Catherine Brekus explained how the trials worked – and what was so controversial about them.
So the way that the witchcraft process worked is that when people were accused, they would have to come in front of a court. The court had been – in Salem, the court had been specially assembled to hear these cases. And the court was made up of some of the most important political leaders in Salem. They listened to the evidence and had to make a decision. The very controversial thing that happened at Salem is that the leaders – the judges – decided that they would accept so-called “spectral evidence” as the truth.
There were girls who claimed to be afflicted by witches, and when those accused witches were brought before them, the girls would claim that the spectre of one of those witches was attacking them – biting them, pinching them, tormenting them in some way. The girls would fall into fits on the floor of the place where the jury was sitting, and so the judges became convinced that these girls were genuinely afflicted, and they were willing to use evidence that only the girls could see. This is eventually how the trials fell apart, because the girls began accusing more and more people, more and more prominent people, and some ministers objected to using invisible evidence as the grounds for executing people.