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Auto-da-fe? More Like Auto-no-way! Witch Burning and Its End

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 30, 2015 10:30 AM

It's been over 300 years since the Salem Witch Trials. Today, children parade down the street in witch costumes, Hollywood's leading actresses line up to play sorceresses, and Seattle-area high schools consider opening football games with satanic invocations.

A witch even sued a warlock in Salem District Court -- and won! Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned witch burnings?

Heretics, Slaves, Rebels, and Other Incendiaries

While the burning of witches is a pop-cultural touchstone, in real life, those who met their end on a fiery pyre were often condemned as heretics, rebels, and other ne'er-do-wells who challenged the established norms of society.

Unlike a stake through the heart of a vampire, fire wasn't believed to be a special way to take down a witch. Instead, burning was a common form of punishment during the European medieval period and beyond. The Spanish inquisitors were fans of the "auto-da-fe" or "act of faith," the ritual burning of heretics and apostates. French, German, and Italian leaders all made death by burning the statutory punishment for heretics in the 13th Century. For centuries, death by burning was enshrined in the law.

Burnings in America

In the American colonies, execution by fire was less common. At least two people were legally executed in Massachusetts by burning at the stake, however. Both were women, both were black, and both had tried to kill their 'masters.' The Salem Witch Trials, during which the Massachusetts colony was overtaken by witch-condemning mania, left 20 people dead but none were burned at the stake. Most were killed by hanging.

When people were burned in the United States, they were almost exclusively slaves, not witches. The last legal execution by burning occurred in South Carolina in 1830, when a slave accused of rape was burned to death, according to The Washington Post. The extrajudicial burning of African Americans was also not uncommon. In 1916, Jesse Washington, a black teen farmhand, was convicted of murder and rape in a four minute trial, taken away by a mob, lynched and burned. Up to 15,000 people, including police and court officers, allegedly watched the events.

History, sadly, is much scarier than any witch.

From the Noose to the Needle

For much of the country's past, death by hanging was the most common form of execution. (Other notable exceptions, aside from burning, include the death by pressing of Giles Cory, accused of wizardry, and John Proctor, of The Crucible fame.) By the 1930s, hanging was replaced almost entirely by more "humane" methods of killing: the electric chair, the gas chamber, and now, lethal injection.

Ironically, lethal injection might have created a modern form of "death by fire." Central to the current lethal injection cocktail is potassium chloride. When injected, potassium chloride acts as "liquid fire" causing a feeling akin to being set aflame. Powerful anesthetics are meant to numb the victim to the pain, but critics of capital punishment question their effectiveness.

The Supreme Court approved the current lethal injection cocktail last June, so death by liquid fire will remain part of America's execution system for the foreseeable future. Witchcraft, however, is no longer a crime.

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