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One of the things that the average person knows about witch trials is that they involved a lot of torture. Innocent women and men were tortured to force them to confess to crimes they didn’t and couldn’t possibly have committed, and so we look at the witch trials as a massive exercise in human irrationality, because things like that couldn’t happen today.


Salem fully embraces this idea. Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) harasses Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), hacks her hair off, locks her in bondage gear, and later literally hangs her up in a church. He tortures Giles Quarry to force him to plead in court. Later, he catches an actual witch and hangs her from a tree. Then Increase Mather (Steven Lang) shows up and kicks the torture into high gear. He ducks the witch Mab in an effort to force her to confess. He captures Mercy’s pack of female wannabe witches and tortures them to throwing boiling hot water on them and strapping them down to various bondage chairs and tables. Then when Mercy accuses Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), he straps her down and goes full inquisition on her. He has a steamer trunk filled with all sorts of torture instruments that he lovingly shows her—various knives and other edged tools, the Pear of Anguish, a vicious ‘breast-puller’ (at least, that’s what I think he calls it), and so on. He clearly uses them on her, because she gets bloodier as the episode goes on.

The Reality

The series, and the general audience, is very confused on these issues, because the reality was much more complex. The first issue of confusion is who tortured and who didn’t. Across most of Continental Europe, torture was generally a legally-accepted practice in at least some situations. The use of torture on witches was permissible, but generally quite regulated. If a suspected witch refused to confess, she (or perhaps he) would be warned that they could be tortured, and then they would be returned to their cell to contemplate this. A day or two later, they would be shown torture implements and urged to confess, and then returned to the cells. A day or two later, they were tied down for torture, but usually not actually tortured, before again being urged to confess and then returned to their cell. It was generally only on the third or fourth session that they might actually be tortured. So the authorities generally employed torture only as a last resort, whereas in popular imagination it’s the first resort. And in most jurisdictions there were legal rules about when and how torture could be used, just the way that today there are rules about when and how police can question a suspect. So torture was never the legal-free-for-all that it’s nearly always presented as (as in Salem, for example).

More importantly for the show, Salem was under English common law, and English common law forbade torture, except in the case of treason against the monarch. As English jurists understood torture, it was never legally applied against any witch either in England or in the American colonies. (Scotland, while ruled by the English monarchs, followed Scottish law, which did allow torture, so accused Scottish witches were tortured.)

The tricky thing here is that some things that most modern Americans would regard as torture were not considered torture at American facilities at Iraq and Guantanamo under English common law. Sleep deprivation, for example, was entirely legal, so accused witches were sometimes kept awake for several days as a way to extract a confession. Accused witches could be strip searched for the ‘Witch’s Tit’, any unusual mole or skin tag or wart that could be interpreted as a supernatural nipple that witches used to suckle their demonic familiar, especially if it was near their breasts, genitals, or anus. Ducking (not ‘dunking’), which involved tying an accused witch into a chair and lowering her into the water, was not an attempt to torture a witch into confession but rather a test to see if the witch floated, because it was widely believed that witches were supernaturally light or that water would reject them. So the above scene in which Increase ducks Mab, is entirely wrong; he’s breaking the law by ducking a confessed witch because, since she’s confessed, he doesn’t need to get more evidence that she’s a witch.

If we disregard the mistakes in the way Mab is ducked, her ducking itself is plausible (it was actually something that was done in the American colonies); however no one was ducked at Salem during the Witch Trials. But the other things he does to Tituba and Mercy’s posse would have been blatantly illegal and would have forced the Salem authorities to arrest him as a criminal. But, as I’ve already pointed out, the show has literally no legal framework for the trials and interrogations; the rules vary from episode to episode and Increase Mather just makes up the law as he goes, even when he contradicts himself.

But the Search for Witches was Irrational, So Who Cares?

