John M. Taylor.

The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697) online

. (page 3 of 12)
Online LibraryJohn M. TaylorThe Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697) → online text (page 3 of 12)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

compacts." (_Among my Books - Witchcraft_, p. 142, LOWELL.)

"The tragedy was at an end. It lasted about six months, from the first
accusations in March until the last executions in September.... It was
an epidemic of mad superstitious fear, bitterly to be regretted, and a
stain upon the high civilization of the Bay Colony." (_Historic Towns of
New England, Salem_, p. 148, LATIMER.)

What was done at Salem, when the tempest of unreason broke loose? Who
were the chief actors in it? This was done. From the first accusation in
March, 1692, to the last execution in September, 1692, nineteen persons
were hanged and one man was pressed to death[D] (_no witch was ever
burned in New England_), hundreds of innocent men and women were
imprisoned, or fled into exile or hiding places, their homes were broken
up, their estates were ruined, and their families and friends were left
in sorrow, anxiety, and desolation; and all this terrorism was wrought
at the instance of the chief men in the communities, the magistrates,
and the ministers.

[Footnote D: Fifty-five persons suffered torture, and twenty were
executed before the delusion ended. _Ency. Americana_ (Vol. 16,

Upham in his _Salem Witchcraft_ (Vol. II. pp. 249-250) thus pictures
the situation.

"The prisons in Salem, Ipswich, Boston, and Cambridge, were crowded. All
the securities of society were dissolved. Every man's life was at the
mercy of every man. Fear sat on every countenance, terror and distress
were in all hearts, silence pervaded the streets; all who could, quit
the country; business was at a stand; a conviction sunk into the minds
of men, that a dark and infernal confederacy had got foot-hold in the
land, threatening to overthrow and extirpate religion and morality, and
establish the kingdom of the Prince of darkness in a country which had
been dedicated, by the prayers and tears and sufferings of its pious
fathers, to the Church of Christ and the service and worship of the true
God. The feeling, dismal and horrible indeed, became general, that the
providence of God was removed from them; that Satan was let loose, and
he and his confederates had free and unrestrained power to go to and
fro, torturing and destroying whomever he willed."

The trials were held by a Special Court, consisting of William
Stoughton, Peter Sergeant, Nath. Saltonstall, Wait Winthrop, Bartho'
Gedney, John Richards, Saml. Sewall, John Hathorne, Tho. Newton, and
Jonathan Corwin, - not one of them a lawyer.

Whatever his associates may have thought of their ways of doing God's
service, after the tragedy was over, Sewall, one of the most zealous of
the justices, made a public confession of his errors before the
congregation of the Old South Church, January 14, 1697. Were the
agonizing groans of poor old Giles Corey, pressed to death under planks
weighted with stones, or the prayers of the saintly Burroughs ringing in
his ears?

"The conduct of Judge Sewall claims our particular admiration. He
observed annually in private a day of humiliation and prayer, during the
remainder of his life, to keep fresh in his mind a sense of repentance
and sorrow for the part he bore in the trials. On the day of the general
fast, he arose in the place where he was accustomed to worship, the old
South, in Boston, and in the presence of the great assembly, handed up
to the pulpit a written confession, acknowledging the error into which
he had been led, praying for the forgiveness of God and his people, and
concluding with a request, to all the congregation to unite with him in
devout supplication, that it might not bring down the displeasure of the
Most High upon his country, his family, or himself. He remained standing
during the public reading of the paper. This was an act of true
manliness and dignity of soul." (_Upham's Salem Witchcraft_, Vol. II, p.

Grim, stern, narrow as he was, this man in his self-judgment commands
the respect of all true men.

The ministers stood with the magistrates in their delusion and
intemperate zeal. Two hundred and sixteen years after the last witch was
hung in Massachusetts a clearer light falls on one of the striking
personalities of the time - Cotton Mather - who to a recent date has been
credited with the chief responsibility for the Salem prosecutions.

Did he deserve it?

Robert Calef, in his _More Wonders of the Invisible World_, Bancroft in
his _History of the United States_, and Charles W. Upham in his _Salem
Witchcraft_, are the chief writers who have placed Mather in the
foreground of those dreadful scenes, as the leading minister of the
time, an active personal participant in the trials and executions, and a
zealot in the maintenance of the ministerial dignity and domination.

