A Bewitching of Christmas Past (II)

Samuel Parris. Miniature copy of  brass-framed, color portrait by unknown artist. (Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Deodat Lawson called 1692, when the bewitchings broke out in Salem Village, “those times of Trouble and Distress.”

[The first part of this story is found here.]

Lawson had been the pastor in the little village of Salem until 1688. He was aware that the village was fractious. The only other two ministers the village ever had left under a cloud and community discord. The village didn’t have a collection of leading lights like the neighboring Town of Salem, so the richer farmers frequently failed to recognize duty and had no sense of common good and their social inferiors sometimes failed to act with decorum. When Lawson accepted the pulpit at Salem Village he undoubtedly knew that it was not an ideal position; he probably knew it was not even a secure position, given the short tenure of his predecessors. But he was destined to be a pastor. His father had been a learned Puritan minister in England. So rather than remain in Boston eking out a living outside the church, he accepted the call in 1684 and began an uneventful (or at least unrecorded) tenure. He was never made permanent minister, several townspeople objecting, so after his wife and a daughter died unexpectedly in 1688, he left the village for good and returned to Boston. (Samuel Sewall noted in his diary on May 13, 1688, that Lawson had returned to Boston permanently the previous week. See Part I for the printed source of the diary.)

The village then offered the pulpit to Samuel Parris. The negotiation over compensation took an inordinate amount of time, but Parris eventually began his ministry there in 1689.

It is hard to tell who was at fault, but Parris and his congregation were at odds almost from the start. Perhaps it had to do with the lengthy negotiations over the terms of his engagement. He was quite particular about how the non-cash portion of his compensation should be handled in the event specie became more available, how his reimbursements for such things as firewood would be adjusted in the event of a price rise in the commodity, and how he could wring compensation from those attending the services who lived outside the parish. Unfortunately, perhaps showing why he failed as a merchant in Barbados and then again in Boston, he was later unable to show any document memorializing the agreement. He therefore had to explain in his law suit years later that after he agreed to the terms “I left them, fully acquiescing with my aforsaid conditions, not doubting but that they had truly entered it on the records, as I took for granted, nor heard any thing otherwise, till after my ordination a good while, in another public meeting of ye village; when another vote, recorded and read, vastly different from the agreement, as above said—which I then openly did, and still must deny, to be any contract of mine.” (Samuel P. Fowler, An Account of the Life, Character, &c. of the Rev. Samuel Parris, of Salem Village, and of his Connection with the Witchcraft Delusion of 1692 (Salem: William Ives & George W. Pease: 1857), p 3.) On the other hand, the villagers, or at least the committee whose job it was to raise taxes to support the minister, dragged their feet in providing firewood and repairing the Meeting House; it took a court order to create a committee that would set rates. Perhaps the conclusion that there was some unusual conflict between minister and congregation is simply wrong. Parris lasted many years longer than the previous occupants of the post. He remained in Salem Village well past the witchcraft crisis and, despite the lawsuits, stayed until 1697.

Perkins on Witchcraft

But even if Parris was no more disputatious or doctrinally idiosyncratic than most Puritan clergy (certainly no more than Salem Village had so far encountered), there is no denying that the crisis began in his household. Not only did his 11 year old niece Abigail Williams and his 9 year old daughter Elizabeth (“Betty”) become the first of those children under attack, his female West Indian slave Tituba became the immediate subject of suspicion. Yet he did not start the criminations. At first he didn’t even assign the cause to witchcraft. When the children began having seizures and convulsions, Parris called in Dr. William Griggs. In the past Griggs had occasionally attributed symptoms to satanic influence. This time he sought advice of others. Eventually it was concluded that the behavior was the result of witchcraft. Parris, evidently surprised, tried to keep the diagnosis secret, while he consulted the definitive Puritan work on witchcraft—William Perkins, A Discourse of the Damned … ([Cambridge, Eng?]: Cantrell Legge: 1609). Unlike the superstitious work on witches written by James I (who still holds the record among English monarchs for number of witches hanged) and certainly unlike the papist tracks that had been published since before the time of Luther, Perkins anchored his assertions in biblical references and subjected folk tales to rigorous analysis. Parris also had in his library Cotton Mather’s case history of Martha Goodwin. By the time of the diagnosis, however, Parris was no longer in control of the situation. One of his paritioners, Mary Sibley (who apparently thought Tituba the source of the evil), directed John Indian (Tituba’s husband) to use conjury to learn who the witches were. When Parris learned of this he testified to the error of this course of proceeding at Sabbath meeting. “Upon Mary Sibley’s manifest sorrow and grief for her conduct, the brethren of the church received satisfaction.”  (Fowler, 5-6).

