August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
The place is the fledgling community of Windsor, Connecticut: I the time, an autumn day in the year 1651. A group of local I militiamen has assembled for training exercises. They drill in their usual manner through the morning, then pause for rest and refreshment. Several of the younger recruits begin a moment’s horseplay; one of these—a certain Thomas Allen—cocks his musket and inadvertently knocks it against a tree. The weapon fires, and a few yards away a bystander falls heavily to the ground.
The place is the fledgling community of Windsor, Connecticut: I the time, an autumn day in the year 1651. A group of local I militiamen has assembled for training exercises. They drill in their usual manner through the morning, then pause for rest and refreshment. Several of the younger recruits begin a moment’s horseplay; one of these—a certain Thomas Allen—cocks his musket and inadvertently knocks it against a tree. The weapon fires, and a few yards away a bystander falls heavily to the ground. The unfortunate victim is an older man, also a trainee, Henry Stiles by name. Quickly, the group converges on Stiles, and bears him to the house of the local physician. But the bullet has fatally pierced his heart.
One month later the “particular court” of the Connecticut colony meets in regular session. On its agenda is an indictment of Thomas Alien: “that … [thou] didst suddenly, negligently, carelessly cock thy piece, and carry the piece … which piece being charged and going off in thine hand, slew thy neighbor, to the great dishonor of God, breach of the peace, and loss of a member of this commonwealth.” Alien confesses the fact, and is found guilty of “homicide by misadventure.” For his “sinful neglect and careless carriages” the court orders him to pay a fine of twenty pounds sterling. In addition he is bound to good behavior for the ensuing year, with the special proviso “that he shall not bear arms for the same term.”
But this is not the end of the matter. Stiles’s death remains a topic of local conversation, and three years later it yields a more drastic result. In November, 1654, the court meets in special session to try a case of witchcraft—against a woman, Lydia Gilbert, also of Windsor: “Lydia Gilbert, thou art here indicted … that not having the fear of God before thine eyes, thou hast of late years or still dost give entertainment to Satan, the great enemy of God and mankind, and by his help hast killed the body of Henry Stiles, besides other witchcrafts, for which according to the law of God and the established law of this commonwealth thou deservest to die.” The court, in effect, is considering a complicated question: did Lydia Gilbert’s witchcraft cause Thomas Alien’s gun to go off, so as to kill Henry Stiles? Evidence is taken on various points deemed relevant. Henry Stiles was a boarder in the Gilbert household for some while before his death. The arrangement was not a happy one; neighbors could recall the sounds of frequent quarreling. From time to time Stiles loaned money and property to his landlord, but this served only to heighten the tension. Goodwife Gilbert, in particular, violated her Christian obligation of charitable and peaceable behavior. A naturally assertive sort, she did not conceal her sense of grievance against Goodman Stiles. In fact, her local reputation has long encompassed some unfavorable elements: disapproval of her quick temper, envy of her success in besting personal antagonists, suspicion that she is not above invoking the “Devil’s means.” The jury weighs the evidence and reaches its verdict—guilty as charged. The magistrates hand down the prescribed sentence of death by hanging. A few days thereafter the sentence is carried out.
On the next succeeding Sabbath day, and with solemn forewarning, the pastor of the Windsor church climbs to the pulpit to deliver his sermon. Directly he faces the questions that are weighing heavily in the minds of his parishioners. Why has this terrible scourge of witchcraft been visited on their little community? What has created the opportunity which the Devil and his legions have so untimely seized? For what reason has God Almighty condoned such a tragic intrusion on the life of Windsor? The pastor’s answer to these questions is neither surprising nor pleasant for his audience to hear, but it carries a purgative force. The Windsor townsfolk are themselves at least partially to blame. For too long they have strayed from the paths of virtue: overvaluing secular interests while neglecting religious ones, tippling in alehouses, “nightwalking,” and—worst of all—engaging one another in repeated strife. In such circumstances the Devil always finds an opening; to such communities God brings retribution. Thus the recent witchcraft episode is a lesson to the people of Windsor, and a warning to mend their ways.
Lydia Gilbert was not the first witch to have lived at Windsor, nor would she be the last. For so-called Puritans, the happenstance of everyday life was part of a struggle of cosmic dimensions, a struggle in which witchcraft played a logical part. The ultimate triumph of Almighty God was assured. But in particular times and places Satan might achieve some temporary success—and claim important victims. Indeed he was continually adding earthly recruits to his nefarious cause. Tempted by bribes and blandishments, or frightened by threats of torture, weak-willed persons signed the “Devil’s Book” and enrolled as witches. Thereafter they were armed with his power and obliged to do his bidding. God, meanwhile, opposed this onslaught of evil—and yet He also permitted it. For errant men and women there was no more effective means of “chastening.”
