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Witch-Hunts in Puritan New England

Witch-Hunts in Puritan New England

The witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 and 1693 are remembered today as a tragic chapter in American history. The trials are generally considered to be a unique and isolated flare-up of European superstitions that had been brought to America by a few settlers. Yet a closer look at this era reveals that, from the very beginning, fear of witchcraft was a basic part of New England society and served many complex functions. Although belief in witchcraft was prevalent throughout the American colonies, formal trials and executions occurred only in the Puritan communities of New England, the northeastern part of the present-day United States. The reason was that the Puritans had a unique sense of their mission in America. They were originally members of Protestant groups in England that opposed practices of the Church of England under King James I (1566–1625). (Protestants belong to a religious group that was formed in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1500s. Although the Church of England is a Protestant denomination [sect], many aspects of the doctrines [laws and teachings] and worship services are based on Roman Catholicism.) The Puritans condemned the use of religious icons (images such as pictures and statues), written prayers, instrumental music, and other elements in worship services. Thus they had a reputation as troublesome and overly pious (religiously devout) people.

The Puritans' protests angered James I and his successor Charles I (1600–1649), both of whom forced them to leave England. After living in other European countries such as the Netherlands (Holland), the Puritans began arriving in New England in 1620. At that time Puritans calling themselves the Pilgrims founded the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts with hopes of establishing their vision of God's Kingdom on Earth. Nine years later another group of Puritans was given a charter (government deed) for starting the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony. All the Puritans had intense faith in themselves as God's "chosen people." They also brought European superstitions regarding witchcraft and the inferiority of women, which became crucial factors in the "witch" persecutions of the late seventeenth century.

Words to Know

eccentric:
odd or unique way of acting
epidemic:
severe outbreak, usually of disease
gallows:
a raised stand where hangings occurred
magistrate:
an official of the courts
malevolent:
evil
notorious:
well-known for something bad
pact:
a verbal or written agreement
phenomenon:
unusual event
psychoanalyst:
person who studies human minds
spiteful:
being mean simply for the sake of being mean
sterility:
inability to have children
testimonial:
sworn statement

The devil among them

Since the Puritans saw themselves as God's chosen people, they believed they had been sent to the New World (the European term for North and South America) to wage a battle against the agents of the devil (the Christian term for the source of all evil). Consequently, they considered Native Americans, European settlers of different faiths, and the unpredictable forces of nature to be forms of the devil himself—and therefore direct challenges to the will of God. As soldiers in the war between good and evil, the Puritans established a highly structured society with rigid laws and rules based on the Christian holy book, the Bible. They viewed any sinful act as treason against the entire community and an invitation to the devil. To avoid transgression (an act in violation of a law), the church tightly controlled every aspect of daily life. They prohibited any activities that opened the doors to sin, such as games, dancing, frequent bathing, physical recreation, and social gatherings outside of church. Anyone who deviated from the rules immediately aroused suspicion. Puritans were also disturbed by any signs of difference, which they interpreted as the presence of evil in their midst. For instance, they thought crippled, aged, poor, eccentric, deformed, and sickly people were possibly the offspring of Satan.

Puritan laws gave women as little freedom and power as possible. For example, a widow who tried to keep her dead husband's estate rather than pass it on to her sons was in danger of losing everything in court. A woman adulteress could be put to death for her crime. Puritans believed that women could gain access to power only through communion with the devil. For this reason strong-willed, independent, and unmarried women were most frequently targeted as witches. Many women became suspects simply because they were not part of the mainstream community.

The Fate of the Daughters of Eve

Women led difficult lives through out the American colonies, but the status of women was particularly low in New England Puritan communities. Puritan ministers used the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman God created, to show that women had inherited Eve's original sin—she was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge—and could not be trusted. Puritans thought that women were the source of all problems on Earth, and that only men were capable of solving these problems. Yet entrance into heaven was predetermined by God for only a select few men, who would find out they were chosen after they died. While they were on Earth, however, they called themselves the "elect," or the Saints. The elect were at the center of Puritan religious and social life, and they were the only people permitted to join the church, become freemen (citizens), or vote. This did not mean that women did not have to go to church. In fact, church attendance was mandatory for everyone, and skipping worship services was a punishable crime. Women were therefore silent observers, often listening to sermons on the most popular topic of the day: women's inferiority as the result of Eve's sin.