Puritans search for witch teats. Examination of a Witch by T.H. Matteson (1853). (Peabody Essex Museum)

It was, however, now too late. Hell having literally broken out in Salem Village, it was a matter for the magistrates. Women (including Tituba) had already been arrested on the testimony of children (and more were being afflicted). At the beginning of March, Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, now in custody, were examined for the peculiar physical characteristic that betrayed witches to Puritans—the witch’s teat. This method of identifying witches was the preferred method of the Puritan’s chief witch hunter during the English Civil War, Matthew Hopkins (he said he occupied the non-existent office of Witchfinder General). In The Discovery of Witches … ([London?]: 1647) Hopkins explained how to differentiate between a witch’s teat and “other naturall excressencies, as Hemerodes, Piles, Childbearing …” Once correctly identified Hopkins advised that the witch be kept awake for several days until the imps that she had suckled came to her rescue or to suckle again. This not only positively identified a witch, it often led to the identification of more witches. Hopkins’s method deserved the greatest respect because he and his associate had sent more witches to the gallows in England than all other prosections in England for the previous century and a half.

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Village of Salem, 1692 from Upham’s Salem Witchcraft, With an Account of Salem Village and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Spirits (1867). For a key to the locations of additional points not contained on the map legend itself, see Note at the foot of this post.

The discoveries, accusations, confessions and identification of confederates netted a dock of defendants that kept increasing like a mat of algae on a stagnant pond. Reverend Lawson came just after the second group of defendants were being rounded up. A decade later when he had reprinted the sermon he would deliver in Salem Village during his visit, he explained that he had come because report reached him of the suffering of his former parishioners and the more readily because the first person afflicted was in the minister’s family. He came, he said, “in pitty therefore to my Christian Friends, and former Acquaintance there, I was much concerned about them, frequently consulted with them, and fervently (by Divine Assistance) prayed for them; but especially my Concern was augmented, when it was Reported, at an Examination of a Person suspected for Witchcraft, that my Wife and Daughter, who Dyed Three Years before, were sent out of the World under the Malicious Operations of the Infernal Powers …” (Christ’s Fidelity the Only Shield Against Satan’s Malignity … (2d ed. London: R. Tokey: 1704), p. 95 (Appendix).) In his first account, published immediately after his visit, he makes no mention of this motive or the visions of his wife and daughter the bewitched testified about, however.

The night Lawson arrived, Saturday, March 19, he went directly to Deacon Ingersoll, who ran a tavern located between the meeting house and parsonage in the Village center. Ingersoll was one of the original deacons of the village parish, going back to they days of the dispute with the first minister, James Bayley. Mary Walcot, 17 year old daughter of village militia commander Capt. Jonathan Walcott (on the other side of the parsonage on Meetinghouse Road) who was one of the bewitched girls (the more skeptical called them “afflicted”), came to see him. While they were talking she let out a scream. Lawson examined her wrist under candlelight, and lo!, there were teeth marks, upper and lower respectively on each side of her arm, as if she had been bitten on the wrist. (The account of Lawson is from A Brief and True Narrative Of some Remarkable Passages Relating to sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village Which happened from the Nineteenth of March, to the Fifth of April, 1692 (Boston: Benjamin Harris: 1692) reprinted in Burr, Narratives  of the Witchcraft Cases [full cite in Part I], 145-164.)

