Mather, Cotton, Cheever, Ezekiel, and Sewall, Samuel

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Mather, Cotton, Cheever, Ezekiel, and Sewall, Samuel

Mather-Cheever Account of the Salem Witch Trials

Reprinted in Eyewitness to America

Published in 1997

Edited by David Colbert

Samuel Sewall

Diary Entries of Samuel Sewall

Reprinted in Early American Writing

Published in 1994

Edited by Giles Gunn

"It was noted that in her, as in others like her, that if the afflicted went to approach her, they were flung down to the ground."

During the colonial period most people had little understanding of their natural environment, so they looked to supernatural forces (spirits) for solutions to their problems. To Native Americans, Africans, and some Europeans, magic and religion were inseparable. They believed that people with special powers (called priests, shamans, and witches by various groups) could control good and evil spirits with prayer and rituals. Shamans, priests, and witches used special objects called charms—bags of herbs, magical stones, crucifixes—to ward off evil spirits. One of their rituals was fortune-telling, which involved predicting future events by "reading" a pattern of tea leaves, the shape of a raw egg dropped into a bowl, or the arrangement of special pebbles thrown onto the ground.

Shamans, priests, and witches also used their powers to ward off diseases. Before the introduction of modern medicine people dreaded sickness or accidents. It was believed illness and death came from spiritual as well as natural causes. Thus they called upon healers, or "white" (good) witches, who combined charms with medicinal roots, barks, and herbs to produce cures. But numerous other practices were equally effective. If a cow was going dry (producing less and less milk), for instance, a European might pour milk over a red-hot iron poker while repeating the names of the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Freckles might be removed by washing one's face with cobwebs.

Good spirits were relied upon to favorably influence events. Priests infused the spirits of animals into young Native American warriors to protect them in battle. Africans conjured up the spirits of gods who guided them in their religious ceremonies. On the other hand, evil spirits were greatly feared. Europeans believed that a "black" witch could control the thoughts and actions of others for evil purposes. In fact, most believers in magic perceived the word witch as meaning an evil sorcerer (a person who uses power gained from the assistance or control of evil spirits) or sorceress.

Native Americans were strong believers in magic, and believed that their enemies used magic against them. Africans believed that the spirits of evil witches left them while they were asleep and entered the bodies of animals. The bewitched animals then fled to a meeting with other witches and consumed a human soul, thus killing the person belonging to that soul.

Europeans tended to single out a particular person, usually an old woman, who made a covenant (contract) with the Devil to torment good people. They believed that witches flew through the air to engage in sexual orgies (a sexual encounter involving many people) with the Devil. Moreover, it was thought that a witch (again usually a woman) signed a pact with the Devil in order to get revenge on a neighbor or an enemy. For example, a witch was empowered to cause the death of a child, produce crop failures, or prevent cream from being turned into butter. Witches could also enter the bodies of animals as "familiars" (demons or evil spirits believed to act as intimate servants) and prowl around undetected.

It was believed that witches could be detected. One way was to make a witch's cake from grain mixed with a substance from a bewitched victims's body, such as urine, and bake it in ashes. The cake would then be fed to a familiar, which would reveal the name of the witch who had cast the spell. Another way to identify a witch was to find out whether the suspect poked pins into a rag doll or a clay model of a victim to work her magic. People suspected of practicing witchcraft would be given the chance to confess their sins and renounce (give up) their covenant with the Devil. Only by opening themselves to God, they could rejoin the community.

The glaring exception was the witchcraft hysteria that erupted in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Colony. During the winter of 1691–92, a group of young girls met in secret to read their fortunes. Most of them worked as servants in the area, but one was Elizabeth Parris, the daughter of the local Puritan minister. (Puritans were part of a religious group that believed in strict moral and spiritual codes.) She knew that Puritans strictly forbade magic. Nevertheless she participated in the ritual, which involved dropping a raw egg white into a bowl and then "reading" the future from its shape. As the girls watched in horror, the egg white took the form of a coffin (a sign of death). Elizabeth instantly felt like someone was pinching and suffocating her, then she began to hallucinate (false or distorted perceptions of objects or events). The other girls were seized by the same sensations, and doctors were called to examine them. Finding no physical problems, the doctors suggested the symptoms had been caused by witchcraft.