In a sense, therefore, witchcraft was part of God’s own intention. And the element of intention was absolutely central, in the minds of the human actors. When a man lay dead from a violent accident on a training field, his fellow townspeople would carefully investigate how events had proceeded to such an end. But they sought, in addition, to understand the why of it all…the motives, whether human or supernatural (or both), which lay behind the events. The same was true for other forms of everyday mischance. When cows took strangely ill, when a boat capsized in a sudden storm, when bread failed to rise in the oven or beer went bad in the barrel, there was cause for careful reflection. Witchcraft would not necessarily provide the best explanation, but it was always a possibility—and sometimes a most convenient one. To discover an unseen hand at work in one’s life was to dispel mystery, to explain misfortune, to excuse incompetence. Belief in witchcraft was rooted in the practical experience no less than the theology of the time.
A single shocking episode—the Salem “hysteria” of 1692—has dominated the lore of this subject ever since. Yet the Salem trials were distinctive only in a quantitative sense—that is, in the sheer numbers of the accused. Between the late 1630’s and 1700 dozens of New England towns supported proceedings against witchcraft; some did so on repeated occasions. The total of cases was over a hundred (and this includes only actual trials from which some record survives today). At least forty of the defendants were put to death; the rest were acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge. Numerous additional cases went unrecorded because they did not reach a court of law; nonetheless they generated much excitement—and distress. “Witches” were suspected, accused informally, and condemned in unofficial ways. Gossip and rumor about such people constituted a staple part of the local culture.
The typical witch was a woman of middle age. Like Lydia Gilbert, she was married, had children, and lived as a settled member of her community. (However, widows and childless women were also suspected, perhaps to an extent disproportionate to their numbers in the population at large.) Some of the accused were quite poor and a few were given to begging; but taken altogether they spanned the entire social spectrum. (One was the wife of a leading magistrate in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.) Most seemed conspicuous in their personal behavior: they were cantankerous, feisty, quick to take offense, and free in their expression of anger. As such they matched the prevalent stereotype of a witch, with its emphasis on strife and malice and vengeance. It was no accident, in a culture which valued “peaceableness” above all things, that suspected witches were persons much given to conflict. Like deviant figures everywhere, they served to mark the accepted boundaries between Good and Evil.
Their alleged victims, and actual accusers, are much harder to categorize. Children were sometimes centrally involved—notoriously so at Salem—but witchcraft evidence came from people of both sexes and all ages. The young had their “fits”; older witnesses had other things of which to complain. Illness, injury, and the loss of property loomed largest in such testimony; but there were reports, too, of strange sights and sounds, of portents and omens, of mutterings and curses—all attributable in some way to the supposed witch. The chances for conviction were greatest when the range of this evidence was wide and the sources numerous. In some cases whole neighborhoods joined the ranks of the accusers.
Usually a trial involved only a single witch, or perhaps two; the events at issue were purely local. A finding of guilt would remove the defendant forever from her community. An acquittal would send her back, but with a clear warning to watch her step. Either way tension was lowered.
Occasionally the situation became more complicated. In Connecticut, during the years from 1662 to 1665, the courts heard a long sequence of witchcraft cases—perhaps as many as a dozen. Some of the accused were eventually executed; others fled for their lives to neighboring colonies. Almost none of the legal evidence has survived; it is known, however, that Connecticut was then experiencing severe problems of religious factionalism. The witch trials may well have been a direct result.
The context for the other wide-scale outbreak is much clearer. Salem, in the closing decades of the seventeenth century, was a town notorious for internal contention. An old guard of village farmers was arrayed against newly prosperous merchants and townsmen. For years, indeed decades, local governance was disrupted: town meetings broke up with important issues unresolved, ministers came and left (out of favor with one side or the other), lawsuits filled the court dockets. Thus when the first sparks of witchcraft were fanned, in a small group of troubled girls, they acted like tinder on a dried-out woodpile. Suspicion led immediately to new suspicion, and accusation to accusation—with results that every schoolchild knows. Soon the conflagration burst the boundaries of Salem itself; eventually it claimed victims throughout eastern Massachusetts. By the time cooler heads prevailed—especially that of the new governor, Sir William Phips—twenty witches had been executed and dozens more were languishing in local jails.
But the Salem trials—to repeat—were highly unusual in their sheer scope: witch-hunting gone wild. In the more typical case, events moved slowly, even carefully, within a limited and intensely personal framework. This dimension of the witchcraft story also deserves close attention.
