witch hunts and special prosecutions

from an article written by Paul Johnson for The Spectator on October 1, 1991:

"It was there from the start, among the New England Calvinist pioneers, who settled there precisely to preserve their Biblical fundamentalism from the world-wide Erastianism of the Stuart court, and who have been joined, over the years, by successive waves of fanatics, one-issue immigrants, who came to America to practice their peculiar forms of intolerance in its tolerant climate. The Puritan New Englanders... enforced the earliest form of Political Correctness. Led by their divines, the 17th-century equivalent of the modern don, they ran their inquisitions into people's opinions and behaviour. The appalling witch-hunt at Salem, far from being an aberration, is in a way the quintessential event of New England history...

"Indeed, in the sense that it manifests this saturnine strain in America's composition, it is also a characteristic event in American history as a whole. Let no one think that the witch-hunt has died out in the United States. It has become politicized but it remains endemic. Sometimes it is launched from one end of the political spectrum, sometimes from the other, but its characteristics remain the same: fanaticism, self-righteousness, abuse of the legal forms, contempt for justice. The anti-aliens purge run by the Attorney General Mitchell Palmer immediately after the first world war, which claimed countless victims, Senator McCarthy's witch-hunts after the second world war, the Watergate and Iran-Contra hunts, the trial of Judge Bork before the Senate and now the electronic lynching of Judge Thomas, are all instances of what happens when the fanatic strain gets the upper hand in American society."

Mary Easty
Petition of an Accused Witch

During difficult times in the Massachusetts Colony in 1692, the devil seemed to be getting the upper hand in recruiting young souls to enlist in a covenant with hell. Special courts were consequently set up to handle the exceptional nature of the threat to the community and followed procedures which would not have been acceptable under less extreme circumstances. Nineteen men and women were hung, one was "pressed" to death in having heavy rocks placed on him when he refused to plead either guilty or innocent to being possessed by the devil.

A group of hysterical girls testified that a disembodied image of Mary Easty was pinching them. Easty was brought to trial in a court where there existed almost no possibility of proving innocence. Under the Puritan court, the pressure to confess and atone for one's sins was immense. Innocent individuals with nothing to confess were subsequently often led to admit to crimes which they did not commit. The girls who accesed Easty later changed their minds and recounted their stories, only to accuse her again two days later. Moreover, other accused witches confirmed that Easty had been working with them. Mary Easty was condemned to death.

Even as the pressure was great to confess, Mary Easty would not admit to falsehood and lie. She knew she was innocent and wrote the following letter to her judges in order to assist the court find the true guilty of being in league with the devil. Easty could not bring herself to confess to what she did not do. Her letter to the judges did no good and Easty was hung by the neck until dead for being a witch.

The humbl petition of Mary Eastick unto his Excellencyes Sir Wm Phipps and to the honourd Judge and Bench now s[i]tting in Judiacature in Salem and the Reverend ministers humbly sheweth.

That wheras your poor and humble Petition[er] being condemned to die Doe humbly begg of you to take it into your Judicious and pious considerations that your poor and humble petitioner knowing my own Innocencye Blised be the Lord for it and seeing plainly the wiles and subttlity of my accusers by my selfe can not but Judg charitably of Others that are going the same way my selfe if the Lord stepps not mightily in I was confined a whole month upon the same account that I am condemned now for and then cleared by the afflicked persons as some of your honours know and in two dayes times I was cryed out upon by them and have been confined and now am condemend to die the Lord above knows my Innocencye then and likewise does now as att the great day will be known to men and Angells I petition your honours not for my own life for I know I must die and my appointed time is sett but the Lord he knowes it is that if be possible no more Innocent blood may be shed which undoubtidly cannot be Avoyd[e]d In the way and course you goe in I Question not buy your honours doesw to the uttmost of your Powers in the discovery and detecting of withcraft and witches and would not be gulty of Innocent blood for the world buy by my own Innocencye I know you are in the wrong way the Lord in his infinite mercye direct you in this great work if it be his blessed will that no more innocent blood be shed. I would humbly begg of you that yoru honours would be plesed to examine theis Aflicted persons strictly and keepe them apart some time and likewise to try some of these confesing wichis I being confident there is severall of them has belyed themselves and others as will appeare if not in this world I am sure in the world to come whither I am now agoing and I question not but youll see an alteration of thes things they say my selfe and others having made a League with the Divel we cannot confesse I know and the Lord knowes as wil thorlly appeare they belye me and so I Question not but tey doe others the Lord above who is the searcher of all hearts knowes that as I shall answer it att the Tribunall Seat that I know not the least thinge of witchcraft therfore I cannot I dare not belye my own soule I beg your honers not to deny this my humble petition from a poor dying Innocent person and I Question not but the Lord will give a blesing to yor endevers.

Five years later, the people of Massachusetts recognized that Easty had been innocent and that they had unjustly executed her. They claimed that "such grounds [for her conviction and execution] were then laid down to proceed upon, which were too slender to evidence the crime they were brought to prove." The Puritans realized that they had succumbed to hysteria and lost their way and been driven into evil deeds - "we walked in the clouds, and we could not see our way." Their fanatical zeal had led them to exercise the exact kind of repression on themselves which they had fled Europe to escape. The colony held a day of fasting on January 14, 1697, and especially the judges who had tried Easty looked into their guilty consciences. Samuel Sewal stood in front of his brethren with head bowed while the minister publicly urged him to take "the Blame and shame" of the injustice upon himself, lest God punish the entire people of new America. None of this made much difference to Mary Easty, already long since dead and buried.

" We ourselves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the Powers of Darkness and Prince of the Air; but were for want of Knowledge in our selves, and better Information from others, prevailed with to take up with such Evidence against the Accused, as on further consideration, and better Information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the Lives of any..."