My Ancestor, The Wizard

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The Stoughton court convened in June with seven judges, including Samuel Sewall, whose diary is the most engaging record of early life in Boston. If any of the accused expected to get a fairer hearing than they had received from the examining magistrates, they were disappointed. The court accepted the evidence of the examinations with little questioning and began to hand down sentences. The first five witches were hanged on Gallows Hill on July 19.

In George Jacobs’s case the judges had some new developments to consider. Soon after the preliminary examination, Sarah Churchill had gone sobbing to a neighbor and confessed that her testimony was all a lie. Her recantation was presented to the magistrates, but they brushed it aside. They had a stronger witness against the prisoner: his granddaughter, Margaret. In Salem jail the frightened sixteen-year-old girl had come to understand that unless she told the relentless magistrates what they wanted to hear, she would surely hang. Soon she broke down, confessed her own guilt, and accused her grandfather. The old man was convicted on August 5, and, shortly afterward, Margaret, overcome with remorse, recanted the charges, saying that she had made them “with my own vile wicked heart” to save her life. It was a brave act, one which put her in greater peril than she had been in before. Jacobs forgave her, and a week before he died added a clause to his will, leaving her £10 in silver. But her change of heart had come too late to do him any good.

Even as they handed down their sentences, the judges must have been uncomfortably aware that the witchcraft epidemic was entering a new phase. The little cell from which it spread was getting out of control. At first the girls had practiced their “little sorceries” against neighbors they didn’t like. Now, giddy from success, they were aiming higher. They talked of a tall man from Boston, whom they presently identified as John Alden, a wellknown sea captain and the son of John and Priscilla, the Pilgrim sweethearts. Because of his standing in Boston, Alden was put under house arrest, from which he escaped. Also accused was Philip English, Salem’s most prominent merchant, the owner of twentyone ships and an employer of Salem captains. With the help of influential friends, English and his wife were spirited out of the colony, carrying, it was said, a letter of introduction from Governor Phips to the governor of New York. The realization that the gentry could escape punishment increased the disquiet that already existed among the plain people of Salem. And the gentry themselves began to wonder who would be next.

For a dicey moment it seemed possible that the townspeople would stop the executions.

In this uneasy climate of opinion, George Jacobs and four others were taken from the Salem jail and loaded into a cart on August 19. One man among them was John Procter, later to be made famous as the hero of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible . Another was the Reverend George Burroughs, who had been minister of Salem Village before Mr. Parris and who had been brought back from a new parish in Maine to be denounced by the girls as the ringleader of the witches. George Jacobs was in good company.

On Gallows Hill a crowd had gathered for the hangings. Burroughs addressed them from the scaffold, moving some to tears, and did what supposedly no one in league with the Devil could do—recited the Lord’s Prayer. There was muttering and movement among the onlookers. For a dicey moment it seemed possible that the townspeople would stop the executions. But at that moment a young man on horseback faced the crowd. It was Cotton Mather, come down from Boston to see the witches punished. Eloquent as always, he assured the crowd that one of the Devil’s tricks was to invade the souls of the most unlikely persons. The Devil, he said, is never more the Devil than when he most appears like an Angel of Light.

Taking Mather at his word, one might ask who, indeed, among those on Gallows Hill that day, was most likely to be the Devil’s creature. Was it the village minister, Mr. Burroughs? Or the plain-spoken farmer John Procter? Or the stout old patriarch George Jacobs? Or was it perhaps the silvertongued zealot, the intellectual instigator of the witchcraft persecutions, Cotton Mather himself?

That thought was to occur later to an “afflicted” girl of Boston—and to cause a momentary scandal. But there is nothing in the record to show that it occurred to anyone on Gallows Hill that day. The crowd was stilled and the executions went forward.

Modern apologists for Cotton Mather point to his undoubted distinctions in many fields, including theology, science, and medicine, and argue that he played no direct part in the witchcraft accusations or trials. It is true that his own interest was more in studying cases of “possession” than in prosecuting them, and that he warned the judges against giving too much weight to spectral evidence. But he gave his full support to the verdicts based on such evidence and to the hangings. There seems to be no reason for him to have turned up on Gallows Hill except to make sure that the executions were carried out.