In an effort to track down the witch who had cast a spell on the girls, a concerned neighbor asked the Parrises' Caribbean slave, Tituba, to bake a witch cake. But the cake did not reveal the culprit. Finally the girls confessed that they had been bewitched by Tituba and two old women in the village. By April the girls were identifying others as witches, including a former minister, and soon accusations were flying around the colony. When the hysteria finally died down, 156 suspected witches were in prison. Thus began one of the most infamous events in American history. The trials violated many proper legal procedures. For instance, the judges were not trained lawyers, and suspects were not allowed to have attorneys. The court also accepted "spectral evidence"—that is, an accuser's claim that a specter (spirit) resembling the "witch" had committed evil deeds. Since the Puritans believed such a specter could be seen only by the victim, other witnesses could not prove whether accusations were true or false.

In June 1692 Puritan leaders decided to appoint a special court to try the suspected witches. By this time witch hysteria had been sweeping Europe for more than 250 years and in New England for several decades. In 1684 Increase Mather(1639–1723), a Puritan clergyman and well-known intellectual, had published Remarkable Providences. The book was a collection of "proofs of witchcraft," which Mather had found in the work of other writers. Mather and his son Cotton actively promoted the Salem witch trials. In 1689 Cotton Mather published Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possession, which stirred up antiwitch mania. Four years later he wrote Wonders of the Invisible World, in which he defended the trials as the only way to rid the colony of the influence of the Devil.

Cotton Mather and Ezekiel Cheever, a clerk of the court, wrote an account of the Salem trials. The following excerpt shows a typical exchange, in this case between a magistrate (judge; here unnamed) and two accused witches, Susannah Martin and Mary Lacey.

Things to Remember While Reading Mather-Cheever Account of the Salem Trials:

  • Mather and Cheever supposedly provided a "report" on the Salem trials, yet Mather in particular was later faulted for fueling the witch-hunt mania. The account of the interrogation of Martin and Lacey is an example of how Mather and Cheever presented events from a biased point of view.
  • Susannah Martin was a sixty-seven-year-old widow who freely spoke her mind and denied all charges against her. Note that Mather and Cheever had already concluded Martin was a witch. They saw spectral (ghostly) evidence in her behavior: "The cast of Martin's eye struck people to the ground, whether they saw that cast or not." In other words, she had put a spell on the witnesses by giving them the "evil eye." Believers in the supernatural thought a witch was capable of inflicting harm with a single glance. In the interview with the magistrate Martin engaged in extensive word play, evading his questions and leaving his statements open to interpretation. Their exchange is a good example of the Puritan belief that witches could make evil spirits invade the body of a human being. For instance, the magistrate referred to "their Master" (the Devil), "Black Art" (witchcraft), and Martin's "Appearance" (the form she took as a witch). Martin was found guilty and later hanged.
  • Mather and Cheever also observed spectral evidence in Mary Lacey's actions. They wrote that she cast a spell on the maid, Mary Warren, and she "struck down with her eyes." Notice the contrast between Lacey's cooperative responses and Martin's unwillingness to admit any guilt. Lacey, who had been a witch for "Not above a week," readily confessed that she had committed all kinds of acts associated with witches—talking with the Devil (who appeared in the shape of a horse), "afflicting" other people with a spell, even riding on a stick or pole "above the trees." For her cooperation Lacey was found not guilty and spared from execution.

Mather-Cheever Account of the Salem Trials

Martin pleaded Not Guilty to theindictment of witchcraft brought in against her.

The evidence of many persons very sensibly and grievously bewitched was produced. They all complained of the prisoner as the person whom they believed at the cause of their miseries. And now, as well as in the other trials, there was an extraordinaryendeavor by witchcraft, with cruel and frequent fits, tohinder the poor sufferers from giving their complaints. The cast of Martin's eye struck people to the ground, whether they saw that cast or not.

These were among the passages between theMagistrates and the Accused:

MAGISTRATE: "Pray, what ails these people?"

MARTIN: "I don't know."

MAGISTRATE: "But what do you thinkails them?"


Indictment: Charge with a crime


Endeavor: Attempt; strive


Hinder: To obstruct or delay


Magistrates: An official entrusted with the administration of the laws


Ails: Feel ill

MARTIN: "I don't desire to spend my judgement upon it.

