This section is from the book "Faith - Healing. Christian Science And Kindred Phenomena", by James Monroe Buckley. Also available from Amazon: Faith-Healing, Christian Science and Kindred Phenomena.
A deep conviction of the fallibility of spectral evidence arose in the minds of many. The recollection of the characters and good deeds of several who had been executed, of their dying protestations of innocence, and their religious bearing at the place of execution, and the recognition of the fact that if they had confessed they might have saved their lives, were powerful causes of the reaction.
But there were two others of still greater influence. The "afflicted" began to accuse persons of such high standing that the community instinctively felt that the charge was false. The Rev. Mr. Hale of Beverly had supported the prosecutions; but when his own wife was accused, he saw that they were going too far, and turned against them. Her case was but one of several: spiritual, devout, and consistent, she was not better than sonic of those to whose condemnation and execution her husband had consented, upon evidence similar in all points to that alleged against her. But they were without such social relations as could effectually stem the tide, and were accused before a suspicion of the trustworthiness of the evidence had been engendered.
The other cause was the retraction of the confessions. In all fifty-five confessed. Some of them retracted, though they knew it would be certain death. Such was the case of Samuel Wardwell, who was executed protesting his innocence. Margaret Jacobs, who had testified against her grandfather in her confession, was so overwhelmed with grief and shame when she came to herself that she took it back, and addressed the court, saying:
They told me if I would not confess I should be put down into the dungeon, and would be hanged; but if I would confess I should have my life ; the which did so affright me with my own vile, wicked heart, to save my life, made me make the like confession, I did, which confession, may it please the honored Court, is altogether false and untrue. The very first night after I had made confession I was in such horror of conscience that I coxild not sleep for fear the Devil should carry me away for telling such horrid lies.
The entire confession is one of the most touching compositions in literature. She was afterward tried and condemned to death, but escaped because her case was not disposed of until after the reaction.
Six of the women of Andover who had confessed signed a declaration retracting, and fifty of the inhabitants of that town testified to their good character. They say that their nearest and dearest relations told them that there was no hope of saving their lives but by confessing themselves to be witches ; that the confession which they made was suggested by some gentlemen, they telling us that we were witches and they knew it, and we knew it, which made us think that it was so; and our understanding, our reason, our faculties almost gone, we were not capable of judging of our condition. . . . And most of what we said was but, in fact, consenting to what they said. Some time after when we were better composed, they telling us what we had confessed, we did profess that we were innocent and ignorant of such things ; and we learning that Samuel Wardwell had renounced his confession and was quickly after condemned and executed, some of us were told we were going after Wardwell.
Audover was " the first to recover its senses"; juries began to acquit; the governor of the State issued a proclamation opening the prisons, and a general fast was ordered. The jurors who had convicted the accused signed and circulated a document confessing that, " for want of knowledge in themselves and better information from others, they had taken up with evidence which on further consideration and better information they believed was insufficient for touching the lives of any"; and they "humbly asked forgiveness of all and the surviving sufferers in special," and declared that "according to our present minds ic> would none of us do such things again on such grounds for the whole world".
In 1G97 the Rev. Mr. Hale wrote a book to show that the proceedings were erroneous. Memorials were sent and the ministers of the County of Essex presented an address to the General Court under date of July S, 1703, expressing their belief that innocent persons had suffered; and finally the General Court, October 17,1711, only nineteen years after the executions, and while the majority of the people were still living, reversed "the attainders of George Burroughs and others for witchcraft." This act declares that "some of the principal accusers and witnesses in these dark and severe persecutions have since discovered themselves to be pel-sons of profligate and vicious conversation," and reversed the convictions, judgments, and attainders against all that died. The General Court reimbursed survivors and their heirs for expenses incurred. The petitions of such heirs, duly approved and admitted, are found in Woodward's "Records of Salem Witchcraft," and are valuable as testimony to the characters of the accused, apart from the impossible crime with which they were charged.
Judge Sewall, on the day of the general fast, arose in the old South Church in Boston and sent up to the pulpit a written confession of his error. This scene Whittier describes in the lines beginning, "Touching and sad a tale is told." To the day of his death this conscientious man set apart one day of every year for humiliation and prayer on account of the part he had taken.
The clergy of Salem and vicinity in the beginning fostered the delusion. Mr. Parris and Mr. Noyes, especially the former, must be classed with those representatives of any religion, true or false, who will stop at nothing to destroy those whose orthodoxy they doubt, or whose persons or characters they dislike.
There is evidence that manv of the clergy of Massa-chusetts disapproved the proceedings, but because of the sentiments of the ruling civil authorities of Massachusetts were not able to exert a restraining influence. In a petition drawn up by the opponents of Mr. Parris in Salem Village, they say that the reason they wrould not hold communion with him is "his declared and published sentiments referring to our molestations from the invisible world: differing from the opinion of the generality of orthodox ministers of this whole country." This was under date of April 21, 1693.
The terrible consequences of the belief forced the issue upon mind and heart; common sense and common humanity reasserted themselves. The horrid fiction was east off; some denying the reality of witchcraft, others admitting it possible in the abstract, but affirming that it was impossible to prove it. As soon as the prosecutions ceased there was no further trouble. The transactions in New England exerted a weighty influence on the other side of the Atlantic against witchcraft, and in 1736 the English statute was repealed.
The investigation justifies the conclusion that where witchcraft is not believed in there are no cases of it; where it is believed there are many, and in proportion to the intensity of the belief. It must be remembered that medical men generally were ignorant and superstitious, and the scientific practice of the healing art unknown. The press did not exist; there was no opportunity for the kind of investigation now made by reporters, for the free utterance of adverse opinion, or for any proper or generally circulated report of trials. If most of the clergy of this country believed in witchcraft, they could find an abundance of the kind of evidence that was admitted in 1692; and were there no press, free, active, and intelligent, it would be possible in a few weeks to originate an epidemic which would parallel any in the past.
The crucifixion of Christ, the cruelties of the Inquisition, the burning of Servetus, the atrocities of the first French Revolution, the hanging of witches and Quakers, are but manifestations of the possible excesses of human nature when governed by false and deeply rooted ideas, when strong passions are excited, and no adequate force, either of authority or of public opinion, restrains.
The solemn words of Longfellow are true of New England's part in the universal tragedy:
Be not too swift in casting the first stone, Nor think New England hears the guilt alone; This sudden burst of wickedness and crime Was hut the common madness of the time. When in all lands that lie beneath the Bound Of Sabbath bells a witch was burned or drowned.
Had not mankind as a whole been stronger than any of its passions, the race would long since have annihilated itself. Superstition and barbarism,though ostensibly expelled by modern civilization, lurk in the shadows stealthily seeking an entrance; and the united forces of reason, science, religion, law, self-interest, freedom of speech and of the press, with " eternal vigilance," are needed to prevent them from regaining a direful ascendancy.