“Hence among all the superstitions that have ‘stood over’ from primeval ages, the belief in witchcraft has been the most deeply rooted and the most tenacious of life. In all times and places until quite lately, among the most advanced communities, the reality of witchcraft has been accepted without question, and scarcely any human belief is supported by so vast a quantity of recorded testimony.”
“Considering the fact that the exodus of Puritans to New England occurred during the reign of Charles I, while the persecutions for witchcraft were increasing toward a maximum in the mother country, it is rather strange that so few cases occurred in the New World.” “New France and New England” (pp. 136-144), FISKE.
The forefathers believed in witchcraft–entering into compacts with the Devil–and in all its diabolical subtleties. They had cogent reasons for their belief in example and experience. They set it down in their codes as a capital offense. They found, as has been shown abundant authority in the Bible and in the English precedents. They anchored their criminal codes as they did their theology in the wide and deep haven of the Old Testament decrees and prophecies and maledictions, and doubted not that “the Scriptures do hold forth a perfect rule for the direction and government of all men in all duties which they are to perform to God and men.”
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven, early in their history enacted these capital laws: In Massachusetts (1641): “Witchcraft which is fellowship by covenant with a familiar spirit to be punished with death.” “Consulters with witches not to be tolerated, but either to be cut off by death or banishment or other suitable punishment.” (“Abstract New England Laws”, 1655.)
In Connecticut (1642): “If any man or woman be a witch–that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit–they shall be put to death.” Exodus xxii, 18; Leviticus xx, 27; Deuteronomy xviii, 10, 11. (“Colonial Records of Connecticut”, Vol. I, p. 77).
In New Haven (1655): “If any person be a witch, he or she shall be put to death according to” Exodus xxii, 18; Leviticus xx, 27; Deuteronomy xviii, 10, 11. (“New Haven Colonial Records”, Vol. II, p. 576, Cod. 1655).
These laws were authoritative until the epidemic had ceased.
Witches were tried, condemned, and executed with no question as to due legal power, in the minds of juries, counsel, and courts, until the hour of reaction came, hastened by doubts and criticisms of the sources and character of evidence, and the magistrates and clergy halted in their prosecutions and denunciations of an alleged crime born of delusion, and nurtured by a theology run rampant.
“They had not been taught to question the wisdom or the humanity of English criminal law.” (“Blue Laws–True and False”, p. 15, TRUMBULL.)
Here and there in New England, following the great immigration from Old England, from 1630-40, during the Commonwealth, and to the Restoration, several cases of witchcraft occurred, but the mania did not set its seal on the minds of men, and inspire them to run amuck in their frenzy, until the days of the swift onset in Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1692, when the zenith of Satan’s reign was reached in the Puritan colonies.
A few words about the tragedy at Salem are relevant and essential. They are written because it was the last outbreak of epidemic demonopathy among the civilized peoples; it has been exploited by writers abroad, who have left the dreadful record of the treatment of the delusion in their own countries in the background; it was accompanied in some degree by like manifestations and methods of suppression in sister colonies; it was fanned into flames by men in high station who reveled in its merciless extirpation as a religious duty, and eased their consciences afterwards by contrition, confession and remorse, for their valiant service in the army of the theological devil; and especially for the contrasts it presents to the more cautious and saner methods of procedure that obtained in the governments of Connecticut and New Haven at the apogee of the delusion.
What say the historians and scholars, some of whose ancestors witnessed or participated in the tragedies, and whose acquaintance with the facts defies all challenge?
“It is on the whole the most gruesome episode in American history, and it sheds back a lurid light upon the long tale of witchcraft in the past.” (“Fiske’s New France and New England”, 195.)
“The sainted minister in the church; the woman of the scarlet letter in the market place! What imagination would have been irreverent enough to surmise that the same scorching stigma was on them both.” (“Scarlet Letter”, HAWTHORNE.)
“We are made partners in parish and village feuds. We share in the chimney corner gossip, and learn for the first time how many mean and merely human motives, whether consciously or unconsciously, gave impulse and intensity to the passions of the actors in that memorable tragedy which dealt the death blow in this country to the belief in Satanic compacts.” (“Among my Books–Witchcraft”, p. 142, LOWELL.)
“The tragedy was at an end. It lasted about six months, from the first accusations in March until the last executions in September…. It was an epidemic of mad superstitious fear, bitterly to be regretted, and a stain upon the high civilization of the Bay Colony.” (“Historic Towns of New England, Salem”, p. 148, LATIMER.)
What was done at Salem, when the tempest of unreason broke loose? Who were the chief actors in it? This was done. From the first accusation in March, 1692, to the last execution in September, 1692, nineteen persons were hanged and one man was pressed to death[D] (“no witch was ever burned in New England”), hundreds of innocent men and women were imprisoned, or fled into exile or hiding places, their homes were broken up, their estates were ruined, and their families and friends were left in sorrow, anxiety, and desolation; and all this terrorism was wrought at the instance of the chief men in the communities, the magistrates, and the ministers.
