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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Salem Witchcraft
By John Gorham Palfrey (1796–1881)
 
From ‘A Compendious History of New England’

A YET worse trouble confronted the new Governor. He found a part of the people whom he was to rule in a state of distress and consternation, by reason of certain terrible manifestations during the last few weeks before his coming, attributed by them to the agency of the Devil, and of wicked men, women, and children, whom he had confederated with himself, and was using as his instruments.  1
  The people of Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, like all other Christian people at that time and later,—at least, with extremely rare individual exceptions,—believed in the reality of a hideous crime called witchcraft. They thought they had Scripture for that belief, and they knew they had law for it, explicit and abundant; and with them law and Scripture were absolute authorities for the regulation of opinion and of conduct.  2
  In a few instances, witches were believed to have appeared in the earlier years of New England. But the cases had been sporadic. The first instance of an execution for witchcraft is said to have occurred in Connecticut, soon after the settlement [1647, May 30th]; but the circumstances are not known, and the fact has been doubted. A year later, one Margaret Jones, of Charlestown in Massachusetts, and it has been said, two other women in Dorchester and Cambridge, were convicted and executed for the goblin crime. These cases appear to have excited no more attention than would have been given to the commission of any other felony, and no judicial record of them survives. A case much more observed was that of Mrs. Ann Hibbins, the widow of an immigrant of special distinction. He had been agent for the colony in England, and one of the Assistants. He had lost his property, and the melancholy and ill-temper to which his disappointed wife gave way appear to have exposed her to misconstructions and hatred; in the sequel of which she was convicted as a witch, and after some opposition on the part of the magistrates was hanged [1656, June].  3
  With three or four exceptions,—for the evidence respecting the asserted sufferers at Dorchester and Cambridge is imperfect,—no person appears to have been punished for witchcraft in Massachusetts, nor convicted of it, for more than sixty years after the settlement, though there had been three or four trials of other persons suspected of the crime. At the time when the question respecting the colonial charter was rapidly approaching an issue, and the public mind was in feverish agitation, the ministers sent out a paper of proposals for collecting facts concerning witchcraft [1681, May]. This brought out a work from President Mather entitled ‘Illustrious Providences,’ in which that influential person related numerous stories of the performances of persons leagued with the Devil [1684, January 31st].  4
  The imagination of his restless young son was stimulated, and circumstances fed the flame. In the last year of the government of Andros [1688], a daughter, thirteen years old, of John Goodwin,—a mason living at the South End of Boston,—had a quarrel with an Irish washerwoman about some missing clothes. The woman’s mother took it up, and scolded provokingly. Thereupon the wicked child, profiting, as it seems, by what she had been hearing and reading on the mysterious subject, “cried out upon her,” as the phrase was, as a witch, and proceeded to act the part understood to be fit for a bewitched person; in which behavior she was presently joined by three others of the circle, one of them only four or five years old. Now they would lose their hearing, now their sight, now their speech; and sometimes all three faculties at once. They mewed like kittens; they barked like dogs. They could read fluently in Quaker books, in the ‘Oxford Jests,’ and in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’; but not in the ‘Westminster Catechism,’ nor in John Cotton’s ‘Milk for Babes.’ Cotton Mather prayed with one of them; but she lost her hearing, he says, when he began, and recovered it as soon as he finished. Four Boston ministers and one of Charlestown held a meeting, and passed a day in fasting and prayer, by which exorcism the youngest imp was “delivered.” The poor woman, crazed with all this pother,—if in her right mind before,—and defending herself unskillfully in her foreign gibberish and with the volubility of her race, was interpreted as making some confession. A gossiping witness testified that six years before, she had heard another woman say that she had seen the accused come down a chimney. She was required to repeat the Lord’s Prayer in English,—an approved test; but being a Catholic, she had never learned it in that language. She could recite it, after a fashion, in Latin; but she was no scholar, and made some mistakes. The helpless wretch was convicted and sent to the gallows.  5
