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The Last Witchcraft Trial in the U.S.

Nearly 200 years after the original Salem witch trials, the same town saw allegations resurface.

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  • Lucretia L.S. Brown of Ipswich, Massachusetts.Photo Credit: Courtesy of HistoricIpswich.org

Here’s a story we all know: In 1692, a rash of witch trials began in and around Salem, Massachusetts. Before all was said and done, more than 200 people would be accused of witchcraft, at least 20 of whom were ultimately executed, while several others perished in jail awaiting trial.

This moment of violence and persecution has entered the American imagination in a unique way. It has inspired movies, TV shows, novels, plays, songs, and more. It was the subject of the 2014 TV series Salem, Arthur Miller’s legendary 1953 play The Crucible, the inspiration behind a season of American Horror Story, and many others. Even today, the town of Salem boasts a Witch Museum and holds various events throughout the year to commemorate the trials and their repercussions on American history and the American identity.

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However, those trials took place in the late 17th century, in a time before America had become the United States. It’s easy to see the events of the Salem witch trials as the product of a less enlightened time, something that would never have happened, say, 200 years later. Except that they did…

In 1878, there was a conflict between two followers of the Christian Science religion, and it took place right outside Salem, Massachusetts. 50-year-old Lucretia Brown brought the accusation against Daniel H. Spofford, a fellow member of the faith, claiming that he used the “art and the power of his mind” for the “purposes of injuring the persons and property and social relations of others and does by said means so injure them.”

Specifically, Brown, who had suffered a spinal injury in childhood and who claimed that Christian Science had since healed her, accused Spofford of using his powers of “mesmerism” to cause her several relapses over the past three years.

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So, who was Spofford, and why might he have wanted to hurt Lucretia Brown with his purported powers of mesmerism? Spofford was actually an early adherent to the faith, having become a protégé of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1870, when she was still Mary Baker Glover. Indeed, Spofford was instrumental in helping her to spread her teachings and publish her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. He even introduced her to her future husband, Asa Eddy.

However, in 1877, while working on the publication of the second volume of Eddy’s book, the two had a falling out. What exactly precipitated the conflict is up for some debate, with allegations claiming it was about everything from financial disputes to disagreements about Eddy’s teachings to Spofford feeling “shut out” by Eddy’s new husband. Whatever the cause, Spofford was accused of "immorality" and expelled from the Association of Christian Scientists in January of 1878. The schism was apparently pretty deep, as Eddy also sued Spofford over claims of unpaid tuition, but ultimately lost in court.

It was under the pall of this falling out that Lucretia Brown brought her own charges against Spofford. In fact, some at the time claimed that Eddy’s own attorney had drawn up Brown’s suit, though Eddy denied it. Up to the present day, scholars have remained divided on the issue of what role, if any, Eddy played in the charges filed against her former protégé.

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What we do know is that her teachings and her book had already set the stage for the specific nature of the accusation. The fifth chapter of the first edition of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures was devoted to “Animal Magnetism Exposed,” in which Eddy argued for the existence of “malicious animal magnetism,” a phenomenon invoked commonly enough that it needed an acronym, MAM. 

For those not familiar with the concept coined by Franz Mesmer, “animal magnetism” is the idea that all living creatures possess an invisible force that can have physical effects, such as healing. The idea wasn't exactly fringe in those days. Mesmer had introduced the concept in 1779, and it was considered fairly mainstream for nearly a century, with hundreds of books written on the subject, of which Eddy’s book was only one. She considered MAM to be a more nefarious use of the force described by Mesmer.

According to Eddy’s teachings, the human mind was not only capable of healing itself (and others), it could also do harm, in the form of “mind crimes” like the ones of which Spofford was accused. Even after Spofford’s trial, the subject continued to be a major concern for Eddy, and by 1881, a lengthy, two-volume reissue of Science and Health had considerably expanded the chapter on “malicious animal magnetism,” retitling it “Demonology.”

It was this “malicious animal magnetism” that Brown claimed Spofford had used against her. Mary Baker Eddy’s teachings on the subject were used as evidence, and Eddy herself was among the 20-odd witnesses who showed up at the Supreme Judicial Court in Salem to testify. Spofford, however, did not appear. Instead, his attorney filed a demurrer, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction in the case.

Though it has been called the second Salem witch trial and “one of the most bizarre court-room sessions ever held in the United States,” there wasn’t really much of a trial at all. Spofford never showed up to court, and the judge ultimately dismissed the case, arguing that the complaint was “framed without a knowledge of the law of equity” and pointing out that the court wasn’t even sure what it could do about the kinds of mental powers Spofford was accused of exerting. Even if he were found guilty and sentenced to prison, how would that stop him from using his mental influence to continue to torment Brown, if that’s what was happening?

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The case was appealed, but never went anywhere. Partly due to its outlandish claims, partly due to the fact that it took place in witch-haunted Salem, the trial drew media attention from across the nation, and is widely considered the last witchcraft trial in the U.S. It was not, however, the last time that supernatural claims would be brought up in a court of law.

In 1928, John Blymire and two accomplices killed a Pennsylvania man named Nelson Rehmeyer because they claimed that he was a witch who had put a curse on them. What became known as the “hex murder” also gained nationwide media attention, and was adapted to film in 1988’s Apprentice to Murder, starring Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe, and Mia Sara. Meanwhile, The Conjuring 3 dramatizes the story of Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who attempted to claim in court that he was not guilty of the 1981 murder of his landlord due to demonic possession.