Chapter five – Early America
by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
The Colonial experience was entirely different from the European one. The settlers, many of whom came from crowded cities, suddenly encountered open land, deep woods and magnificent countryside. Experiencing nature for the first time had its threatening side despite the beauty. Hostile native population, years of failed crops and starvation, diseases and pirates were always there.
In addition, many of the settlers brought their old superstitions. The fear of the supernatural did not disappear just because the people moved to a new country. They saw “signs” in any natural event such as meteorites, comets, or thunderbolts. These poor people used fasting and prayer to relieve the fear and the sense of helplessness.
Unfortunately, they believed that evil witches followed them to their new home. They had books about sorcery, written by people who knew nothing about the Old Religion. Some they brought from Europe, some they wrote in America. But unlike the Europeans, the settlers were not interested in complicated religious discussions. They just wanted to stop the witches from harming pigs, cattle, crops, and children.
Penalties for Witchcraft were the same as in Europe. However, the hysteria and mass executions did not occur, except later in Salem. Perhaps because of the sparse population, the settlers were more careful about destroying human lives.
The settlers saw the witches in two ways. One view assumed that the witches were isolated individuals or members of a small coven. They meant to help themselves and harm others, mostly for material gain. The second view was truly bizarre. The witches, supposedly, were heretical members of a Satanic cult, intending to destroy the Puritan outposts in America.
This demonic view was accepted in New England, where the Puritan clergy considered themselves God’s chosen people. They managed to create a serious climate of fear in the population.
The most famous clergyman to hold that view was Cotton Mather. Apparently, he was neither a monster nor a lunatic, but an intelligent, educated man, with some medical as well as religious knowledge. And yet, he talked about an “army of devils” ready to strike New England at any moment, and encouraged the settlers to fight a holy war against the powers of Evil.
Why did such an man give in to a ridiculous superstition? First, as an orthodox Puritan, he believed that the Puritans’ worship was closer to God’s wishes than all other sect’s. Therefore, they represented a great threat to Satan himself. Satan, supposedly, could deal with any other Christians, but the Puritans were too holy for him. He just had to get rid of them. Second, Mather believed that America, without Christianity until the arrival of the settlers, was the Devil’s homeland! Satan wanted to defend his kingdom against the newcomers.
Here is a direct quotation from Mather: “It was a rousing alarm to the Devil, when a great company of English Protestants and Puritans came to erect evangelical churches in a corner of the world where he had reigned without any control for many ages.” Mather continues to say that the Native Americans were sorcerers and evil magicians.
As a result, about 95 percent of all American Witch executions were in New England. In other parts of the country, the settlers were kinder. They accepted witchcraft as a reality, but did not think about it as demonic conspiracy. They viewed witches as annoying, but not as threatening to life and society.
In Maryland and Virginia, Witchcraft was a felony, but the courts, somehow, did not take accusations of sorcery too seriously. Moreover, the accused were allowed to counter-sue their accusers for defamation of character. If found guilty, the accuser had to pay the “witch” a large sum of money. Naturally, this limited the accusations to very few. The most important reason to persecute witches, throughout history, was the prospect of material gain. If there was little chance of that, why bother?
The setters of New Netherlands, East and West Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware opened their territories as safe havens. It is a great credit to them, because they never really stopped believing that Witchcraft was dangerous. However, they did not let their fears turn them into howling, savage mobs.
To the average man and woman of the seventeenth century the Devil was very much alive. Many claimed they saw him in person. To one he appeared as a short black man with cloven feet; to another he came as a well-dressed gentleman; a third saw him as a white bird which promptly turned itself into a black cat. The most surprising description, given by an accused witch at Salem, was that he came to her as a little deer. One wonders how she knew that the harmless animal was the Devil!
He promised great rewards. To one young girl he offered money, clothes, and the opportunity to travel around the world. To an old woman he promised the position of Queen of Hell. Strangely, one farm girl asked him to do the chores for her – to drive the pigs out of the field and take out the ashes. He agreed. Considering that the Devil was the Prince of Hell, one wonders why the soul of a simple farm girl mattered so much to him. Who could imagine that the Devil would stoop to deal with garbage and pig swill just to get one person! And yet they believed, and accepted, without the need for proof.
Sometimes he had a verbal agreement with his conspirators, but at other times he acted formally. He made a new witch sign a large black book with blood. Usually the Devil committed himself to help the witch until her death, but sometimes the contract lasted for a few years only.