On the other hand, the learned scholar, the late William Frederick
Poole, first in the _North American Review_, in 1869, and again in his
paper _Witchcraft in Boston_, in 1882, in the _Memorial History of
Boston_, calls Calef an immature youth, and says that his obvious
intent, and that of the several unknown contributors who aided him, was
to malign the Boston ministers and to make a sensation.

And the late John Fiske, in his _New France and New England_ (p. 155),
holds that:

"Mather's rules (of evidence) would not have allowed a verdict of guilty
simply upon the drivelling testimony of the afflicted persons, and if
this wholesome caution had been observed, not a witch would ever have
been hung in Salem."

What were those rules of evidence and of procedure attributed to Mather?
Through the Special Court appointed to hold the witch trials, and early
in its sittings, the opinions of twelve ministers of Boston and vicinity
were asked as to witchcraft. Cotton Mather wrote and his associates
signed an answer June 15, 1692, entitled, _The Return of Several
Ministers Consulted by his Excellency and the Honorable Council upon the
Present Witchcrafts in Salem Village_. This was the opinion of the
ministers, and it is most important to note what is said in it of
spectral evidence,[E] as it was upon such evidence that many convictions
were had:

"1. The afflicted state of our poor neighbors that are now suffering by
molestations from the Invisible World we apprehend so deplorable, that
we think their condition calls for the utmost help of all persons in
their several capacities.

"2. We cannot but with all thankfulness acknowledge the success which
the merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavors of
our honorable rulers to detect the abominable witchcrafts which have
been committed in the country; humbly praying that the discovery of
these mysterious and mischievous wickednesses may be perfected.

"3. We judge that, in the prosecution of these and all such witchcrafts
there is need of a very critical and exquisite caution, lest by too much
credulity for things received only upon the devil's authority, there be
a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences, and Satan get
an advantage over us; for we should not be ignorant of his devices.

"4. As in complaints upon witchcraft there may be matters of inquiry
which do not amount unto matters of presumption, and there may be
matters of presumption which yet may not be matters of conviction, so it
is necessary that all proceedings thereabout be managed with an
exceeding tenderness toward those that may be complained of, especially
if they have been persons formerly of an unblemished reputation.

"5. When the first inquiry is made into the circumstances of such as
may lie under the just suspicion of witchcrafts, we could wish that
there may be admitted as little as possible of such noise, company and
openness as may too hastily expose them that are examined, and that
there may be nothing used as a test for the trial of the suspected, the
lawfulness whereof may be doubted by the people of God, but that the
directions given by such judicious writers as Perkins and Barnard may be

"6. Presumptions whereupon persons may be committed, and much more,
convictions whereupon persons may be condemned as guilty of witchcrafts,
ought certainly to be more considerable than barely the accused persons
being represented by a spectre unto the afflicted, inasmuch as it is an
undoubted and notorious thing that a demon may by God's permission
appear even to ill purposes, in the shape of an innocent, yea, and a
virtuous man. Nor can we esteem alterations made in the sufferers, by a
look or touch of the accused, to be an infallible evidence of guilt, but
frequently liable to be abused by the devil's legerdemains.

"7. We know not whether some remarkable affronts given the devils, by
our disbelieving these testimonies whose whole force and strength is
from them alone, may not put a period unto the progress of the dreadful
calamity begun upon us, in the accusation of so many persons whereof
some, we hope, are yet clear from the great transgression laid to their

"8. Nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government,
the speedy and vigorous prosecutions of such as have rendered themselves
obnoxious, according to the directions given in the laws of God and the
wholesome statutes of the English nation for the detection of

[Footnote E: An illustration: The child Ann Putnam, in her testimony
against the Rev. Mr. Burroughs, said that one evening the apparition of
a minister came to her and asked her to write her name in the devil's
book. Then came the forms of two women in winding sheets, and looked
angrily upon the minister and scolded him until he was fain to vanish
away. Then the women told Ann that they were the ghosts of Mr.
Burroughs' first and second wives whom he had murdered.]

Did Longfellow, after a critical study of the original evidence and
records, truly interpret Mather's views, in his dialogue with Hathorne?

