Around the seventeenth century, the belief in witches and witch craft was almost everywhere. The Church of Rome, more than three hundred years ago, allowed punishments for the use of witch craft and after that thousands of suspected people were burned alive, drowned or hanged. In the sixteenth century, more than one hundred thousand accused and convicted people burned in the flames, in Germany. In England, enlightened men adopted the belief. The famous 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 people had suffered death for the supposed offence, in the neighborhood 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, impassioned disapproval the accuser as a false witness. The young girl, in revenge, pretended to be bewitched by the Irish woman. 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 or sleep. The Rev. Cotton Mather, a simple and conceited minister rushed to Goodwin’s house to ease the witchery by prayer. Wonderful were the supposed effects of his desire. 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 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 enough proof for the minds of the ministers that there must be a witch in the case, and these ignorant minister prosecuted the ignorant Irish woman as such. She was confused before the court, and spoke sometimes in her native Irish language, which nobody could understand, and which her accusers and judges explain into involuntary confession. Mather and his office associates had the satisfaction of seeing the poor old Irish woman hanged as a witch.
Misunderstanding poeple ridiculed Mather. He defended his cause by the claim of so called 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 upset. The simple minister believed all he saw and heard, and cried from his ministry, 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 main point on the subject was scattered broadcast among the people by means of the printing-press, and with it went out his past of the events in the Goodwin family, which led to greater tragedies in the spring and summer of 1692, when an widespread disease similar to epilepsy broke out in Danvers then a part of Salem, and spread fast. The physicians could neither control or cure it, and with the lecture and statements of Mather before them, they quickly inscribed the disorder to the work of witches.
A niece and daughter of the parish minister at Danvers were first sick. Their strange and undependable actions frightened other young women, who soon exposed the same symptoms, such as epilepsy and irregular swellings in the throat, absolutely produced by rage. A belief quickly spread over Salem and throughout the region that evil spirits having ministering servants on earth had been permitted to overshadow the land with a bad visitation. Terror took placed of the minds of nearly all the people, and the awfulness made the disorder 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 witch craft, declared to see the forms of their tormentors with their inner vision, and would immediately 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 judge who had presided at the blame of several people, becoming convinced of the unjust of the proceedings and protesting against it, was himself accused and suffered a lot. A chief, who had arrested many and refused to arrest any more, was accused, condemned and hanged. Neither age, sex or 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 terrible trick by concur in the proceedings against accused people, became things 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 bound to fly to avoid the danger of false accusations, and near relatives of the Mathers were imprisoned on similar charges. Hate, revenge and rapacity often obliged people to accuse others who were innocent; and when some statement of the accused would move the court and people in favor of the prisoner, the accuser would seriously declared that he saw the devil standing beside the victim whispering the touching words in his or her ear. The foolish statement would be believed by the judges on the bench. Some, terrified and with the hope of saving their lives or avoiding the horror of being in a prison, would falsely accuse their friends and family, while others, moved by the same instinct and hopes, would falsely confess themselves to be witches.
When the ministers in church and state found themselves in danger, they thought of the golden rule, and suspected they had been acting unfair toward others. They carefully expressed their doubts of the policy and justice of further proceedings against accused people. A citizen of Andover, who was accused, smater and more confident than governor and minister, immediately caused the arrest of his accuser on a charge of untruth 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 region, and ignorant and wicked people rushed to make reparation for their errors and crimes.
The ashamed pastoral were bound to take action because of the unexpected change in public opinion. At a convention held in June, 1693, they declared that it was not inappropriate 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 gradually made the scapegoat for the sins and foolishness of justice , churchly, and people. Many of the accusers and witnesses came forward and published serious recantations or denials of the truth of their testimony , they said, to save their own lives. Governor Phipps, after his wife was accused and the citizens of Andover had killed the monster illusion, 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 plea “that God would forgive all the sins of his servants and people in a late affliction 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 plead 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 district minister in Danvers, whose family the deception had risen, and who, through out the “reign of terror,” was one of the most earnest prosecutors of supposed witches, was bound to resign his charge and leave the country.
These take back, confirmation of error and pleadings for mercy, could not restore to the ruined the spirits of those who had been hanged, or make upfor the pains others had suffered. The delusion had control in greatest excitement more than six months, and it was not calm for more than a year. During that time nineteen persons had been hanged, and one had been killed by the horrible process of pressing to death, fifty-five had been tormented or frightened into a confession of guilt; one hundred and fifty had been imprisoned, and full two hundred had been named of arrest. Amongst those hanged was the Rev. Mr. Burroughs, an ideal minister, whose purity of character was clear. Others, whose innocence and good name should have defended them from harm, were roughly attack at the frame. One aged citizen, as was afterward proven, was falsely accused by a bitter enemy. While declaring his innocence to the different, smoke from the executioner’s pipe choked his final word, when his accuser and his associates brutally shouted: “See how the devil wraps him in smoke!” A moment afterward he was hanged.
During the affinity of this terror, all common confidence was suspended, and the honest opinion of human nature were put out under obligation. The nearest blood relations became each other’s accusers. One man was hanged on the statement of his wife and daughter, who accused him merely for the purpose of saving themselves. But this dreadful delusion was not an unmixed evil. “It is likely,” wrote a coexisting, “that this excitement contributed to work off the ill humors of the New England people–to dissipate their prejudice, 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 not knowing by prejudice, superstition, and childish confidence. This may be seen in scores of sentences similar to the following:
“It is known that these wicked spirits 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 spirits were urging them to subscribe their covenant with death. More over poisons, to the standers-by wholly invisible, were sometimes forced upon the afflicted, which, when they have with much hesitant swallowed, they have swollen presently, so that the common medicines for poison have been found necessary to relieve them; yea, some-times the ghost, 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 a tenth part of the prodigies that fell out among the inhabitants of New England.
“Flashy people may mockery 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 sadness disbelief in spirits can question them.”
They were mockery. 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 lovable 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 main 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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