  Cotton Mather took the oldest “afflicted” girl to his house, where she dexterously played upon his self-conceit to stimulate his credulity. She satisfied him that Satan regarded him as his most terrible enemy, and avoided him with especial awe. When he prayed or read in the Bible, she was seized with convulsion fits. When he called to family devotion, she would whistle, and sing, and scream, and pretend to try to strike and kick him; but her blows would be stopped before reaching his body, indicating that he was unassailable by the Evil One. Mather published an account of these transactions, with a collection of other appropriate matter. The treatise circulated not only in Massachusetts, but widely also in England, where it obtained the warm commendation of Richard Baxter; and it may be supposed to have had an important effect in producing the more disastrous delusion which followed three years after. The Goodwin children soon got well: in other words, they were tired of their atrocious foolery; and the death of their victim gave them a pretense for a return to decent behavior.  6
  Mr. Samuel Parris was minister of a church in a part of Salem which was then called Salem Village, and which now as a separate town is known by the name of Danvers. He was a man of talents, and of repute for professional endowments, but avaricious and wrong-headed. Among his parishioners, at the time of his settlement and afterwards, there had been angry disputes about the election of a minister, which had never been composed. Neighbors and relations were embittered against each other. Elizabeth Parris, the minister’s daughter, was now nine years old. A niece of his, eleven years old, lived in his family. His neighbor, Thomas Putnam, the parish clerk, had a daughter named Ann, twelve years of age. These children, with a few other young women, of whom two were as old as twenty years or thereabouts, had become possessed with a wild curiosity about the sorceries of which they had been hearing and reading, and used to hold meetings for study, if it may be so called, and practice. They learned to go through motions similar to those which had lately made the Goodwin children so famous. They forced their limbs into grotesque postures, uttered unnatural outcries, were seized with cramps and spasms, became incapable of speech and of motion. By-and-by they interrupted public worship. Abigail Williams, Parris’s niece, called aloud in church to the minister to “stand up and name his text.” Ann Putnam cried out, “There is a yellow bird sitting on the minister’s hat, as it hangs on the pin in the pulpit.” The families were distressed. The neighbors were alarmed. The physicians were perplexed and baffled, and at length declared that nothing short of witchcraft was the trouble.  7
  The families of the “afflicted children” assembled for fasting and prayer. Then the neighboring ministers were sent for, and held at Mr. Parris’s house a prayer-meeting which lasted through the day. The children performed in their presence, and the result was a confirmation by the ministers of the opinion of the doctors. Of course the next inquiry was by whom the manifest witchcraft was exercised. It was presumed that the unhappy girls could give the answer. For a time they refused to do so. But at length, yielding to an importunity which it had become difficult to escape unless by an avowal of their fraud, they pronounced the names of Good, Osborn, and Tituba.  8
  Tituba—half Indian, half negro—was a servant of Mr. Parris, brought by him from the West India Islands or the Spanish Main, where he had formerly been a merchant. Sarah Good was an old woman, miserably poor. Sarah Osborn had been prosperous in early life. She had been married twice, and her second husband was still living, but separated from her. Her reputation was not good, and for some time she had been bedridden, and in a disturbed nervous state. In the meeting-house of Salem village [March 1st], with great solemnity, and in the presence of a vast crowd, the three accused persons were arraigned before John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, of Salem, members of the Colonial Council. The “afflicted children” were confronted with them; prayer was made; and the examination proceeded with a questioning of Sarah Good, the other prisoners being for the time withdrawn.  9
  When Good declared that she was falsely accused, Hathorne “desired the children all of them to look at her;… and so they all did;… and presently they were all tormented.” The prisoner was made to touch them, and then their torment ceased; the received doctrine being that by this contact the Satanic influence which had been emitted from the witch was drawn back into her. Similar proceedings were had with the other two prisoners. Tituba, whether in collusion with her young mistress, or as was afterwards said, in consequence of having been scourged by Mr. Parris, confessed herself to be a witch, and charged Good and Osborn with being her accomplices. The evidence was then thought unexceptionable, and the three were committed to jail for trial.  10