While witch-hunting looks irrational to us, it was less unmoored from reality than it’s generally presented. For most of the Middle Ages, scholars and clergy maintained that while miracles were real, magic wasn’t. In the 10th century, a document known today as the Canon Episcopi declared that belief in magic was false, because Satan had no power to influence the physical world. The best that Satan and his demons could do was trick people into thinking magic had happened. So if someone thought they had flown through the air magically, this was impossible and what had actually happened was they had experienced an illusion or a dream. Although the Canon Episcopi was probably authored in the 10th century, it was later mistakenly ascribed to an important 4th century ecclesiastical council, and as a result it was taken to be binding on the entire Western church. So from the 10th to the 14th century, the official position of Western bishops and theologians was that magic and witchcraft did not actually exist; as a result, very few witchcraft trials occurred during the period, because church law refused to consider it a possible crime.

The text of the Canon Episcopi

The text of the Canon Episcopi

But in the later 14th century, this idea began to be challenged by scholars who maintained that the Devil actually could affect the physical world. Modern scholars are still unsure exactly why beliefs changed, so I won’t go into that complicated question, but by the later 15th century, both religious and secular authorities were much more willing to consider the possibility that magic had actually happened when something inexplicable occurred. (When physicians were unable to explain what was happening to Betty Parris, her father Samuel began to consider the possibility of witchcraft.) So witchcraft was used as an explanation when other explanations seemed unconvincing or unavailable. That in itself is not irrational based on the level of scientific understanding at the time.

More importantly, most legal systems in Europe and the New World recognized that simple accusations of witchcraft were insufficient to prove a charge. It was not enough for someone to say that they had been bewitched or had seen a neighbor do something suspicious. Everyone recognized the possibility of false accusation driven by ulterior motives like spite or personal quarrels.Following Biblical precepts, moral crimes like witchcraft required the eyewitness testimony of at least two witnesses. But the nature of witchcraft as it was understood was such that it was unlikely to be corroborated by witnesses, because the witnesses to witchcraft were generally thought to be restricted to other witches. So law courts across Western society had the same problem that modern law courts do; how do you prove an accusation of a serious crime without witnesses to the crime?

Modern law courts have recourse to a wide variety of forensic tools such as taking fingerprints, blood spatter analysis, DNA evidence, and ballistics. But early modern courts did not have such tools. Instead, they turned to the expert testimony of the day, scholars and manuals that explained how to identify witches. So they searched the accused’s body for a Witch’s Tit (or, on the Continent, for the Devil’s Mark) and ducked her in hopes they could find evidence of the crime. They searched her house for poppets or other tools of witchcraft. They questioned neighbors and heard accusations of different examples of witchcraft. In other words, they sought hard evidence. Again, this is perfectly rational based on their understanding of how the universe worked.

A man holding two early 20th century poppets, made from clay, nails, and thorns

A man holding two early 20th century poppets, made from clay, nails, and thorns

But in many cases, the evidence they found was insufficient. Was that wart actually a Witch’s Tit, or just an ordinary wart? Was the witch starting to sink just as she was pulled out during the ducking? Was that actually a poppet, or just a child’s toy? The judges weren’t always convinced that the scraps of evidence they had located was enough to justify convicting someone of a very serious crime.

In a situation like that, the best evidence would be a confession by the accused that she had actually committed the crimes, because a confession was considered solid proof of guilt. And that’s where torture came in. The idea of torture was that if it could extract a confession, the need for further evidence was moot, because the witch would have implicated herself and told who her accomplices were. In other words, torturers were interrogating accused witches for exactly the same reason that cops on CSI and Law & Order do, because getting a confession makes proving guilt in a court of law much easier. These shows rarely show the cops coercing false confessions out of innocent people for the same reason that judges were comfortable with torture in the 17th century, because they were sure that innocence was a powerful protection and that only the guilty had anything to fear. The notion of false confession as a common matter was not seriously contemplated because it would undermine the sense that the legal system generally worked to achieve real justice. (Although there are no hard studies of the rate of false confession in the modern American legal system, the Innocent Project has found that fully 25% of people convicted and then exonerated by later DNA evidence had made a false confession. That suggests that false confession may be a far larger problem in the American system than people generally recognize.)

