Specters were the central cause of the witchcraft phenomenon in Salem and surrounding towns in the late 1700s. They took many forms and became the primary evidence in accusation and conviction of suspected witches. Single specters haunted multiple individuals, and many specters at once might harass a single victim one or more times or continuously.
Most often a specter was in the form, a shape apparition, of a known person, but bright lights and many animal forms pursued and persecuted the local populace. Yellow birds were common as were black ones. Cats, dogs, hogs in various distorted forms and colors, imps and small dark men in top hats were often visiting illusions.
But the single most frequent and important specters were those who took the forms of other people. They were believed already to be converts to the Devil’s cause or unknowingly inhabited by the Devil or one of his minions. Visions of the human specters-pinching, pricking, suffocating, choking, knocking over and dragging the victims into fire and water in order to force them to join Satan’s army-were used as the exclusive evidence to prove that the persons “cried out against” by the afflicted-and named, charged and testified against by other townsfolk-were witches. Often they carried the Devil’s book and pressured victims to sign their name or make their mark in it.
The fantastical, irrational and delusional character of these spectral encounters, which mounted into the thousands throughout this period, produced in Salem and surrounding towns an epidemic of mass hysteria. Many residents, relatives and friends of the victims signed large supportive petitions. But these were not enough to stem the factors conspiring to root out and exterminate the evil forces working to put Salem and the rest of the colonies entirely into the Devil’s kingdom.
Huge arguments raged in Boston and Salem courts and among their ministries and their citizens concerning the validity and reliability of “Spectral Evidence.” Unconfirmed, in other words not observed or recorded by other than an “afflicted” coterie of young women and other victims, how could these highly subjective reports by the grounds for charges of witchcraft? Hundreds were charged. Over 150 persons were jailed in atrocious conditions in which several women and children died. All prisoners lost property, money and citizen rights; and, in a final atrocity in 1692, 19 persons were hanged and one was crushed to death for witchcraft.
Of the nine magistrates in charge of the witchcraft trials in Salem, only one later repented and admitted his responsibility in the misguided process of justice. With all the troubles working to unsettle Salem and its neighbors at the time, is it so hard to imagine that almost everyone was fearful of reported mass meetings of over 100 witches, of specters and spirits in the woods and paths and dark corners of Salem houses and public buildings? As you walk away from the Specter chair, imagine that one of the next ten people you see might be a witch, a witch’s accomplice, or a specter ready to climb on your chest and suffocate and convert you as you lie in bed tonight.