The Salem witchcraft trials

IN the last year of the administration of Andros, who, as the servant of arbitrary power, had no motive to dispel superstition, the daughter of John Goodwin, a child of thirteen years, charged a laundress with having stolen linen from the family. Glover, the mother of the laundress, a friendless emigrant, almost ignorant of English, like a true woman with a mother's heart, rebuked the false accusation. Immediately the girl, to secure revenge, became bewitched. The infection spread. Three others of the family, the youngest a boy of less than five years old, soon succeeded in equally arresting public attention. They would affect to be deaf, then dumb, then blind, or all three at once; they would bark like dogs, or purr like so many cats; but they ate well and slept well. Cotton Mather went to prayer by the side of one of them, and, lo! the child lost her hearing till prayer was over. What was to be done? The four ministers of Boston and the one of Charlestown assembled in Goodwin's house, and spent a whole day of fasting in prayer. In consequence, the youngest child, the little one of four years old, was "delivered." But if the ministers could thus by prayer deliver a possessed child, then there must have been a witch; the honor of the magistrates required a prosecution of the affair; and the magistrates, William Stoughton being one of the judges, and all holding commissions exclusively from the English 'king, and 'being irresponsible to the people of Massachusetts, with a "vigor" which the united ministers commended as "just," made "a discovery of the wicked instrument of the devil."

The culprit was evidently a wild Irish woman, of a strange tongue. Goodwin, who made the complaint, "had no proof that could have done her any hurt;" but "the scandalous old hag," whom some thought "crazed in her intellectuals," was bewildered, and made strange answers, which were taken as confessions; sometimes, in excitement, using her native dialect. One Hughes testified that, six years before, she had heard one Howen say she had seen Glover come down her chimney. It was plain the prisoner was a Roman Catholic; she had never learned the Lord's prayer in English; she could repeat the paternoster fluently enough, but not quite correctly; so the ministers and Goodwin's family had the satisfaction of getting her condemned as a witch, and executed.

Boston had its sceptics as to the reality of this tale of witchcraft but the ministers, and Cotton Mather in particular, did their utmost to inflame the minds of the public on this subject. The Goodwin girl continued bewitched, and Cotton Mather invited her to his house, and made an investigation of the arts of the devil, who proved well skilled in languages, though there was one Indian language which he did not understand, and who could read men's thoughts, though it appeared that "all devils are not alike sagacious." Cotton Mather published a "Discourse" on this subject, and resolved to regard "the denial of devils, or of witches," as an evidence "of ignorance, incivility, and dishonest impudence."

The next prosecution for witchcraft took place in 1692, three years later. Samuel Parris, a minister of Salem village, who had had bitter controversies with a part of his congregation, produced a bewitched daughter and niece. He flogged Tituba, a half Indian, half negro, servant, into confessing herself a witch. Then he accused Sarah Good, a poor, melancholy woman, who was put on trial for witchcraft.

Yet the delusion, but for Parris, would have languished. Of his own niece, the girl of eleven years of age, he demanded the names of the devil's instruments who bewitched the band of "the afflicted," and then became at once informer and witness. In those days there was no prosecuting officer; and Parris was at hand to question his Indian servants and others, himself prompting their answers and acting as recorder to the magistrates. The recollection of the old controversy in the parish could not be forgotten; and Parris, moved by personal malice as well as by blind zeal, "stifled the accusations of some,"--such is the testimony of the people of his own village,--and, at the same time "vigilantly promoting the accusations of others," was "the beginner and procurer of the sore afflictions to Salem village and the country." Martha Cory, who in her examination in the meeting-house before a throng, with a firm spirit, alone, against them all, denied the presence of witchcraft, was committed to prison. Rebecca Nurse, likewise, a woman of purest life, an object of the special hatred of Parris, resisted the company of accusers, and was committed. And Parris, filling his prayers with the theme, made the pulpit ring with it. "Have not I chosen you twelve," such was his text,--"and one of you is a devil?" At this, Sarah Cloyce, sister to Rebecca Nurse, rose up and left the meeting-house; and she, too, was cried out upon, and sent to prison.

