Witchcraft 1687: The Deposition of
Thomas Knowlton against Rachel Clinton
Reprinted in Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and
the Culture of Early New England in 1982
By John Putnam Demos
Long before the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692–93, Puritans had been blaming witches for problems—economic hardship, epidemic illnesses, political conflict, and social unrest. In fact, during the second half of the seventeenth century charges of witchcraft became rampant in New England communities. Usually, but not always, women were the targets of the charges, and frequently these women lived alone either because they were unmarried, had been widowed, or had been deserted by their husbands. Some had been prosperous citizens who fell on hard times and thus became outsiders. One such woman was Rachel Clinton (see biography entry) of Ipswich, Massachusetts, who was accused of witchcraft in the mid-1680s, around the time prominent Boston Minister Increase Mather's Remarkable Providences (see primary source entry) added fuel to the witch-hunt frenzy.
Clinton moved to Ipswich from England with her parents, Richard and Martha Haffield, in 1635. Richard had five daughters, two from a previous marriage and three with Martha. (Rachel therefore had two half-sisters and two sisters of full relation.) The Haffields lived as prosperous members of the community until Richard died in 1639. He left a will that was intended to prevent any conflicts over the estate, giving all the children equal amounts of his property. Nevetheless, there was a continued battle over the settlement and by 1665, when all of Rachel's sisters were married, Rachel and her mother were living together in a small cottage. As a result of unusual behavior, Martha Haffield was certified as insane and unable to care for herself financially. The local court put Thomas White, the husband of Rachel's sister Ruth, in charge of the estate.
Around 1666 Rachel married Lawrence Clinton, an indentured servant who had several years left on his contract. An indentured servant was an immigrant who had signed a contract to work for an employer for a specified number of years in exchange for free passage to America. The servant did not have to serve the remainder of his or her time if someone compensated the employer for his loss of the servant. Rachel therefore used money from her inheritance to pay Lawrence's employer. White felt Rachel did not have the right to the family's money, however, so he decided to take her to court. After years of legal battles, Rachel lost not only her house and money but also good relations with her family. She also lost her husband, whom she divorced after a series of domestic problems, and by 1681 she was alone. The once wealthy and respectable Clinton was now relying on public support. For years she felt betrayed by the town and her family, who had watched her lose everything. Then, in 1687, she was charged with being a witch.
Sometime in 1687 Ipswich residents were invited to give sworn court testimony against Clinton. According to their complaints, people fell dead when she walked past them, and she frequently turned into a dog, cat, or turtle in order to cast spells on upstanding members of the community. (A popular superstition was that a witch could inhabit the body of an animal and work evil spells in the form of that animal; this was called becoming a "familiar.") The following deposition, given by a man named Thomas Knowlton, describes Clinton going to a household and asking for food and drink. When her request was refused, she reacted violently. In response, several townspeople claimed they suffered pains and ailments caused by her witchcraft. Clinton was then arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned as a witch.
Things to remember while reading The Deposition of Thomas Knowlton:
- At this time in history it was very difficult for women to own property. It had to be left to them by their husbands when they died, and even then the government often found ways of taking the property away and giving it to some male relative.
- For women of this time, it was often the case that one would be declared incompetent (unable to manage your own life or take care of yourself) or insane for something as simple as speaking boldly in public or disagreeing publicly with your husband.
From The deposition of Thomas Knowlton
Thedeposition of Thomas Knowlton, aged 40 years, sayeth that about three weeks ago [when] Mr. John Rogers and his wife were gone to Boston . . . Rachel, the wife of Lawrence Clinton, that is now suspected to be a witch, went to Mr. Rogers' house, and told Mr. Rogers' maid that she might have some meat and some milk. And the [maid] said Rachel went into several rooms of the said house . . . And when she saw me come in, she, the said Rachel, went away, scolding and railing, calling me . . . "hellhound " and "whoremasterly rogue, " and said I waslimb of the devil . And she said she had rather see the devil than see me . . . (Samuel Ayers and Thomas Smith, tailor, can testify to the same language that Rachel used or called the said Knowlton.) And after this the said Rachel took up a stone and threw it toward me, and it fell short three or four yards off from me . . . and so came rolling to me, and just touched the toe of my shoe. And presently my was in a rage, as if the nail were held up by a pair ofpincers. . . . And further the said Thomas Knowlton testified and saith that about three months ago my daughter Mary did wake and cried out in a dreadful manner that she was pricked of her side with pins, as she thought. Being asked who pricked her, she said she could not tell. And when she was out of her fits, I . . . asked whether she gave Rachel any pins, she said she gave Rachel about seven. After this she had one more fit of being pricked.
deposition: a testimony taken under oath that is written down as an official record
hellhound: a mythical creature believed to guard the gates of hell
whoremasterly rogue: expression used to describe a person of lose moral character who will do anything for money
limb of the devil: expression used to accuse someone of being in partnership with the devil
What happened next . . .
Although Clinton was jailed for being a witch, Massachusetts Governor William Phipps put a stop to all witchcraft trials and executions before her sentence was carried out. She finally obtained her freedom in 1693 when the governor granted a general reprieve to prisoners being held as accused or convicted witches (see Chapter 4).
Did you know . . .
- The "afflicted girls" (Susannah Sheldon, Elizabeth Booth, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Warren, Mary Walcott, Sarah Churchill, Mercy Lewis, and Ann Putnam, Jr. [see biography and primary source entries] ) who had accused and sent to death dozens of innocent people went so far as to accuse Lady Phipps (wife of Governor Phipps) of being a witch. One week later Governor Phipps halted all witchcraft hearings.
For Further Study
Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.
Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into theSalem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.