MAGISTRATE: "Don't you think they are bewitched?"

MARTIN: "No, I do not think they are."

MAGISTRATE: "Tell us your thoughts about them then."

MARTIN: "No, my thoughts are my own, when they are in; but when they are out they are another's. Their Master—"

MAGISTRATE: "Their Master? Who do you think is their Master?"

MARTIN: "If they be dealing in the Black Art, then you may know as well as I."

MAGISTRATE: "Well, what have you done towards this?"

MARTIN: "Nothing at all."

MAGISTRATE: "Why, 'tis you or your Appearance."

MARTIN: "I cannot help it."

MAGISTRATE: "Is it not your Master? How comes your Appearance to hurt these?

MARTIN: "How do I know? He that appeared in the shape of Samuel, a glorified Saint, may appear in anyone's shape."

It was noted that in her, as in others like her, that if theafflicted went to approach her, they were flung down to the ground. And, when she was asked the reason of it, she said, "I cannot tell. It may be the Devil bears me moremalice than another."

. . . Mary Lacey was brought in, and Mary Warren [went] in a violent fit.

MAGISTRATE: "You are here accused for practising witchcraft upon Goo Ballard; which way do you do it?"

LACEY: "I cannot tell. Where is my mother that made me a witch, and I knew it not?"

MAGISTRATE: "Can you look upon that maid, Mary Warren, and not hurt her? Look upon her in a friendly way."

She trying so to do, struck her down with her eyes.

MAGISTRATE: "Do you acknowledge now you are a witch?"

LACEY: "Yes."

MAGISTRATE: "How long have you been a witch?"

LACEY: "Not above a week."

MAGISTRATE: "Did the Devil appear to you?"


Afflict: To distress so severely as to cause persistent suffering or anguish


Malice: Desire to cause pain, injury, or distress to another

LACEY: "Yes."

MAGISTRATE: "In what shape?"

LACEY: "In the shape of a horse."

"A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning"

In 1692 Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663–1728) wrote an essay titled "A Brand Pluck'd out of the Burning," in which he described the possession of a young woman named Mercy Short. After taking her into his home Mather observed one of her fits and conversations with evil spirits:

Reader, If thou hadst a Desire to have seen a Picture of Hell, it was visible in the doleful [sad] Circumstances of Mercy Short! Here was one lying in Outer Darkness, haunted by the Divel [Devil] and his Angels, deprived of all common Comforts, tortured with most cruciating [excruciating; extremely painful] Fires. Wounded with a thousand Pains all over, and cured immediately, that the Pains of those Wounds might bee repeated.

Her Discourses [conversations] to Them [evil spirits] were some of the most Surprising Things imaginable, and incredibly beyond what might have been expected, from one of her small Education or Experience. In the Times of her Tortures, Little came from her, besides direful [desperate] Shrieks, which were indeed so frightful, as to make many people Quitt [leave] the Room. Only now and then any Expressions of marvellous Constancy [steadiness] would bee heard from her; [for instance] "Tho' you kill mee, I'll never do what you would have mee.—Do what you will, yett with the Help of Christ, I'l never touch your Book.—Do, Burn mee then, if you will; Better Burn here, then [than] Burn inHell." But when her Torturer went off, Then t'was that her senses being still detained in a Captivity to the Spectres [spirits], as the only object of them. Wee were Ear-witnesses to Disputacions [disputations; arguments] that amazed us. Indeed Wee could not hear what They said unto her; nor could shee herself hear them ordinarily without causing them to say over again: But Wee could Hear Her Answers, and from her Answers Wee could usually gather the Tenour [tenor; meaning] of Their Assaults.

Reprinted in: Burr, George Lincoln, ed. Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648–1706. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1946.

MAGISTRATE: "What did he say to you?"

LACEY: "He bid me not to be afraid of any thing, and he would bring me out; but he has proved a liar from the beginning."

MAGISTRATE: "Did he bid you worship him?"

LACEY: "Yes, he bid me also to afflict persons."

MAGISTRATE: "Who did the Devil bid you afflict?"

LACEY: "Timothy Swan. Richard Carrier comes often a-nights and has me to afflict persons."