So the desire for confession stemmed for an entirely rational concern that in the absence of compelling evidence, it was hard to prove the truth of an accusation without a confession. Many 17th century judges had a lower threshold of proof than modern courts do, but they still recognized the same problems.

The rationality of the Salem judges is shown by the debate over the admissibility of spectral evidence. Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewis, and other girls claimed that they could see invisible witches torturing them, but no one else could see these spirits. The judges who presided over the trials recognized that the testimony of teenage girls was not entirely reliable, especially given the rather outlandish nature of the testimony), so they asked Cotton and Increase Mather for their opinion on the issue. Both men responded by cautioning them to not put too much weight on the evidence, because the Devil could be causing the girls to see the images of innocent people in order to destroy the innocent. But Cotton’s letter admitted that God would certainly protect the innocent, and that equivocation seems to have persuaded most of the judges that spectral evidence was acceptable. Perhaps the judges were just looking for a reason to accept evidence they already wanted to accept. But at least one judge, Nathaniel Saltonstall, was sufficiently uncomfortable that he resigned from his appointment. Again, the standards these judges were using are rather lower than those of modern judges, but the issues are not entirely dissimilar.

A 19th century depiction of the Salem trials

A 19th century depiction of the Salem trials

In fact, one historian, Walter Stephens, has argued that among some early modern theologians, the interest in witchcraft arose not from an overabundance of credulity, but the growth of skepticism about the supernatural and the existence of God. Stephens’ argument, briefly put, is that the desire to find and interrogate witches and prove that they were employing magic stems from anxiety about the inability of theologians to prove the existence of God. If women could be found who would admit to having sex with the Devil (an activity that some witch-hunting manuals dwelt on at considerable length), then that would prove the existence of Satan and by extension the existence of God. In other words, Stephens suggests that many witch-hunters were trying to prove to themselves that God existed precisely because they were scared to acknowledge their own doubt, the way that many vocal homophobes are closeted homosexuals trying to persuade themselves that they’re straight. (George Rekers, I’m looking at you. You too, Pat Robertson.)

So if witch-hunting was more rational than it looks on the surface, why do we so strongly associate it with irrationality? For that, we can thank the major intellectual movement of the 18th century, the Enlightenment. Enlightenment intellectuals, like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, saw themselves as helping lead European society out of the darkness of irrationality and superstition into the light of science and rationality. These men emphasized that the Christianity of their day was irrational, superstitious, and anti-intellectual. Emphasizing the irrationality of the witch hunting of the previous two centuries was a perfect way of highlighting how backward the previous centuries had been in comparison to their contemporary drive for science and rationality, the way that American films often flatter the democratic impulses of modern Americans by showing that medieval and early modern society was autocratic.

Well, It Still Couldn’t Happen Today because We’re Too Rational Now

I’ve got three words for you: McMartin Preschool Trial. In 1983, a mother in Manhattan Beach, California reported to police that her daycare-aged son had been anally raped by a staffer at the McMartin Preschool, basing her claim on the fact that her son had been suffering from painful bowel movements. Initially, the police refused to investigate, but she sent out a letter to the 200 other families at the preschool warning them that their children might have been abused as well, and mounting public pressure led to the police questioning several hundred children from the McMartin Preschool.

The McMartin Preschool, where the alleged atrocities supposedly took place

The McMartin Preschool, where the alleged atrocities supposedly took place

They hired an organization named Children’s Institute International to do the questioning, since the police had not been trained to question such young witnesses. CII employed a range of novel and untested methods,  inviting children to speculate about “what might have happened”, to play pretend, and to use anatomically correct dolls to show what might have been done to them. Children were sometimes told what other children had already said. Children who supported the accusations were praised for “telling the truth”, while those who denied anything had happened were sometimes badgered into changing their testimony.