The devil's favorite challenge

New England ministers preached that the devil had singled out Puritans for special challenges because they were the most dedicated opponents of evil on Earth. Furthermore, they believed that witches were human manifestations (embodiments) of the devil, and that the devil's favorite way of testing Puritans was to place witches in the heart of their communities. Cotton Mather (see biography and primary sources entries), the prominent Massachusetts Bay minister, expressed the typical view in Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), his famous book on "proofs" of witchcraft: "If any are scandalized that New England, a place of as serious piety as any I can hear of under Heaven should be troubled so much with witches, I think 'tis no wonder: where will the Devil show the most malice but where he is hated, and hateth, most?" As life in the New World became increasingly difficult, the Puritans began blaming witches for all of their problems—economic hardship, epidemic illnesses, political conflict, and social unrest. Eventually they decided that eliminating witches was the only way to achieve victory over the devil. As John Putnam Demos notes in Entertaining Satan, a history of the witchcraft trials: "Witches could be blamed for a good deal of trouble and difficulty. In this respect the belief in witchcraft was very useful indeed. To discover an unseen hand at work in one_s life was to dispel mystery, to explain misfortune, and to excuse incompetence." During the second half of the seventeenth century charges of witchcraft became rampant in Puritan communities.

The first witch trials in the New World

Unity against adversity

Modern historians have noted a repeated pattern throughout New England in the early 1600s: community conflict or stress had a direct relationship to accusations of witchcraft. In the first half of the century, Puritans worked hard to establish settlements under extremely adverse conditions in the wilderness of New England. The challenges of daily existence forced them to cooperate with one another. Yet at the same time they were exposed to constant tension and fear, which caused them to lash out at their neighbors. Internal squabbling, particularly about matters of faith and worship, split many Puritans into ever smaller and more remote communities with their own concepts about carrying out the true mission of God. These small settlements were even more vulnerable to the untamed wilderness, so they were focused on cooperating simply to survive. Settlers in remote Puritan outposts could not risk further division by blaming members of their own community for doing "the devil's work." This is the main reason no witch trials occurred for nearly half a century.

Generally, one or two decades passed before people felt comfortable enough to confront tensions within their communities. They remained united against such outside threats as the hostile climate, attacks from Native Americans, and epidemic diseases. But as time went on, these events created great fear and suspicion within the remote settlements. Increasingly, the Puritans began to question who among them might be the devil in disguise. Any conflict carried with it the suggestion that some local person was in a pact with the devil and was ultimately responsible for the community's problems. According to the Puritan view of the world, upright Christians had to find ways to eliminate these demonic forces in order to establish the Kingdom of God. As both a sin against God and a crime against the community, witchcraft was therefore punishable by death.

The trials begin

Records of seventeenth-century witch trials are varied in length and detail. All cases that reached the local court systems were documented, while other cases have disappeared into the abyss of forgotten history. Nevertheless, modern historians have been able to gather enough information to reconstruct a fairly accurate picture of the proceedings. In the mid 1600s, prior to the Salem trials, there were ninety-three cases of formal accusations of witchcraft—fifty in Massachusetts and forty-three in Connecticut. A total of sixteen people were put to death, while others were either acquitted (freed from charges) or escaped before they could be executed.

Trials typically started when local authorities received a simple complaint from a "victim" of witchcraft against a suspected "witch." Complaints might range from being bothered by an apparition (spirit or ghost), to falling ill, losing crops, witnessing an act by a malevolent (evil) "spirit," or any number of other disruptions. The suspect would immediately be jailed, then specially appointed officials would begin gathering evidence from townspeople, and sometimes even from the suspect's former neighbors in another village. Usually the officials turned over the evidence to higher courts for hearings. Indictments (pronounced in-DITE-ments; formal accusations) were made by a grand jury, while the verdict (final judgment) was the responsibility of a special trial jury. Final sentencing was determined by court magistrates (civil officers with the power to administer law). Apparently many juries were reluctant to bring convictions, so accused witches were often allowed to provide character witnesses to give positive reports on the person's behavior to aid in their defense. Records also indicate that relatively little torture was used to obtain information from the accused—although it is impossible to know for sure what happened behind locked doors.