  Martha Corey and Rebecca Nourse were next cried out against. Both were church-members of excellent character; the latter seventy years of age. They were examined by the same magistrates, and sent to prison [March 21st–March 24th], and with them a child of Sarah Good, only four or five years old, also charged with diabolical practices. Mr. Parris preached upon the text, “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” Sarah Cloyse, understanding the allusion to be to Nourse, who was her sister, went out of church, and was accordingly cried out upon, examined, and committed. Elizabeth Procter was another person charged. The Deputy-Governor and five magistrates came to Salem for the examination of the two prisoners last named [April 11th]. Procter appealed to one of the children who was accusing her. “Dear child,” she said, “it is not so; there is another judgment, dear child:” and presently they denounced as a witch her husband, who stood by her side [April 18th]. A week afterwards, warrants were issued for the apprehension of four other suspected persons; and a few days later [April 30th] for three others, one of whom, Philip English, was the principal merchant of Salem. On the same day, on the information of one of the possessed girls, an order was sent to Maine for the arrest of George Burroughs, formerly a candidate for the ministry at Salem Village, and now minister of Wells. The witness said that Burroughs, besides being a wizard, had killed his first two wives, and other persons whose ghosts has appeared to her and denounced him.  11
  Charges now came in rapidly. George Jacobs, an old man, and his granddaughter, were sent to prison [May 10th]. “You tax me for a wizard,” said he to the magistrates: “you may as well tax me for a buzzard; I have done no harm.” They tried him with repeating the Lord’s Prayer, which it was thought impossible for a witch to do. According to Parris’s record, “he missed in several parts of it.” His accusers persisted. “Well, burn me or hang me,” said he, “I will stand in the truth of Christ; I know nothing of the matter, any more than the child that was born to-night.” Among others, John Willard was now apprehended. As a constable he had served in the arrest and custody of some of the reputed witches. But he came to see the absurdity of the thing, and was said to have uttered something to the effect that it was the magistrates that were bewitched, and those who cheered them on. Willard was forthwith cried out against as a wizard, and committed for trial [May 18th].  12
  Affairs were in this condition when the King’s Governor arrived [May 14th]. About a hundred alleged witches were now in jail, awaiting trial. Their case was one of the first matters to which his attention was called. Without authority for so doing,—for by the charter which he represented, the establishment of judicial courts was a function of the General Court,—he proceeded to institute a special commission of Oyer and Terminer, consisting of seven magistrates, first of whom was the hard, obstinate, narrow-minded Stoughton. The commissioners applied themselves to their office without delay. Their first act [June 2d] was to try Bridget Bishop, against whom an accusation twenty years old, and retracted by its author on his death-bed, had been revived. The court sentenced her to die by hanging, and she was accordingly hanged at the end of eight days. Cotton Mather, in his account of the proceedings, relates that as she passed along the street under guard, Bishop “had given a look towards the great and spacious meeting-house of Salem, and immediately a dæmon, invisibly entering the house, tore down a part of it.” It may be guessed that a plank or a partition had given way under the pressure of the crowd of lookers-on collected for so extraordinary a spectacle.  13
  At the end of another four weeks the court sat again [June 30th], and sentenced five women, two of Salem, and one each of Amesbury, Ipswich, and Topsfield, all of whom were executed, protesting their innocence [July 19th]. In respect to one of them, Rebecca Nourse, a matron eminent for piety and goodness, a verdict of acquittal was first rendered. But Stoughton sent the jury out again, reminding them that in her examination, in reference to certain witnesses against her who had confessed their own guilt, she had used the expression, “they came among us.” Nourse was deaf, and did not catch what had been going on. When it was afterwards repeated to her, she said that by the coming among us she meant that they had been in prison together. But the jury adopted the court’s interpretation of the words as signifying an acknowledgment that they had met at a witch orgy. The Governor was disposed to grant her a pardon. But Parris, who had an ancient grudge against her, interfered and prevailed. On the last communion day before her execution, she was taken into church, and formally excommunicated by Noyes, her minister.  14
