Salem witch craft

d =In the seventeenth century, a belief in witches and witch craft was almost universal.>

IN the seventeenth century, a belief in witches and witch craft was almost universal. The Church of Rome, more than three hundred years ago, sanctioned punishments for the exercise of witch craft; and after that, thousands of suspected persons were burned alive, drowned or hanged. During the sixteenth century, more than one hundred thousand accused and convicted persons perished in the flames, in Germany alone. In England, enlightened men embraced the belief. The eminent Sir Matthew Hale, who flourished during the civil war, the commonwealth and the period of the restoration of monarchy, repeatedly sentenced persons to death accused of witch craft. The Puritans brought the belief with them to America. They established laws for the punishment of witches; and before 1648, four persons had suffered death for the alleged offence, in the vicinity of Boston. The ministers of the gospel there were shadowed by the delusion; and, because of their powerful social influence, they did more to foster the wild excitement and produce the distressing results of what is known in history as "Salem witch craft," than all others.

In 1688, a wayward daughter of John Goodwin, of Boston, about thirteen years of age, accused a servant girl of stealing some of the family linen. The servant's mother, a "wild Irish woman" and a Roman Catholic, vehemently rebuked the accuser as a false witness. The young girl, in revenge, pretended to be bewitched by the Irishwoman. Some others of her family followed her example. They would alternately become deaf, dumb and blind; bark like dogs and purr like cats, but none of them lost their appetites nor sleep. The Rev. Cotton Mather, a credulous and egotistical clergyman (who seems to have believed, with Hubbard, the Puritan historian, that "America was originally peopled with a crew of witches transported thither by the devil"), hastened to Goodwin's house to allay the witchery by prayer. Wonderful were the alleged effects of his supplications. The devil was controlled by them for the time. Then four other ministers of Boston and one of Salem, as superstitious as himself, joined Mather, and they spent a whole day in the house of the "afflicted" in fasting and prayer, the result of which was the "delivery" of one of the family from the power of the witch. This was sufficient proof for the minds of the ministers that there must be a witch in the case, and these deluded clergymen prosecuted the ignorant Irish woman as such. She was bewildered before the court, and spoke sometimes in her native Irish language, which nobody could understand, and which her accusers and judges construed into involuntary confession. Mather and his clerical associates had the satisfaction of seeing the poor old Irish woman hanged as a witch, "for the glory of God."

Skeptics ridiculed Mather. He defended his cause by the assertion of alleged facts. He called the "afflicted" daughter of Goodwin to his study, when the artful girl thoroughly deceived him. The devil would allow her to read "Quaker books, the Common Prayer and Popish books," but a prayer from the lips of Mather, or the reading of a chapter of the Bible, threw her into convulsions. The credulous parson believed all he saw and heard, and cried from his pulpit, with outstretched arms and loud voice, "Witch craft is the most nefarious high-treason against the Majesty on High. A witch is not to be endured in heaven or on earth." Mather's discourse on the subject was scattered broadcast among the people by means of the printing-press; and with it went out his narrative of the events in the Goodwin family, which led to greater tragedies in the spring and summer of 1692, when an epidemic disease resembling epilepsy broke out in Danvers (then a part of Salem), and spread rapidly. The physicians could neither control nor cure it; and with the sermon and statements of Mather before them, they readily ascribed the malady to the work of witches.

A niece and daughter of the parish minister at Danvers were first afflicted. Their strange and unaccountable actions frightened other young women, who soon exhibited the same symptoms, such as convulsions and spasmodic swellings in the throat, undoubtedly produced by hysterics. A belief quickly spread over Salem and throughout the province that evil spirits having ministering servants on earth had been permitted to overshadow the land with an awful visitation. Terror took possession of the minds of nearly all the people, and the dread made the malady spread widely.

Other old and ill-favored women now shared with the Irish woman in the suspicion of being witches, and several of them were publicly accused and imprisoned. The "afflicted," under the influence of the witchery, professed to see the forms of their tormentors with their "inner vision," and would forthwith accuse some individual seen. At length the "afflicted" and the accused became so numerous that no person was safe from suspicion and its consequences. Even those who were active in the prosecutions became objects of suspicion. A magistrate who had presided at the condemnation of several persons, becoming convinced of the wrongfulness of the proceedings and protesting against it, was himself accused and suffered much. A constable, who had arrested many and refused to arrest any more, was accused, condemned and hanged. Neither age, sex nor condition were considered. Sir William Phipps, the governor of Massachusetts, his lieutenant-governor, the near relations of the Mathers, and learned and distinguished men who had promoted the dreadful delusion by acquiescing in the proceedings against accused persons, became objects of suspicion. The governor's wife, Lady Phipps, one of the purest and best of women, was accused of being a witch. The sons of Governor Bradstreet were compelled to fly to avoid the perils of false accusations; and near relatives of the Mathers were imprisoned on similar charges. Malice, revenge and rapacity often impelled persons to accuse others who were innocent; and when some statement of the accused would move the court and audience in favor of the prisoner, the accuser would solemnly declare that he saw the devil standing beside the victim whispering the touching words in his or her ear. And the absurd statement would be believed by the judges on the bench. Some, terrified and with the hope of saving their lives or avoiding the horrors of imprisonment, would falsely accuse their friends and kinsfolk; while others, moved by the same instinct and hopes, would falsely confess themselves to be witches.

When the magnates in church and state found themselves in danger, they thought of the golden rule, and suspected they had been acting unrighteously toward others. They cautiously expressed their doubts of the policy and justice of further proceedings against accused persons. A citizen of Andover, who was accused, wiser and more bold than governor and clergy, immediately caused the arrest of his accuser on a charge of defamation of character, and laid his damages at five thousand dollars. The effect of this act was wonderful. The public mind was in sympathy with it. The spell was instantly broken, and witch craft was no more heard of in Andover. The impression then made quickly spread over the province, and deluded and wicked persons hastened to make amends for their errors and crimes.

