Spectral evidence was a form of witch test that was particularly rife in protestant society. It referred to the belief that an accused witch’s spirit or “spectral shape” could appear to their victims in dreams while the witch’s body lay elsewhere. People believed that the devil could not take the form of any person who was innocent of ties to him. So, if anyone saw- or said they had seen a suspected witch in spirit form- there was every chance that that individual was indeed a witch.
Examples of spectral belief arise in a variety of cases of witchcraft. One of the ‘proofs’ offered against the Clarke family of Wigston Magna, Leicestershire was that they appeared to their victims at night “in their own and other shapes.” At the trial of Alison Device in August 1612, the peddler John Law testified how the witch came to him in spectral form while he lay incapacitated in the inn at Colne. The specter “stayed not long there” and only “looked on him” before going away. However, he was left “sore afraid” and was tormented by the apparition “both day and night.”
The biggest problem with spectral evidence was it could not be tested and so could be simple fancy- or an outright lie. However, it was proof of witchcraft offered again and again during the Salem witch trials. In making a judgment about the validity of spectral evidence for securing a conviction, the judges turned their attention to witch trials in England that had delivered guilty verdicts based on spectral evidence. The model for their decision was “A trial of witches” written by Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn. In particular, the judges’ attention was focused on the case of Amy Denny and Rose Cullender who were convicted and hung in Lowestoft, Suffolk 1662.
Both women were elderly widows. Cullender came from a landowning family while Deny was the widower of a laborer. Both were accused of bewitching thirteen children, causing the death of one. At the trial, testimony was given by some of the bewitched children “that Amy Duny and Rose Cullender would appear before them holding their Fists at them, threatening, That if they related either what they saw or heard, that they would Torment them Ten times more than eve they did before.”
As with the Suffolk case, many of the Salem girls claimed to have been visited in dreams by the accused witches. One was Goody Proctor who reputedly “bit pinched and almost choked” them despite her insubstantial form. The similarities were enough for the judges to allow spectral evidence as admissible evidence at the trial although they did not make convictions on spectral evidence alone, as Cotton Mather had advised them that in some cases, the ‘spectres’ could be illusions from the devil.
However, ultimately, prejudice was the only evidence required to identify a witch.