Entertaining Satan

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At least they were the Christian methods. For—much to the chagrin of the clergy—there were other ways of combating witchcraft. From obscure sources in the folk culture of pre-Christian times the New Englanders had inherited a rich lore of countermagic—including, for example, the tricks which John Goodwin refused to try. Thus a family might decide to lay branches of “sweet bays” under their threshold. (“It would keep a witch from coming in.”) Or a woman tending a sick child would perform elaborate rituals of protection. (“She smote the back of her hands together sundry times, and spat in the fire; then she … rubbed [herbs] in her hand and strewed them about the hearth.…) Or a man would hurl a pudding into a fire in order to draw a suspect to the scene of his alleged crimes. (“To get hay was no true cause of his coming thither, but rather the spirit that bewitched the pudding brought him.”) All this was of a piece with other strands of belief and custom in seventeenth-century New England: fortunetelling, astrology, healing charms, love potions and powders—to mention a few. Witchcraft, in short, belonged to a large and complex world of interest in the supernatural.

Beyond the tricks against witches, besides the efficacy of prayer, there was always legal recourse. Witchcraft was a capital crime in every one of the New England colonies, and thus was a particularly solemn responsibility of the courts. Procedure was scrupulously observed: indictment by a grand jury, depositions from qualified witnesses, verdict by a jury of trials, sentencing by the magistrates. Some features of witchcraft trials seem highly repugnant today—for example, the elaborate and intimate body searches of defendants suspected of having “witch’s teats” (nipplelike growths through which the witch or wizard was believed to give suck to Satan). But in the context of the times, such procedures were not extraordinary. Contrary to popular belief, physical torture was not used to obtain evidence. Testimony was taken on both sides, and character references favorable to the defendant were not uncommon. Guilt was never a foregone conclusion; most trials ended in acquittal. Perhaps because the crime was a capital one, many juries seemed reluctant to convict. Some returned verdicts like the following: “[We find her] not legally guilty according to indictment, but [there is] just ground of vehement suspicion of her having had familiarity with the Devil.”

At Salem, to be sure, such caution was thrown to the winds. The creation of special courts, the admission of “spectral evidence” (supplied by “shapes” visible only to the afflicted victims), the strong momentum favoring conviction—all this marked a decided tilt in the legal process. But it brought, in time, its own reaction. Magistrates, clergymen, and ordinary participants eventually would see the enormity of what they had done at Salem in the name of law and religion. And they would not make the same mistakes again.

Thus the eighteenth century, in New England, was essentially free of legal action against witchcraft. However, the belief which had sustained such action did not evaporate so quickly.

 

Hampton, New Hampshire: March 26,1769. The finest house in the town, a mansion by any standard, is destroyed in a spectacular fire. The owner is General Jonathan Moulton—scion of an old family, frequent town officer, commander of the local forces in various Indian wars, businessman of extraordinary skill and energy. Yet despite these marks of eminence, Moulton is no favorite of his fellow townsmen. To them he seems ruthless, crafty, altogether a “sharp dealer.” Indeed, the local gossips have long suggested that Moulton is in league with the Devil. There is no easier way to explain, among other things, his truly prodigious wealth.

The ashes of Moulton’s house are barely cold when a new story circulates in the town: the fire was set by the Devil, because the General had cheated him in a bargain. The details are told as follows. Mouton had pledged his soul to the Devil, in exchange for regular payments of gold and silver coins. The payments were delivered down his chimney and into his boot, which was hung there precisely for this purpose. The arrangement went smoothly for awhile, but then came a time when the boot took far more coins than usual. The Devil was perplexed, and decided to go down the chimney to see what was wrong. He found that the General had cut off the foot of the boot; the room was so full of money that there was scarcely air to breathe.

The fire—and this account of it—notwithstanding, Moulton quickly recoups. He builds a new mansion even more grand than the first one. His business enterprises yield ever greater profit. He serves with distinction in the Revolutionary War and also in the convention which draws up the constitution of the state of New Hampshire. Yet his local reputation shows little change with the passage of years. When he dies, in 1788, the news is carried to the haymakers on the Hampton marsh: “General Moulton is dead!” they call to one another in tones of evident satisfaction. And there is one final peculiarity about his passing. His body, prepared for burial, is suddenly missing from the coffin. The people of Hampton are not surprised. “The Devil,” they whisper knowingly to one another, “has got his own at last.”