Spectral Evidence: Definition and Meaning

Confessions obtained under torture, purported eyewitness testimony, and physical examinations of the accused all served as evidence in these cases. The introduction of spectral evidence, or evidence based on the accusers' visions or dreams, was undoubtedly the most unsettling.

The girls insisted that they had seen the specter, spirit, or ghostly apparition of the alleged witch torturing them or other people. The specter occasionally took the form of an animal known as a witch's familiar. Importantly, a witch's actual form could show up in one location while their specter existed in another.

Meaning of Spectral Evidence

Spectral evidence is proof based on dreams and visions of a witch's spirit or specter’s deeds. Therefore, spectral evidence is testimony regarding an accused person's conduct in their spirit rather than their physical actions. Likewise, it was a sort of testimony given by witnesses who claimed to have seen the spectral image or apparition of the accused person committing a crime or engaging in witchcraft.

Especially in the early stages of the Salem witch trials, ghostly evidence was presented in court as proof. It was believed that the person who was possessed had given their assent and was therefore accountable if a witness could confirm that they had seen the spirit of the person and had interacted with it, possibly even engaging in negotiation.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, such testimony was commonly in practice. The suspected witchcraft victims would declare that they had been tortured by the spectral representations of particular identifiable community members; this was seen as proof that the named individuals were witches who had authorized the Devil to assume their appearance. It would be nearly impossible to contradict this testimony if it were to be accepted by a court.

But since theologians couldn't agree that the Devil couldn't assume the form of an innocent person, spectral evidence was rarely used to support a conviction. The Salem witch trials of 1692-93 and the Bury St. Edmunds witch trials of 1662 brought the controversy over the veracity of ghostly evidence to a head.

How was it Used?

For instance, during the Salem Witch Trials, the accusers would frequently experience bouts of hysteria and assert they were being possessed by the people they were accusing. They would assert that they saw the defendant performing a demonic act or even that they had experienced supernatural abuse, such as being choked, pinched, or abused.

When the accused entered the room, the accusers would frequently have these fits, giving the impression that the accused had some kind of control over them and that they couldn't escape the torture. Magistrate William Stoughton approved the use of ghostly evidence during the Salem Witch Trials. This concession would spark the panic that resulted in the execution of 19 alleged witches.

Why was it Tragic?

A vivid example of individuals going after others they didn't like because they wanted their land or just had a personal beef with them is the Salem Witch Trials. Each of the victims had some form of grudge against the people they were accusing.

The use of this spectral evidence allowed for the conviction of certain people who had lived in other cities and hadn't visited Salem in a long time. This occurred in the case of George Burroughs, who had spent a significant amount of time living in Maine rather than in Salem before the trials. Nevertheless, because of his interpersonal problems with the Putnam family, he was accused of being a witch and harming the young woman.

Another defendant who objected to the use of spectral evidence was John Proctor, but his objections were unsuccessful. Because of his excessive fortune, his family had their land taken from them and distributed to his rivals after his death. The stories can be easily changed and manipulated when using this kind of evidence. It is acceptable to rewrite stories if someone is under the influence of a demon.

Bury St Edmunds Witch Trial

Two elderly citizens of Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, Amy Denny, and Rose Cullender, were accused of witchcraft at the Bury St. Edmunds witch trial in 1662. The trial gained enduring significance and set a significant precedent for the acceptance of spectral testimony, largely because Matthew Hale, "one of the greatest legal figures" of the 17th century, was involved. A Tryal of Witches at the Assizes Held at Bury St. Edmunds, a record of the trial that was published, was examined by judges overseeing the Salem witch trials thirty years later.

Amy Denny and Rose Cullender, two alleged witches, were charged with possessing numerous of their neighbours' children. The purported victims were described as having convulsions, being limp, temporarily losing their speech, and frequently being seen coughing up pins. The children's testimony that they had frequently felt threatened by apparitions of these ladies served as the link between these afflictions and Denny and Cullender.

This evidence was not received without question by everyone in attendance at the trial. John Kelynge was one of three attorneys-at-law who objected, yet it appears that the trial report was changed to give Kelynge sole credit for this.

This fact may have been taken into account by the judge, Hale when he told the jury that they had two things to decide on: "First, whether or not these children were bewitched?" Second, "Was the Bar's Prisoner Population Guilty of It?" Denny and Cullender were nevertheless found guilty by the jury of thirteen of the fourteen charges made against them, and they received a hanging death sentence.


When a witness claims that they saw the accused person's spirit or spectral form while the accused's physical body was at another location, this is referred to as "spectral evidence." During the Salem Witch Trials, it was acknowledged in the courts.

The evidence was accepted under the presumption that the devil and his minions have the strength to send their ghosts, or specters, to pure, holy people in order to mislead them. Whether or not objectively established facts are presented to support the conjectures of victims in spectral evidence, their admission is only constrained by their fears and imaginations.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. Why was spectral evidence allowed?

Ans. During the Salem Witch Trials, it was acknowledged in the courts. The evidence was accepted under the presumption that the devil and his minions have the strength to send their ghosts, or specters, to pure, holy people in order to mislead them.

Q2. When was spectral evidence outlawed?

Ans. Partway through the Salem Witch Trials, Massachusetts outlawed the use of spectral evidence. The governor called a new Superior Court in January 1693 and instructed it specifically not to accept spectral evidence.

Q3. What was spectral evidence derived from?

Ans. Evidence based on dreams and glimpses of a witch's spirit or specter is known as spectral evidence. Therefore, spectral evidence is testimony regarding an accused person's spirit rather than the accused person's physical conduct.

Q4. What is spectral evidence in McCarthyism?

Ans. The idea that the devil would take on a person's shape in order to carry out his acts was used as "spectral evidence" in many cases. Governor William Phips' order to terminate the trials and dissolve the court put an end to the panic. By May 1693, every last accused prisoner had been set free.

Updated on: 10-May-2023


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