A Tryal of WitchesWitchcraft

The U.S. Supreme Court and its relation to the Salem witch trials

In the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overthrowing women’s rights to make a medical decision about their own bodies, Justice Samuel Alito cited 17th Century English Judge Sir Matthew Hale, who wrote that if a physician gave a woman with child a potion to cause an abortion, it was “murder.” The same Matthew Hale wrote that there was no such thing as marital rape, “for the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract.”

This is the Matthew Hale who in 1662, sentenced two women, Amy Duny and Rose Cullender to death for witchcraft. Hale instructed the jury that there were such creatures as witches, “for the scriptures had affirmed so much.” The judges in the witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts 30 years later based their decision to use spectral evidence (being accused of “bewitching” someone) on the published opinion of Matthew Hale that “the wisdom of all nations had provided laws against such persons [witches], which is an argument of their confidence of such a crime.”

To summarize, a United States Supreme Court judge based his decision about women’s rights in part on the writings of a judge who lived 400 years ago, and who based his rulings on Medieval law. In the abortion case presently before the Supreme Court, a majority of the justices agree with him.

Following the Salem witchcraft trials, the Rev. John Hale of Beverly, whose own wife had been accused, wrote A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft in which he made a plea for forgiveness, referred to the precedent established by Sir Matthew Hale, and asserted that Satan had tricked the Puritans.

4 replies »

  1. What I still am not seeing pointed out anywhere is that in Puritan New England is was easier to get an abortion (or access to abortifacients) than it is today in much of the U.S. In fact, it had not been criminalized at the time of the Constitution. Isn’t that far more relevant than Matthew Hale’s opinions? Out of curiosity though, do you think the Rev. John Hale (an ancestor of Captain Nathan, martyr spy of the Revolution), was any sort of descendant of the famous jurist, Matthew?

  2. Hey Gordon, you were ahead of the curve in your piece about Hale. Today’s (May 7, 2022) headlines in the Boston Globe: “Considering a 17th century judge’s words – Jurist cited by Alito known for defense of marital rape, prosecution of witches.”

    Really scary stuff…

  3. Thank you for providing this crucial perspective, Mr Harris!

    I was a young woman in the pre-Roe years, and I know from direct experience how severely a woman’s autonomy was compromised then. Why would a supposedly civilized society be willing to backslide on human rights now?

Leave a Reply to Anonymous Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.