Book Excerpt: 'America on Trial'

In America On Trial , defense attorney Alan Dershowitz looks at some of the most significant trials in our nation's history, from the Salem witch trials to the O.J. Simpson case.

Here is an excerpt:

The Salem Witchcraft Trials

Date: 1692 Location: Salem, Massachusetts Defendants: Approximately twenty-five in 1692, but several hundred men and women were arrested and imprisoned on charges of witchcraft between 1648 and 1706 Charge: Witchcraft Verdict: Guilty Sentence: Thirteen women and six men hanged; one man pressed to death with heavy stones; at least four others imprisoned (two dogs were also executed as suspected accomplices)

Although the Inquisition never reached the colonies — Catholics were a tiny minority among the colonists — the Salem witchcraft trials bore some striking resemblances, writ small, to what had roiled the Continent two centuries earlier. They paralleled, in some ways but not in others, the trial of Joan of Arc in 1431. The pre-Enlightenment church was a dominant influence in the Bay Colony during the seventeenth century, but other influences were also at play against the women who were accused — primarily by other women — of the capital crime of witchcraft.

As is typical with most episodes of legal persecution, a small kernel of truth may have provided an early explanation, if not justification, for the concerns that led to the prosecutions. In a society that believed in the power of the devil and in the phenomenon of witchcraft, it should not be surprising that some young girls may well have experimented with magic spells and other aspects of the occult. Nor should it be surprising that some of the girls may have experienced the functional equivalent of psychosomatic symptoms of being bewitched — symptoms that were manifested by convulsions, fits, screeching, and pain. A doctor, summoned by the minister, diagnosed affliction by the devil, and before long dozens of "witches" were arrested and prosecuted. Informers named names, including those of a former minister and several young children. Nineteen people were hanged, others imprisoned. Several of the condemned were of Native American heritage. This, too, should not be surprising, since warfare between the Puritans and Indians was wreaking havoc among the Northern settlements. In a recent account of the trials, a distinguished historian found that "the key affected accusers in the Salem crisis were frontier refugees whose families had been wiped out in the wars. These young women said they saw the devil in the shape of an Indian."22 The Puritans needed a scapegoat to explain why "God's chosen people" were being slaughtered by the Indians. They decided that "their Indian enemies had the Devil on their side."23

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