MAGISTRATE: "Did you at any time ride upon a stick or pole?"

LACEY: "Yes."

MAGISTRATE: "How high?"

LACEY: "Sometimes above the trees."

Another participant in the Salem trials was Samuel Sewall (1652–1730), a prominent Boston businessman and judge, who was appointed to the panel of magistrates. He is best known today for his remarkable diary, which provides a vivid account of life in colonial New England, including the Salem trials. In the following entries from the diary, dated August and September 1692, Sewall commented on the executions of several people.

Things to Remember While Reading Diary Entries of Samuel Sewall:

  • Keep in mind that the witch trials were conducted by the elite Puritan ruling class, who were convinced that they were following the will of God. Sewall was a member of that group, as were Mather and Cheever, whom he mentioned in his diary. In fact, Mather and others met at Sewall's home to discuss "publishing some Trials of the Witches." Sewall's diary gives insight into the Puritans' actions—and perhaps their desperation—during the trials. For instance, on August 25 they held a fast (a day of going without food) to seek God's help in ending a drought (a prolonged period without rainfall) and other adverse events, which they possibly associated with witchcraft.
  • • The Puritans were determined to obtain confessions from suspected witches, but they were also anxious to justify their decisions. For instance, interrogators piled stones on Giles Corey for two days until he died because he would not admit to the charges against him. Sewall apparently needed to defend this act because he noted that Corey himself had crushed someone to death eighteen years earlier. As proof against Corey he cites the report that Corey's "spectre" (spirit) appeared to Anne Putnam the night before the execution and told her he had killed the man. Sewall took comfort in Mather's view that "they [several convicted witches] all died by a righteous sentence." Sewall noted that some people thought Mr. Burrough (one of the executed men) was innocent, but he dismissed them as merely "unthinking persons." In the brief but dramatic description of the reprieve (postponement of punishment) of Dorcas Hoar, Sewall indicated that the Puritans would call off an execution if a person confessed. Note, too, that Sewall mentioned Richard Carrier, whom Mary Lacey (in the Mather-Cheever document above) singled out as one who told her to "afflict persons."

Diary Entries of Samuel Sewall

April 11, 1692. Went to Salem, where, in the meeting-house, the persons accused of witchcraft were examined; was a very great assembly; 'twas awful to see how theafflicted persons were agitated. Mr. Noyes pray'd at the beginning, and Mr. Higginson concluded.

August 19, 1692. This day George Burrough, John Willard, John Proctor, Martha Carrier and George Jacobs wereexecuted at Salem, a very great number of spectators being present. Mr. Cotton Mather was there, Mr. Sims, Hale, Noyes, Chiever, &c. All of them said they were innocent, Carrier and all. Mr. Mather says they all died by a righteous sentence. Mr. Burrough by his speech, prayer,protestation of his innocence, did much move unthinking persons, which occasions their speaking hardly concerning his being executed.

August 25.Fast at the old [First] Church, respecting the witchcraft,drought, &c.


Afflicted: To distress so severely as to cause persistent suffering or anguish


Executed: To put to death in compliance with a legal sentence


Protestation: A solemn declaration


Fast: Going without eating food


Drought: A long period with no rain

Monday, September 19, 1692. About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press'd to death for standing mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.

September 20. Now I hear from Salem that about 18 years ago, he [Giles Corey] was suspected to have stamp'd and press'd a man to death, but was cleared. 'Twas not remembered till Anne Putnam was told of it by said Corey'sspectre the sabbath-day night before execution.

September 21. A petition is sent to town in behalf of Dorcas Hoar, who now confesses: accordingly an order is sent to the sheriff toforbear her execution, notwithstanding her being in thewarrant to die tomorrow. This is the first condemned person who has confess'd.

"the blame and shame of it"

Samuel Sewall regretted his participation as a judge in the Salem witch trials of 1692–93. On January 14, 1697—a special day of atonement set aside by the Massachusetts legislature—Sewall stood and faced the congregation in the Old South Church at Boston. The Reverend Samuel Willard then read aloud this statement Sewall had written:

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated [repeated] strokes of God upon himself and his family; and being sensible, that as to the guilt contracted, upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminator [the court that conducted the witchcraft trials] at Salem (to which the order for this day relates), he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all his other sins; personal and relative: And according to his infinite benignity [kindness], and sovereignty [supreme power], not visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the land: But that He [God] would powerfully defend him against all temptations to sin, for the future; and vouchsafe [to grant as a special favor] him the efficacious [having the power to produce a desired effect], saving conduct of his word and spirit.

