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Sarah Good - Legalities And The Crime Of Witchcraft

england accused witches laws

Seventeenth century laws on witchcraft in New England paralleled those in England, based on a verse from the King James translation of the Bible. The verse, from Exodus 22:18, read "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The King James version of the Bible was ordered by King James I (ruled 1603–25) in the early 1600s. By 1647 all New England colonies had made witchcraft a capital crime, punishable by death.

The actual witchcraft laws reflected the church's view that convictions required proof of contact between the accused and the devil. This made the crime difficult to successfully prosecute. On the other hand, most colonists were concerned with the supernatural skills of witches such as casting a spell to cause harm to another. It was on this basis that most all charges were made.

The surest path to conviction was getting a confession from the accused; few individuals, however, were willing to confess. So under seventeenth century New England laws, in order to convict an alleged witch, at least two witnesses had to give evidence that the accused had a pact with the devil. The most common attempt was to show signs of "witches' teats" on the body of the accused. Supposedly witches nourished their "familiars" at these teats. "Familiars" were evil spirits with which witches had close relationships. Both preachers and magistrates (judges) demanded a physician confirm findings of a witch's teat on the accused individual.

Another type of proof was spectral evidence, or seeing visions. People believed an evil spirit could assume the identity of an individual who had signed a pact with the devil and visions of that individual would appear to victims and torment them. The witnesses would testify that menacing visions of the accused individual had indeed appeared to them.

Proof of witch's teats or spectral visions was difficult. When New England laws were applied properly, and they usually were, convictions were few. This explains why only twenty convictions were achieved out of one hundred cases prosecuted in New England up until 1692. Yet in 1692 New Englanders were so distraught over what they perceived as their failing to achieve a successful and perfect God-fearing colony that they embarked on a major witch-hunt. They convinced themselves the devil and his witches were to blame. When charges against individuals were made during this time, witchcraft laws were not properly applied—instead, prosecution and conviction relied on spectral and suggested but unproven evidence.


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