Witchcraft and the Law – My Reading Assignment this Week

The reading assignments for most law school classes consist of cases and statutes. They’re often long and complex and necessitate multiple read-throughs in order to fully grasp the core concepts.

In this regard, Professor Bilder‘s American Legal History is a very different class. It fulfills BC Law’s “Perspectives on Law and Justice” graduation requirement, which means that the course “examines the normative ideal of justice from a theoretical, historical, or comparative perspective.” In other words, the reading assignments are not just cases and statutes.

This week’s assignment? Witchcraft – specifically, documents regarding the Salem Witch Trials. I couldn’t help but share one piece of testimony in the reading.

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One man, John Kimball, testified that the accused witch, Susannah Martin, cursed his cow. Pay close attention to the spelling in the written record of his testimony from 1692 and you’ll see that it isn’t that obvious to figure out. Spelling and grammar were pretty lawless games in the seventeenth century.

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Kimball’s account gets more ridiculous. Next, he claimed that a cursed puppy morphed into a demon dog and attacked him at the accused witch’s order. This testimony actually helped convict someone of a crime for which the penalty was death – in fact, the penalty for almost any crime in 1692 Salem was death.

Studying the history of the law may not initially sound like the most practical use of time for young budding attorneys, but I’m glad that BC institutes the Perspectives requirement. Understanding the history and evolution of the law in this country, especially by examining the instances in which it was terribly abused, has given me a much greater appreciation for the role of law in our society and the tremendous responsibility given to those entrusted with enforcing it.

At least, that’s what I think I was supposed to take away. Old English is hard to understand.

Thank you for reading.

I am currently in my fourth semester at BC Law and my second as a member of the Boston College Law Review. Feel free to contact me with questions about my experience, BC Law, or law school in general. Comment here or send me an e-mail at rossire@bc.edu, and don’t forget to follow the Boston College Law Students Association on Twitter @BCLSA.

2 thoughts on “Witchcraft and the Law – My Reading Assignment this Week

  1. “Understanding the history and evolution of the law in this country, especially by examining the instances in which it was terribly abused, has given me a much greater appreciation for the role of law in our society and the tremendous responsibility given to those entrusted with enforcing it.”

    That is an interesting insight. Do you see any parallels to issues in law today?

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    • The example that jumps out immediately is the Ferguson and Staten non-indictments. In a sense it’s actually the exact opposite of the Salem Witch Trials; rather than convicting innocent people of ridiculous charges on unbelievably flimsy evidence, perhaps the most controversial legal issue over the past few months has been a failure to even indict suspects on charges with what many people considered to be more than ample evidence. The similarity, to me, is that both in 1692 and 2014, the responsibility given to the people who are supposed to enforce our laws has been brought into serious question by a significant portion of the community.

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