The subject grew interesting; and, to examine Sarah Cloyce and Elizabeth Procter, the deputy governor and five other magistrates went to Salem. It was a great day; several ministers were present. Parris officiated; and, by his own record, it is plain that he himself elicited every accusation. His first witness, John, the Indian servant, husband to Tituba, was rebuked by Sarah Cloyce, as a grievous liar. Abigail Williams, the niece to Parris, was also at hand with her tales; the prisoner had been at the witches' sacrament. Struck with horror, Sarah Cloyce asked for water, and sank down "in a dying fainting fit." "Her spirit," shouted the band of the afflicted, "is gone to prison to her sister Nurse." Against Elizabeth Procter the niece of Parris told stories yet more foolish than false: the prisoner had invited her to sign the devil's book. "Dear child," exclaimed the accused in her agony, "it is not so. There is another judgment, dear child;" and her accusers, turning towards her husband, declared that he, too, was a wizard. All three were committed. Examinations and commitments multiplied. Giles Cory, a stubborn old man of more than fourscore years, could not escape the malice of his minister and his angry neighbors, with whom he had quarrelled. Edward Bishop, a farmer, cured the Indian servant of a fit by flogging him; he declared, moreover, his belief that he could, in like manner, cure the whole company of the afflicted, and, for his scepticism, found himself and his wife in prison. Mary Easty, of Topsfield, another sister to Rebecca Nurse,--a woman of singular gentleness and force of character, deeply religious, yet uninfected by superstition,--was torn from her children and sent to jail. Parris had had a rival in George Burroughs, a graduate of Harvard College, who, having formerly preached in Salem village, had had friends there desirous of his settlement. He, too, a sceptic in witchcraft, was accused and committed. Thus far, there had been no success in obtaining confessions, though earnestly solicited. It had been hinted, also, that confessing was the avenue to safety. At last, Deliverance Hobbs owned everything that was asked of her, and was left unharmed. The gallows were to be set up not for those who professed themselves witches, but for those who rebuked the delusion.

A court of magistrates, appointed under the royal charter, with Stoughton, a positive, overbearing man, for its chief judge, was now instituted for the trial of these cases. Bridget Bishop, a poor and friendless old woman, was the first to be tried. She had remarkable powers. "She gave a look towards the great and spacious meeting-house of Salem," says Cotton Mather, "and immediately a daemon, invisibly entering the house, tore down a part of it." She was a witch by all the rules and precedents, and was duly hanged. At the next session of the court five women were condemned. Rebecca Nurse was at first acquitted, then condemned, and afterwards reprieved. But the influence of Parris secured her condemnation, and she was hanged with the rest.

Confessions rose in importance. "Some, not afflicted before confession, were so presently after it." The jails were filled; for fresh accusations were needed to confirm the confessions. "Some, by these their accusations of others,"--I quote the cautious apologist Hall,--"hoped to gain time, and get favor from the rulers.".. If the confessions were contradictory, if witnesses uttered aparent falsehoods, "the devil," the judges would say, "takes away their memory, and imposes on their brain." And who would now dare to be sceptical? Who would disbelieve confessors? Besides, there were other evidences. A callous spot was the mark of the devil: did age or amazement refuse to shed tears; were threats after a quarrel followed by the death of cattle or other harm; did an error occur in repeating the Lord's prayer; were deeds of great physical strength performed,--these were all signs of witchcraft. In some instances, phenomena of somnambulism would appear to have been exhibited; and "the afflicted, out of their fits, knew nothing of what they did or said in them."

Again, on a new session, six were arraigned, and all were convicted. John Willard had, as an officer, been employed to arrest the suspected witches. Perceiving the hypocrisy, he declined the service. The afflicted immediately denounced him, and he was seized, convicted, and hanged.

At the trial of George Burroughs, the bewitched persons pretended to be dumb. "Who hinders these witnesses," said Stoughton, "from giving their testimonies?" "I suppose the devil," answered Burroughs. "How comes the devil," retorted the chief judge, "so loath to have any testimony borne against you?" and the question was effective. Besides, he had given proofs of great, if not preternatural, muscular strength. Cotton Mather calls the evidence "enough:" the jury gave a verdict of guilty.

John Procter, who foresaw his doom, and knew from whom the danger came, sent an earnest petition, not to the governor and council, but to Cotton Mather and the ministers. Among the witnesses against him were some who had made no confessions till after torture. "They have already undone us in our estates, and that will not serve their turns without our innocent blood;" and he begged for a trial in Boston, or, at least, for a change of magistrates. His entreaties were vain, as also his prayers, after condemnation, for a respite.

Among the witnesses against Martha Carrier the mother saw her own children. Her two sons refused to perjure themselves till they had been tied neck and heels so long that the blood was ready to gush from them. The confession of her daughter, a child of seven years old, is still preserved.

The aged Jacobs was condemned, in part, by the evidence of Margaret Jacobs, his granddaughter. [She retracted her confession, but] the magistrates refused their belief, and, confining her for trial, proceeded to hang her grandfather.

These five were condemned on the third and hanged on the nineteenth of August; pregnancy reprieved Elizabeth Procter. To hang a minister as a witch was a novelty; but Burroughs denied absolutely that there was, or could be, such a thing as witchcraft, in the current sense. This opinion wounded the self-love of the judges, for it made them the accusers and judicial murderers of the innocent. On the ladder Burroughs cleared his innocence by an earnest speech, repeating the Lord's prayer composedly and exactly, and with a fervency that astonished. Tears flowed to the eyes of many; it seemed as if the spectators would rise up to hinder the execution. Cotton Mather, on horseback among the crowd, addressed the people, cavilling at the ordination of Burroughs, as though he had been no true minister; insisting on his guilt, and hinting that the devil could sometimes assume the appearance of an angel of light; and the hanging proceeded.

