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.

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. . . .

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]. 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].

The imagination of his restless young son2 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,—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.

Cotton Mather prayed with one of them; but she lost her hearing, he says, when he began, and recovered it as soon as be 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 unskilfully 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 bad 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.

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 stopt before reaching his body, indicating that he was unassailable by the Evil One. Mather published an account of these transactions,3 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. . . .

Martha Corey and Rebecca Nourse were 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, and with them a child of Sarah Good, only four or five years old, also charged with diabolical practises. 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. 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. A week afterward warrants were issued for the apprehension of four other suspected persons; and a few days later 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 had appeared to her and denounced him. . . .

Affairs were in this condition when the King's Governor arrived. 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 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 toward 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.

At the end of another four weeks the court sat again and sentenced five women, two of Salem, and one each of Amesbury, Ipswich, and Topsfield, all of whom were executed, protesting their innocence. 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 confest 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 afterward 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 word 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. . . .

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. 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 prest 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.

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 prosecution 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? . . .

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. . . .

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."

1From Palfrey's "History of New England." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Co. Copyright, 1878.
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2Cotton Mather, son of Increase Mather, the president of Harvard College. Return to text.

3This work was entitled "Wonders of the Invisible World." It is now much sought after by collectors of Americana.
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© 2002 by Lynn Waterman