There were three typical outcomes to a witch trial: the accused was acquitted (declared innocent) and returned to "normal life" within the community; fled to a different region; or was convicted and executed. Records show that most often people were acquitted of the charges against them. Some lost everything they owned, however, simply because an accusing finger had been pointed at them. Although no general profile fits all cases, an accused witch was usually a middle-aged female living on her own with few or no children. Often the targeted woman was known for her rebellious or disruptive behavior, or she had a reputation as a troublemaker because she went against the grain of the community by, for example, refusing to attend church. Many accused persons were also involved with medicine and the healing arts in some capacity, a position considered fearsome and powerful during these times. A minor record for slander (damaging a person's reputation by making false charges) or petty (minor) theft also helped accusers build a case against a suspect. Not surprisingly, only about 20 percent of accused witches were male, and most of them were considered guilty simply because of their association with suspected witches who were women.

Stories and case studies

The picture of witchcraft in the colonial period is as complex and varied as the imaginations of the people who lived during that time. Witchcraft was a real and frightening force to the colonists, partly because people believed in its power to harm them and also because it served as a binding force in troubled communities. Case studies and historical data help tell the stories of the victims of these fears. Some stories reveal injustice and prejudice, and others indicate that some people actually believed they were practicing witchcraft. Evidence shows that victims of "witchcraft" were mysteriously changed in inexplicable (unexplainable) physical and psychological (mental) ways. Many communities were quick to judge and try their own people, while others remained skeptical and cautious about falsely accusing innocent people.

The first witch in the New World

The first recorded witch trial in New England resulted in the hanging death of Alse Young in 1647 in Wethersfield, the oldest Puritan settlement in Connecticut. Historians know nothing of the accusations that sent Young to the gallows. Records show, however, that Wethersfield inhabitants had experienced much turmoil in the preceding decade, and at the time Young was executed the community had been struck by a massive, deadly flu and smallpox epidemic. Within a year Mary Johnson of the same town was also hanged as a witch upon her own confession that she had a relationship with the Devil. Johnson was a young, lower-class maidservant who claimed the devil had promised her power and relief from unhappiness if she made a pact with him. It is not known whether she was forced to make this confession to the authorities or she was emotionally unstable, but certainly her case opened a doorway to other trials.

Hard times bring a flurry of trials

In 1648 Margaret Jones was tried and hanged in Charlestown, a village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The detailed journals of Governor John Winthrop (1588–1649), which describe the trial and the accusations that led up to it, provide a glimpse into the prevailing superstitions of the day. Jones was an elderly healer and midwife (who assisted in the birthing of babies) in Charlestown. She lived alone and survived on her trade, but she had a history of theft that tainted her reputation and made her a suspect. Her ability to heal was also considered evidence against her, regardless of the outcome of her actions. Patients claimed to fall into violent fits of illness after Jones treated them, and some even became temporarily deaf or blind. Others were miraculously healed, but they charged that her knowledge was supernatural and therefore suspicious. In other words, Jones was doomed by any action she took as a healer, whether she cured or injured her patients, because she was suspected of working for the devil. She was imprisoned and brought to trial as a witch, but she confessed only to committing an act of theft several years earlier. She steadfastly protested accusations of witchcraft. When Puritan authorities examined her body they found a "witch's teat" (an extra nipple). While Jones was being held in jail, witnesses came forward and testified that she had caused the deaths of many local children and that she was often seen with a child spirit that she nursed with her extra teat. This was considered sufficient evidence, and Jones was hanged as a witch.

Anne Hibbens (also spelled Hibbins) of Boston, Massachusetts, was another unfortunate victim of slander and suspicion. Hibbens, the reputedly quarrelsome sister of Governor Bellingham, was widowed in 1654. Thus she was left without the protection of marriage and her former social status. Hibbens was always considered to be cranky and outspoken, but after her husband's death she was directly accused of witchcraft by two women who were her neighbors. The women claimed that while they were talking about Hibbens one day, she came along and confronted them. They testified in court that she had perfectly reconstructed their conversation and then walked away, uttering curses at them. Both women said they suffered minor misfortunes as a result of her curses. Hibbens's case was initially refused by court magistrates, who felt there was not enough evidence to convict her. Nevertheless, other villagers came forward to insist on her guilt, taking the case to the General Court. Hibbens was finally found guilty and executed by hanging in 1656. Even her contemporaries were slightly shocked by the severity of the trial. For instance, the case was later openly condemned by John Norton, a Boston minister, who reportedly said that Hibbens was hanged just for being smarter than her neighbors.

