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The Trials of Time

Jury boxThe Judicial System has a long history, evolving over thousands of years to its present form.  In the times of ancient Sumeria, the Code of Hammurabi decreed an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Justice for the Anglo-Saxons and even after the Norman invasion of 1066 was a combination of local and royal government. Local courts were presided over by a lord or one of his stewards. The King’s court – the Curia Regis – was, initially at least, presided over by the King himself.

Today, going on trial in court is not exactly a comfortable experience. But it’s far better than trial by ordeal, used until almost the end of the 12th century to determine guilt or innocence in criminal cases.

Under this system, the accused would be forced to pick up a red hot bar of iron, pluck a stone out of a cauldron of boiling water, or something equally painful and dangerous. If their hand had begun to heal after three days they were considered to have God on their side, thus proving their innocence. The number of ‘not guilty’ verdicts recorded by this system is not known.

Another, extremely popular ‘ordeal’ involved water. Here, the accused would be tied up and thrown into a lake, pond or river.  If innocent, he or she would sink. There were two problems with this method, which was often used to try suspected witches: the accused was tied right thumb to left toe, left thumb to right toe, which made it almost impossible to sink; and opinion is divided as to whether those who did sink were fished out afterwards.  William II (1087-1100) eventually banned trial by ordeal – reportedly because 50 men accused of killing his deer had passed the test – and it was condemned by the Church in 1216.

Interestingly enough, this practice continued in the United States, with clandestine witch hunts in the Deep South that continued at least into the late 20th century. Nearly a thousand witches and cultists were captured (most of them executed) in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina between 1800-1981. Nearly none of these executions are documented in official archives, because they were performed by witch-hunting mobs led by fearsome vigilantes who called themselves Witch Finders.  Because Witch Finders were vigilantes (and therefore outlaws), it became increasingly necessary for them to keep a low profile.