Days of Judgment
Reviewed By Sarah-Nell Walsh

Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001

Days of Judgment is an informative movie made on the tercentennial of the Salem Witchcraft trials in 1992. It is an accurate and fair portrayal of both the causes of the trials and the trial's consequences. It provides a broad historical overview with none of the commercial, trivial exaggeration that many have come to associate with Salem. Instead of using visuals from the town of Salem's commercial ventures, the film uses engravings, paintings, actual Salem documents, signatures of participants, and shots of Danvers town, the old Salem Village. It is well organized into thirteen segments that each deal with a different facet of the trial.

"The Days of Judgment" is the title of the first segment, which is a historical overview of the period leading up to the trials. Stephen Nissenbaum criticizes other historians for looking at the trials in a vacuum and ignoring important events that led up to them. He outlines a more general version of what can be found in his book Salem Possessed. He speaks of a village facing a changing economic situation, forming alliances, and battling for independence against Salem town.

"Life in the Village" speaks further to the conflict and uncertainty which the villagers faced every day. Richard Godbeer explains Salem's conflicts with political officials, Native Americans, and Quakers. Since the royal charter had recently been revoked, the Massachusetts colony did not have a legal form of government when the first accusations occurred. At the same time, the villagers faced the perceived malevolent threats of Quakers and Indians, which they saw as strongly linked to witchcraft.

"A Divided Community" speaks to the interpersonal conflicts which the town faced during this time of even larger uncertainty. Nissenbaum explains that there was an independence movement to create a new meeting house separate from Salem town. This hope for separation led to the development of factions within the Village. Barbara Dailey explains the dynamics of a strongly hierarchical society, where your rank and station was visible every day in your dress, seating in church, housing, title, and gender. Richard Trask highlighted the idea of the meeting house as the civic center where all important town proceedings took place. And, David Hall introduced the idea of the meeting house as symbolic space. The meeting house was seen as the garden amidst the wilderness. It represented peace, safety, and security. Hall also stressed the idea that the 17th century was alive with "wonder." "Wonder" is a term that encompasses many different phenomena, but mainly has to do with God or the devil sending humans messages through invisible means. Godbeer describes several forms of magic. He believes that lay folk made a distinction between divination, counter-magic, and malevolent magic or witchcraft. Even though ministers saw all forms of magic as the devil's tool and preached against it, many people practiced some form of magic and believed that humans could wield that power without the devil's help.

"The Crime of Maleficia" is defined as harmful magic (the use of supernatural powers to bring about harm) and can involve "diabolism," which is the worship of the devil. It is estimated that between 1450 and 1700, one hundred thousand people were executed for witchcraft and eighty percent of them were women. Hall believes that the common lay person was concerned with maleficia, whereas officials and clergy people were concerned with diabolism. Brian Levack believes that was because diabolism threatened Christian civilization. The first book written on the subject of witchcraft was called Maleficarum, published in 1486 by the Dominicans as a handbook for investigating and prosecuting witches. It concluded that women are more easily drawn to evil and led to widespread witch hunts in England. There was a big difference between the witch hunts on continental Europe and those in England. On the continent, witchcraft was considered to be heresy against the church and punishable by burning, whereas in England it was civil crime punishable by hanging. The English tradition is obviously what colonial America was following.

"The Cosmic Struggles of Samuel Parris" follows the man that every colonial historian loves to hate. In 1689, Samuel Parris arrived in Salem Village. Nissenbaum describes how this was a last resort for Parris after failing as a merchant. The arrival of Parris intensified the division in the community into pro- and anti-Parris factions. Nissenbaum describes how Parris saw this not as a political struggle, but as a cosmic division between forces of good (pro-Parris) and evil (anti-Parris). Unfortunately, Puritan culture did not have a language for legitimate opposition to authority and Parris could not separate the personal, political, or religious.

"Affliction" gives a brief overview of the breakout of affliction in Samuel Parris' house. It briefly describes the divination techniques which the girls were using to try and decipher the trades of their future husbands, including the "Venus glass" (an egg white suspended in water). When the Village doctor, William Griggs, was unable to find a diagnosis for the girls' fits, he concluded witchcraft.

