Sunday, November 4, 2012

The psychology of the Salem witchcraft excitement

I have just finished reading The Psychology of the Salem Witchcraft Excitement of 1692, by George Miller Beard (published in 1882).

The book is less about the Salem witch trials, but is more about the trial of Charles
and to a lesser extent, the trial of Cadet Whittaker.

Beard, a neurologist, was convinced that all three cases resulted in injustice, mainly because non-expert judges were both poorly advised and had caved to the wishes of popular opinion.

Charles Guiteau assassinated President Garfield in 1881 because Garfield refused to make Guiteau an ambassador. Guiteau had no realistic chance of getting any job with the Garfield administration or any administration because he so already considered to be a lunatic.

At Guiteau's trial the insanity defense was raised (against Guiteau's wishes), but was not successful. He was convicted and hanged.

Beard was convinced that Guiteau was actually insane, but felt the the standard used at the trial, the inability to determine right from wrong, was too narrow and that few insane murderers would be successful with it. He argued that the standard should include the inability to control one's behavior. He wrote:
Insanity does not so much take away our knowledge as our power; and the insane, when they commit crimes of violence, not only know right from wrong, but do the wrong solely because it is wrong; they murder because murder is a terrible and bloody deed; they murder their loved ones because such murders are more dreadful than ordinary murders; they know what they do but cannot help doing what they do.
On the surface, it would appear, than the current law in Maryland in regards to a not criminally responsible plea is similar. Criminal Procedure Article 3-109 states:
 (a) In general. -- A defendant is not criminally responsible for criminal conduct if, at the time of that conduct, the defendant, because of a mental disorder or mental retardation, lacks substantial capacity to:

   (1) appreciate the criminality of that conduct; or

   (2) conform that conduct to the requirements of law.
However, according to Beard, in the Guiteau trial:
Judge Cox decided that a knowledge of right and wrong was evidence of responsibility ; and as Guiteau, like nearly all other insane murderers, knew right from wrong, and as with the insane generally, murdered because murder was a dreadful thing to do, there was for the jury no choice; they must bring in a verdict of guilty.
Beard, who worked for Guiteau's defense, was convinced that Guiteau was a monomaniac who was unable to control his impulses. Beard believed that hanging such a person was not only unjust (and something that the country would later regret), but also unwise. The insane murderer, in his opinion, did not fear punishment, but welcomed it. This would actually encourage more of them to kill.

But the judge was not an expert on psychology and did not understand this. He also did not want to stand in the way of the public's desire to see Guiteau hang.

The case of Cadet Whittaker featured less prominently in this book. Whittaker the first black man to win an appointment to West Point. Not surprisingly, he was subjected to a fair amount of abuse. Eventually he was badly assaulted. He was accused of lying about the alleged assault in an attempt to gain sympathy.

At his court martial handwriting "experts" compared the handwriting of threats directed against him that were left at the crime scene to his own handwriting. The experts said he wrote the threat against himself.

Beard condemned the so-called experts, saying that handwriting analysis was a subjective study and could not be verified. Comparing them to the experts, so-called, at the Salem trials, Beard wrote:
The spectral evidence, on the trial of Cadet Whittaker, was that the experts in handwriting, hired by the accusers, saw, or thought they saw, or swore that they thought they saw, minute resemblances between the handwriting of Cadet Whittaker and the note of warning found in his room. This testimony, if sincere, was subjective, coming from the brains of the experts, and having no demonstrable objective existence; as was established on the trial by those who are authorities on the nervous system and in the use of the microscope. The handwriting experts for the prosecution on the Cadet Whittaker trials saw, or declared that they saw, whatever they were looking for; whatever they were hired to see; whatever they thought was necessary to see, in order to secure the conviction of the accused; precisely so in Salem.
Subjectivity among experts continues to be a problem today. One need only look at the horrible cases involving bite-mark experts and the like. Latent fingerprint comparison, while perceived by the general public, prosecutors, and most of the judiciary, as an objective science, is hardly that. It relies on subjective opinion and is not performed in line with any scientific standard. Many people, even today, have been imprisoned or executed on the basis of bad "expert" testimony.

Beard links these two cases in with the Salem witch trials. Writing about the origin of the excitement, Beard wrote:
After the "afflicted children," as they were called, had made some excitement, and Mr. Parris, the pastor, had found that he could not understand it, or make any satisfactory explanation of the trouble, Dr. Griggs, the town physician, was called in; and he, not being an expert in hysteria, trance, or insanity, gave the diagnosis of witchcraft, saying, "They have the evil eye." The people very soon became convinced that there were witches among them; that is, persons in league with the devil, who by their apparitions were tormenting the children.
The non-expert judges allowed the cases to go forward. The public was rabidly in favor of convicting and hanging the alleged witches.

Beard blamed the trials on the hysteria, trance, or insanity of the afflicted. Historians have debated whether or not the allegedly bewitched were hysterics, liars, suffering from food poisoning, or something else. I do not know that there is one answer to that question. It could have been a mix of several factors.

Regardless, Beard believed that had there been experts in psychology at the time the trials never would have happened. He also argued that if there were more delays in the law, that the executions would never have happened. Only a few months later the people realized that they had made a mistake, but that was too late to help the people who had already died.

