Whether you’re a Pawn Stars fan or Antiques Roadshow is more your speed, the story is the same. Money-hungry owner of a rare 'authentic' bit of American history has his object appraised and comes face-to-face with the cold hard truth: The colonial desk has drawers made of pressboard, that 1472 on the bottom of the vase is really 1972, the Vermeer handed down through generations is really a paint-by-number made by a kid at summer camp.
And so you sniff with satisfaction and click off the television. ‘Never happen to me,’ you say. But are you so sure?
Suppose you ran into a stranger, a military veteran down on his luck. And he explained he needed money to travel home because his wife just died. He knew that the rare document he possessed was worth more than he was asking, maybe even a lot more. But he was looking for quick cash and was offering you a win-win proposition. Would you help this poor fellow, or turn your back?
Now look at the two photos below. Two death warrants signed for witches from the witch trial records of the Salem witch hysteria – Bridget Bishop and Martha Corey. Look closely at the witch trial death warrant on the right. The paper seems incredibly bright and clean, the wax stamp is bright red. Almost too perfect, isn’t it?
And the witch trial death warrant on the left, tattered and barely readable. The stamp destroyed. You can’t even tell what it says. Who could authenticate such a document? But isn’t that what a missing sheriff’s order from 1692 would most likely look like?
You decide. Because one witch trial death warrant is undoubtedly worthless and one witch trial death warrant is worth, who knows?
Not so simple now, is it? It wasn’t so simple for investigative reporter A.B. Macdonald of Kansas City, either.
Witch Trial Hysteria
In 1692 and 1693, the courts of Massachusetts did indeed order the deaths of 20 people for witchcraft. Two hundred (perhaps a few more) were charged in what historians now believe was a massive case of petty jealousies and score settling. One scientist, though, has posited that it was a case of fungus-induced hysteria.
Killing witches was nothing new, but the the Salem trials stood out for their sheer insanity and corruption. In the aftermath, the court papers were stored away and an 1875 review found the death warrants for the 20 murdered witches were, for the most part, gone from the files.
Pilfered for profit? Removed as souvenirs? Purged because of the shame now associated with the trials? Simply lost? It’s not clear. But only one witch trial death warrant remained with the original records. The others were missing, and a great mystery to the collector community.
This was roughly the state of play in 1932 when “Captain E. Newman Bradley” knocked on the door of A.B. MacDonald, a writer for the Kansas City Star. Though somewhat knowledgeable about historic documents, MacDonald bought Bradley’s story that he needed money to travel because he had been notified his wife was dead.
MacDonald’s main reservation about paying $20 for the witch trial death warrant was that he was taking advantage of MacDonald’s misfortune. He would pay more, he offered, if the man could wait until morning for a check. But Bradley was clearly a bird-in-the-hand man, and fled with a wave of his hand.
Of course, researchers now suspect Bradley had more than one death warrant in his collection, and he was probably off to his next mark.
Though the witch trials actually took place in what is now Danvers, Mass., much of the action, including the executions, took place in modern-day Salem. Thus Salem has forever been the hub for the history and hysteria surrounding the witch trials. So it was Salem where MacDonald’s document ultimately wound up for review.
With visions of scoring $10,000 for the document, a Vermont antiques dealer presented it to Howard Corning, secretary of the Essex Institute, now the Peabody Essex Museum. Priceless or worthless?
Corning delivered the bad news. The document was not only a forgery, it was a bad one, Corning said. And he pointed the dealer to the authentic warrant – the bright clean one for Bridgett Bishop – to demonstrate what they should look like.
But MacDonald was not the only one fooled. A slew of phony death warrants were floating around, bought by eager collectors. As more and more people began plaguing Corning about their 'authentic' warrants, he began speaking out about them. Harvard historian Steven Biel produced a terrific article about the forgeries for Common-Place in 2005.
In 1939, another death warrant emerged for five of the accused witches. It is in the Boston Public Library collections. Others, however, remain missing. None of this means that the 'death warrant' you find mixed in with the family photos in the attic or stashed in a box at the yard sale isn’t real. But you probably want to have it checked out before planning your retirement.
You can view the witch trial records, which are collected at various libraries and museums, at the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive
This story was updated in 2017.