"Remember this, That as a sparrow falls not to the ground
Without the will of God, so not a Devil
Can come down from the air without his leave.
We must inquire."

"Dear sir, we have inquired;
Sifted the matter thoroughly through and through,
And then resifted it."

"If God permits
These evil spirits from the unseen regions
To visit us with surprising informations,
We must inquire what cause there is for this,
But not receive the testimony borne
By spectres as conclusive proof of guilt
In the accused."

"Upon such evidence
We do not rest our case. The ways are many
In which the guilty do betray themselves."

"Be careful, carry the knife with such exactness
That on one side no innocent blood be shed
By too excessive zeal, and on the other
No shelter given to any work of darkness."

_New England Tragedies_ (4, 725), LONGFELLOW.

Whatever Mather's caution to the court may have been, or his leadership
in learning, or his ambition and his clerical zeal, there is thus far no
evidence, in all his personal participation in the tragedies, that he
lifted his hand to stay the storm of terrorism once begun, or cried halt
to the magistrates in their relentless work. On the contrary, after six
victims had been executed, August 4, 1692, in _A Discourse on the
Wonders of the Invisible World_, Mather wrote this in deliberate, cool

"They - the judges - have used as judges have heretofore done, the
spectral evidences, to introduce their farther inquiries into the lives
of the persons accused; and they have thereupon, by the wonderful
Providence of God, been so strengthened with other evidences that some
of the witch-gang have been fairly executed."

And a year later, in the light of all his personal experience and
investigation, Mather solemnly declared:

"If in the midst of the many dissatisfactions among us, the publication
of these trials may promote such a pious thankfulness unto God for
justice being so far executed among us, I shall rejoice that God is

Wherever the responsibility at Salem may have rested, the truth is that
in the general fear and panic there was potent in the minds, both of the
clergy and the laity, the spirit of fanaticism and malevolence in some
instances, such as misled the pastor of the First Church to point to the
corpses of Giles Corey's devoted and saintly wife and others swinging to
and fro, and say "What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell
hanging there."

This conspectus of witchcraft, old and new, of its development from the
sorcery and magic of the ancients into the mediæval theological dogma
of the power of Satan, of its gradual ripening into an epidemic
demonopathy, of its slow growth in the American colonies, of its
volcanic outburst in the close of the seventeenth century, is relevant
and appropriate to this account of the delusion in Connecticut, its rise
and suppression, its firm hold on the minds and consciences of the
colonial leaders for threescore years after the settlement of the towns,
a chapter in Connecticut history written in the presence of the actual
facts now made known and available, and with a purpose of historic


"It was not to be expected of the colonists of New England that they
should be the first to see through a delusion which befooled the whole
civilized world, and the gravest and most knowing persons in it. The
colonists in Connecticut and New Haven, as well as in Massachusetts,
like all other Christian people at that time - at least with extremely
rare individual exceptions - believed in the reality of a hideous crime
called witchcraft." PALFREY'S _New England_ (Vol. IV, pp. 96-127).

"The truth is that it [witchcraft] pervaded the whole Christian Church.
The law makers and the ministers of New England were under its
influences as - and no more than - were the law makers and ministers of
Old England." _Blue Laws - True and False_ (p. 23), TRUMBULL.

"One - - of Windsor Arraigned and Executed at Hartford for a Witch."
WINTHROP'S _Journal_ (2: 374, Savage Ed., 1853).

Here beginneth the first chapter of the story of the delusion in
Connecticut. It is an entry made by John Winthrop, Governor of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his famous journal, without specific date,
but probably in the spring of 1647.

It is of little consequence save as much has been made of it by some
writers as fixing the relative date of the earliest execution for
witchcraft in New England, and locating it in one of the three original
Connecticut towns.

What matters it at this day whether Mary Johnson as tradition runs, or
Alse Youngs as truth has it, was put to death for witchcraft in Windsor,
Connecticut, in 1647, or Martha Jones of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was
hung for the same crime at Boston in 1648, as also set down in
Winthrop's Journal?

