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My Ancestor, The Wizard

July 2024
12min read

Eight generations back, the author discovered a forebear hanging on the family tree

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.

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.

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.

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.

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