Some cases occurred spontaneously when people suddenly underwent sudden changes in behavior. For example, in 1671 Elizabeth Knapp of Groton, Massachusetts, began experiencing strange symptoms while sitting by her fire one quiet evening. She reported that her throat was closing up and that her breasts, legs, and arms were being pinched hard by invisible forces. She then went into violent convulsions (spasms), leapings, and other strange agitations that came and went for several months. Detailed records of Knapp's case note that during these fits her tongue would be drawn into a semicircle at the roof of her mouth. Often her tongue could not be budged, while other times it would become very long and stiff and protrude from her mouth. Knapp also had hallucinations (imagined visions) about demons, dogs, and witches torturing her and attempting to lead her into satanic activities. While under the influence of these demons, she would speak in strange voices and accuse local people of witchcraft, picking specific individuals out of a crowd with her eyes closed. Yet the Groton community responded to Knapp with surprising restraint. Not a single person—including Knapp—was brought to trial or put to death. Groton residents believed that perhaps the devil was trying to create strife and break down their community by tricking people into turning on each other. This showed that people were not always ready to surrender to fear and hurl accusations, despite their strong belief that evil was operating among them.

Possession and Hysterics: Modern Psychological Interpretations

Modern psychoanalysts who study abnormal mental conditions have proven that many of the symptoms shown by victims of "witchcraft" can be observed in individuals experiencing severe hysteria, a classified psychological disorder. The sensation of one's throat closing up, for example, is today known as Bolus Hystericus, a common symptom in panic attacks and more advanced stages of hysteria. The disorder makes people feel like they can no longer breathe because of a ball in the throat or "invisible hands" around the neck. Modern psychoanalysts have seen hundreds of patients who have the sensation of being pinched, lapse into convulsive fits, and experience protracted stiffness of the tongue during seizures. Jean Martin Charcot (1825–1893), the nineteenth-century French neurologist, recorded symptoms that exactly match those experienced by victims of "witchcraft." It is especially typical for a hysterical patient to have hallucinations of being persecuted by figures that represent the most dreaded fears. An hysterical patient also becomes paranoid (suspicious) and acts out strong resistance to such encounters. Also common are vivid, imaginary sexual experiences. Victims of hysteria lapse into an extreme psychological state in order to express the dark corners of the psyche.

Psychoanalysts have noted that hysterical fits occur most often in cultures in which people accept these acts as manifestations (displays) of supernatural forces. In seventeenth-century New England fits were a natural extension of the intense fear of evil and God within the extremely strict Puritan society. In other words, by accepting this behavior as real, people were able to explain and deal with one of the most fearsome elements of their culture.

Children possessed by demons

Another case of disturbing psychological symptoms involved four children—three girls and a boy—of John Goodwin, a pious and respected resident of Boston, in 1688. They captured the attention of the minister Cotton Mather, who kept detailed records of his examinations and observations in The Wonders of the Invisible World (see the primary sources entry). All four children experienced epileptic fits and convulsions during which they apparently saw demons, rode on horseback, spoke in strange languages, lost the capacity to see or hear, and lashed out at invisible enemies. These activities began when one child got into an argument with Goodwife Glover, their housekeeper, who was immediately suspected of witchcraft. ("Goodwife" was the title Puritans gave to married women.) An interesting aspect of this case is that Glover openly confessed to being a witch and "proved" her own guilt by showing witnesses a collection of fetish dolls she had made. These dolls were small rag puppets stuffed with goat hair (associated with the devil since medieval times) and other significant ingredients. Records show that Glover would utter curses at her victims while rubbing spittle, which was thought to contain magical properties, onto the fetish dolls. When she was brought to court for trial she stroked several of her dolls, causing epileptic seizures and fits in all four children. Upon being asked to provide character witnesses in her own defense, Glover responded that Satan would be her only witness. She was given an immediate death sentence. On the way to the gallows Glover privately told Mather the names of several other "witches." Mather declined to reveal their identities, however, because he felt Glover may have made false accusations in an effort to destroy the community.

