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On May 10, 1692, a warrant was issued in Salem for the arrest of one John Willard, previously of Groton, on charges of witchcraft. (There is no clear evidence John Willard was related to Samuel Willard, who had ministered to Elizabeth Knapp in Groton 20 years earlier.)

According to Robert Calef, an early reporter, Willard himself had been a Deputy Constable whose job was to bring in people accused of witchcraft. He allegedly had second thoughts about some of these accusations, declined to participate in apprehending the suspects and was then himself charged with witchcraft.

By May 12, when an attempt was made to arrest him, Willard had fled Salem. Other warrants were issued, and Willard was pursued and arrested by the Constable of Salem. He was brought before the magistrates on May 18, 1692.

On June 3, indictments were issued by the grand jury. They all followed the same form. For example, one of them charged that Willard: “certain detestable arts called Witchcrafts and Sorceries wickedly and feloniously hath used, practiced and exercised at and within the Town of Salem in, upon and against one Mercy Lewis by which said wicked arts the said Mercy Lewis was and is hurt, tortured, afflicted, consumed, pined, wasted and tormented, against the Peace of our Sovereign Lord and Lady, the King and Queen ”

The testimony against Willard finds common themes with other prosecutions of the time.

The first is that an important part of the evidence was what happened during the proceedings. In a sworn statement, three who were present at the May 18 proceedings before the magistrates state that when Willard looked upon one of the witnesses against him she “was knocked down”; that another, in a fit, was brought to Willard and when he grasped her arm she was better (this was deemed proof of witchcraft); that other witnesses testified that they saw a black man whispering in Willard’s ear; and that several testified that people Willard had murdered appeared. Moreover, they state that at the time Willard “could by no means rightly recite the Lord’s Prayer though he made manifold assays” (this was thought to be another proof of witchcraft).

Another theme is that accusers took illness or death in the family and built a case that the witch had caused it. For example, one witness testified that his son had not wanted him to go with Willard into Boston and said he thought Willard should be hanged. A few days later, the boy fell ill. He “grew every day worse and worse whereupon we made application to a physician who affirmed his sickness was by some preternatural cause and would make no application of any physic.” Then, he said, various girls testified that they had seen Willard afflicting his son at different times, the last “not but a little time before his death.”

Lastly, much of the evidence given is spectral evidence, i.e. evidence consisting of witnesses’ accounts of apparitions of the accused doing things. Willard’s apparition is seen sitting on the chest of a man with kidney stones, “afflicting” the boy who died, threatening young women, confessing to murders, etc. Use of this kind of evidence was controversial because some of the religious authorities argued that the devil could impersonate the accused so he or she might be innocent. Today, we would argue that such evidence cannot be refuted — if an apparition can evidence a crime, not even an alibi is useful. Several of the accusations against Willard were of things that his apparition did while he himself was in jail and awaiting trial.

John Willard was tried by a jury on Aug. 5 and hanged on Aug. 19. Swift justice (or injustice) indeed — just over three months from warrant to execution.

To read depositions and other records about this case and others, see Salem-Village Witchcraft, A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England, edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Northeastern University Press (1993).