Witch Hunts: The Use (and Abuse) of Child Testimony

In a previous post, I talked about the anti-Catholic aspects of the Lancashire Witch Trials. Though I only said it indirectly, the post drew a parallel between the political/religious motivations of witch hunts, and the negative aspects of what Eric Hoffer called the True Believer — issues that still affect us today.

In this post, I’ll talk about the role that the testimony of children played in incriminating accused witches. Why did these children make such ludicrous accusations? And why did adults believe them? The accounts form a sobering account of how easily one can transfer one’s own beliefs to the impressionable. It’s a pattern that continues to manifest, even in modern times.

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Witchcraft at Salem Village, William A. Crafts (1876)
Image: Wikipedia

Much of the key evidence in the [Lancashire] trial of 1612 was given by two children, James and Jennet Device, aged about nine and twelve. Caught up in a terrifying web of charges and arrests they panicked, and their stories, designed to clear themselves, ended up in the deaths of most of their own family members, and indeed of James himself.

— Robert Poole, “The Lancashire Witches: 1612-2012”, Public Domain Review

James and Jennet were the younger siblings of Alizon Device, the first woman accused of witchcraft in this case. The Devices were a poor family living on the edge of the Pendle forest. Alizon’s grandmother was a local healer; apparently her rituals often used Catholic symbology. Given the prevailing anti-Catholic attitudes, this would likely be considered evidence of consorting with the devil. Naturally, the entire family fell suspect, and the investigators found the evidence they wanted in James and Jennet — primarily Jennet.

James Crossley, in his introduction to the 1845 reprint of James Pott’s 1613 The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, is not as charitable towards Jennet Device — “the little precocious prodigy of wickedness” — as Robert Poole is.

A more dangerous tool in the hands of an unscrupulous evidence-compeller, being at once intelligent, cunning and pliant, than the child proved herself, it would not have been easy to have discovered.

I’ll agree with the “unscrupulous evidence-compeller” part. Crossley directly accuses the investigators of instructing Jennet to testify that the wealthy and respectable Alice Nutter had been present at a “great meeting of witches.” Apparently, the magistrate, Robert Nowell, had some sort of property dispute with the widow Nutter — and the fact that she was probably Catholic didn’t help, either.

It’s hard to read Pott’s treatise, which is redundant, in addition to being couched in archaic language and spelling. Still, I do get the impression that Jennet was rewarded for saying what the investigators wanted to hear. They refer to her testimony as “the wonderful work of God,” and there is a scene where she is placed up on a table in the middle of the trial to testify against her mother and grandmother.

James Device (and another child, Grace Sowerbuts, age fourteen) tried to please the court, too. Unfortunately, James wasn’t as good at it as Jennet — or perhaps he was a little too good. Based on Jennet’s testimony (and his own confession), James was convicted of being a witch, and executed. The account mentions that at his own trial, James was so “insensible and weak” that he couldn’t speak or stand, and had to be held up during the proceedings. Perhaps it had finally dawned on the poor boy that he had been too effective a storyteller.

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Tituba and the Children, Alfred Fredericks (1876)
Image: Wikipedia

This is a common, and tragic, motif in accounts of witch trials. The Salem witch hunts, for example, began with three young girls: Elizabeth Parris, age 9; Abigail Williams, age 11; and Ann Putnam, age 11. The three girls began having “fits”: screaming, seizures, convulsions. A doctor who examined them concluded that the cause must be supernatural [1]. Under pressure from adults, the girls accused three women: Tituba, a slave of the Parris family; a homeless woman named Sarah Good, and a poor elderly woman named Sarah Osborne. Good and Osborne denied the charges, but Tituba confessed; probably she was beaten into it. Not only did she spin fantastical stories involving strange animals and a “black man” with a book, she also claimed that other witches were infiltrating the community.

And off it went. Ironically, Tituba was the only one of the three original accused to survive. Eventually, the three girls accused a respectable and pious member of the community named Martha Corey. One would think that wild allegations about upstanding citizens would make people stop and ask questions. Instead, the opposite happened: people reasoned that if good Martha Corey was a witch, then anyone could be one. The madness didn’t end until the Governor’s wife was accused of witchcraft, at which point the Governor put his foot down. By the time the trials were stopped, twenty people had been executed and several more had died in jail.

In Letter 7 of Letters On Demonology and Witchcraft, Walter Scott recounts a case from the province of Elfland, Sweden — an ironically named province, given what we are talking about. Some 70 people in the village of Mohra were accused of drawing several hundred children “under the devil’s authority.” Most of the accused were executed — along with fifteen children. Thirty-six more children were sentenced to a weekly lashing at the church doors for an entire year.

