Civil servant, merchant, and writer
Robert Calef's most significant contribution to American history was criticism of various aspects of the Salem witch trials of 1692–93. Through the written and spoken word he provided one of the few voices of dissent (disagreement) during a turbulent time. Some historians credit him with ending the trials, while others believe he exploited aspects of the events for his own benefit.
Collects evidence against trial officials
Robert Calef was born in England and arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1688 when he was about forty-eight years old. In Boston he held various jobs, such as cloth merchant, constable, tax collector, and assessor. Known around the city as a witty man, Calef frequently engaged in lively discussions at coffee houses. He had a wide circle of influential friends and was respected for his intelligence. It is not known whether he was married or had children, as most existing records document only his writing and public life. Until his death in 1719 he was an active, respected member of the Municipal Board (a city governing agency).
Shortly before the end of the Salem trials in 1693, Calef began collecting letters and testimony from people who had been involved in or were affected by the proceedings. Having watched events from a distance, he stepped closer to examine specific details and wrote at length about his impressions. His accounts give modern historians a different point of view on the trials because he was not afraid to speak his mind. Although he was considered a pious (very religious) Puritan (a strict branch of Christianity), he was determined to tell the truth about the injustices committed in the name of Christianity.
Calef was most critical of the use of spectral evidence as the primary means of determining the guilt of accused witches. Through spectral evidence, an accuser could claim he or she saw the accused's spirit committing an evil deed. Attacking the courts for permitting such unprovable evidence in the trials, Calef suggested that the officials themselves had been tricked by the devil. He felt that the devil, as the "father of lies," had effectively turned New Englanders against one another by using illusion and fear as his primary agents and thus destroying communities from within. At this time few people except the accused witches and their loved ones were speaking out against the trials, so Calef's allegations were controversial and upsetting.
Calef and the Mathers
On September 13, 1696, three years after the trials had ended, Calef was alerted to another possible witch-hunt. Thomas Brattle, a local merchant and critic of the Salem trials, informed him that Boston minister Cotton Mather (see biography and primary source entries) was once again "curing witches." Mather had taken a young girl named Margaret Rule into his home in an attempt to treat her for possession by evil spirits. At the time of the witch trials, Mather was widely known for his attempts to cure "bewitched" (cast under a spell) women through months of fasting (eating little or no food) and prayer, keeping detailed written records for future reference. He had supposedly rid quite a few women of evil spirits prior to treating Rule.
Margaret Rule "Bewitches" the Mathers
Margaret Rule's stay in Cotton Mather's home in 1696, three years after the Salem witch trials ended, attracted considerable attention due to the wild nature of her "possession." She frequently entered into violent fits similar to those the afflicted teenage girls had experienced during the Salem trials (convulsions, feeling as though she were being pinched, etc.). The memory of this time was still fresh in the Massachusetts colony so Calef, fearing another witch-hunt, decided to witness Mather's methods himself. What he observed was not a person possessed by evil spirits but rather a young woman who craved the attention of men. She could be soothed in her fits only by the "laying on of hands." Only men, however, could calm Rule, who (according to Calef) implored Mather and his father Increase Mather to rub her face and naked belly. According to records cited in The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials, when a woman attempted to soothe her in the same manner she retorted, "Don't you meddle with me!" One evening Calef witnessed her telling all women to leave the room because she preferred the company of men. He also noted that Rule told Cotton Mather certain local women were witches, a matter he chose to keep secret.
Fearing that this young woman could cause another outbreak of witch-hunt hysteria, Calef felt the Mathers were encouraging her craving for male attention because they too were enjoying the experience. Calef kept the notes and letters he had written during this period, planning to publish them in a book as a preventive measure in stopping future false accusations. Ironically, just before Rule was "cured" she had one last episode, during which she named the demon who was afflicting her. Reportedly she named her haunter as none other than Cotton Mather himself.
"Another Brand Plucked From the Fire"
Calef's observations of events in the Mather home and his correspondences with Mather on the topic of witch curings would eventually turn into a major source of tension between the two men. Calef's critique of Mather culminated in More Wonders of the Invisible World or Another Brand Plucked From the Fire (1697; see primary source entry), which some scholars consider to be a valuable contribution to American history. Calef wrote the book in response to Mather's Wondersof the Invisible World (1693), in which Mather had defended the Salem trials. Calef's book is a voluminous collection of letters and testimony from judges and witnesses, as well apologies from jurors and others involved in the trials. Not only had Mather conveniently left these documents out of his book but, without Mather's permission, Calef also included incriminating letters written by Mather. The letters demonstrate Mather's defensiveness about his role in the trials and give vivid details about the case of Margaret Rule that hinted that her behavior was sexual in nature, rather than the evil affliction that she was believed to have had and for which she had been treated.
More Wonders of the Invisible World was not officially published until 1700, and then it was released in England. Nevertheless, copies of the book reached the colonies, causing a major blow to Mather's reputation. In 1700 Mather wrote in his diary:
Though I had often cried unto the Lord, that the cup of this man's [Calef's] abominable bundle of lies, written on purpose, with a quill under a special energy and management of Satan, to damnify my precious opportunities of glorifying my Lord Jesus Christ, might pass from me; yet, in this point the Lord had denied my request; the book is printed, and the impression is this week arrived here. (From Frances Hill, A Delusion of Satan)
Mather was so outraged that he had Calef arrested for libel (a printed statement that wrongly damages a person's reputuation), claiming he falsified supposed eyewitness accounts of what had transpired with Rule. The case never actually went to court, but Mather wrote Calef a series of desperate letters begging him to clear his name. He was particularly concerned about the passages that implied a sexual relationship between him and Rule, insisting he had never touched her. Calef gave in, admitting that when he wrote that Mather had "rubbed [Rule's] stomach, her breast not covered with the bedclothes," he had merely meant that her body was partially exposed. Yet it was still a damaging statement, and Calef's portrayal of the incident haunted Mather until his death.
Provides documentation of trials
Increase Mather, Cotton's father, collected copies of Calef's book and had them burned publicly in Harvard Square, the central courtyard at Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This act did not diminish the book's popularity, however, and Cotton Mather was immortalized as one of the main villains in the Salem trials. In an effort to defend Mather's reputation, several of his parishioners published a rebuttal to Calef's work titled Some Few Remarks upon a Scandalous Book (1701), but it failed to redeem Mather.
Calef enjoyed the notoriety he had gained from his book. It is likely that he exaggerated some facts to catch the attention of his readers and to cast doubt on the motivations of Puritan leaders in handling the witchcraft problem. Many modern historians insist that Mather actually played only a small role in the trials, and his crime was the same as that committed by most people at the time: he had surrendered to a genuine fear of evil. Yet he did not help his own situation because he showed no remorse for the deaths of the twenty innocent people executed for witchcraft.
In spite of possibly distorting the facts, Calef made a contribution to the historical documentation of the trials by collecting a wide array of letters and testimonials into one complete volume. The real target of his critique was not the Mathers but the very basis of the trials: the notion that the devil could possess people who would then torment others by appearing to them as specters. Calef was one of the few critics who dared to attack the widely held belief system around witchcraft and to ask people to question their own participation in the trials.
For Further Reading
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.
Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Kallen, Stuart A. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1999.
Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.
The Salem Witch Museum. [Online] http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/ (Accessed July 7, 2000).
Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.
Wilson, Lori Lee. The Salem Witch Trials. New York: Lerner, 1997.