- Historic Sites
My Ancestor, The Wizard
Eight generations back, the author discovered a forebear hanging on the family tree
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
As the bodies were cut down from the scaffold, according to family historians, the clouds parted and sunlight fell on Gallows Hill—an omen perhaps that the witchcraft delusion had passed its peak. There were more trials and more executions to come, but already the influential men of Boston, including some of the clergy, were beginning to speak out. In October, Increase Mather himself read to a conference of ministers a paper entitled “Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, Personating Men” in which he warned against spectral evidence. By that time even the governor’s wife, Lady Phips, had been accused. The elder Mather, unlike his son, was a man of the real world, capable of understanding when things had gone too far.
By 1693 it was all over. Governor Phips lost no time in reprieving the prisoners who had been condemned and discharging all the others. Margaret Jacobs, who had escaped the gallows because she had been too sick to stand trial when her case came up, was kept in jail for several months longer because she could not pay the prison bills charged to her, but finally she, too, was freed. The spell that hung over the Puritan commonwealth was broken.
AMONG THOSE who had taken active part in the persecutions, one had the courage of his conscience. In 1697 Judge Samuel Sewall stood up in his pew at South Church in Boston to publicly “take the blame and shame” for his part in the trials.
No such repentance ever overcame Cotton Mather. On the contrary, he pressed forward with his studies of witchcraft, taking special interest in the case of a young woman named Margaret Rule, who was suffering “possession.” Among the witnesses who came to observe the girl’s seizures and Mather’s therapy was a merchant named Robert Calef, who wrote it all up in a book. Calef described how both Mathers, father and son, seeking to exorcise the demons, ran their hands over the girl’s breasts and belly, apparently to her pleasure. Even when Calef’s disrespectful book made Cotton Mather the butt of jokes, he did not give up the treatments. Then, in one of her fits, Margaret accused Mather of being her tormentor. Thewitchcraft craze had come full circle.
When the bodies were cut down, sunlight fell on Gallows Hill—a good omen perhaps.
The state was slow to make amends. Not until nineteen years later did the General Court of Massachusetts (as the state legislature is styled) get around to reimbursing the families of victims for their loss of property. After Jacobs’s death the sheriff had seized everything he could take away, including a mare, five cows, eight loads of English hay, sixty bushels of Indian corn, enough apples to make twentyfour barrels of cider, and two feather beds. In recompense the legislators awarded the Jacobs family £79 in damages, and tried to make sure that Margaret received £10 to make good her grandfather’s bequest. The General Court also voted to reverse the attainders of those victims whose families had so requested. The rest were left under a legal cloud until 1954, when the legislature—prompted, it must be said, by the state touristbureau—declared them all guiltless.
Some descendants of the witchcraft families have not been wholly pleased to know that they have an ancestor hanging from the family tree. On the other hand, the descendants of Jacobs’s neighbor Rebecca Nurse erected a monument to her and held reunions at the homestead. If any of the Jacobs descendants have felt ashamed of the family’s American founder, they seem to have kept a prudent silence, fearing perhaps that he “or his Apparition” would come back and give them a caning, “he being in such a passion.”
Jacobs’s descendants are widespread and numerous, including one President, William Howard Taft. Some of those who stayed in Salem Village (the part of Salem now called Dan vers) left the land to become sea captains in the eighteenth century and leather tanners in the nineteenth, but some stayed on the family farm until early in this century.
And what of Jacobs himself? A family tradition says that after his body was cut down from the gallows, a grandson loaded it on his horse and took it back to the farm, where he buried it in a secret grave. Presumably it was still there when the farmhouse, after standing for some three hundred years, was torn down in 1940. When I went to look at the site recently, I found that it was covered by a housing development.
Later, in looking up the family records, I happened to inquire about Jacobs at the Danvers Public Library. Oh, yes,” said the young woman at the desk. “We have him down in the cellar.’ It seems that the contractor who bulldozed the old farm had dug up a grave and had taken all the bones he could collect to the town archivist. From time to time scholars take them out of their box to try the latest scientific methods of dating and identifying them. No one can say that they are really the bones of the old “wizard” himself, but some would like to think so.