While the Salem Witch Trials may be the ones most people have at least some familiarity with, in actuality, “witches” had been condemned for hundred of years. Thousands of people thought to be in cahoots with the devil were executed in Europe. Although men were sometimes found guilty, most of those who died were women, and the majority of those women were elderly. (It has been argued that these women were targeted because they were a drain on resources, as it was up to the community to provide for them, as most were either widowed or unmarried.)
Sadly, it was not just a few crazy people who believed in witches and witchcraft. The truth is that most early modern people believed in both. The way people became witches (or warlocks), the thinking went, was to sign a pact with the devil.
What makes Salem unique is the kind of “proof” that was admissible in court. For the first time in trials of this kind, it was permissible (even encouraged) to provide “spectral” evidence. Spectral evidence came from witnesses for the prosecution who claimed that the defendants tortured them in their dreams or in waking visions. In addition, torturing the accused to obtain a confession was also given sanction.
Another reason for the travesty of the Salem Witch Trials is due to the type of government, a theocracy, in Massachusetts at the time. A “theocracy” is a government that claims to operate under a divine rule. However, while many governments might say they are theocracies, what truly makes a government of this type is when its leaders actually believe that they are ruled and instructed by a divinity.
It was under these conditions that Cotton Mather, the popular and influential Puritan preacher, penned one of his most famous works, “The Wonders of the Invisible Word.”
Through this work, the preacher seeks to justify the outcome of the trials. Mather writes: “I can do no other than shortly relate the chief Matters of Fact, which occurr'd in the Tryals of some that were Executed, in an Abridgment Collected out of the Court-Papers on this occasion put into my hands”
Stylistically, Mather employs plain language (words anyone could understand). There are very few artistic flourishes here. For Mather, it was the “facts” and just the facts: no flowery language, no embellishment. “I report matters not as an advocate, but as an historian,” the preacher argues. The problem, as is painfully evident in Mather’s “truthful” account, is the complete lack of transcripts from the defenses of the accused; what the reader of these accounts is left with is solely the prosecutorial side of the evidence.
Aside from his assertion that he is simply the recorder of the facts of the trials, Mather had an additional reason for penning “The Wonders of the Invisible World” -- to absolve himself from liability in the gruesome proceedings. He makes it clear to the audience that while he does not disagree with the court’s rulings, “I was not present at any of them; not ever had I any personal prejudice at the persons those brought to the stage.”
Regardless of his lack of personal involvement, Mather honestly appears to feel witchcraft to be a true threat to the community: “An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the first-born of our English settlements,” he warns. Further, Mather argues that Satan’s ultimate goal is to “overturn this poor plantation, the Puritan colony.” He seems to have sincerely believed that punishing witches would secure God’s grace.