“The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.”
— Francis Bacon
“Superstition is to Religion what Astrology is to Astronomy: the mad daughter of a wise mother.”
Halloween is fast approaching; a time where superstitions about witches, black cats and hauntings by the dead — or undead — take center stage. Those superstitions are fun when they’re played up in B-movie horror films, but they certainly don’t have any place in a court of law.
The legal system has long searched for ways to tell whether a person is lying or telling the truth. In modern times we have polygraphs, brain scans and voice stress analyzers. In years past, however, the superstitions of Halloween were known to creep into the courtroom, not just in minor cases, but in the most serious of trials.
The year was 1692 and the location was Salem, Massachusetts. That same year Essex, Suffolk and Middlesex counties had been scandalized by the arrest of more than 150 persons on accusations that they were witches. Five of them would die behind bars and between that year and the following year, 26 more would go to trial and all would be convicted of afflicting others with witchcraft or making an unlawful covenant with the devil. Nineteen were hanged immediately for witchcraft. Two others were pregnant and their hangings were delayed until after they had given birth.
Such was the mass hysteria in Salem and the surrounding area. The nature of the legal proceedings at the time can be accurately summed up by the actions against 80-year-old farmer Giles Corey, who had been accused of being a warlock and another Salem resident, under arrest for murder, corroborated that story. Corey refused to enter a plea and so was subjected to peine forte et dure (French for “hard and forceful punishment”) in which heavy stones were piled on him until he could no longer breathe. After two days, he was asked again to plead and, again refusing, stated, “more weight.” His request was granted, and he soon died. He wife was among those hanged for witchcraft. (Corey is immortalized as a character in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”)
The superstitions that produced the Salem Witch Trials blossomed from a murder trial earlier that year. In 1691, local boat trader John Clark was found murdered. Supplies that were known to be in his possession were discovered in the home of an indentured servant from New Jersey named Thomas Lutherland, who insisted that he had paid Clark for the goods and that he had never laid a hand on the businessman.
Lutherland was arrested for the crime and his case, Rex et Regina v. Lutherland, came to trial in the midst of the witch scare in 1692. The jurors were unable to reach a conclusion about Lutherland’s guilt and not wanting the murder to go unsolved, they suggested to the judge that the ancient Law of the Bier be applied. A bier is a stand on which a corpse or coffin will be placed and the Law of the Bier is a New World superstitious belief that if a dead body was touched by its murderer, the body would bleed, confirming the murderer’s guilt.
Clark’s rotting, decaying corpse was wheeled into the courtroom in full view of the assembled crowd, the judge and the jury. Lutherland was pushed forward toward the corpse and instructed to touch it. Court records and private journals of the time say that Lutherland touched the body only briefly and then jumped away. The body (not surprisingly) did not bleed, but Lutherland was so overcome by the sight of his murder victim that he collapsed in convulsions and confessed his crime to the assembled crowd. After signing a full confession, he was hanged.
Local legend near Lutherland’s home in New Jersey holds that Lutherland’s ghost can still be seen at times. Near a river by his home his specter reportedly appears, kneeling by the bank, trying desperately to wash his hands clean of the murder of John Clark.
You can read more about Lutherland in “Haunted New Jersey” by Patricia Martinelli and Charles A. Stansfield Jr. If you’re more interested in haunted happenings close to home, you can pick up a copy of “Ghosts of Historic Delaware, Ohio” by local author John Ciochetty. Do be careful if you’re walking around in the dark on All Hallows Eve, though.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.