My Ancestor, The Wizard


WHEN A PUBLICATION wants to illustrate the story of Salem witchcraft, it often runs the painting The Trial of George Jacobs for Witchcraft , which hangs in the Essex Institute, Salem’s historical archive. The central figure, an old man with long, white hair, is kneeling before the court, with arms outstretched, asking mercy. A few feet away a girl of sixteen is pointing an accusing finger at him; she is his grand-daughter, Margaret. Behind Margaret a middle-aged woman reaches out to restrain the girl; that is her mother, Rebecca Jacobs, the wife of George, Jr., the old man’s son. In a cluster at one side of the judges’ bench, the hysterical teen-age girls who started all the trouble writhe and scream to demonstrate how the old man is tormenting them. On the bench are the judges who condemned George Jacobs to death by hanging.


The picture was painted in the nineteenth century by Tompkins Harrison Matteson, an artist and onetime actor who gave full rein to his theatrical instincts. When I was taken to see it as a boy, I was interested to learn that George Jacobs was my ancestor, eight generations back. But I could not feel any kinship with a figure so remote in time and beliefs. I could identify with ancestors who were farmers or seafarers or leather workers. But a wizard? As a child of eighteenth-century reason and nineteenth-century progress, I could not comprehend the superstition of the seventeenth century.

Fifty years later something led me to take a second look at George Jacobs. Perhaps it was the fact that the delusions and persecutions of the twentieth century have lent new credibility to the strange spell that seized the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. Perhaps it was the new fashion for genealogy. Mostly it was the questions I was asked about the family by my sons. At heart I still felt that witches and wizards were for fairy tales and Halloween.

George Jacobs evidently thought so too, as I found out recently when I looked up the court record of his examination. “Witch bitches” he called the mischievous girls who were crying out against respectable citizens. He doubtless agreed with his neighbor John Procter, who said that the only way to treat such a girl was to set her down at a spinning wheel and not let her up until she got over her foolishness.

The trouble had started a couple of miles from Jacobs’s farm in the house of the Reverend Samuel Parris, minister of Salem Village, where little Betty Parris and her friends had been excited by the voodoo tales of a West Indian household slave named Tituba. Jacobs knew all about it because his own servant, Sarah Churchill, had lately begun to attend some of their sessions. Most of the girls were in their teens or younger, but Sarah was twenty. It may be guessed that, in order to win acceptance in the magic circle, she had to join them in pointing the finger of accusation at another witch or wizard. And who was a more likely choice than her own master, old George Jacobs?

In May of 1692 the constable arrived to arrest not only Jacobs but also his son, George, Jr., his daughter-in-law, Rebecca, and his granddaughter, Margaret, all on charges of witchcraft. Rebecca was still giving suck to her youngest child, Joseph, the record states. No matter, they were all eventually locked up in Salem jail—all except George, Jr., who got away and never showed his face in Salem until the witchcraft craze was over. The children, including Joseph, were left with neighbors.

At the time, Jacobs was eighty years old or thereabouts. He had long, white hair, no teeth, and he walked with two staffs. He was short-tempered and irascible. As the court records of Salem show, he had been fined some years earlier for striking one Tompkins, “he being in such a passion.”

This crusty old man was not one to quail before a band of teen-age girls. When the examining magistrates brought him face-to-face with the “afflicted” girls and their accusations, he demanded impatiently: “Well, let us hear who are they and what are they.”

Ann Putnam, aged twelve, and Abigail Williams, eleven, swore that Jacobs or his apparition had stuck pins in their hands. Mercy Lewis, nineteen, had been “Tortured Afflicted Pined consumed Wasted and Tormented” by him. Sarah Churchill, his servant girl, testified: “Last night I was afflicted at Deacon Ingersoll’s, and Mary Walcott said it was a man with two staves. It was my master.” During the testimony, the court reporter noted, the girls “fell into the most grievous fits and screechings.”

Jacobs was unshaken. “You tax me for a wizard, ” he exclaimed. “You may as well tax me for a buzzard.”

The prosecution of witchcraft caseshad one inherent difficulty. The cases rested on the unsupported testimony of those who said they were tormented by witches. There were no independent witnesses, and the accused could usually prove that they were not anywhere near the girls at the time of the alleged injuries. So what the “afflicted” girls swore was that the “apparition” or “specter” of the accused had tormented them. This spectral evidence was suspect, even to most of the Puritan ministers, who advised the magistrates to treat it with discretion. The magistrates admitted the spectral testimony but they looked for other evidence to support the charges.