Spectral Evidence and the Salem Witch Trials

Salem Witch Trials Glossary

Increase Mather
Increase Mather. Stock Montage / Getty Images

Spectral evidence was admitted in the Salem Witch trials, but condemned by many before and after as legally invalid.  Most of the convictions and executions were grounded in testimony of spectral evidence.

Spectral evidence is evidence based on visions and dreams of the actions of a witch's spirit or specter. Thus, spectral evidence is testimony about what an accused person's spirit did, rather than actions of the accused person in the body.

In the Salem witch trials, spectral evidence was used as evidence in the courts, especially in the early trials.  If a witness could testify to seeing the spirit of someone, and could testify to interacting with that spirit, perhaps even bargaining with that spirit, that was considered evidence that the person possessed had consented to the possession and thus was responsible.

Example

In the case of Bridget Bishop, she claimed "I am innocent to a Witch. I know not what a Witch is" when confronted with accusatory testimony of her appearing as a specter to abuse victims. Several men testified that she had visited them, in spectral form, in bed at night.  She was convicted on June 2 and hanged on June 10.

Opposition

Opposition by the contemporary clergy to the use of spectral evidence does not mean the clergy did not believe that specters were real.  They believed, rather, that the devil could use specters to possess and get them to act against their own will.

That Satan possessed a person was not evidence that the person had consented.

Increase Mather and Cotton Mather Weigh In

At the beginning of the Salem witch trials, the Rev. Increase Mather, co-minister in Boston with his son Cotton Mather, had been in England, attempting to persuade the king to appoint a new governor.

When he returned, the accusations, official investigations and jailings in Salem Village and nearby were well underway. 

Urged by other Boston-area ministers, Increase Mather wrote against the use of spectral evidence, in Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are accused with that Crime. He argued that innocent people were charged. He trusted the judges, though he argued they should not use spectral evidence in their decisions.

At the same time, his son Cotton Mather wrote a book supporting the proceedings, Wonders of the Invisible World.  Cotton Mather's book actually appeared first. Increase added an approving introduction to his son’s book. (Cotton Mather was not among the ministers who signed Increase Mather's book approvingly.)  

Rev. Cotton Mather argued for the use of spectral evidence if it was not the only evidence; he disagreed with the idea of others that the Devil could not make an innocent person's spirit act without their consent.  

Cotton Mather's book was likely seen by the author as a counterbalance to his father's book, not in actual opposition.

Wonders of the Invisible World, because it accepted that the devil was plotting in New England, was read by many as supporting the court, and the warnings against spectral evidence went largely unheeded.

Governor Phips Halts the Executions

When some witnesses accused the wife of the newly-arrived Governor William Phips, Mary Phips, of witchcraft, citing spectral evidence, the governor stepped in and stopped the further expansion of the witch trials. He declared that spectral evidence was not admissable evidence. He ended the power of the Court of Oyer and Terminer to convict, prohibited arrests, and, over time, released all still in prison and jail.

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