Spectral evidence was a form of evidence accepted in the courts during the Salem Witch Trials, one of the darkest, most misogynistic periods of American history. This “evidence” held that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits, or specters, to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray. Satan’s minions included many “witches” who lived in the Salem, Massachusetts area.
The concept of “spectral evidence” originally arose during the witch trials in Europe. While the English courts acknowledged the credibility of such proof, they refused to prosecute the accused based on only spectral evidence. Sadly, this was not the case in New England.
The American witch hunts began in Salem Village, a European town settled by farmers in what is now Danvers, Massachusetts. In 1689, Reverend Samuel Parris was the minister at the local parish. His nine-year-old daughter, twelve-year-old niece, and some of their neighborhood friends suddenly began having horrible fits. The village doctor declared these poor girls were the victims of witchcraft.
The girls explained that various people in the Salem Village area were trying to lure them into witchcraft. The witches could make their spirits appear to them and could even cast spells upon them. Pressured by the Reverend, the "afflicted" girls eventually pointed their fingers at Sarah Good, Sarah Osburn, and Tituba, who was Reverend Parris’s slave.
As the local magistrates questioned Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good, the girls once again had horrific fits and even claimed to see “specters” right there in the courtroom. It was obvious to all those present that the two accused women were using witchcraft on the girls, and the two females were thrown in jail despite their protests. The slave Tituba, however, confessed under duress to consorting with Satan and stated there were other witches in the area. The girls remained afflicted, the fits started spreading to others in the village, and a mighty witch hunt commenced.
Spectral evidence was considered the primary leading “proof” of a woman’s witchy status, and it became increasingly popular for “victims” to see a spectral shape in a dream or a vision. Witnesses would testify in court that someone’s spirit attacked them, and this spectral evidence would be taken as proof that the accused person was responsible for the attack even though the accused person’s physical body was at another location at the time.
More and more accusations were made, and jails filled up with people from several New England towns, including Salem, Salem Village, Andover, and Topsfield. Dozens of people confessed to being witches under excruciating torture.
Governor William Phips called a special court to try the cases of the accused witches who just would not confess. This court quickly condemned many people to death, mostly by hanging and pressing. A good number of the accused died in jail before they could be tried.
By the beginning of the next year, educated people spoke out against using spectral evidence in court. Perhaps exhausted by the witchcraft frenzy, magistrates disallowed spectral evidence in the courtroom and declared it was insufficient proof to condemn any new accused, bringing an end to the witch hunt.