"It may possibly be thought a great neglect, or matter of partiality,
that no account is given of witchcraft in Connecticut. The only reason
is, that after the most careful researches, no indictment of any person
for that crime, nor any process relative to that affair can be found."
(_History of Connecticut_, 1799, Preface, BENJAMIN TRUMBULL, D.D.)

"A few words should be said regarding the author's mention of the
subject of witchcraft in Connecticut.... It is, I believe, strictly
true, as he says 'that no indictment of any person for that crime nor
any process relative to that affair can be found.'

"It must be confessed, however, that a careful study of the official
colonial records of Connecticut and New Haven leaves no doubt that
Goodwife Bassett was convicted and hung at Stratford for witchcraft in
1651, and Goodwife Knapp at Fairfield in 1653. It is also recorded in
Winthrop's _Journal_ that 'One - - of Windsor was arraigned and executed
at Hartford for a witch' in March, 1646-47, which if it actually
occurred, forms the first instance of an execution for witchcraft in New
England. The quotation here given is the only known authority for the
statement, and opens the question whether something probably recorded as
hearsay in a journal, may be taken as authoritative evidence of an
occurrence.... The fact however remains, that the official records are
as our author says, silent regarding the actual proceedings, and it is
only by inference that it may be found from these records that the
executions took place." (Introduction to Reprint of _Trumbull's History
of Connecticut_, 1898, JONATHAN TRUMBULL.)

The searcher for inerrant information about witchcraft in Connecticut
may easily be led into a maze of contradictions, and the statement last
above quoted is an apt illustration, with record evidence to the
contrary on every hand. Tradition, hearsay, rumor, misstatements,
errors, all colored by ignorance or half knowledge, or a local jealousy
or pride, have been woven into a woof of precedent and acceptance, and
called history.

As has been already stated, the general writers from Trumbull to
Johnston have nothing of value to say on the subject; the open official
records and the latest history - _Connecticut as a Colony and a
State_ - cover only certain cases, and nowhere from the beginning to this
day has the story of witchcraft been fully told.

Connecticut can lose nothing in name or fame or honor, if, more than two
centuries after the last witch was executed within her borders, the
facts as to her share in the strange superstition be certified from the
current records of the events.

How may this story best be told? Clearly, so far as may be, in the very
words of the actors in those tragic scenes, in the words of the minister
and magistrate, the justice and the juryman, the accuser and the
accused, and the searcher. Into this court of inquiry come all these
personalities to witness the sorrowful march of the victims to the
scaffold or to exile, or to acquittal and deliverance with the after
life of suspicion and social ostracism.

The spectres of terror did not sit alone at the firesides of the poor
and lowly: they stalked in high places, and were known of men and women
of the first rank in education and the social virtues, and of greatest
influence in church and state.

Of this fact there is complete demonstration in a glance at the
dignitaries who presided at one of the earliest witchcraft trials - men
of notable ancestry, of learning, of achievements, leaders in colonial
affairs, whose memories are honored to this day.

These were the magistrates at a session entitled "A particular courte in
Hartford upon the tryall of John Carrington and his wife 20th Feb., 1662"
(See _Rec. P.C._, 2: 17): Edw. Hopkins Esqr., Gournor John Haynes Esqr.
Deputy, Mr. Wells, Mr. Woolcott, Mr. Webster, Mr. Cullick, Mr. Clarke.

This court had jurisdiction over misdemeanors, and was "aided by a
jury," as a close student of colonial history, the late Sherman W.
Adams, quaintly says in one of his historical papers. These were the

Mr. Phelps John White John More
Mr. Tailecoat Will Leawis Edw. Griswold
Mr. Hollister Sam. Smith Steph. Harte
Daniel Milton John Pratt Theo. Judd

Before this tribunal - representative of the others doing like service
later - made up of the foremost citizens, and of men in the ordinary
walks of life, endowed with hard common sense and presumably inspired
with a spirit of justice and fair play, came John Carrington and his
wife Joan of Wethersfield, against whom the jury brought in a verdict of

It must be clearly borne in mind that all these men, in this as in all
the other witchcraft trials in Connecticut, illustrious or
commonplace - as are many of their descendants whose names are written on
the rolls of the patriotic societies in these days of ancestral
discovery and exploitation - were absolute believers in the powers of
Satan and his machinations through witchcraft and the evidence then
adduced to prove them, and trained to such credulity by their education
and experience, by their theological doctrines, and by the law of the
land in Old England, but still clothed upon with that righteousness
which as it proved in the end made them skeptical as to certain alleged
evidences of guilt, and swift to respond to the calls of reason and of
mercy when the appeals were made to their calm judgment and second
thought as to the sins of their fellowmen.

