In A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience, historian Emerson W. Baker writes:
By European standards Salem was not even a large witch hunt, nor was it the last…
Yet no place has acquired such infamy as the Witch City. Why is it that only Salem is synonymous with witchcraft, and not such places as Cologne or Szeged?
I didn’t know Salem, Massachusetts, where twenty people were executed for witchcraft in 1692,* was known as “the Witch City,” but when I think of witchcraft, it is the city that comes to mind. Is this because I’m American? I didn’t learn much, if anything, about the Salem witch trials in school, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about it.
This dark episode of American history has been the subject of intense study by historians. Baker’s contribution is to “make sense of the voluminous literature on the trials while also looking at the larger context, starting with the founding of Salem, the first town of Massachusetts Bay.”
Each chapter of the book focuses on a different aspect of the witch hunt “outbreak,” including the major actors, the factors that contributed to their roles, and the long-term consequences of their actions. It is a sympathetic portrayal of the time that encourages 21st Century observers to view the situation from a 17th Century perspective:
Americans today gaze back at the people of 1692 as a foolish, superstitious, and intolerant lot… Yet that is to dismiss the figure in the mirror. Imagine for a moment the situation they faced in 1692 and consider their quandary from their perspective.
To Salem’s 17th Century inhabitants, witchcraft was real. But why did so many of them believe there was a widespread witchcraft conspiracy plaguing their community?
There are many theories, from arguments viewing the witch hunt as a misogynist attack on marginalized women to the possibility of biological causes, such as ergot poisoning or Lyme disease. Baker addresses the major theories, finding some more believable than others, while noting that many factors were likely at play.
The book depicts a colony in turmoil in the years leading up to the witch hunts. It was a time of economic, religious, and legal uncertainty exacerbated by war and land disputes. These insecurities made the people of Massachusetts Bay prone to believe in conspiracies, and the legal system was too weak to put a brake on it.
The colony instituted an emergency court to address the witchcraft allegations. The resulting convictions were based on meager and problematic evidence. The court relied heavily on so-called “spectral evidence” provided by witnesses who claimed to see the spirit or specter of the accused harming them or another person.
I can’t imagine going to court, much less winning in court, with so little evidence. But people attempt it, even today, as we’re seeing with the Trump Campaign and other Republicans who have appealed to the courts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
The “facts” supporting their allegations are nothing more than conspiracy theories, and unlike the 17th Century court in Massachusetts, our modern courts are requiring more than baseless allegations and a theatrical performance from the petitioners and witnesses.
But there are exceptions. For example, in response to a lawsuit on behalf of Republicans seeking to invalidate Pennsylvania’s mail-in voting law after the general election based on nothing but assertions of widespread invisible voter fraud, the “oddball” Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court baselessly ordered Pennsylvania to stop certification of Pennsylvania’s election results.
The absence of fraud allegations from this matter—not to mention actual evidence of fraud—alone is fatal to Petitioners’ claims. More importantly, though, there is no basis in law by which the courts may grant Petitioners’ request to ignore the results of an election and recommit the choice to the General Assembly to substitute its preferred slate of electors for the one chosen by a majority of Pennsylvania’s voters.
This decision highlights the role the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has played in protecting our democracy from Republican attempts to suppress voters and de-certify the 2020 election results.
Unfortunately, though, there is a bill pending in the state legislature that will give the anti-democratic, conspiracy-prone Republican legislators in the General Assembly control over the judiciary (Text of the bill). It will allow these legislators to gerrymander the state appellate courts into districts, likely undermining the votes from Pennsylvania’s urban centers.
If this happens—after it passes the General Assembly one more time and goes to the voters as a ballot measure—we’ll see if our Pennsylvania Supreme Court will put a brake on baseless election conspiracy theories in the future. These conspiracies aren’t going away, despite the recent losses in court. Donald Trump, an adherent of numerous baseless conspiracies from birtherism to widespread election fraud, continues to undermine our democracy in the court of public opinion.
I wonder how future historians will look back at this time and make sense of it.
*More specifically: “In Salem, a total of twenty-five people lost their lives. Nineteen were executed, one was pressed to death, and five died in prison.” (Introduction, A Storm of Witchcraft). The person who was pressed to death was not tried.