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.

No comments:

Post a Comment