In the Absence of Real Evidence, Spectral Evidence Would Do
When it came to the Salem Witch Trials, logic and reason were abandoned as prosecutors did everything in their power to convict the accused. Crowds were baying for blood, and an absence of real evidence wasn’t enough for defendants to walk free. Stoughton changed the game by allowing spectral evidence into his court. This form of evidence is based on dreams and visions with no basis in fact.
Those who testified at the trials could speak freely about how an accused witch’s spirit appeared to them in a dream or a vision (such as a black cat for example). Incredibly, the dream/vision was admitted as evidence. Therefore, the witnesses could say that in the dream, the defendant almost choked them and the court allowed it as evidence of an attack even if the defendant was somewhere else at the time. It was incredibly difficult for anyone to prove their innocence against this backdrop.
Then you had the baffling line of questioning taken by prosecutors. In one memorable case, John Hathorne, who also acted as a judge, didn’t allow a lack of evidence against Bridget Bishop to force him out of his stride. She was accused of bewitching her husband and claimed she knew nothing about it. Then, she said: “I am innocent to a witch; I know not what a witch is.” Hathorne jumped on this answer and asked Bishop how she knew she wasn’t a witch when she didn’t even know what a witch was.
The Hanging Judge Gets Busy
Stoughton was also unconcerned about a lack of evidence and duly found Bishop guilty of witchcraft. He sentenced her to death, and she was hanged on June 10, 1692. The juries also played along in this ghastly charade. Throughout the duration of the Salem Witch Trials, juries routinely returned ‘Guilty’ verdicts even though they knew the defendants didn’t really do what they had been accused of. However, it wasn’t enough to warrant acquittal. In this case, you were guilty unless you could prove otherwise, a task that became almost impossible in the hysterical climate.
Stoughton was not merely content to sign the death warrants of people who were found guilty; he was determined to ensure that every single person who stood before him died. In the case of Rebecca Nurse, a 70-year old woman who was hard of hearing, the jury found fit to return a verdict of ‘Not Guilty.’ The outraged Stoughton told the jury to deliberate again, and when they reconvened, Nurse was found guilty and sentenced to die. On July 12, Stoughton signed her death warrant along with those of Susannah Martin, Sarah Wilds, Sarah Good, and Elizabeth How. He was in his element, and no defendant was free from his tyranny.