[Footnote D: Fifty-five persons suffered torture, and twenty were executed before the delusion ended. “Ency. Americana” (Vol. 16, “Witchcraft”).]
Upham in his “Salem Witchcraft” (Vol. II. pp. 249-250) thus pictures the situation.
“The prisons in Salem, Ipswich, Boston, and Cambridge, were crowded. All the securities of society were dissolved. Every man’s life was at the mercy of every man. Fear sat on every countenance, terror and distress were in all hearts, silence pervaded the streets; all who could, quit the country; business was at a stand; a conviction sunk into the minds of men, that a dark and infernal confederacy had got foot-hold in the land, threatening to overthrow and extirpate religion and morality, and establish the kingdom of the Prince of darkness in a country which had been dedicated, by the prayers and tears and sufferings of its pious fathers, to the Church of Christ and the service and worship of the true God. The feeling, dismal and horrible indeed, became general, that the providence of God was removed from them; that Satan was let loose, and he and his confederates had free and unrestrained power to go to and fro, torturing and destroying whomever he willed.”
The trials were held by a Special Court, consisting of William Stoughton, Peter Sergeant, Nath. Saltonstall, Wait Winthrop, Bartho’ Gedney, John Richards, Saml. Sewall, John Hathorne, Tho. Newton, and Jonathan Corwin,–not one of them a lawyer.
Whatever his associates may have thought of their ways of doing God’s service, after the tragedy was over, Sewall, one of the most zealous of the justices, made a public confession of his errors before the congregation of the Old South Church, January 14, 1697. Were the agonizing groans of poor old Giles Corey, pressed to death under planks weighted with stones, or the prayers of the saintly Burroughs ringing in his ears?
“The conduct of Judge Sewall claims our particular admiration. He observed annually in private a day of humiliation and prayer, during the remainder of his life, to keep fresh in his mind a sense of repentance and sorrow for the part he bore in the trials. On the day of the general fast, he arose in the place where he was accustomed to worship, the old South, in Boston, and in the presence of the great assembly, handed up to the pulpit a written confession, acknowledging the error into which he had been led, praying for the forgiveness of God and his people, and concluding with a request, to all the congregation to unite with him in devout supplication, that it might not bring down the displeasure of the Most High upon his country, his family, or himself. He remained standing during the public reading of the paper. This was an act of true manliness and dignity of soul.” (“Upham’s Salem Witchcraft”, Vol. II, p. 441).
Grim, stern, narrow as he was, this man in his self-judgment commands the respect of all true men. The ministers stood with the magistrates in their delusion and intemperate zeal. Two hundred and sixteen years after the last witch was hung in Massachusetts a clearer light falls on one of the striking personalities of the time–Cotton Mather–who to a recent date has been credited with the chief responsibility for the Salem prosecutions.
Did he deserve it?
Robert Calef, in his “More Wonders of the Invisible World”, Bancroft in his “History of the United States”, and Charles W. Upham in his “Salem Witchcraft”, are the chief writers who have placed Mather in the foreground of those dreadful scenes, as the leading minister of the time, an active personal participant in the trials and executions, and a zealot in the maintenance of the ministerial dignity and domination.
On the other hand, the learned scholar, the late William Frederick Poole, first in the “North American Review”, in 1869, and again in his paper “Witchcraft in Boston”, in 1882, in the “Memorial History of Boston”, calls Calef an immature youth, and says that his obvious intent, and that of the several unknown contributors who aided him, was to malign the Boston ministers and to make a sensation.
And the late John Fiske, in his “New France and New England” (p. 155), holds that: “Mather’s rules (of evidence) would not have allowed a verdict of guilty simply upon the drivelling testimony of the afflicted persons, and if this wholesome caution had been observed, not a witch would ever have been hung in Salem.”
What were those rules of evidence and of procedure attributed to Mather?
Through the Special Court appointed to hold the witch trials, and early in its sittings, the opinions of twelve ministers of Boston and vicinity were asked as to witchcraft. Cotton Mather wrote and his associates signed an answer June 15, 1692, entitled, “The Return of Several Ministers Consulted by his Excellency and the Honorable Council upon the Present Witchcrafts in Salem Village”. This was the opinion of the ministers, and it is most important to note what is said in it of spectral evidence,[E] as it was upon such evidence that many convictions were had:
“1. The afflicted state of our poor neighbors that are now suffering by molestations from the Invisible World we apprehend so deplorable, that we think their condition calls for the utmost help of all persons in their several capacities.
“2. We cannot but with all thankfulness acknowledge the success which the merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavors of our honorable rulers to detect the abominable witchcrafts which have been committed in the country; humbly praying that the discovery of these mysterious and mischievous wickednesses may be perfected.