Meantime, the confessions of the witches began to be directed against the Anabaptists. Mary Osgood was dipped by the devil. The court still had work to do. On the ninth, six women were condemned; and more convictions followed. Giles Cory, the octogenarian, seeing that all who denied guilt were convicted, refused to plead, and was condemned to be pressed to death. The horrid sentence, a barbarous usage of English law, never again followed in the colonies, was executed forthwith.

On the twenty-second of September eight persons were led to the gallows. Of these Samuel Wardwell had confessed, and was safe; but, from shame and penitence, he retracted his confession, and, speaking the truth boldly, he was hanged, not for witchcraft, but for denying witchcraft.. The chief judge was positive that all had been done rightly, and "was very impatient in hearing anything that looked another way." "There hang eight firebrands of hell," said Noyes, the minister of Salem, pointing to the bodies swinging on the gallows.

Already twenty persons had been put to death for witchcraft; fifty-five had been tortured or terrified into penitent confessions. With accusations, confessions increased; with confessions, new accusations. Even "the generation of the children of God" were in danger of "falling under that condemnation." The jails were full. One hundred and fifty prisoners awaited trial; two hundred more were accused or suspected. It was also observed that no one of the condemned confessing witchcraft had been hanged. No one that confessed, and retracted a confession, had escaped either hanging or imprisonment for trial. No one of the condemned who asserted innocence, even if one of the witnesses confessed perjury, or the foreman of the jury acknowledged the error of the verdict, escaped the gallows. Favoritism was shown in listening to accusations, which were turned aside from friends and partisans. If a man began a career as a witchhunter, and, becoming convinced of the imposture, declined the service, he was accused and hanged. Persons accused, who had escaped from the jurisdiction in Massachusetts, were not demanded, as would have been done in case of acknowledged crime; so that the magistrates acted as if witch-law did not extend beyond their jurisdiction. Witnesses convicted of perjury were cautioned, and permitted still to swear away the lives of others. It was certain that people had been tempted to become accusers by promise of favor. Yet the zeal of Stoughton was unabated, and the arbitrary court adjourned to the first Tuesday in November.

In the interval the colonial Assembly met. Remonstrances were presented against the doings of the witch tribunal. There is no record of the discussions, but a convocation of ministers was ordered, the special court was abrogated, and a legal tribunal established. The meeting of this court was delayed till January of the following year. This interval of three months gave the people time to think.

When the court met at Salem, six women of Andover, at once renouncing their confessions, treated the witchcraft but as something so called, the bewildered but as "seemingly afflicted." A memorial of like tenor came from the inhabitants of Andover.

Of the presentments, the grand jury dismissed more than half; and, if it found bills against twenty-six, the trials did but show the feebleness of the testimony on which others had been condemned. The minds of the juries became enlightened before those of the judges. The same testimony was produced, and there, at Salem, with Stoughton on the bench, verdicts of acquittal followed: "Error died among its worshippers." Three had, for special reasons, been convicted: one was a wife, whose testimony had sent her husband to the gallows, and whose testimony had sent her husband to the gallows, and whose confession was now used against herself. All were reprieved, and soon set free. Reluctant to yield, the party of superstition were resolved on one conviction. The victim selected was Sarah Daston, a woman of eighty years old, who for twenty years had enjoyed the undisputed reputation of a witch; if ever there were a witch in the world, she, it was said, was one. In the presence of a throng the trial went forward at Charlestown: there was more evidence against her than against any at Salem; but the common mind was disenthralled, and asserted itself, through the jury, by a verdict of acquittal.

Cotton Mather endeavored to cover his confusion by getting up a case of witchcraft in his own parish, the imposture of which was exposed to ridicule by Robert Calef, an unlettered but intelligent man. Parris was indignantly driven from Salem. Others begged forgiveness.

Stoughton and Cotton Mather never repented. The former lived proud, unsatisfied, and unbeloved; the latter attempted to persuade others and himself that he had not been specially active in the tragedy. His diary proves that he did not wholly escape the rising impeachment from the monitor within; and Cotton Mather, who had sought the foundation of faith in tales of wonders, himself "had temptations to atheism, and to the abandonment of all religion as a mere delusion."

The common mind of New England was more wise. It never wavered in its faith; more ready to receive every tale from the invisible world than to gaze on the universe without acknowledging an Infinite Intelligence. But, employing a cautious spirit of search, eliminating error, rejecting superstition as tending to cowardice and submission, cherishing religion as the source of courage and the fountain of freedom, it refused henceforward to separate belief and reason.

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