The resulting testimony was often bizarre. The staffers didn’t just have anal sex with the children, they also had sex with animals, used power drills on the children, flew through the air (sometimes in hot air balloons), maintained a network of secret tunnels, flushed children down the toilet into secret rooms, sacrificed animals in secret rituals at an Episcopal church, forced the children to dig up coffins in cemeteries, and engaged in orgies in car-washes, circuses, and airports. One child reported that movie star Chuck Norris had participated in the abuse. A group of concerned parents began digging at a lot next door to the preschool in an effort to find the tunnels; an archaeological organization eventually got involved in the effort.

Digging for the secret tunnels next to the preschool building

Digging for the secret tunnels next to the preschool building

Despite the absurd and logically impossible nature of much of the testimony, and despite the fact that even the prosecutor admitted that the children had “embellished and exaggerated” their stories, six women and one man were charged with 321 counts of child abuse; Virginia McMartin was in her mid-70s at the time. The trial began in 1984 and lasted two years, involving testimony from “experts” who claimed that there was a nation-wide organization of Satanists who conspired to sexually molest children and sacrifice them to Satan; a key piece of their evidence was the supposedly scientific notion of ‘repressed memories’, which has subsequently been largely debunked. Eventually in 1996, a new prosecutor dropped all charges against five of the defendants, admitting that the evidence was “incredibly weak”. Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Ray Buckey were subject to a new trial that ended in acquittal for Peggy in 1990; Ray was found not guilty on 52 out of 65 charges but two jurors refused to believe he was innocent of 13 charges of child abuse. He was tried again on six of the 13 charges and the result was a hung jury. He spent 5 years in jail during the process. The McMartin trials were the longest and most expensive case in US legal history.

Peggy McMartin Buckey during the trial

Peggy McMartin Buckey during the trial

Although the McMartin case was the most famous example of fears of daycare child abuse rings, it was not unique. In the later 1980s, there were at least 21 similar trials. Despite a near-total lack of actual evidence, at least 22 daycare employees were convicted, and 3 are still in prison today, although most have had their convictions overturned.

The parallels between the McMartin case and the Salem Witch Trials are fairly clear. The accused were mostly women while the accusers and victims were children. The charges depended on what even at the time was seen as dubious evidence, and involved shocking stories of highly sexualized activities and devil-worship. Charges of flying through the air and engaging in secret meetings to do abominable things were common to both. In both cases, some of the charges seem to be literally impossible without magic.

The fact is that both the Salem Witch Trials and the McMartin Preschool Trials are examples of what scholars call a “moral panic”, a widespread fear among society that something is threatening the moral order, in which shocking charges create intense pressure for authorities to act. In the McMartin case, those who have studied it have sometimes argued that it reflects a deep but unspoken fear that leaving children at a daycare is somehow morally wrong, because rather than working, their mothers ought to be taking care of the children. The charges of intense sexual abuse acted to dramatize the fear without directly expressing it, and created a situation in which the authorities are reluctant to simply ignore the problem. But once authorities began treating the charges seriously, that legitimized the fears and intensified the panic. So the McMartin case may reflect anxieties about working mothers and proper forms of child-rearing. But what about Salem? What was driving the charges there? I’ll start looking at that next time.

Want to Know More?

SALEM SEASON 1is available through Amazon.

I don’t know of any studies that focus specifically on the use of torture in the Salem trials, but many general studies of the Witch Hunts discuss the subject. Robert Thurston’s The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North Americahas section on both the Salem Trials and torture as it was generally used in witch trials. Joseph Klaits’ Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Midland Book, Mb 422)has a very good chapter on the legal and psychological issues involved with the torture of accused witches.

Finally, Walter Stephens’ Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Beliefmakes a very interesting argument that one of the core texts of witch hunting, the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, has been badly misunderstood and is a reflection of its author’s doubts about the existence of God rather than an irrational credulity in the existence of witches. It’s a bold thesis and I’m not sure that he’s convinced all the scholars, but it certainly influenced my understanding of witch hunting. If you’re interested in witch hunting, or specifically in the Malleus, it’s well worth the read.