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My Ancestor, The Wizard
Eight generations back, the author discovered a forebear hanging on the family tree
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
During the testimony, the girls “fell into the most grievous fits and screechings.”
In prison Jacobs was subjected to a meticulous body search. What the searchers were looking for was a particular kind of bodily excrescence known as a “witch’s teat,” through which demons could draw sustenance.Below George Jacobs’s shoulder they found a suspicious growth about a quarter of an inch long. In a test prescribed by the authorities, they ran it through with a pin to see if it contained “water, blood [or] corruption.” Jacobs’s did not; it was dry and cold —“cold as a witch’s teat.” The searchers had indeed found “the Devil’s mark.”
Even more damaging was the magistrate’s inquiry into Jacobs’s prayers. The exchanges went like this:
MAGISTRATE : Doth he ever pray in his family?
SARAH CHURCHILL : Not unless by himself.
MAGISTRATE (to Jacobs): Why do you not pray in your family?
JACOBS : I cannot read.
MAGISTRATE : Well you may pray for all that. Can you say the Lord’s Prayer? Let us hear you.
This was a crucial matter, for demonologists held that one possessed by the Devil could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. Jacobs began the words, stopped, tried again, and faltered again. It should be remembered that he was very old. He was under stress. He may have had the lapses of memory that many old people have. Or he may not have been much of a praying man. But to the magistrates, his failure to complete the Lord’s Prayer was probably the most damning evidence of all.
Jacobs was still defiant. “Well, burn me or hang me,” he cried. “I’ll stand in the truth of Christ. I know nothing of it.”
When the examination was over, Jacobs was returned to jail to be held for trial. By that time he must have known, if he did not know before, that he was up against something far more powerful than a band of malicious girls. He faced the Puritan state, which claimed dominion over every act and thought of its citizens. It was a state under siege, established in a land that had been the Devil’s territory, surrounded still by the Devil’s people, the Indians. Satan’s purpose was to infiltrate the new Zion by possessing the souls of the weak and unwary. The purpose of the Puritan clergy was to keep him out. In that never-ending struggle, the clergy saw themselves as God’s chosen instrument. Their most influential leaders dwelt in Boston, and their name was Mather.
THE REVEREND Increase Mather, son and son-in-law of Puritan divines, was minister of the Second Church. He was also the representative of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in its dealings with the king over the matter of a new charter to replace the one that the colony had lost by throwing out a royal governor, Sir Edmund Andres. He was also president of Harvard College.
His son Cotton had been a boy prodigy who entered Harvard at twelve and preached his first sermon, in his grandfather’s church, at seventeen. At thirty he was already the author of many published tracts and sermons. Both he and his father had the “Mather voice,” but whereas his father’s voice was said to have “tonitruous cogency,” Cotton’s was one of “dilated deliberation.”
Cotton Mather spared neither himself nor his flock nor his family. He survived two wives and all but two of his fifteen children. He was the kind of father who would keep a five-year-old daughter on her knees, praying God to save her soul. Cotton himself spent hours on his knees. He burned with the flame of zealotry.
The Mathers, father and son, were experts on witchcraft. They had studied the records of witchcraft in England and Europe and they had personally examined cases of Satanic possession in the colony. Cotton took one of the possessed girls into his home, cured her, he thought, and described the case in a book, Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions . It was this book, more than any other, that prepared the minds of the authorities who had to deal with the outbreak of witchcraft in Salem.
By the spring of 1692 the Salem jail was filled to overflowing with prisoners. They could not be tried, because, in the absence of a royal governor, no court had been appointed to try them in the charterless colony. In May, however, Increase Mather returned from a successful mission to London, bringing both a charter and a governor of his own selection, the redoubtable soldier-adventurer Sir William Phips.
A farm boy from the Maine frontier, Phips had won not only riches, by finding a sunken Spanish treasure ship in the Caribbean, but also military renown, by capturing Port Royal in Acadia from the French. Probably on Mather’s advice, one of his first acts as governor was to appoint his lieutenant governor, William Stoughton, as chief justice of a special court to hear the witchcraft cases. Phips was a man of action, eager to be rid of the witchcraft bother and get back to fighting Indians. Stoughton was even more implacable than the Mathers.