Reprinted in: Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 246–47.


Spectre: Spirit; ghost


Forbear: To hold back or abstain


Warrant: Judicial order


Esqr.: Esquire; used as a title of courtesy

Thursday, September 22, 1692. William Stoughton,Esqr., John Hathorne, Esqr., Mr. Cotton Mather, and Capt. John Higginson, with my Brother . . . were at our house, speaking about publishing some Trials of the Witches.

What happened next . . .

The Salem witch trials resulted in hundreds of accusations, more than one hundred guilty verdicts, and the executions of twenty persons, mostly women. Nineteen people were hanged for refusing to give confessions, four died in prison, and as Sewall noted, one man was crushed to death with stones during questioning. Within a year Puritan ministers were expressing grave doubts about the trials. Foremost among them was Increase Mather, who wrote Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693), in which he attacked the use of spectral evidence. Cotton Mather also changed his mind, eventually supporting his father's view that the witch hunts had been unjustified. By 1697 Massachusetts officials concluded that the trials had been a terrible mistake. The governor pardoned all condemned prisoners, and the legislature designated January 14 as a special day of atonement (expression of regret and request for forgiveness). Sewall, too, had begun to regret the role he played in the tragedy, and he wrote an admission of error and guilt. On January 14 he stood in front of the congregation in the Old South Church at Boston as the Reverend Samuel Willard read the statement aloud.

Did you know . . .

  • Historians suggest that the Salem witch hysteria was unleashed because the Puritans were afraid their way of life was coming to an end. In the late 1680s the Massachusetts Bay Colony lost its charter (a grant or guarantee of rights, franchises, or privileges from the sovereign power of a state or country), which had allowed the Puritans to wield absolute power through self-government. The new charter of 1691 brought the colony under the control of the English Crown (royal government). It required Puritans to share votes and public offices with Anglicans (members of the Church of England). Since Puritans genuinely believed that good and evil spirits fought for human souls, they thought witches were moving among them and causing evil events such as loss of the charter.
  • Scholars have analyzed the Salem community for patterns of witchcraft accusations. They found that the majority of accusers came from rural Salem Village, and a third of the accusations originated from members of the Putnam family. Suspected witches were generally prosperous older women who were unmarried and childless and lived in Salem Town, the commercial center of the area. Many of the young girls who made accusations had lost a parent in Native American raids and worked as servants around Salem.
  • Sewall mentioned the names of many men who were executed. Among them was John Proctor, who is a main character in The Crucible, a drama about the Salem witch trials by modern playwright Arthur Miller (1915–). Miller based other characters on actual people involved in the trials, including Tituba and Elizabeth Parris.
  • Superstitions about evil spirits did not disappear in the American colonies after the miscarriage of justice at Salem. Accusations of witchcraft continued to surface until the early eighteenth century.
  • Astrology was the most popular method of predicting the future among Europeans in the American colonies. Astrology is based on the belief that the Earth is a microcosm (miniature replica) of the heavens and that the motions of the stars affect all aspects of human life. Individual horoscopes were cast to determine the ideal time to get married, plant crops, embark on sea voyages, conceive children, or administer medical cures. Christian mystics (believers in the supernatural), who considered humans to be part of the spiritual world, used astrology as part of their religious systems. One of these groups was the Rosicrucians, a hermit community led by Johannes Kelpius, who migrated from Germany in 1694. They occupied caves along the Wissahickon Creek outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and regularly relied on astrology to order their lives.

For more information

Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 39–41.

Demos, John P. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early NewEngland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gunn, Giles, ed. Early American Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, pp. 246–47.

Kent, Deborah. Salem Massachusetts. New York: Dillon Press, 1996.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 169–74.

Rice, Earle. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1997.

Salem Witchcraft Hysteria. Available September 30, 1999.

Susanna North Martin. Available September 30, 1999.

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Mather, Cotton, Cheever, Ezekiel, and Sewall, Samuel

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