After signing, the final act required placing the Devil’s mark upon the body of the victim. The marks could be anything – birthmarks, moles, scars, or skin discolorations, and had to be insensitive to pain.
The older the person was, the easier it was to find marks on her. Age spots and warts made the older women doubly suspect. Also, in a new settlement, strong resentment existed against people who could not work very hard. An old woman, worn out by years of suffering and toil, could not produce. Throwing her in jail, where she would soon die from neglect, was a good way to get rid of her. Killing her directly was even better. If she had any property that could be confiscated, no matter how little, many were ready to point at her as a witch.
Supposedly, you had to agree to the contract of your own free will, as the Devil could not force anyone to make a pact with him. Some claimed that he tortured them before they agreed, but that was no excuse. To the Puritan clergyman, any amount of pain, even death, was better than serving Satan. And why didn’t the victim go right away to her minister for help?
The Sabbats didn’t exist in America. Unlike the Europeans, the Americans believed the witch operated alone, despite the demonic plan to overthrow the Puritan settlements. No gatherings were mentioned until the Salem incidents. But even then, the gatherings were just a few witches getting together. The biggest ceremony ever described involved no more than twenty-five witches. This is because a social gathering of any nature was frowned upon by the Puritans. A result of such a lifestyle was that the people never learned to get along. Endless fights arose among the people of Salem, and the attempt to create a social gathering among the girls started the rumors about the Witchcraft.
The most feared was the “sea witch.” Supposedly, the witch could control the winds at sea. The settlers believed that when a witch was on board, she often caused a storm to sink the ship. For some reason, they did not wonder why the witch would not be afraid of drowning herself when the ship sank. So the torture and hanging of old women on those ship was commonplace whenever a storm happened at sea. Often it was against the captain’s wishes, but the only way to prevent a mutiny was to allow the crew to have their fun. In one well-known case, an old woman denied causing the storm. She was stripped naked, tied to the mast, and exposed to the horrible gale and huge waves for the entire night. Somehow she didn’t die. In the morning, to end the torture and humiliation, she confessed to being a witch and was immediately hanged.
Possession roused the greatest fear. The Puritans believed that witches ordered demons to enter the bodies of their victims and torture them; that demons possessed all the mentally handicapped, the physically deformed, and the insane; that suicide was caused by possessing demons, who tortured the victim beyond endurance. It’s incredible how little investigation was made into the character of the accuser, particularly if she was a young girl. In a society where men outnumbered women, the marriageable young woman became a valuable asset. She had many years of hard work in front of her, while the old witch, as mentioned above, outlived her usefulness.
This explains why the people in Salem were so eager to believe the hysterical girls who accused the witches. These girls could have had an unknown disease – perhaps epilepsy, or Huntington disease, which causes the same contortion of the body and convulsions as cases of “possessions.” They may have had some mental illness based on their fear of Witchcraft. Or they could have been simply lying in order to get attention – common behavior for frustrated, lonely, young persons. And yet, no one questioned their motives.
Just before the outbreak of terror, Salem had a new minister, Reverend Samuel Paris, who was disliked by many of his congregation. A Harvard dropout, he worked most of his life as a merchant in the West Indies trade. Later he entered the clergy and obtained the Salem position, because other Clergymen didn’t want it. The inhabitants were constantly fighting and squabbling, and two former ministers resigned, unable to control the people. Parris did not endear himself to the population by his immediate request for a raise in salary and a land grant.
It was in this household that a group of young girls started to meet regularly. The notion of a social gathering for girls, so obvious and normal to us, was not so under Puritan regime. The only gathering allowed was in Church. But as the circle included the Reverend Parris’ nine-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old niece, it seemed harmless enough. However, it was not restricted to this age group. Some young women were in their teens, two were twenty years of age, and one was much older. This was Tibula, a West Indian slave. She wanted to amuse the girls by playing with a bit of magic from her Island home. She put the white of one egg in a cup to simulate a crystal ball, said some charms, and supposedly could see the face of your future husband in it.
Innocent enough. But the girls, brought up with an intense fear of the supernatural, saw it as a grave sin. They had to keep it as a secret, and even the youngest told nothing to their families. As the winter progressed, they played with more magic tricks with Tibula. Eventually, the strain of hiding such a horrible sin showed, and two of the girls went into seizures. Everyone who saw them immediately assumed it was demonic possession. The doctor, William Griggs, who was the uncle of one of the afflicted girls, said that the sickness had no physical and natural explanation. He decided it was caused by the evil eye of a witch. Reverend Parris leapt into action. He started rousing the villagers against the powerful witches who, he believed, lived among them.