Lawson visited Parson Parris that evening. They probably then arranged that Lawson would deliver the weekly lecture that Thursday. Perhaps they even compared experiences about various of the parishioners. But what Lawson recorded was seeing Abigail Williams running about with arms extended crying out, “Whish, whish, whish!” Puritan children simply didn’t do that. Abigail said she could see Rebecca Nurse, who was telling her to touch “the book.” (Touching “the book” became a theme of the torments of the Salem children, but was not encountered by Cotton Mather with the Goodwin children.) The specter of Rebecca Nurse caused Abigail to run to the fireplace, pickup firebrands and hurl them all over the house. This visitation would eventually result in Goodwife Nurse’s death warrant.

Sabbath meeting the next morning resembled what a great Puritan pamphleteer and poet once called Pandæmonium. The ones thus far afflicted were there: Mrs. Pope, Ann Putnam, Goodwife Bibber from Wenham, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcot, Mercy Lewes and Dr. Griggs’ maid, Elizabeth Hubbard. Lawson witnessed them all have “several Sore Fits, in the time of Publick Worship,” which distracted him during his First Prayer. But even more remarkable Abigail Williams called out, in the middle of the sermon, “Look where Goodw[ife] C[orey] sits on the beam sucking her Yellow bird betwixt her fingers!” right in front of Martha Corey.

The next day Lawson witnessed the examination of Corey. Presiding Judge John Hathorne had risen to the position of chief magistrate of the colony by demonstrating the characteristics most valued in a devout, lawyer-hating Puritan society: he was devout and he had neither the skill nor the sense of justice and fair play of a lawyer. He did not conceive his role at this stage as finding the truth, but rather to prosecute. And he wasn’t even good at that. His chief weapon was the compound or loaded question, followed by an accusation of perjury if he didn’t get the answer he wanted. If Hathorne had ever read any law (and it is unlikely he ever did), he would have found that he most resembled Hanging Judge Jeffreys of the Bloody Assizes. Ironic, no?, how the last vestiges of New Jerusalem’s old government was exercised just like its counterpart in England, where it supported an absolutist Catholic monarch. Hathorne’s partiality, his lack of lawyering skills, his temper were all on display for those in attendance at the Meeting House, which, Lawson notes, “was Thronged with Spectators.” And no one watching wanted him to act any differently.

He denied Corey’s request to pray. Hathorne: “they came not there to hear her Pray, but to Examine her.”

The “afflicted,” 10 in all (Mrs. Pope, Ann Putnam Sr., Goodwife Bibber, Ancient Mrs. Goddall, the three maids Mary Walcot, Mercy Lewes and Elizabeth Hubbard and the three children Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam Jr.) all (or the ones there, Parris is not clear which ones), “did vehemently accuse her of Afflicting them, by Biting, Pinching, Strangling, etc. And they said, they did in their Fits see her likeness coming to them, and bringing a Book for them to Sign …”

Hathorn asked: “why she Afflicted those Children?”

Corey: “she did not Afflict them.”

Hatorn: “who did then?”

Corey: “I do not know, how should I know?” she said, “they were Poor Distracted Creatures, and no heed to be given to what they said.”

Hathorn (with Nicholas Noyes, minister at Salem Town): “it was the Judgment of all that were there present, that they were bewitched, and only she (the Accused) said they were Distracted.”

And so it went. The spectators saw even more marvels: whenever Martha Corey made any sort of visible body movement, the bewitched would suffer pain or evidence a contortion in exactly the same place. There could be no more convincing proof for this court. They put her in prison, and the “afflictions” appeared to recede.

On Wednesday, March 23, Lawson visited Ann Putnam, Sr. She was recovering from a fit, but asked him to pray for her though the apparition told her not to. When he did, she fell into another fit during which she battled with Satan over a text, this one Revelations 3. When Reverend Lawson read it, she recovered. Lawson learned that often she would call for a text, and after the reading of it, she would revive.