The abashed clergy were compelled to take action because of the unexpected change in public opinion. At a convention held in June, 1693, they declared that it was not inconsistent with Scripture to believe that the devil might assume the shape of a good man, and that he may so have deceived the "afflicted." So his Satanic majesty as usual was conveniently made the scapegoat for the sins and follies of magistrates, clergy, and people. Many of the accusers and witnesses came forward and published solemn recantations or denials of the truth of their testimony, which had been given, they said, to save their own lives. Governor Phipps, after his wife was accused and the Andover citizen had killed the monster delusion, gave orders for the release of all persons under arrest for witch craft. The Legislature of Massachusetts appointed a day for a general fast and solemn supplication "that God would pardon all the errors of his servants and people in a late tragedy raised among us by Satan and his instruments." And Judge Sewall, who had presided at many trials in Salem, stood up in his place in church on that fast day, and implored the prayers of the people that the errors which he had committed "might not be visited by the judgments of an avenging God on his country, his family, or himself." Mr. Paris, the parish minister in Danvers, in whose family the delusion had its rise, and who, throughout the "reign of terror," was one of the most earnest prosecutors of alleged witches, was compelled to resign his charge and leave the country.

These recantations, acknowledgments of error and pleadings for mercy, could not restore to the bereaved the spirits of those who had been hanged, nor make amends for the pains others had suffered. The delusion had prevailed in greatest vehemence more than six months, and it was not allayed for more than a year. During that time nineteen persons had been hanged, and one had been killed by the horrid process of pressing to death; fifty-five had been tortured or frightened into a confession of guilt; one hundred and fifty had been imprisoned, and full two hundred had been named as worthy of arrest. Amongst those hanged was the Rev. Mr. Burroughs, an exemplary clergyman, whose purity of character was conspicuous. Others, whose innocence and good name should have shielded them from harm, were coarsely assailed at the scaffold. One aged citizen, as was afterward proven, was falsely accused by a malignant enemy. While declaring his innocence to the multitudes, smoke from the executioner's pipe choked his utterances, when his accuser and his associates brutally shouted: "See how the devil wraps him in smoke!" A moment afterward he was hanged.

During the prevalence of this terror, all mutual confidence was suspended, and the noblest sentiments of human nature were trampled under-foot. The nearest blood relations became each other's accusers. One man was hanged on the testimony of his wife and daughter, who impeached him merely for the purpose of saving themselves. But this dreadful delusion was not an unmixed evil. "It is likely," wrote a contemporary, "that this frenzy contributed to work off the ill humors of the New England people--to dissipate their bigotry, and to bring them to a more free use of their reason."

The belief in witches did not end with the strange excitement. Cotton Mather and his clerical associates and others wrote in its defence. Mather's account of the delusion is unprofitable reading, because it deals in the absurd fancies of a man deluded by bigotry, superstition, and childish credulity. This may be seen in scores of sentences similar to the following:

"It is known that these wicked spectres [ghosts] did proceed so far as to steal several quantities of money from divers people, part of which individual money dropt sometimes out of the air, before sufficient spectators, into the hands of the afflicted, while the spectres were urging them to subscribe their covenant with death. Moreover poisons, to the standers-by wholly invisible, were sometimes forced upon the afflicted, which, when they have with much reluctancy swallowed, they have swollen presently, so that the common medicines for poison have been found necessary to relieve them; yea, some-times the spectres, in their troubles, have so dropt the poisons that the standers-by have smelt them and viewed them, and beheld the pillows of the miserable stained with them. Yet more, the miserable have complained bitterly of burning rags run into their forcibly distended mouths; and though nobody could see any such cloths, or indeed any fires in the chambers, yet presently the scalds were seen plainly by everybody on the mouths of the complainers, and not only the smell, but the smoke of the burning, filled the chambers."

"Once more, the miserable exclaimed extremely of branding-irons, heating at the fire on the hearth to mark them; now the standers-by could see no irons, yet they could see distinctly the print of them in the ashes, and smell them too, as they were carried by the not seen furies unto the poor creatures for whom they were intended; and these poor creatures were there-upon so stigmatized with them that they will bear the marks of them to their dying day. Nor are these [he had related many others] a tenth part of the prodigies that fell out among the inhabitants of New England.

"Flashy people may burlesque these things, but when hundreds of the most sober people, in a country where they have as much mother-with certainly as the rest of mankind, know them to be true, nothing but the absurd and froward spirit of sadducism [disbelief in spirits] can question them."

They were burlesqued. Robert Calef, a merchant of Boston, in a series of letters which he wrote and published, exposed Mather's credulity, and greatly irritated the really good man. Mather retorted by calling Calef a "weaver turned minister." Calef tormented him the more by letter after letter, when Mather, wearied with the fight, called his opponent "a coal from hell," and prosecuted him for slander. When these letters were published in book form, Mather's kinsman, then president of Harvard College, caused copies of the work to be publicly burned on the college grounds.

This strange episode in the history of Massachusetts astonished the civilized world, and made an unfavorable impression on the surrounding Indians, who despised a people that cherished a religion which sanctioned such cruelties toward their countrymen. It gave a large advantage to the French, whose Jesuit missionaries, then laboring among the Indian tribes on the frontier, contrasted their own mild and beneficent system of religion as exhibited there with that of the Puritans, whose ministers had been so prominent in the fearful tragedy. It had a serious effect upon the future destiny of New England, for the barbarians on the frontiers were, hence-forth, strongly wedded to the fortunes of the French.

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