October, 1688. A cart stops by the roadside in the south part of Boston. A tall man alights and hurries along a pathway toward a small house. A door opens to admit him and quickly closes again. The visitor is Rev. Cotton Mather, a young but already eminent clergyman of the town. The house is occupied by the family of a mason named John Goodwin.
Immediately upon entering, Mather becomes witness to an extraordinary scene. On the parlor floor in front of him two small human forms are thrashing about. A girl of thirteen (named Martha) and a boy of eleven (John, Jr.) are caught in the throes of agonizing fits. Their bodies contort into strange, distended shapes. Their eyes bulge. Their mouths snap open and shut. They shriek uncontrollably. From time to time they affect the postures of animals, and crawl about the room, barking like dogs or bellowing like frightened cows. Their father and several neighbors look on in horror, and try by turns to prevent serious damage to persons or property.
Mather waits for a moment’s lull; then he opens a Bible, kneels, and begins to pray. Immediately the children stop their ears and resume their shrieking. “ They say we must not listen,” cries the girl, while hurling herself toward the fireplace. Her father manages to block the way; briefly he catches her in an awkward embrace. But she reels off and falls heavily on her brother.
Soon it is time for supper. The children quiet temporarily, and come to the table with their elders. However, when food is offered them, their teeth are set as if to lock their mouths shut. Later there are new troubles. The children need assistance in preparing for bed, and they tear their nightclothes fearfully. At last they quiet and pass into a deep sleep.
Mather sits by the fireside and reviews the history of their affliction with the distraught parents. The family is a religious one, and until the preceding summer the children were unfailingly pious and well behaved. Martha’s fits had begun first, John’s soon thereafter; indeed, two still younger children in the family have also been affected from time to time. A physician had been summoned, but he could discover no “natural maladies” at work.
The parents recall an episode that had directly preceded the onset of Martha’s fits. The girl was sent to retrieve some family linen from a laundress who lived nearby. Several items had disappeared, and Martha complained—intimating theft. The laundress angrily denied the charges, and was joined in this by her own mother, an Irishwoman named Glover. Goodwife Glover was already a feared presence in the neighborhood; her late husband, on his deathbed, had accused her of practicing witchcraft. Now she poured out her retaliative anger on young Martha Goodwin. The girl has not been the same since.
Late in the evening, having listened with care to the entire story, Mather prepares to leave. John Goodwin explains that several neighbors have been urging the use of “tricks”—countermagic—to end his children’s difficulties. But Goodwin prefers a strategy based on orthodox Christian principles.
In this Cotton Mather is eager to cooperate. He returns to the Goodwin house each day for a week, and on one particular afternoon he is joined by his fellow clergymen from all parts of Boston. Eventually he invites Martha Goodwin into his own home for a period of intensive pastoral care. (Martha’s younger brother is taken, at the same time, into the home of the minister at Watertown.) Their afflictions continue, though with lessened severity.
Meanwhile the courts intervene and Goodwife Glover is put on trial for her alleged crimes. She has difficulty answering the prosecutor’s questions; she can speak only in her native tongue (Gaelic), so the proceedings must involve interpreters. Her house is searched, and “poppets” are discovered…small images, made of rags, believed to be instrumental in the perpetration of witchcraft. Eventually she confesses guilt and raves wildly in court about her dealings with the Devil. The judges appoint six physicians to assess her sanity; they find her compos mentis. The court orders her execution.
On her way to the gallows Goodwife Glover declares bitterly that the children will not be cured after her death, for “others had a hand in it as well.” And in fact, the fits suffered by Martha and young John increase immediately thereafter. Winter begins, and suspicion shifts to another woman of the neighborhood. However, the new suspect dies suddenly, and under strange circumstances, before she can be brought to trial. At last the children show marked improvement, and by spring they are virtually their former selves. Meanwhile a relieved, and triumphant, Cotton Mather is spending long days in his study, completing a new book that will soon be published under the title Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions . A central chapter deals at length with selected “examples,” and includes the events in which Mather himself has so recently participated. The Goodwin children will be leading characters in a local best seller.
Goodwife Glover was relatively rare, among those accused of witchcraft in early New England, in confessing guilt. Only at Salem did any considerable number choose to convict themselves—and there, it seemed, confession was the strategy of choice if one wished to avoid the gallows. Were Goody Glover’s admissions, in effect, forced out of her? Was she perhaps seriously deranged (the opinion of the court-appointed physicians notwithstanding)? Did she truly believe herself guilty? Had she, in fact, sought to invoke the power of the Devil, by stroking poppets with her spittle—or whatever?