Thursday, before lecture, Lawson went to see another marvel. Rebecca Nurse was being examined. Only the Putnams (Ann Sr., Ann Jr.) and Abigail Williams acted as accusers. Mary Walcot denied having any incriminating knowledge against her. (Edward Putnam, the other old time deacon, would later tell Lawson that Mary Walcot had “signed the book.”) The examination proceeded much as did Martha Corey’s, but this time with Ann Putnam’s fits taking on a more prominent role. Reverend Lawson could not stay for the whole proceeding (he was giving the day’s lecture), but on his way out he heard “such an hideous scietch and noise” as did amaze him. He missed the most marvelous thing of all that day. While Lawson had been attending to Mrs. Putnam, Samuel Brabrook (deputized by Essex County Marshall George Herrick) had arrested 4 year old Dorcas Good, daughter of one of the first arrested, the homeless and destitute Sarah Good. The little girl was brought in for her initial questioning, during which time whenever she simply looked at one of the afflicted, “they were tormented.” Lawson remembered seeing the child at Ingersoll’s. He recalled “the child looked hail, as well as other child.” The next day he would see her tell the magistrates that a snake sucked her finger. When they found a small mark like a mosquito bite, they asked her where the snake came from. Her answer—that her mother gave it to her—constituted the death sentence for Sarah Good.

That afternoon Reverend Lawson delivered the one sermon that he published for posterity: “Christ’s Fidelity the Only Shield against Satan’s Malignity.” It was his singular claim to fame, one that he would burnish and expand for publication first in Boston, then in London when he returned in 1704, before he would disappear into obscurity only once again noticed by history when his father referred to himself in 1727 as “the father of the unhappy Mr. Deodate Lawson, who came hither from New England.”

Lawson’s text was Zachariah 3:2: “And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” To Larson, the outbreak of satanism was a judgment on the  entire community.

“You are therefore to be deeply humbled, and sit in the dust Considering. First, The signal hand of God, in singling out this place, this poor Village, for the first seat of Satans Tyranny, and to make it (as ’twere) the Rendezvous of Devils, where they Muster their infernal forces appearing to the afflicted, as coming Armed, to carry on their malicious designs, against the Bodies, and if God in mercy prevent not, against the Souls of many in this place. Great Afflictions, attended with Remarkable Circumstances, do surely call for, more than ordinary degrees of Humiliation.” (2d ed. (London), cited above, p 62.)

Perhaps his brief experience with the method of examination caused him some doubts. Or perhaps he was drawing on his knowledge that this community had been riven with disputes from its very inception. Or maybe it was just a rhetorical flourish, but he did caution them that some innocents might be under false accusation:

“It cannot but be matter of deep humiliation, to such as are Innocent, that the Righteous and Holy GOD, should permit them to be named, in such pernicious and unheard of practices, and not only so, but that HE who cannot but do right, should suffer the stain of suspected Guilt, to be as it were Rubbed on, and Soaked in, by many sore and amazing Circumstances; and it is matter of soul abasement, to all that are in the Bond of GOD’s Holy Covenant in this place, that Satans seat should be amongst them, where he attempts to set up his Kingdom, in opposition to Christ’s Kingdom, and to take some of the Visible Subjects of our LORD JESUS, and use at least their shapes and appearances, instrumentally, to Afflict and Torture, other Visible Subjects of the same Kingdom. Surely his design is, that CHRIST’s Kingdom, may be Divided against it self, that being thereby weakened, he may the better take Opportunity to set up his own Accursed powers and Dominions. It calls aloud then, to all in this place, in the Name of the Blessed JESUS and words of his Holy Apostle; 1 Pet. 5. 6. Humble your selves under the mighty hand of God, thus lift up in the midst of you, and he shall Exalt,Save, and Deliver you, in due time.” (pp. 62-63.)

But having seen the suffering that they inflicted upon the bewitched, Lawson’s great condemnation is saved for the witches themselves.