“3. We judge that, in the prosecution of these and all such witchcrafts there is need of a very critical and exquisite caution, lest by too much credulity for things received only upon the devil’s authority, there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences, and Satan get an advantage over us; for we should not be ignorant of his devices.
“4. As in complaints upon witchcraft there may be matters of inquiry which do not amount unto matters of presumption, and there may be matters of presumption which yet may not be matters of conviction, so it is necessary that all proceedings thereabout be managed with an exceeding tenderness toward those that may be complained of, especially if they have been persons formerly of an unblemished reputation.
“5. When the first inquiry is made into the circumstances of such as may lie under the just suspicion of witchcrafts, we could wish that there may be admitted as little as possible of such noise, company and openness as may too hastily expose them that are examined, and that there may be nothing used as a test for the trial of the suspected, the lawfulness whereof may be doubted by the people of God, but that the directions given by such judicious writers as Perkins and Barnard may be observed.
“6. Presumptions whereupon persons may be committed, and much more, convictions whereupon persons may be condemned as guilty of witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable than barely the accused persons being represented by a spectre unto the afflicted, inasmuch as it is an undoubted and notorious thing that a demon may by God’s permission appear even to ill purposes, in the shape of an innocent, yea, and a virtuous man. Nor can we esteem alterations made in the sufferers, by a look or touch of the accused, to be an infallible evidence of guilt, but frequently liable to be abused by the devil’s legerdemains.
“7. We know not whether some remarkable affronts given the devils, by our disbelieving these testimonies whose whole force and strength is from them alone, may not put a period unto the progress of the dreadful calamity begun upon us, in the accusation of so many persons whereof some, we hope, are yet clear from the great transgression laid to their charge.
“8. Nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government, the speedy and vigorous prosecutions of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the directions given in the laws of God and the wholesome statutes of the English nation for the detection of witchcrafts.”
[Footnote E: An illustration: The child Ann Putnam, in her testimony against the Rev. Mr. Burroughs, said that one evening the apparition of a minister came to her and asked her to write her name in the devil’s book. Then came the forms of two women in winding sheets, and looked angrily upon the minister and scolded him until he was fain to vanish away. Then the women told Ann that they were the ghosts of Mr. Burroughs’ first and second wives whom he had murdered.]
Did Longfellow, after a critical study of the original evidence and records, truly interpret Mather’s views, in his dialogue with Hathorne?
MATHER: “Remember this, That as a sparrow falls not to the ground Without the will of God, so not a Devil Can come down from the air without his leave. We must inquire.”
HATHORNE: “Dear sir, we have inquired; Sifted the matter thoroughly through and through, And then resifted it.”
MATHER: “If God permits These evil spirits from the unseen regions To visit us with surprising informations, We must inquire what cause there is for this, But not receive the testimony borne By spectres as conclusive proof of guilt In the accused.”
HATHORNE: “Upon such evidence We do not rest our case. The ways are many In which the guilty do betray themselves.”
MATHER: “Be careful, carry the knife with such exactness That on one side no innocent blood be shed By too excessive zeal, and on the other No shelter given to any work of darkness.”
“New England Tragedies” (4, 725), LONGFELLOW.
Whatever Mather’s caution to the court may have been, or his leadership in learning, or his ambition and his clerical zeal, there is thus far no evidence, in all his personal participation in the tragedies, that he lifted his hand to stay the storm of terrorism once begun, or cried halt to the magistrates in their relentless work. On the contrary, after six victims had been executed, August 4, 1692, in “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World”, Mather wrote this in deliberate, cool afterthought: “They–the judges–have used as judges have heretofore done, the spectral evidences, to introduce their farther inquiries into the lives of the persons accused; and they have thereupon, by the wonderful Providence of God, been so strengthened with other evidences that some of the witch-gang have been fairly executed.”
And a year later, in the light of all his personal experience and investigation, Mather solemnly declared: “If in the midst of the many dissatisfactions among us, the publication of these trials may promote such a pious thankfulness unto God for justice being so far executed among us, I shall rejoice that God is glorified.”
Wherever the responsibility at Salem may have rested, the truth is that in the general fear and panic there was potent in the minds, both of the clergy and the laity, the spirit of fanaticism and malevolence in some instances, such as misled the pastor of the First Church to point to the corpses of Giles Corey’s devoted and saintly wife and others swinging to and fro, and say “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.”
This conspectus of witchcraft, old and new, of its development from the sorcery and magic of the ancients into the mediaeval theological dogma of the power of Satan, of its gradual ripening into an epidemic demonopathy, of its slow growth in the American colonies, of its volcanic outburst in the close of the seventeenth century, is relevant and appropriate to this account of the delusion in Connecticut, its rise and suppression, its firm hold on the minds and consciences of the colonial leaders for threescore years after the settlement of the towns, a chapter in Connecticut history written in the presence of the actual facts now made known and available, and with a purpose of historic accuracy.
SOURCE: The Witchcraft Delusion In Colonial Connecticut 1647-1697: By John M. Taylor (1908)