Beard was someone who was fundamentally concerned with justice and the fair treatment of all people, especially the mentally disturbed. He was not one to simply go along with the mob's opinion, but rather argued for what he believed was right. While some of his arguments and conclusions can be debated, his general concern over people being wrongly or unfairly prosecuted is commendable.

This book offers no new information about the Salem witch trials, but does thoughtfully compare the events of 1692 to two high-profile trials in his day, that he was personally involved in. I recommend this book, especially to anyone who is interested in these historical trials, or who is interested in the legal history of the insanity defense, or who is concerned about the misuse of expert testimony in court.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

About Justice at Salem

I knew when I was writing Justice at Salem, that the book would be controversial and would provoke some criticism. I also knew that it was bound to be misunderstood, by some at least. I could have written some parts differently to make a few of my points more clear, but I did not want to change my writing style. I like incorporating a fair bit of wit and sarcasm in my writing, even if it is at my peril.  

Since this is the case, it may seem odd that I appear bothered enough to respond to some comments about my book. Nevertheless, I never like the record to be unclear about my opinions. So I thought I would use this space to explain my book in more detail and to address some of the attacks.
When writing this book, I was not interested in general condemnations of the officials of the time, but rather in their motives, I attempted to get into the heads of the authorities to see if there was any plausible argument that could be made for the guilt of the accused. While many of the cases relied entirely on shaky evidence, there was evidence that some of the accused might actually have practiced witchcraft.
Whether or not this evidence would have held up if subjected to cross-examination by a competent lawyer or the other protections of our current judicial system is unknown. But under the standards of the day, I argued that there could have been enough evidence to convict some of them.
It is apparent that witchcraft was practiced in the past and still is today. For example, archaeologists have discovered witch bottles and other objects used to keep away witches in homes from this period and long after. This attempt to use magic to fight against witches was essentially a form of witchcraft. Local witches were known to exist around this period. Whether healers, midwives, or others, some people were known to have a stronger connection with nature and the spiritual world. Some of these people may have been malicious in nature or used their perceived powers to benefit themselves in the community.
The modern Wiccan community appears to take the view that many of the accused at Salem were victims not because they were innocent, but because they were oppressed for their unorthodox, but misunderstood, religious views. I do not believe that there is a strong connection between modern Wiccans and the witches of old, but there may be some similarities. I argued that there was evidence that the convicted witches were generally malicious in their deeds and came to the attention of the authorities because of some harm they had inflicted, either psychologically or directly, but likely not spiritually.
The arguments in my book are not always simple and at times I played mental games to make a point. The readers who paid close attention were able to appreciate what I was trying to do. I did realize that others, who perhaps live busy lives, would not be able to appreciate my arguments. Perhaps lacking an abundance of time or a generosity of understanding caused some to denounce my effort.

For example, one reviewer on Amazon wrote, in part:
My main issue with this book, however, is that it drifts off topic. In the middle of talking about Tituba being beaten by her master, it drifts off into talking about John Proctor's allegations of torture by the authorities, then suddenly to the accusations of torture--specifically water-boarding--in the modern United States. This had nothing to do with the book, and the author even admitted to straying off track, but he continued to talk about how "everyone knows that the US doesn't use torture because torture is illegal" and how water-boarding, therefore, is not torture.  
I intentionally made an argument that appeared to go off topic. But the argument was linked back to the original point. The events of the Salem witch trials have been used as a historical metaphor and have been compared to other incidents in history. The Red Scare comes to mind. So my attempt to link something from the trials to today is not unheard of. 

The reviewer was completely oblivious to the fact that I was actually mocking the arguments about “enhanced interrogation” not being torture. I argued that it was torture, produced unreliable information, and was immoral. It does take a little bit of work to see my point, however.
Another reviewer on Amazon responded to a positive review by writing, in part, that Justice at Salem was a “mean little book that strays so often into credulity of the worst kind, as when it refers to ‘no torture in America.’” Again, this person completely missed by point. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that some readers would miss the point of my torture rant. I did not actually believe that someone would take my statements in defense of “enhanced interrogation” seriously. I suppose it says something more about the state of our current politics where arguments in defense of torture are taken seriously. Perhaps I cannot completely blame the reviewers for missing my argument against torture.

That torture was practiced, albeit on a very limited scale, at Salem does not distract from my main argument, that there was actual witchcraft as well. The fact that the American government has used torture does not distract from the reality of terrorism either. My argument is that they responded to the witchcraft accusations poorly, but that there was actual witchcraft being practiced. I also argued that these trials should not have taken place, but they did because the people in colonial New England lacked our current, and correct, understanding of religious liberty.

Many people have an emotional attachment to the Salem witch trials and to the people involved in them. This book challenges them in a way. It challenges them to see the situation as the judges and jurors would have saw it. I do not pretend that every one of my opinions is correct or that I could not have been wrong in some of my judgments. But I also ask the reader to consider if he or she could also be mistaken.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Witch trials outside of Salem

In early America, witch trials also took place outside of Salem, including in Maryland. Few people are aware of this fact or of the other legends, myths, or lore associated with witchcraft in this mid-Atlantic state. My new book, Witch Trials, Legends, and Lore of Maryland, reveals this fascinating history.

Available through Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, and other online book sellers.

It is also available as a Kindle Ebook (free to Amazon Prime members right now), it will be available in other electronic formats later in the year.

You may also purchase copies at Back Creek Books in Annapolis, the Annapolis Cigar Company, Fenwick Books in Leonardtown, or directly through the books website -