"Tituba" was Samuel Parris' slave and has also been the subject of much folklore. She was probably of Native American descent and was acquired on one of Parris' trips to Barbados. Although tradition has it that Tituba taught young Abigail Williams and Betty Parris about the occult, Elaine Breslaw explains that there is no evidence to support that theory since they were using traditional English divination techniques. Since Tituba confessed, her role was defined by what she had to say. She gave a full detailed story which many people believed and has been incorporated into common folklore about witches.

"The Devil Hath Been Raised Amongst Us" reminds viewers that the first three arrests did not end the torment of the afflicted and many more people were arrested as a result. They detail the story of Rebecca Nurse's examination and the role which the afflicted girls play in this unfolding drama.

"The Accused" focuses obviously on the people who were indicted and convicted of witchcraft. Seventy-five percent of the people accused at Salem were women. Barbara Daily draws the conclusion that socially independent women who were not under the supervision of men were the most likely to be accused. These included healers, women who were scold and mutterers, and women who collected herbs. She believes this was partly because women were feared for their powerful biological capabilities. Hall believes that social quarrels with subsequent misfortune led to witchcraft accusations. Her example of this prototype is the fact that Rebecca Nurse was accused of witchcraft by Ann Putnam Jr. following a property dispute between the Putnam's and the Nurses.

"Spectral Evidence and the Law" examines the process by which witches were prosecuted, and progresses from a complaint to arrest to examination. Accusers had to provide evidence that the accused made a pact with the devil. Sufficient evidence often led to an indictment. Levack further adds that the accusers had to prove a diabolical compact between the devil and the accused. There were two legal ways of proving this compact: confession or two witnesses had to testify that she performed an act which implied a compact with the devil. Because of this strict burden of proof, very few people were convicted of witchcraft before 1692. In 1692, they accepted many different forms of proof as valid. The afflicted girls gave the most damaging proof of witchcraft in their spectral evidence of torment. Even at the time, there was much disagreement as to its validity.

"The Court of Oyer and Terminer," meaning "to hear and to determine," was set up by Governor Phips to hear the witchcraft trials. The court records are our best guide as to what happened. There are over five hundred documents, including indictments, warrants, depositions, and verbatim transcriptions of courtroom hearings. None of the judges had formal legal training. Unlike previous witchcraft trials, confessed witches were not executed immediately whereas those found guilty were. Dailey explains that confessed witches were given time to examine their souls and prepare for death before they were executed. The trials ended before executions of confessed witches took place. Because of this, the relatives of the accused placed a great deal of pressure on them to confess in order the buy time and put of execution. When the witch hunt engulfed the town of Andover, over fifty people confessed to spare their lives.

"The End of the Trials" basically lays out the chronology for the end of the trials. On September 8, 1692 the last eight people were hanged for witchcraft. By October, the afflicted girls were accusing people from prominent families, including the wife of Governor Phips. The Court of Oyer and Terminer came under attack. Increase Mather denounced spectral evidence and declared that it was better that ten witches escape than one be condemned. "Confessed" witches began recanting their confessions. Godbeer explains that October 12 was the end of imprisonment for witchcraft and October 15 was the date of dissolution for Oyer and Terminer. In November, a new court was assembled and by January it had heard 52 cases. The court acquitted all but three, and those three people were pardoned by the Governor. It proved very difficult to convict witches without the use of spectral evidence. In 1696, many jurors apologized and in 1706, Ann Putnam Jr. admits that she had been deluded by the devil. Healing came slowly to Salem Village. In 1752, they won their struggle for independence and became Danvers town.

"1692 Remembered" addresses the question of what the Salem trials have come to represent. Many view the trials as a symbol of intolerance, repression, and injustice. Arthur Miller used the metaphor of the Salem trials to talk about the Red Hunt in his 1953 play, The Crucible. Brian Levack sees the trials as a warning that justice can always be miscarried when authority becomes determined to prosecute non-conformists and political enemies, especially when the community is behind the persecutions.

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