We have no way now to answer such questions; the evidence comes to us entirely through persons who believed—and prosecuted—the case against her. It does seem likely, in a community where virtually everyone accepted the reality of witchcraft, that at least a few would have tried to practice it. In a sense, however, it no longer matters whether specific individuals were guilty as charged. What does matter is that many of them were believed guilty—and that this belief was itself efficacious. As anthropologists have observed in cultures around the world, people who regard themselves as objects of witchcraft are vulnerable to all manner of mischance. They blunder into “accidents,” they lose their effectiveness in work and social relations, they occasionally sicken and die.
No less was true in early New England. The victims of witchcraft—whatever the variety of their particular afflictions—had this in common: they believed beforehand that they had been marked as targets for attack. Their fearful expectation became, at some point, incapacitating—and yielded its own directly feared result. Thus the idea of witchcraft served both as the ad hoc cause of the victim’s troubles and as the post hoc explanation. The process was neatly circular, for each explanation created a further cause—which, in turn, required additional explanation. In the language of modern medicine, these episodes were “symptoms,” and their basis was “psychogenic.”
The seizures of the afflicted children were but the extreme end of the symptomatic continuum. When Martha Goodwin had been drawn into a bitter exchange with a suspected witch, she was left deeply unsettled. She feared retaliation; she wished to retaliate herself; she felt acutely uncomfortable with the anger she had already expressed. Henceforth an anguished “victim” of witchcraft, she was, in effect, punished for her own vengeful impulse. Yet, too, she had her revenge, for her accusations led straight to the trial and conviction of her antagonist. The same inner processes, and a similar blend of wish and fear, served to energize fits in victims of witchcraft all across New England.
But fits could be explained in other ways—hence the requirement that all such victims be examined by medical doctors. Only when natural causes had been ruled out was a diagnosis of witchcraft clearly justified. Normally, beyond this point, clergymen would assume control of the proceedings, for they were “healers of the soul” and experts in the struggle against Evil. Long sessions of prayer, earnest conversation with the afflicted, occasional periods of fasting and humiliation—these were the preferred methods of treatment.
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.”
Similar stories are preserved in the lore of many New England towns. Through them we can trace an enduring interest in the idea of witchcraft and also an unmistakable change. The figure of the witch gradually lost its power to inspire fear. In many towns, for many generations, there were une or two persons suspected of practicing the black arts, but the effects of such practice were discounted. Witches were associated more and more with simple mischief—and less with death and destruction. There was even, as the Moulton story shows, an element of humor in the later lore of witchcraft.
In our own time the wheel has turned full circle. There are many new witches among us —self-proclaimed, and proud of the fact. They haunt our television talk-shows and write syndicated columns for our newspapers. Their witchcraft is entirely constructive —so they assure us —and we are all invited to join in their celebration of things occult. Meanwhile some of the old witches have been rehabilitated.
Hampton, New Hampshire: March 8,1938. A town meeting considers the case of a certain Eunice Cole, whose witchcraft was locally notorious three centuries before. The following motion is made: “ Resolved , that we, the citizens … of Hampton … do hereby declare that we believe that Eunice (Goody) Cole was unjustly accused of witchcraft and familiarity with the Devil in the seventeenth century, and we do hereby restore to the said Eunice (Goody) Cole her rightful place as a citizen of the town of Hampton.” The resolution is passed unanimously. In fact, the legend of Goody Cole has become a cherished part of the local culture. A bronze urn in the town hall holds material purported to be her earthly remains. A stone memorial on the village green affirms her twentieth-century rehabilitation. There are exhibits on her life at the local historical society. There are even some new tales in which she plays a ghostly, though harmless part: an aged figure, in tattered shawl, seen walking late at night along a deserted road, or stopping in the early dawn to peer at gravestones by the edge of the green.
And now an author’s postscript:
Hampton, New Hampshire: October, 1972. The living room in a comfortable house abutting the main street. A stranger has come there, to examine a venerable manuscript held in this family through many generations. Laboriously his eyes move across the page, straining to unravel the cramped and irregular script of a bygone era. Two girls, aged nine or ten, arrive home from school; after a brief greeting they move off into an alcove and begin to play. Awash in the sounds of their game, the stranger looks up from his work and listens. “I’ll be Goody Cole!” cries one of the girls. “Yes,” responds the other, “and I’ll be the one who gives you a whipping—you mean old witch!”
It is a long way from their time to ours, but at least a few of the early New England witches have made the whole journey.