Essay on Salem Witch Trials Impact on American Legal System

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“To what extent did the Salem witch trials affect the American legal system?”

Between the time of 1692-1693 in the American colony of Massachusetts, there were a series of prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft. This mainly occured in the city of Salem and it resulted in the accusation of two hundred people and the death of over thirty people. To keep authority in the city, often women were the ones accused of witchcraft but men and children were accused and killed as well. After seeing the results of multiple trials it was clear to the community that a person could be accused of charges of witchcraft, or for making a deal with the Devil and that would result in their deaths. However, if they pleaded guilty to the accusations they were relieved of all crimes but were believed to have tainted their relationship with God and were seen as genuine witches by the people of Salem. “Puritans believed that such a confession, even if it wasn’t true, could damn a person’s soul to hell.” Although a confession would save the life of a person who pleaded guilty, it would not ensure that their life would remain safe because it would cause more future accusations. The irony is that none of the accused Salem witches who confessed were convicted or executed but of the people who refused to confess were found guilty and executed. Pleading not guilty meant they could save their souls from their sins. If they pleaded not guilty and were convicted anyway and sentenced to hang, the people accused knew that at least they were innocent in the eyes of God and they would still go to heaven. An overwhelming majority of people accused and convicted of witchcraft were women (about 78%). Overall, the Puritan belief and prevailing New England culture was that women were inherently sinful and more susceptible to damnation than men were. Throughout their daily lives, Puritans, especially Puritan women, actively attempted to evade the attempts by the Devil to overtake them and their souls. Puritans had the belief that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the Devil. Women's souls were seen as unprotected in their weak and vulnerable bodies. Several factors may explain why women were more likely to admit guilt of witchcraft than men, which can be seen through the number of deaths and reasoning for both men and women. There were four execution dates and the victims included important figures like the first case who was Bridget Bishop who had already previously accused years before, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes along with many other people who were all hung along with 5 other deaths in jail and possibly the most important and influential death which was of Giles Corey, who was pressed to death by a boulder because after being arrested, he refused to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty and this later became one of the most crucial moments in american history. “​He was subjected to pressing to force him to plead—the only example of such a sanction in American history—and died after three days of this torture.”

By the fall of 1692, the witch-hunting hysteria began to die down as more and more people began to doubt that so many people could be guilty of witchcraft. People had urged the judicial courts not to admit any evidence and to rely only on a clear and convincing testimony. As well, “In May of 1693, the remaining accused and convicted witches were released from prison. The Salem Witch Trials only lasted a little over a year and had very little practical impact on the Colonies at large. However, “the trials and executions had a vivid afterlife in the American consciousness, giving rise to a wealth of scholarship and an abundance of cultural artifacts including paintings, novels, plays, and films.” “Before the constitutional turmoil of the 1680s, the Massachusetts government had been dominated by conservative Puritan secular leaders. While Puritans and the Church of England both shared a common influence in Calvinism, Puritans had opposed many of the traditions of the Church of England, including the use of the Book of Common Prayer, the use of clergy vestments during services, the use of the sign of the cross at baptism, and kneeling to receive communion, all of which they believed constituted popery. King Charles I was hostile to this viewpoint, and Anglican church officials tried to repress these dissenting views during the 1620s and 1630s. Some Puritans and other religious minorities had sought refuge in the Netherlands but ultimately many made a major migration to colonial North America to establish their society.” The Salem witch trials have changed religious and political views in America today because Puritans began to separate protestant sects.” Aw well as that it was able to discourage a disconnection between religion and government, which also helped to lead to the idea of “Separation of church and state'.

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