“[I]t is a most dreadful thing to consider, that any should change the Service of GOD, for the service of the Devil, the worship of the Blessed GOD for the worship of the Cursed Enemy, of GOD and Man. But Oh! (which is yet a thousand times worse) how shall I name it? If any that are in the Visible Covenant of God, should break that Covenant, and make a League with Satan, if any that have set down and eat at CHRIST’s Table should so lift up their Heel against him, as to have Fellowship at the Table of Devils; and (as it hath been represented to some of the Afflicted) Eat of the Bread, and Drink of the Wine, that Satan hath mingled. … All Mankind is now (as well by Gods Authority, as their own Interest) set against you. You have proclaimed your selves Mortal Enemies to all men, and they cannot but Mortally Hate and Abominate you. If you are in League with the DESTROYER, what is said of Ishmael is true, not only of Satan, but also of you, Gen. 16. 12. His Hand will be against every man and every mans hand against him: So every mans hand is, and will be against you, to Accuse, Condemn, Destroy and cut you off, from the Land of the Living.” (pp 65, 66)

So now, a minister of the gospel, who watched the very legal inquisition that Salem Village had just set up, and who saw the kind of evidence produced and the nature of the questions by the magistrates, now fully instructed them at formal lecture that it was their duty to kill those found guilty. If there were those with scruples, they had no religious authority to point to.

Reverend Parris had been avoiding public expression of his views to this point. It is possible he was using Lawson as a stalking horse. It is conceivable that he was genuinely unsure. Or it might have been that he was afraid that public accusation might be pointed at his direction since the two girls in his house were the first bewitched. He took his daughter Betty out of the village over to the care of Capt. Stephen Sewall in Salem (brother of the Samuel Sewall of Boston we saw in our last part), possibly for this reason. Lawson would spend another week in the village. He undoubtedly frequently consulted with Parris. What they discussed was not recorded by Lawson in his first published accounts (A Brief and True Narrative …) or in his abridged re-write a decade later in London (the Appendix to Christ’s Fidelity the Only Shield … (1704)). But the examinations kept apace, the public fits of the bewitched were becoming more fantastic and the apparitions were spelling out a narrative that many wanted and other feared to hear. By the end of Lawson’s stay, Parris took to the pulpit, on Sabbath April 3, and his text was John 6:70: “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (Fowler, 5-6). Parris was now all in. It was past time to stop the examinations, even if Parris could have. But he probably couldn’t have. Parris, former sugar plantation owner, merchant, Caribbean slaver, Boston businessman, had no background in moral authority. The only thing he stood up for against the Putnams and the other powers of Salem Village was his own compensation. But this was something different altogether. It was something that even ministers had no power to stop if they were even inclined. At this point it was safest simply to go wither the wind bloweth. Especially since in all likelihood the powerful ministers from Boston, the Mathers, would come down against the accused. With all these forces aligned the same way, it would be fatal for a minister to get in the way, as we’ll see in the next part. (Part III can be found here.)

NOTE: Some of the additional points (referred by number or letter) on Upham’s map, not included in the legend on the map (accused witch; “afflicted”):  2. Isaac [and Mary] Easty; 40. Alexander [and Sarah] Osborne; 5. William [and Deliverance and Abigail] Hobbs; 23. Edward Putnam; 24. Thomas [and Ann Sr. and daughter Ann Jr.] Putnam (servant Mercy Lewes); 42. George [and granddaughter Margaret] Jacobs; 43. Peter [and Sarah] Cloyce; 59. Samuel Brabrook; 83. Dr. William Griggs (and maid Elizabeth Hubbard);  95. Francis [and Rebecca] Nurse; 118. Gertrude [and her son John and his wife] Pope; 128. Giles [and Martha] Corey. In the Town of Salem (lower right hand corner): A. Judge Jonathan Corwin; D. Stephen Sewall (brother of Samuel); G. Judge John Hathorne; I. Bridget Bishop; W. “Witch Hill” (hanging ground). All the points are as identified by Charles Wentworth Upham, see the display hosted by the University of Virginia.


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