After Glover's execution the Goodwin children continued to have fits and seizures, prompting further inquiry into the source of their suffering. Mather decided to take the eldest daughter into his home for several months of observation and prayer. As usual, he kept detailed records of her symptoms. According to his notes, when the girl had fits her belly literally swelled up like a drum. During a fit she also acted like she was conversing with demons while riding on a wildly galloping horse. Even when she was in a quiet state she was unable to utter certain words like "God" and "Jesus" while praying. (This symptom has since been found in studies of hysterical patients.) Eventually all four children were "prayed" out of their fits and they lived to ripe old ages, never once discrediting their experiences. Mather, for his part, regarded the Goodwin case as proof of witchcraft in the colonies and used it to warn other communities. Although he told people to remain skeptical of accusations, he simply succeeded in spreading belief in witchcraft. Many people were acquitted in court because communities feared they were being tricked by the devil into killing innocent people. Yet cases like the Goodwin children's "bewitchment" only served as fuel for the fire.

Katherine Harrison: The Typical Witch

Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield, Connecticut, was a healer who was widowed in 1666. A capable healer, she had a reputation for incredible physical strength, had inherited a fortune, and never went to church. All these factors made her a prime candidate for suspicion of witchcraft. Like many New England communities, Wethersfield had experienced intense stress and conflict. Between 1665 and 1667 the town was struck by a devastating smallpox epidemic, massive drought, blight, a ruined crop season, economic setbacks, conflicts with Quakers (people who follow the religion Society of Friends), and skirmishes with Native Americans. Not surprisingly, Harrison was accused of being a witch shortly after these events had come to an end. Her case was typical in that many people testified against her, including members of a community where she had lived previously. Most of the testimonials revealed that she caused severe illnesses and deaths and frightened people by appearing in different shapes and forms. Brought to trial in 1668, Harrison was acquitted (freed of the charges) in court the following year. Nevertheless, she was forced to leave Wethersfield, and her reputation followed her when she moved to Westchester, New York. Fearing her powers, villagers demanded that she leave. She went to the local courts to argue for her right to live in Westchester and won.

Bad weather, locusts, and witches

Historians have studied other events that took place in New England during the 1600s and have found remarkable ties between community stress and accusations of witchcraft. During times of social unrest or tension or during natural disasters there were no cases of witchcraft. Immediately after the conflict or disaster had ended, however, the number of accusations rose. Because the Puritans shunned scientific interpretation of natural events (relying on the Bible instead), they had no way to explain what was happening to and around them. Three types of events in particular led directly to witch trials: epidemics, natural disasters, and extreme weather. Settlers faced enormous problems with epidemics: influenza, small-pox, measles, and dysentery produced massive fatality rates. The same was true of natural disasters, which took the settlers by surprise as they tried to adapt to a new environment. They were almost totally dependent on favorable weather for survival, so drought, flooding, hurricanes, or hard winters could destroy entire communities. These phenomena are listed in diaries and other records, again showing a link between natural disasters and accusations of witchcraft.

A community that happened to survive a harsh winter or an epidemic still had to contend with other dangers. Blight and pestilence (crop diseases, fungus, and insects) were a major challenge to good harvests. In 1663, for instance, an enormous blight epidemic started in Massachusetts and spread throughout the Northeast. In addition to destroying an entire season of wheat, it terrified the settlers. Caterpillars and tiny crop-eating flies also caused significant damage, wiping out whole orchards and entire fields of barley, oats, and corn. In this era fires could be especially devastating, leveling neighborhoods within days and setting back years of hard work. Boston seems to have been especially vulnerable, with at least five major fires breaking out between 1643 and 1692 and destroying more than half of the city each time. The Puritans interpreted all these events as punishment for sin or as a challenge from the devil.

Puritans were frightened by other natural events, which they read as further signs of evil. They linked comets, eclipses, auroras (streamers of light in the sky), and earthquakes with ruined crops or the death of a local leader. Even rainbows were viewed as God shooting at somebody. Community members were often blamed for such occurrences and charged with witchcraft. If a person died after an eclipse, for example, the Puritans believed that someone was exerting a supernatural evil force. In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, had just recovered from war, epidemic, and political upheaval. Thus the community was ripe for a massive explosion of hysteria, panic, and accusation.

For Further Study

Demos, John Putnam. Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of EarlyNew England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Elliot, Emory, ed. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology, Volume 1. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Stern, Wendy. Witches: Opposing viewpoints. San Diego, California: Green-haven Press, 1995.

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