The first suspects were Tibula and her husband. Tibula, for some reason, admitted that she had bewitched the girls, and named other conspirators. The accused were two women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn. As soon as the names were mentioned to the girls, they immediately said that yes, these were the witches that tormented them. Previously they had no idea who to blame, so obviously this should have been a clue to the villagers, but this was ignored. More girls became sick with “demonic” seizures.
Other witches, Tibula insisted, were involved, but she didn’t know who they were. Parris decided that a body of witches stood ready to destroy all the good Puritans of Salem. They could be lurking anywhere, so many arrests were made. The girls agreed with any name that was mentioned to them, and came up with some names of their own. Rebecca Nurse, a woman who opposed Reverend Parris’ appointment as minister, was charged not only with bewitching the girls, but with the murder of several children who died some time before. Martha Corey, one of the few people to wonder about the girl’s motives, was arrested immediately. Tibula now claimed that Martha and Rebecca were the missing witches.
The jails filled to capacity. Sarah Osburn died without a hearing, still in jail. Tibula was sold to someone in Virginia. Sarah Good had a baby in prison. More people started accusing their neighbors, without the slightest evidence or proof. No one dared to object, because opposition caused immediate arrest. Other villages joined the Witch hunt.
Cotton Mather, watching all of it from Boston, was requested to prepare a document explaining the position of the church on sorcery, and suggesting legal procedures. The paper was called “The Return of Several Ministers.” It insisted that the possessed persons be treated with all consideration and support, while the guilty treated decisively and harshly. Mather suggested extreme care in the conduct of the trials and the avoidance of noise and distractions.
Most important was his decision to use “spectral evidence” in court. If the vision of a witch appeared to the suffering victim, then that witch was guilty as charged. In other words, hallucinations were admitted as court evidence, and an alibi was, therefore, useless. You could be in jail for months, but if a girl said you came to her in a vision and bewitched her, this was as good evidence as if you came to her in person.
People argued. After all, the Devil could have taken on the image of the accused witch, particularly if she was innocent! Possibly, agreed Mather. But very unlikely and only in extraordinary circumstances. In most cases, the “specter of the witch” was the witch.
So the courts eagerly adopted spectral evidence as valid, even allowing ghosts that came back to report who murdered them. Included were the apparitions of six children who returned to earth, supposedly, to accuse Rebecca Nurse as their killer.
Mather’s request that silence and good behavior be maintained in court, was, of course, ignored. The possessed girls shrieked, fainted, pointed out new witches, and probably enjoyed their power tremendously. They were also encouraged in the “doctrine of fascination” which claimed that the witch could harm her victims by various acts done from a distance. For example, if the witch bit her lip, the girls howled that they felt she bit them, directly. The crowd went wild.
There is no point in describing each act and every trial. It was all an exercise in ignorance, stupidity and gullibility of a deluded population, frustrated by harsh living and a religion that offered no comfort or compassion. Fortunately, some “witches” escaped, but the town hanged twenty people, including old Rebecca Nurse and the new mother, Sarah Good. One old man was pressed to death – his tormentors put heavy weights on his body to crush him and make him confess. It took him two full days to die.
Eventually, the madness stopped. Brave people like Robert Pike, who had also objected to the Puritans’ harsh treatment of Quakers, wrote against it. John Foster, a member of the Governor’s Councils, joined him. Twenty-four inhabitants of Andover organized a petition. Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned in disgust. They questioned the motives of the girls and particularly the validity of spectral evidence. Public opinion, always volatile in America, began to change.
Other states joined in the opposition. A group of New York clergymen denounced the Salem courts, particularly the spectral evidence, and the assumption that any good, normal person could suddenly start working for the Devil. The same was done in Connecticut.
It ended with a whimper. No one took responsibility for the horrors, and a theory was put forth to pacify the population. It said that all the participants, including accusers, judges, and jurors, acted not out of malice but were controlled by the Devil. He wanted, as suspected before, to destroy Puritan settlements. Therefore, he made it seem as if witches were working in the area, while in reality there were no witches there at all.
The residents of Massachusetts accepted it. To make them even happier, Queen Anne of England, who was consulted, absolved them of all responsibility, and only requested that care and moderation should be the style of the future. And so the good residents of Massachusetts regained their clear conscience. After all, the entire nightmare was not their fault. The Devil made them do it.