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by William H. Benson

October 25, 2001

     In 1631 Freidrich von Spee (pronounced Shpay) published his book Cautio Criminalis which means Precautions for Prosecutors.  In it he exposed the Church/State’s brand of terrorism against, what he believed, were those innocent men and women accused of practicing witchcraft.  For years he had the misfortunate job as the priest in the German city of Wurzburg of hearing the confessions from those being tortured.  He listened as they wrenched and writhed in agony while strapped to a rack or the thumb screws were set or boiling water was poured into their boots.

    Von Spee saw through the elaborate machinery designed to ferret out the witch, and so he objected to the torture, the forced confessions, and the demand for the names of other witches.  And so at great personal risk he wrote his book, and in it he wrote, “The judges must either suspend these trials (and so impute their invalidity) or else burn their own folk, themselves, and everybody else; for all sooner or later are falsely accused and, if tortured, all are proved guilty.”

    He saw it for what it was–a rolling, lumbering, heavily-loaded, out-of-control train pulling cars loaded with accusations, torture, conviction, confession, and just before death more accusations.  It was a vicious turning wheel geared to grab and then crush anyone nearby and eventually everybody in their proper turn.

     The authorites wanted to arrest and punish von Spee for his honesty; however he died of the plague before they had their chance, and so he found his escape.

     Much has been written of the Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts, but that was the tip of the iceberg when compared with what was happening in Europe, where the situation deteriorated throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into a vicious witch hunt.  Indeed, the last execution for witchcraft in America was in 1692; but in France, 1745; in Germany, 1775; in Poland, 1793.  And the Church did not abolish inquisitorial torture until 1816.

     Why did it all end then?  Fortunately, what happened was that Western Civilization grew up.  Science expanded, and reason and skepticism struck at the very heart of superstition.

     Carl Sagan in his book The Demon-Haunted World — Science as a Candle in the Dark wrote, “The witch mania is shameful.  How could we do it? . . . If we’re absolutely sure that our beliefs are right, and those of others wrong; that we are motivated by good, and others by evil; that the King of the Universe speaks to us, and not to adherents of very different faiths; that it is wicked to challenge conventional doctrines or to ask searching questions; that our main job is to believe and obey — then the witch mania will recur in its infinite variations down to the time of the last man.”

     Halloween approaches.  It is a once-a-year moment when the trick-or-treaters come out, when the ghosts and goblins and witches make their appearance, when Orson Welles on the radio declares that Martians have landed, and when UFO’s abduct people and bring them back alive to tell about it.  It is a scary time, yes, but a harmless one–only a replica or a vestige of an ugly historical event in humanity’s history, at its moment of adolescence.

     When Shakespeare’s Hamlet sees the ghost of his murdered father, he cried out, “Angels and Ministers of Grace, defend us!”  A worthy request.  Truly, for humanity to survive and flourish, it needs more of the angels, especially the kind with two legs who walk upon the ground who think before lashing out, and less of the witches.  Plus, it needs more ministers of grace, of the variety such as Freidrich von Spee who can see through the inhumane behavior for whatever the reason, and less of the crazed and superstitious and powerful who are so determined to pounce upon the accused and the innocent.