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Evidence Used Against Witches (1693, by Increase Mather)

EVIDENCE USED AGAINST WITCHES (1693, by Increase Mather)


After becoming concerned that innocent people were being convicted and executed for witchcraft, Massachusetts Puritan clergyman Increase Mather (1639–1723) argued against the use of "spectral evidence" and the "vulgar probation" in the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft. Mather's elaborately argued disquisition, delivered during a meeting with his fellow Boston clergymen in 1692, represents a philosophical change from his previous writings, which had been used by witch hunters during the earliest days of the Salem hysteria. The change in his views is thought by many to have been prompted by rumors that his own wife would soon join the unhappy ranks of the accused. Whatever his motivation, Mather's words helped solidify the growing public opinion against the trials, which ended in May 1693 after nineteen hangings and one death caused by the accused being crushed with rocks.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Massachusetts Bay Colony ; Salem Witch Trials ; Witchcraft .

If the things which have been mentioned are not infallible proofs of guilt in the accused party, it is then queried: Whether there are any discoveries of this crime which jurors and judges may with a safe conscience proceed upon to the conviction condemnation of the persons under suspicion?

Let me here premise two things:

  • 1. The evidence in this crime ought to be as clear as in any other crimes of a capital nature. The Word of God does nowhere intimate that a less clear evidence, or that fewer or other witnesses may be taken as sufficient to convict a man of sorcery, which would nor be enough to convict him were he charged with another evil worthy of death. If we may not take the oath of a distracted person, or of a possessed person in a case of murder, theft, felony of any sort, then neither may we do it in the case of witchcraft.
  • 2. Let me premise this also, that there have been always of trying witches long used in many nations, especially in the dark times of paganism and popery, which the righteous God never approved of, but which (as judicious Mr. Perkins expresseth it in plain English) were invented by the devil, that so innocent persons might be condemned and some notorious witches escape. Yea, many superstitious and magical experiments have been used to try witches by. Of this sort is that of scratching the witch … yea, and that way of discovering witches by trying their hands and feet, and casting them on the water to try whether they will sink or swim. I did publicly bear my testimony against this superstition in a book printed at Boston eight years past.

I hear that of late some in a neighbor colony have been playing with this diabolical invention. It is to be lamented that, in such a land of uprightness as New England once was, a practice which Protestant writers generally condemn as sinful, and which the more sober and learned men among papists themselves have not only judged unlawful but (to express it in their own terms) to be no less than a mortal sin, should ever be heard of. Were it not that the coming of Christ to judge the earth draweth near, I should think that such practices are an unhappy omen that the devil and pagans will get these dark territories into their possession again. But that I may not be thought to have no reason for my calling the impleaded experiment into question, I have these things further to allege against it.

  • 1. It has been rejected long agone by Christian nations as a thing superstitious and diabolical. In Italy and Spain it is wholly disused, and in the Low Countries and in France, where the judges are men of learning. In some parts of Germany old paganism customs are observed more than in other countries; nevertheless, all the academies throughout Germany have disapproved of this way of purgation.
  • 2. The devil is in it, all superstition is from him; and when secret things or latent crimes are discovered by superstitious practices, some compact and communion with the devil is the cause of it, as Austin has truly intimated. And so it is here; for if a witch cannot be drowned, this must proceed either from some natural cause, which it doth not, for it is against nature for human bodies, when hands and feet are tied, not to sink under the water. Besides, they that plead for this superstition say that if witches happen to be condemned for some other crime and not for witchcraft, they will not swim like a cork above water, which, cause showeth that the cause of this natation is not physical. And if not, then either it must proceed from a divine miracle to save a witch from drowning; or, lastly, it must be a diabolical wonder.

This superstitious experiment is commonly known by the name of "The Vulgar Probation," because it was never appointed by any lawful authority, but from the suggestion of the devil taken up by the rude rabble. And some learned men are of opinion that the first explorator (being a white witch) did explicitely covenant with the devil that he should discover latent crimes in this way. And that it is by virtue of that first contract that the devil goeth to work to keep his servants from sinking when this ceremony of his ordaining is used. Moreover, we know that Diabolus est Dei simia, the devil seeks to imitate divine miracles. We read in ecclesiastical story that some of the martyrs, when they were by persecutors ordered to be drowned, proved to be immersible. This miracle would the devil imitate in causing witches, who are his martyrs, not to sink when they are cast into the waters.

  • 3. This way of purgation is of the same nature with the old ordeals of the pagans. If men were accused with any crime, to clear their innocency, they were to take a hot iron into their hands, or to suffer scalding water to be poured down their throats; and, if they received no hurt, thereby they were acquitted. This was the devil's invention, and many times (as the devil would have it) they that submitted to these trials suffered no inconvenience. Nevertheless, it is astonishing to think what innocent blood has been shed in the world by means of this satanical device. Witches have often (as Sprenger observes) desired that they might stand or fall by this trial by hot iron, and sometimes come off well.

