A source of investigation, especially indispensable in the preparation of the present work, deserves to be particularly noticed. In 1647, the General Court of Massachusetts provided by law for the taking of testimony, in all cases, under certain regulations, in the form of depositions, to be preserved in perpetuam rei memoriam. The evidence of witnesses was prepared in writing, beforehand, to be used at the trials; they to be present at the time, to meet further inquiry, if living within ten miles, and not unavoidably prevented. In a capital case, the presence of the witness, as well as his written testimony, was absolutely required. These depositions were lodged in the files, and constitute the most valuable materials of history. In our day, the statements of witnesses ordinarily live only in the memory of persons present at the trials, and are soon lost in oblivion. In cases attracting unusual interest, stenographers are employed to furnish them to the press. There were no newspaper reporters or “court calendars” in the early colonial times; but these depositions more than supply their place. Given in, as they were, in all sorts of cases,—of wills, contracts, boundaries and encroachments, assault and battery, slander, larceny, &c., they let us into the interior, the very inmost recesses, of life and society in all their forms. The extent to which, by the aid of william P. Upham, Esq., of Salem, I have drawn from this source is apparent at every page.
A word is necessary to be said relating to the originals of the documents that belong to the witchcraft proceedings. They were probably all deposited at the time in the clerk’s office of Essex County. A considerable number of them were, from some cause, transferred to the State archives, and have been carefully preserved. Of the residue, a very large proportion have been abstracted from time to time by unauthorized hands, and many, it is feared, destroyed or otherwise lost. Two very valuable parcels have found their way into the libraries of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Essex Institute, where they are faithfully secured. A few others have come to light among papers in the possession of individuals. It is to be hoped, that, if any more should be found, they will be lodged in some public institution; so that, if thought best, they may all be collected, arranged, and placed beyond wear, tear, and loss, in the perpetual custody of type.
The papers remaining in the office of the clerk of this county were transcribed into a volume a few years since; the copyist supplying, conjecturally, headings to the several documents. Although he executed his work in an elegant manner, and succeeded in giving correctly many documents hard to be deciphered, such errors, owing to the condition of the papers, occurred in arranging them, transcribing their contents, and framing their headings, that I have had to resort to the originals throughout.