1648 Three Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

PrintPrintEmailEmail

On June 15 Margaret Jones of Charlestown became the first person in Massachusetts to be executed for witchcraft. She was New England’s second such victim; the first had been Alse (or Alice) Young of Windsor, Connecticut, hanged on May 26, 1647. Little is known about Alice Young. As early as 1638, however, Dorothy Talbye was hanged in Boston for killing her child at the behest (as she admitted) of Satan.

The evidence against Jones, as recorded in Gov. John Winthrop’s diary, was strong. Her “malignant touch” could cause illness in people she disliked. She practiced as a healer, and her medicines “were harmless, as aniseed, liquors, etc., yet had extraordinary violent effects.” She sometimes put a curse on those who refused her services, “and accordingly their diseases and hurts continued . . . beyond the apprehension of all physicians and surgeons.” She also performed feats of prophecy and clairvoyance.

By itself this assortment of talents was not enough to convict Jones. Physical evidence of trafficking with the devil was needed. One widely respected scholar had written, “Witches have ordinarily a familiar, or spirit, which appeareth to them, sometimes in one shape and sometimes in another; as in the shape of a man, woman, boy, dog, cat, foal, hare, rat, toad, etc.” Accordingly, in May the General Court ordered Jones and her husband, Thomas (who was also accused), to be confined in separate rooms and watched around the clock. This investigative method had been used with evident success during a recent outbreak of witchcraft in England, where two hundred witches were killed between 1645 and 1647.

Sure enough, relates Winthrop, “in the clear day-light, there was seen in her arms . . . a little child, which ran from her into another room, and the officer following it, it was vanished.” A strip search yielded further corroboration. The same scholar had told how witches “hath some big or little teat upon their body, and in some secret place, where [an imp] sucketh them.” Jones’s examiners discovered “an apparent teat in her secret parts as fresh as if it had been newly sucked.”

To the seventeenth-century mind, there was no question about the existence of witches or about what was to be done with them. Exodus 22:18 commanded, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and John Calvin had written: “The Bible teaches that there are witches and that they must be slain. . . . this law of God is a universal law.” Still, the case of Margaret Jones was, for its time, a model of legal procedure. It relied on verified evidence, unlike the famous 1692 outbreak at Salem, where acknowledged hallucinations were accepted as fact.

“The same day and hour she was executed,” Winthrop concludes, “there was a very great tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many trees, etc.” Jones’s husband, who was acquitted, made heavy weather of his own when he decided, understandably, to leave Massachusetts. He boarded a ship bound for Barbados, which almost immediately began to roll violently. After Jones was returned to shore and thrown in prison, the ship stopped rolling.

Fifteen more witches were put to death in New England between Margaret Jones’s hanging and 1662—about one a year. The next three decades saw only two more hangings for witchcraft, until the terrible revival at Salem. That tragedy, combined with a growing appreciation of the differences among science, religion, and superstition, virtually ended witchcraft trials in America, though one may have taken place in Rhode Island as late as 1728. And in 1863, a historian relates, “a mob of small tradesmen” in Essex County, England, subjected “an aged deaf-and-dumb person . . . who was supposed to be a wizard” to a medieval-style trial by water. He did not survive.