  Of six persons tried at the next session of the court [August 5th], the Reverend George Burroughs, a graduate of Harvard College, was one. At a certain point of the proceedings the young people pretending to have suffered from him stood mute. Stoughton asked who hindered them from telling their story. “The Devil, I suppose,” said Burroughs. “Why should the Devil be so careful to suppress evidence against you?” retorted the judge, and with the jury this encounter of wits told hardly against the prisoner [August 19th]. His behavior at his execution strongly impressed the spectators in his favor. “When he was upon the ladder, he made a speech for the clearing of his innocency, with such solemn and serious expressions as were to the admiration of all present. His prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness, and such (at least, seeming) fervency of spirit as was very affecting, and drew tears from many, so that it seemed to many the spectators would hinder the execution. Cotton Mather, who was present on horseback, made them a quieting harangue. The accusers said the Black Man stood and dictated to him.”  15
  In the course of the next month, in which the Governor left Boston for a short tour of inspection in the Eastern country, fifteen persons—six women in one day, and on another eight women and one man—were tried, convicted, and sentenced. Eight of them were hanged [September 9th, September 17th, September 22d, September 19th]. The brave Giles Corey, eighty years of age, being arraigned, refused to plead. He said that the whole thing was an imposture, and that it was of no use to put himself on his trial, for every trial had ended in a conviction,—which was the fact. It is shocking to relate that, suffering the penalty of the English common law for a contumacious refusal to answer,—the peine forte et dure,—he was pressed to death with heavy weights laid on his body. By not pleading he intended to protect the inheritance of his children, which, as he had been informed, would by a conviction of felony have been forfeit to the crown.  16
  In the following month [October] the malady broke out in another neighborhood. One Ballard, of the town of Andover, whose wife was ill in a way that perplexed their medical friend, sent to Salem to see what light could be obtained from the witch-detectors there. A party of them came to his help, and went to work with vigor. More than fifty persons at Andover fell under accusation, some of the weaker minded of whom were brought to confess themselves guilty not only of afflicting their neighbors, but of practicing such exercises as riding on animals and on sticks through the air.  17
  There were no executions, however, after those which have been mentioned as occurring on one day of each of four successive months. There had been twenty human victims, Corey included; besides two dogs, their accomplices in the mysterious crime. Fifty persons had obtained a pardon by confessing; a hundred and fifty were in prison awaiting trial; and charges had been made against two hundred more. The accusers were now flying at high quarries. Hezekiah Usher, known to the reader as an ancient magistrate of fair consideration, was complained of; and Mrs. Thacher, mother-in-law of Corwin, the justice who had taken the earliest examinations. Zeal in pushing forward the prosecutions began to seem dangerous; for what was to prevent an accused person from securing himself by confession, and then revenging himself on the accuser by arraigning him as a former ally?  18
  Mrs. Hale, wife of the minister of Beverly who had been active in the prosecutions, and Dudley Bradstreet of Andover, the old Governor’s son, who had granted warrants for the commitment of some thirty or forty alleged witches, were now accused. The famous name of John Allyn, Secretary of Connecticut, was uttered in whispers. There had even begun to be a muttering about Lady Phips, the Governor’s wife; and Mr. Willard, then minister of the Old South Church in Boston, and afterwards head of the College, who, after yielding to the infatuation in its earliest stage, had made himself obnoxious and suspected by partially retracing his steps. People began now to be almost as wild with the fear of being charged with witchcraft, or having the charge made against their friends, as they had been with the fear of suffering from its spells. The visitation, shocking as it had been, had been local. It had been almost confined to some towns of Essex County. In other parts of the province the public mind was calmer, or was turned in the different direction of disgust at the insane tragedies, and dread of their repetition. A person in Boston, whose name had begun to be used dangerously by the informers at Andover, instituted an action for defamation, laying his damages at a thousand pounds; a measure which, while it would probably have been ruinous to him had he made a mistake in choosing his time, was now found, at the turning of the tide, to have a wholesome effect.  19