The process seems to have consisted in confronting the children with the witches, and hearing the extraordinary story which the former insisted upon maintaining. The children, to, the number of three hundred, were found more or less perfect in a tale as full of impossible absurdities as ever was told around a nursery fire.

— Walter Scott, in Letter 7

The children claimed that the witches taught them to invoke the devil. He would anoint the children with oil and put them on the backs of some kind of animal, which carried them off to “Blockula”. There they participated in a Black Mass. Most of the children claimed that this journey physically happened; a few thought that only their spirits made the journey.

All of the parents testified that their children remained physically in bed, asleep, during the times these journeys supposedly happened — and yet they still believed that their children had been bewitched.

According to Scott, the children’s stories were fairly consistent. Couldn’t you reason that this is evidence that it must be true? Or is it evidence that the adults were signaling to the children what kind of story they (the adults) wanted to hear?

The “Satanic Preschool” Hysteria of the 1980’s

Jump ahead a few centuries, to 1983. Judy Johnson is the mother of a boy in the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. She accuses Ray Buckey, the grandson of the school’s founder, of sodomizing her son. Her allegations also included accusations of misconduct by the preschool’s founder Virginia McMartin, and by Peggy McMartin Buckey, Ray’s mother and the preschool administrator. Johnson accused the preschool’s administrators and teachers of sex with animals, and of other lovely practices like beheading babies and forcing the children to drink the babies’ blood.

Ms. Johnson was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, but by then the damage was done. The children attending the preschool were all interviewed for evidence of abuse, using methods that scream of coercion and witness-leading. The children — again, under pressure from adults — gave the investigators stories of the “Naked Movie Star” game (with photography), naked Cowboys and Indians, orgies and wholesale sodomy, animal sacrifices, and secret tunnels under the school.

No evidence of nude photographs, animal carcasses, or secret tunnels was ever found. Nonetheless, in 1984 a grand jury indicted Ray Buckey, his mother, grandmother, sister, and three other teachers at the school of 115 counts of child abuse, later increased to 208. There were two trials (only Ray Buckey was tried twice) over seven years, at the cost of $15 million. No convictions, though by the end, Ray Buckey had spent five years in jail. A lot of damaged lives — not only the accused, but also the children.

The McMartin case was one of the earliest in a rash of satanic sex-abuse cases brought against day-care workers in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Why were they so prevalent at the time? Margaret Talbot, in a 2001 article she wrote for the New York Times Magazine, points out that this period of time corresponds to a rise of women in the work force — and hence a rise of young children in day-care. Could this willingness to believe some truly crazy stories be related to parents’ anxieties about letting their children grow up in the care of strangers?

Whatever the reasons, it’s clear in both the accounts of the witch trials and of the day-care cases that the children were reflecting the desires and beliefs of adults. And that answers both the questions that I asked at the beginning of the post: the children made the accusations because the adults wanted them to, and the adults believed the children because the children’s stories confirmed what they already thought to be true. It’s a tragic and vicious cycle.

It works on adults, too; in the Lancashire witch-trials, Alizon Device not only confessed, but seemed to believe her own story. A discussion of the adult situation is too off-topic for this post, but I’ll leave you with this 2008 article by police officer Jim Trainium about how easy it is to extract a false confession. Officer Trainium appears to be a conscientious and well-intentioned investigator. That he could get a suspect to confess to a murder simply because he believed that she did it is a sobering thought.


More Links

A website about the Salem Witch Trials, including some trial records. From the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

A website about the McMartin Trials, including some court transcripts. Also from the U. Missouri-Kansas City School of Law


[1] I haven’t had a chance to track down the original Science paper, but there is an interesting hypothesis about the cause of the children’s behavior: ergot. The fungus can be found on rye, which was a staple of Salem Village, especially in warm and damp climates (Salem was surrounded by wetlands). The symptoms of ergot poisoning are consistent with the behavior manifested by the children.

2 thoughts on “Witch Hunts: The Use (and Abuse) of Child Testimony

    • Many anti-death penalty activists consider the ease of obtaining false confession to be a major point against the death penalty. That wasn’t the point of this post, of course, but as I said, if you can coerce false stories out of adults, you can certainly coerce them out of children. I think there were a lot of reforms to the way child testimony is elicited after all the preschool sex abuse scandals of the 80’s and 90’s.

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