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Legal History

A guide to some important dates in legal history.

FEBRUARY

22 - US Purchases Florida Territory

Palm treesOf all the great deals that have been made by U.S. Presidents, John Adams did pretty well for himself. On February 22, 1819, in return for the U.S. assuming some $5 million in claims of U.S. citizens against Spain, Spain ceded all control of the Florida territory to the U.S. under the Adams-Onis Treaty. In exchange, the U.S. ceded claims for Texas and California. Florida was not the only gain for the U.S.; Spain also gave up all its claims north of Texas to the United States (including the Oregon Territory, which included Washington State). And, of course, the United States took back both Texas and California in the Mexican-American War.

25 - First African-American Sworn into Congress

Hiram RhodesOn February 25, 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels, R-Miss, became the first African-American member of the Senate.  Revels was a college-educated minister who had helped with the formation of black troops for the Civil War, started a school, and had been a chaplain in the Union Army.

29 - Salem Witch Trials

Illustration: Witchcraft at Salem VillageOn February 29, 1692, the first arrests were made in the Salem Witch Trials. The Salem court of Oyer and Terminer (hear and determine) accepted evidence that no modern court would: spectral evidence and witch marks. Spectral evidence involved reports of what would sound like hallucinations to modern jurors. The witnesses would describe their visions of the accused cavorting in their spectral forms. Witch marks were evidence that animal familiars had been suckling on their master. These marks often looked like moles, bruises, and birthmarks.

There were other ways in which the Salem trials would not meet constitutional muster. The accused were not allowed an advocate or witnesses on their own behalf. Though they were allowed to present evidence, speak on their own behalf, and question their accusers, without counsel, the accused were ill prepared to defend themselves effectively. No appeals were available.

Although witchcraft was not actually a crime at the time of the first trial, criminalizing witchcraft was made retroactive. Accused awaiting trial had to pay their own prison expenses, including the shackles; if they could not, prisoners were kept in small rooms the size of coffins.

The first trial was delayed because one judge felt the witch marks and spectral evidence were inadequate proof. Nathaniel Saltenstall resigned the bench in protest.

Six months later, the hysteria ended after the main accusers denounced the new governor’s wife as a witch. The governor shut down the proceedings as a result. Those who had lost their property did not regain it. Nineteen had been hanged.