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The 'crime' of witchcraft

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“I’m not a witch!” These were the first words from Christine O’Donnell to a television interviewer, as she sought support in the race in Delaware for the seat in Senate vacated by Joseph Biden after he was elected Vice-President of the United States. Ms. O’Donnell, at first a very long shot, had surprisingly triumphed in the primary election over a heavily favored conservative candidate after she received the endorsement of the Tea Party, a vibrant group with a platform saturated with nonsense and logical inconsistencies - for instance, let’s give a trillion dollar tax break to the very rich and at the same time, let’s reduce the staggering national deficit.

Ms. O’Donnell had found it necessary to raise the witchcraft issue because eleven years earlier, when she was being used as a comedic figure on a television show, she had indicated that she had “dabbled in witchcraft,” dated a witch, and attended a ritual that featured blood on an altar. Snippets from the earlier television appearance were replayed locally and nationally, drawing ridicule from those who regarded Ms. O’Donnell as a candidate notoriously unqualified for a powerful national office.

Nobody, well, hardly anybody, believed that Ms. O’Donnell was or ever had been a witch. Her television denial was not meant to convince viewers of that. Rather it sought to contradict the idea that she still saw herself as a witch. Ms. O’Donnell likely would have been much better served by treating the whole matter as something of a jolly joke, a bit of nuttiness from an earlier generation to which she and potential supporters of her candidacy belonged.

For criminologists and demonologists who study witchcraft, the irony of Candidate O’Donnell’s position was that she was repeating a phrase, “I am not a witch”, that over several hundred years had proved ineffectual in keeping a staggeringly large number of women on the European continent from being strangled or burned to death, and hundreds more in England from being hanged, as witches.

The singularity of Ms. O’Donnell’s statement can be seen as a companion piece to former President Richard Nixon’s plaint as he was being driven from office in the face of impeachment threats: “I’ve made my mistakes,” Nixon stated, “but I’ve earned everything that I got,” which was followed by the line: “I am not a crook.” In the case of Nixon, and in similar declarations of innocence, evidence existed, if it could be unearthed, to prove or disprove not-guilty claims. Even in “ he said-she said” sexual assault cases involving intimates, something real had or had not happened that could be capable of validating or refuting the allegation of the commission of an illegal act.

Witchcraft was strikingly different. The offense itself was tied to a theological doctrine that defied empirical validation. It has been claimed that the religious roots of the offense of witchcraft, at least in England, were wrapped in linguistic weeds. It is said that when King James I in 1598 published Demonology, a diatribe against witchcraft, maintaining that he once had been its victim, he employed the word and concept of witchcraft incorrectly in that the original biblical text referred to the practice of necromancy. The brilliant team that produced the King James version of the Bible felt obliged to follow the wayward linguistic path of their country’s ruler; thus, what was carelessly designated as witchcraft by James became embedded in the Bible as an offense against divine law, deserving death.

Richard Nixon presumably could demonstrate whether or not he was a crook, just as murderers, terrorists, and burglars are able, if they have the resources and information, to show beyond reasonable doubt that they are innocent of what they have been alleged to have done. But how can a person accused of witchcraft prove that it was not she who was seen by “reliable god-fearing observers” (who today report UFO sightings) flying through the air on a broomstick on her way to a witch conventicle? Or that when neighbor Oliver’s pigs suddenly died after frightful spasms it was not because Widow Cullender had put a curse on them after she had taken orders from the Devil to visit evil upon her devout neighbor?

Besides, it was far easier and more convenient to blame an ill-reputed, older, defenseless woman for a family calamity than to deal with the prevailing belief that such family tragedies were a warning, the result of God’s displeasure with your failure to live in accord with the demands of divine dictates.

For us, the history of witchcraft offers a compelling reason to regard the operation of both earlier and contemporary criminal justice systems with abiding skepticism. The witchcraft trials that we spent several decades studying implanted a deep-seated cynicism in both of us regarding the administration of criminal justice, then and now. In the case we researched of two antient (the preferred spelling at the time) women hanged in Bury St. Edmunds in 1662, after a trial that mocked the cause of justice, it wasn’t that the trial failed to adhere to principles and procedures deemed to getting at the truth, it was that it did so adhere and nonetheless turned the assize judgment into a travesty.

Take but one example. One of the two judges, an iconoclast who once called the Magna Carta the Magna Farta, thought that the young girls claiming to have been bewitched were play-acting. They would scream hysterically and throw fits when one of the accused women touched them. The doubting judge arranged for a test in which the girls were blindfolded and an innocent maiden touched them. They screamed and contorted their bodies in ways that appalled onlookers. In the words of the on-the-scene court reporter, thee men who had conducted the test returned, “openly protesting that they did `believe the whole transaction of this business was a meer Imposture’”, a judgment that “put the Court and all persons into a stand.”

Samuel Pacey, the father of the girls, solved the dilemma. He pointed out, that the Devil obviously had arranged what had happened in order to try to save his servants, the two accused old women, from being taken from his roster. Otherwise, how could anybody account for such similar behavior from girls who allegedly had no interaction, and for physical contortions that seemed unimaginable. And what motive might lead the girls to perjure themselves and bring about the deaths of two poor, old women?

It should be noted that the senior judge sitting besides the skeptic was Sir Matthew Hale, the most eminent jurist of his time and still a renowned figure in jurisprudential history. Hale had scripted the ideology that, for centuries in Anglo-American criminal law, defined rape as an easy charge to level and a difficult one to disprove; therefore an allegation to be regarded very suspiciously. Hale’s contribution here was the report of a case he had tried that involved a man charged with rape whose stomach was so distended that in the jurist’s opinion he could not physically have done what he was said to have done. This kind of physiological thinking failed to prevail in Hale’s mind when it came to witchcraft, perhaps because, as feminists have continuously claimed, in both instances the bias favored men and victimized women.

Another prominent participant in the Bury St. Edmunds trial was Sir Thomas Browne, a medical doctor and philosopher who gained fame by, among other things, scolding readers for being too ready to accept “dubiosities” as truths. Browne testified, as an expert witness, that since precisely the same behavior as that being charged at Bury St. Edmunds had recently been the object of a similar trial in Denmark it provided obvious evidence of the reality of the practice of witchcraft - a bit of a “dubiosity” masquerading as truth.

The horrid history of witchcraft prosecutions demonstrates that if powerful forces seek to achieve some goal they believe in with great intensity they will ride roughshod over regulation and reasons to gain their end. Hale’s brief speech to the Bury St. Edmunds jury stressed the biblical recognition of witchcraft as well as an act of Parliament as verifying the existence of such malevolence. He told the jurors that God demanded that the innocent go free but also insisted that the guilty pay the price for their behavior. It took the jury only half an hour to return a guilty verdict against both of the accused women; they were hanged in short order. For her part, Christine O’Donnell’s situation had a more benign outcome. She lost her bid for a Senate seat by an exceedingly large margin.

Gilbert Geis, Emeritus Professor of Criminology, Law and Society, University of California, and Ivan Bunn, local historian from Lowestoft, Suffolk, are authors of A Trial of Witches [1997 Routledge].

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