  After the convictions which were last mentioned, the Commission Court which had conducted the trials adjourned for two months. Thanks to the good sense of the people, it never met again. Before the time designated for its next session, the General Court of the Province assembled, and the cry of the oppressed and miserable came to their ear. The General Court superseded the Court of Special Commission, the agent of all the cruelty, by constituting a regular tribunal of supreme jurisdiction [November 25th]. When that court met at the appointed time, reason had begun to resume her sway; and the grand jury at once threw out more than half of the presentments [1693, January 3d]. They found true bills against twenty-six persons. The evidence against these was as good as any that had proved fatal in former trials; but only three of the arraigned were found guilty, and all these were pardoned. One of them may have owed her conviction to a sort of rude justice: she had before confessed herself a witch, and charged her husband, who was hanged on her information. Stoughton, who had been made Chief Justice, showed his disapprobation of the pardons by withdrawing from the bench with passionate anger [February 21st]. Phips wrote to the Lords of Trade a disingenuous letter, in which he attempted to divert from himself, chiefly at Stoughton’s expense, whatever blame might be attached to the recent transactions; it even appeared to imply, what was contrary to the fact, that the executions did not begin till after his departure from Boston to the Eastern country.  20
  The drunken fever-fit was now over, and with returning sobriety came profound contrition and disgust. A few still held out against the return of reason. There are some men who never own that they have been in the wrong, and a few men who are forever incapable of seeing it. Stoughton, with his bull-dog stubbornness, that might in other times have made him a St. Dominic, continued to insist that the business had been all right, and that the only mistake was in putting a stop to it. Cotton Mather was always infallible in his own eyes. In the year after the executions he had the satisfaction of studying another remarkable case of possession in Boston; but when it and the treatise which he wrote upon it failed to excite much attention, and it was plain that the tide had set the other way, he soon got his consent to let it run at its own pleasure, and turned his excursive activity to other objects. Saltonstall, horrified by the rigor of his colleagues, had resigned his place in the commission at an early period of the operations. When reason returned, Parris, the Salem minister, was driven from his place by the calm and decent, but irreconcilable, indignation of his parishioners. Noyes, his well-intentioned but infatuated neighbor in the First Parish, devoting the remainder of his life to peaceful and Christian service, caused his church to cancel by a formal and public act [1712] their excommunication of the blameless Mrs. Nourse, who had died his peculiar victim.  21
  Members of some of the juries, in a written public declaration, acknowledged the fault of their wrongful verdicts, entreated forgiveness, and protested that, “according to their present minds, they would none of them do such things again, on such grounds, for the whole world; praying that this act of theirs might be accepted in way of satisfaction for their offense.” A day of General Fasting was proclaimed by authority, to be observed throughout the jurisdiction, in which the people were invited to pray that “whatever mistakes on either hand had been fallen into, either by the body of this people, or by any orders of men, referring to the late tragedy raised among us by Satan and his instruments, through the awful judgment of God, he would humble them therefor, and pardon all the errors of his servants and people.” On that day [1696, January 14th] Judge Sewall rose in his pew in the Old South Church in Boston, handed to the desk a paper acknowledging and bewailing his great offense, and asking the prayers of the congregation “that the Divine displeasure thereof might be stayed against the country, his family, and himself,” and remained standing while it was read by the minister. To the end of his long life, the penitent and much-respected man kept every year a private day of humiliation and prayer on the same account. Twenty-eight years after, he prays in an entry in his diary in reference to the transaction, “The good and gracious God be pleased to save New England, and me and my family!” Ann Putnam, one of the three beginners of the mischief, after thirteen years, came out of the long conflict between her conscience and her shame, with a most affecting declaration of her remorse and grief, now on record in the books of the Danvers church. Twenty years after, the General Court made grants to the heirs of the sufferers, in acknowledgment of their pecuniary losses. “Some of them [the witch accusers] proved profligate persons,” says Governor Hutchinson, “abandoned to all vice; others passed their days in obscurity and contempt.”  22
 
 
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