The Famous Witch Trial That Changed The Course Of History
In Salem, 1692, two young cousins – aged nine and eleven – began to suffer fits. They would scream, throw things around the room and contort their bodies into unusual shapes. They claimed they had no control over their behaviour.
Soon, other young girls in the village were doing the same. Doctors could find no reason for these ‘seizures’, and so turned to the only possible explanation. Witchcraft.
This provoked mass hysteria, with neighbours accusing neighbours, friends accusing friends. In the subsequent Salem Witch Trials – the most famous in the world – over 200 people were tried, and 19 were hanged.
These trials would probably not have ended with executions, however, were it not for the precedent set by an English witch trial, 80 years before.
Prior to the 1600s, while accusations of witchcraft were common in England, they rarely made it to trial. After all, wise women were common, and people ‘cursed’ each other all the time.
But, following the Gunpowder Plot, people were uneasy. There had been rumours that Guy Fawkes was a witch, and new King James I was terrified of witchcraft.
Still, beggar Alizon Device couldn’t have known that when she cursed at a pedlar it would lead to her entire family, plus most of her neighbours, being executed.
Unfortunately for her, shortly after she cursed him the pedlar suffered what we would now recognise as a stroke. Racked with guilt, believing that she had caused his illness, Alizon rushed to his bedside to beg for forgiveness. But learning what had happened, the pedlar’s son reported her for witchcraft.
Alizon was arrested and interviewed. Terrified, she quickly pointed the finger at another family from the village, who were subsequently arrested. Annoyed that Alizon had implicated them, they pointed the finger right back at her mother, Elizabeth Device.
They informed the magistrates that Elizabeth had had a party on Good Friday, when she should have been in church. Everyone who had been at that party was arrested, including Alizon’s nine-year-old sister, Jennet.
With 12 accused – including Alizon, Alizon’s mother Elizabeth, and most of their friends and neighbours – the magistrates decided to use Jennet as a witness. Children under 14 had never been allowed to give evidence before, but James I was so terrified of witches, he decided to make an exception.
Jennet denounced her mother and sister as witches, as well as her brother James and seven of their neighbours. Based on her evidence alone, these ten ‘witches’ were executed.
Probably not knowing what it would mean, Jennet, with her child’s imagination, had given a fantastical account of her family and friends’ spirits moving around, conjuring black dogs and making clay figures.
And the judge believed her.
80 years later in Salem, magistrates studied the case of Jennet Device. If she had given evidence at the age of nine, why shouldn’t the young girls in their village give evidence too?
They called the children to testify at the trials, and almost exclusively on the evidence they provided, 19 ‘witches’ were convicted and hanged.
Ironically, Jennet Device was accused of witchcraft by a child when she was around 30. She likely spent the rest of her life in prison.