Document Type


Publication Date



As of the writing of this article, President Donald Trump's tweets have included roughly 400 references to "witch hunts." In a sense, this is unsurprising. The Salem witch trials have a special place in our national identity and vocabulary. Most Americans understand the reference, even if they know few of the historical details. And the phrase "witch hunt" serves as a useful shorthand for any frenzied chase after something that does not exist. The Salem trials also inspire a peculiar fascination: Perhaps no other site of deadly mass hysteria has become a major tourist destination.

Still, most practicing litigators probably know very little about the Salem witch trials. That's a shame because the Salem proceedings have a lot to teach us. They offer countless insights into the significance of a stable and impartial judiciary, the indispensable place of legal counsel, the critical role of procedure, and - most importantly for the purposes of this article - how the concept of proof can go terribly wrong. As tends to hold true with Salem's lessons, these are mostly cautionary tales.


2020, Published in Litigation Journal 47, no. 2, Winter (2020), by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association