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Porges, Arthur – “Guilty as Charged” (1954)

09/10/2013

Two men use a future-viewing gadget to look 225 years into the future, finding a Massachusetts courtroom in 2181. The protagonist is disappointed in this, reasoning that “two centuries and a quarter could not have seen any vast changes in English common law, already hallowed by time… new crimes, sure, but not changes the same way transportation, communication, or recreation would have.” Unable to hear anything in the courtroom, he learns from a placard that he is witnessing the prosecution of Frances Wills, an elderly woman who seems to be provoking an undue amount of hostility from the witnesses.

 

The prosecution then moves on to a series of tests mostly measuring things he doesn’t understand, but he does glean that her body temperature is 115 degrees and her pulse is only 40. These findings, combined with the earlier, hostile testimony, is enough for the court to sentence Wills to death, and she is quickly incinerated.

 

This provokes an understandably horrified reflection on progress (or the lack thereof) on the part of our narrator. The death penalty, he thought, was “hardly acceptable even today,” and he cannot believe that this could be “the humanitarian climax of over two hundred years more of civilization?” It is only then that the bulletin board outside the courtroom comes into focus:

 

STATE vs. FRANCES WILLS

CHARGE: WITCHCRAFT

VERDICT: GUILTY AS CHARGED

PENALTY: DEATH BY FIRE

The question of whether this is an example of cyclical history featuring the return of unwarranted witch hunts, or a future where witchcraft (or some approximation thereof) has inexplicably come into being is wisely left unresolved.

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