Indeed, this ordeal was used in other cases, and not in cases of witchcraft only. And so was "The Vulgar Probation" by casting into the water practised upon persons accused with other crimes as well as that of witchcraft. How it came to be restrained to that of witchcraft I cannot tell; it is as supernatural for a body whose hands and feet are tied to swim above the water as it is for their hands not to feel a red hot iron. If the one of these ordeals is lawful to be used, then so is the other too. But as for the fiery ordeal it is rejected and exploded out of the world; for the same reason then the trial by water should be so.

  • 4. It is a tempting of God when men put the innocency of their fellow creatures upon such trials; to desire the Almighty to show a miracle to clear the innocent or to convict the guilty is a most presumptuous tempting of Him. Was it not a miracle when Peter was kept from sinking under the water by the omnipotency of Christ? As for Satan, we know that his ambition is to make his servants believe that his power is equal to God's, and that therefore he can preserve whom he pleaseth. I have read of certain magicians who were seen walking on the water. If then guilty persons shall float on the waters, either it is the devil that causes them to do so (as no doubt it is), and what have men to do to set the devil on work; or else it is a divine miracle, like that of Peter's not sinking, or that of the iron that swam at the word of Elisha. And shall men try whether God will work a miracle to make a discovery? If a crime cannot be found out but by miracle, it is not for any judge on earth to usurp that judgment which is reserved for the Divine Throne.
  • 5. This pretended gift of immersibility attending witches is a most fallible deceitful thing; for many a witch has sunk under water.… Besides, it has some times been known that persons who have floated on the water when the hangman has made the experiment on them, have sunk down like a stone, when others have made the trial.
  • 6. The reasons commonly alleged for this superstition are of no moment. It is said they hate the water; whereas they have many times desired that they might be cast on the water in order to their purgation. It is alleged that water is used in baptism, therefore witches swim. A weak fancy; all the water in the world is not consecrated water. Cannot witches eat bread or drink wine, notwithstanding those elements are made use of in the Blessed Sacrament? But (say some) the devils by sucking of them make them so light that the water bears them; whereas some witches are twice as heavy as many an innocent person. Well, but then they are possessed with the devil. Suppose so; is the devil afraid if they should sink that he should be drowned with them? But why then were the Gadaren's hogs drowned when the devil was in them?

These things being premised, I answer the question affirmatively: There are proofs for the conviction of witches which jurors may with a safe conscience proceed upon so as to bring them in guilty. The Scripture which saith, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," clearly implies that some in the world may be known and proved to be witches. For until they be so, they may and must be suffered to live. Moreover, we find in Scripture that some have been convicted and executed for witches. "For Saul cut off those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards out of the land" (I Sam. 28:9).…

But then the inquiry is: What is sufficient proof?

This case has been with great judgment answered by several divines of our own, particulary by Mr. Perkins and Mr. Bernard. Also Mr. John Gaul, a worthy minister at Staughton, in the county of Huntington, has published a very judicious discourse called, "Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts," printed at London A. D. 1646, wherein he does with great prudence and evidence of Scripture lightly handle this and other cases. Such jurors as can obtain those books, I would advise them to read, and seriously as in the fear of God to consider them, and so far as they keep to the law and to the testimony, and speak according to that word, receive the light which is in them. But the books being now rare to be had, let me express my concurrence with them in these two particulars.

  • 1. That a free and voluntary confession of the crime made by the person suspected and accused after examination is a sufficient ground of conviction.

Indeed, if persons are distracted or under the power of frenetic melancholy, that alters the case, but the jurors that examine them, and their neighbors that know them, may easily determine that case; or if confession be extorted, the evidence is not so clear and convictive; but if any persons out of remorse of conscience, or from a touch of God in their spirits, confess and show their deeds, as the converted magicians in Ephesus did, nothing can be more clear. Suppose a man to be suspected for murder, or for committing a rape, or the like nefarious wickedness, if he does freely confess the accusation, that's ground enough to condemn him. The Scripture approveth of judging the wicked servant out of his own mouth. It is by some objected that persons in discontent may falsely accuse themselves. I say, if they do so, and it cannot be proved that they are false accusers of themselves, they ought to die for their wickedness, and their blood will be upon their own heads; the jury, the judges, and the land is clear.…

  • 2. If two credible persons shall affirm upon oath that they have seen the party accused speaking such words, or doing things which none but such as have familiarity with the devil ever did or can do, that's a sufficient ground for conviction.

Some are ready to say that wizards are not so unwise as to do such things in the sight or hearing of others, but it is certain that they have very often been known to do so. How often have they been seen by others using enchantments? Conjuring to raise storms? And have been heard calling upon their familiar spirits? And have been known to use spells and charms? And to show in a glass or in a show stone persons absent? And to reveal secrets which could not be discovered but by the devil? And have not men been seen to do things which are above human strength, that no man living could do without diabolical assistances?…

The devil never assists men to do supernatural things undesired. When, therefore, such like things shall be testified against the accused party, not by specters, which are devils in the shape of persons either living or dead, but by real men or women who may be credited, it is proof enough that such a one has that conversation and correspondence with the devil as that he or she, whoever they be, ought to be exterminated from among men. This notwithstanding I will add: It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.


SOURCE: Stedman, Edmund C., and Ellen M. Hutchinson, eds. A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. New York: C. L. Webster, 1889.

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