May 14, 1878: Last American Witchcraft Trial (You Guessed it, In Salem!)

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A Brief History

On May 14, 1878, the town of Salem, Massachusetts, was fittingly (in a way) the scene of the last known trial for the crime of witchcraft in the United States. Had people gone mad? Was there some sort of time warp? Were there ghosts from 1692 at work here?

Digging Deeper

Goofy as it sounds to us today, there are still plenty of people who believe in witches and witchcraft, and even the former Republican Vice Presidential nominee and erstwhile Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin can be seen on video being cleansed and protected from witchcraft by a preacher who is a known witch hunter!  (Seriously, if she does not believe in witchcraft, why would she publicly be treated for protection from witches???)

Sarah Palin speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 11, 2012.

The Salem Witchcraft Trial of 1878, also known as the Ipswich Witchcraft Trial, originated among the Christian Scientist community, adherents of the religion started by Mary Baker Eddy in the latter half of the 19th Century.  It seems a certain Civil War veteran, Daniel Spofford, joined the Christian Science religion in 1875, graduating from their classes about metaphysical healing.  Spofford became an organizer of the religion in Massachusetts, began a “healing” practice and called himself “Doctor Daniel Spofford.”  Spofford is also significant to the development of Christian Science in that he introduced Mary Baker Glover to her future husband, Asa Eddy.  In 1878, Spofford and Eddy had a falling out, with Eddy suing Spofford for unpaid tuition (from the courses he took) and Spofford being expelled from Christian Science.

The roots of the Witchcraft Trial stem from the Christian Science idea that Malicious Animal Magnetism (MAM) is a form of hypnosis used for evil and harmful purposes.  (In 1881 this subject was titled “Demonology” in Christian Science literature, later removed from subsequent editions.)  Lucretia Brown, age 50, of Ipswich, Massachusetts was an invalid that had been receiving “treatments” from Christian Science healers, but claimed her relapses were due to interference from Daniel Spofford, through his use of “mesmerism.”  A lawsuit was filed by Brown against Spofford alleging he was causing her pain in body and mind (don’t forget neuralgia!), and the Christian Scientists amassed 21 witnesses against Spofford, including Mary Baker Eddy herself.  Trial commenced on May 14, 1878, and on May 17, 1878 Spofford was called to testify.  Spofford instead had his attorney file for “demurrer” and the judge dismissed the case, claiming the alleged tort was vague and “framed without a knowledge of the law of equity.”

Photograph of Mary Baker Eddy

Brown’s side appealed the dismissal, but an appeals court upheld the dismissal.  Widespread media coverage of the event drew criticism to Eddy and her religion, and the case was seen as somewhat of a bizarre and ridiculous event.  We think so, too!  What do you think of witches and witchcraft?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Tucker, Ruth A.  Another Gospel: Cults, Alternative Religions, and the New Age Movement.  Zondervan, 2004.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.