In no way can the truth be so clearly set forth, the real character of
the evidence be so justly appreciated upon which the convictions were
had, as from the depositions and the oral testimony of the witnesses
themselves. They are lasting memorials to the credulity and
superstition, and the religious insanity which clouded the senses of the
wisest men for a time, and to the malevolence and satanic ingenuity of
the people who, possessed of the devil accused their friends and
neighbors of a crime punishable by death.

Nor is this dark chapter in colonial history without its flashes of
humor and ridiculousness, as one follows the absurd and unbridled
testimonies which have been chosen as completely illustrative of the
whole series in the years of the witchcraft nightmare. They are in part
cited here, for the sake of authenticity and exactness, as written out
in the various court records and depositions, published and unpublished,
in the ancient style of spelling, and are worthy the closest study for
many reasons.

It will, however, clear the way to a better understanding of the unique
testimonies of the witch witnesses, if there be first presented the
authoritative reasons for the examination of a witch, coupled with a
summary of the lawful tests of innocence or guilt. They are in the
handwriting of William Jones, a Deputy Governor of Connecticut and a
member of the court at some of the trials.


"1. Notorious defamacon by ye common report of the people a ground of

"2. Second ground for strict examinacon is if a fellow witch gave
testimony on his examinacon or death yt such a pson is a witch, but this
is not sufficient for conviccon or condemnacon.

"3. If after cursing, there follow death or at least mischiefe to ye

"4. If after quarrelling or threatening a prsent mischiefe doth follow
for ptye's devilishly disposed after cursing doe use threatnings, & yt
alsoe is a grt prsumcon agt y.

"5. If ye pty suspected be ye son or daughter, the serv't or familiar
friend, neer neighbors or old companion of a knowne or convicted witch
this alsoe is a prsumcon, for witchcraft is an art yt may be larned &
covayd from man to man & oft it falleth out yt a witch dying leaveth som
of ye aforesd heires of her witchcraft.

"6. If ye pty suspected have ye devills mark for t'is thought wn ye
devill maketh his covent with y he alwayess leaves his mark behind him
to know y for his owne yt is, if noe evident reason in can be given
for such mark.

"7. Lastly if ye pty examined be unconstant & contrary to himselfe in
his answers.

"Thus much for examinacon wch usually is by Q. & some tymes by torture
upon strong & grt presumcon.

"For conviccon it must be grounded on just and sufficient proofes. The
proofes for conviccon of 2 sorts, 1, Some be less sufficient, some more

"Less sufficient used in formr ages by red hot iron and scalding water.
ye pty to put in his hand in one or take up ye othr, if not hurt ye pty
cleered, if hurt convicted for a witch, but this was utterly condemned.
In som countryes anothr proofe justified by some of ye learned by
casting ye pty bound into water, if she sanck counted inocent, if she
sunk not yn guilty, but all those tryalls the author counts supstitious
and unwarrantable and worse. Although casting into ye water is by some
justified for ye witch having made a ct wth ye devill she hath renounced
her baptm & hence ye antipathy between her & water, but this he makes
nothing off. Anothr insufficient testimoy of a witch is ye testimony of
a wizard, who prtends to show ye face of ye witch to ye party afflicted
in a glass, but this he counts diabolicall & dangerous, ye devill may
reprsent a pson inocent. Nay if after curses & threats mischiefe follow
or if a sick pson like to dy take it on his death such a one has
bewitched him, there are strong grounds of suspicon for strict examinacon
but not sufficient for conviccon.

"But ye truer proofes sufficient for conviccon are ye voluntary
confession of ye pty suspected adjudged sufficient proofe by both
divines & lawyers. Or 2 the testimony of 2 witnesses of good and honest
report avouching things in theire knowledge before ye magistrat 1 wither

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryJohn M. TaylorThe Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut (1647-1697) → online text (page 3 of 12)