Rebecca Nurse’s fate delivered chills, as well. The jury initially found the 71 year old innocent on charges of witchcraft. Instead of accepting the verdict the judge questioned the panel. He reminded them that Mrs. Nurse made a cryptic comment during the proceedings: “Those used to come among us.” As the magistrate and the jury interpreted her remarks differently, they asked the defendant what she meant. Mrs. Nurse didn’t reply to their inquiry. Some speculate her advanced age rendered her partially deaf. The jury reversed its own verdict.
Mrs. Nurse retained a lot of support in the community. These people petitioned the governor to pardon her. He did. In an unprecedented move, the Salem judges refused to accept it. There was only one sentence for those who were found guilty without confessing to witchcraft. Mrs. Nurse went to the gallows on July 19, 1692.
I found the story of Bridget Bishop the most intriguing. In either the 1670s or 1680s, she was accused of witchcraft and tried. She received a “not guilty” verdict and returned to her normal life. In 1692, the newly established Court of Oyer and Terminer decided to re-hear her case. There being no concept of “double jeopardy” in Puritan juris prudence, she became the first person tried in the Salem Witch Trials. Prosecutors used the same evidence presented against her the first time. This time the jury convicted and sentenced her to execution. Mr. DiCamillo explained, “This shows that the political and social climate had changed. It was the same evidence with a new mentality.”
The lecture’s real horror began when Mr. DiCamillo placed the witch trials in their historical context. After revoking the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, the British government established a new one. The number of people imprisoned for witchcraft appalled new Governor Sir William Phips. He established a court in his first official order. The Court of Oyer and Terminer did reduce the number of people waiting to be tried for witchcraft. It did so in a way that made it infamous.
Everyone who appeared before this court received a guilty verdict. Part of this stemmed from its willingness to accept weak evidence. In his first lecture on the Salem Witch Trials, Mr. DiCamillo described the types of evidence accepted during a witchcraft trial. A confession provided the most compelling one. Others included “spectral evidence.” This entailed a witch appearing in ghostly form to its victim. He described another as “anger resulting in mischief.” The latter referred to two people getting into an argument and then something bad happening to one of the participants.
While dubious, the court accepted these types of “evidence.” They applied it so liberally that 20 people met their deaths at the gallows. It may seem odd, but those who admitted practicing witchcraft did not receive death sentences. In return for a confession, a person would then testify against other “witches.” As Mr. DiCamillo noted, it didn’t do much good to execute a star witness.
At the end, Mr. DiCamillo attempted to answer the biggest question about the trials: why did they happen? He identified three elements that combined to make this bizarre event possible. Puritan society contained many factions. A vulnerable government led people to question its legitimacy, future and effectiveness. A “fear factor” served as the third component.
As with his discussion of the flu pandemic of 1918, Mr. DiCamillo found something positive in the tragedy. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grew up in Massachusetts while the Puritan system of government fractured. The principles they learned in that environment inspired them to help build a new system of government: one predicated on the rule of law and a separation of church and state.
The Salem Witch Trials still serve as the benchmark for a society run amok. As Mr. DiCamillo noted, the expression “witch hunt” has become a part of the American vernacular. The factors that led to the events of 1692 have repeated themselves throughout our history; most notably in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Let’s hope there are more Mickey DiCamillos out there raising awareness about the aspects leading to this spectacle. As he chillingly noted, “I don’t blame the children. The adults could’ve put a stop to this at any time.” Let’s hope that next time they do.