America’s Last Withcraft Trial

Nearly 200 years after the infamous Salem witch trials forever tarnished the city, Salem again found itself at the center of a witchcraft trial. The 1878 case has come to be known as the “Second Salem Witch Trial,” or the “Ipswich Witchcraft Trial” (because the plaintiff was from Ipswich).

The case arose from a conflict between Daniel Spofford and Lucretia Brown, who both followed the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.  The central allegations in Brown’s complaints were straight from Eddy’s teachings.   According to Brown, Christian Science had healed her injury. But because of Spofford’s mind control, Brown claimed, she suffered a relapse.

If anyone was exercising mind control of Brown though, it was Eddy. Brown’s relapse happened around the same time that Mary Baker Eddy was developing a new belief called Malicious Animal Magnetism. Eddy claimed that one person could physically harm another by directing mental energy at them. This is precisely what Brown alleged Spofford did to her.

If Brown won the lawsuit, Eddy would kill two birds with one stone.  Eddy had recently had a falling out with Spofford.  The lawsuit, Eddy must have thought, would cause Spofford expense and embarrassment.  At the same time, if Brown the lawsuit, it would be tantamount to court recognition of Eddy’s new theory of “Malicious Animal Magnetism.”  For these reasons, many historians conclude that Eddy directed Brown to bring the action.

In the end, the case itself amounted to very little. Although Baker herself (and more than 20 of her followers) traveled to Ipswich to testify at trial, the judge dismissed the case because it was not based on a valid legal theory. Moreover, the judge concluded that, even if the allegations were true, he could not provide any relief – there wasn’t much he could do to stop mind control.

Although the trial is notable because it occurred in Salem, and the mind control allegations are reminiscent of witchcraft claims, the trial also shows a collision of two worlds. The latter part of the 19th century is known for the Great Revival, and the reawakening of religious fervor in the United States. Christian Science can be seen as a product of that movement, with its appeal to mystical, faith-based healing. Around the time of the Great Awakening, the legal system of the United States was becoming more complex, and was emphasizing logic and precedent. Ground zero for the development of the legal academy was Massachusetts. At Harvard, Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell had just begun using the case method for instructing lawyers – a method still used today.  Only two years after the trial, Massachusetts lawyer, and future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, would publish a book – “The Common Law” – that would serve as a cornerstone of American Jurisprudence for many years to come.

The Second Salem Witchcraft trial showed that some Americans were still fervent believers.  But it also showed that Americans had developed a legal system that safeguarded them from the most pernicious of those beliefs, and had little interest in allegations based on the supposedly supernatural.

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