A Bewitching of Christmas Past (V)

The Witch of Endor conjures the shade of Samuel for Saul.  L’ombre de Samuel apparaissant à Saül chez la pythonisse d’Endor. Oil on canvas by Salvator Rosa (1668). (Louvre).

Cotton Mather wasn’t the first to see witches as manifestations of things from the unseen world. Mather certainly knew the Biblical references to witches. Saul supposedly consulted the Witch of Endor the night before his death. Paul told the Galatians that witchcraft was one of the “works of the flesh” which also included: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. (Galatians 5:19-21.) The Law of Moses decreed that “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18.) After Saul committed the great sin of failing to kill every living thing among the Amalekites, Samuel rebuked him and said that his “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry …” (I Samuel 15:23.) The Catholic Church, which had previously condemned the belief in witches as pagan, experienced a riot of witches and other demons right as Europe slid into its age of Great Famines and Black Death at the beginning of the 14th Century. Martin Luther, like his mother, was frequently bothered by witches and other demons. At a Table-Talk Luther said:

“I should have no compassion on these witches; I would burn all of them. We read in the old law, that the priests threw the first stone at such malefactors. … Our ordinary sins offend and anger God. What, then, must be his wrath against witchcraft, which we may justly designate high treason against divine majesty, a revolt against the infinite power of God. … Does not witchcraft, then, merit death, which is a revolt of the creature against the Creator, a denial to God of the authority it accords to the demon?” (DLXXXI (August 25, 1538), William Hazlitt (ed. & trans.), p 251 (London: David Bogue: 1848).)

[Previous parts of this story can be found at Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.]

“What are these/ So wither’d and so wild in their attire,/ That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,/ And yet are on’t?” Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath by Théodore Chassériau (1855) (Musée d’Orsay).

In Scotland, then England, James I (James VI of Scotland) revived capital prosecutions for witchcraft and even wrote a treatise on the subject, Daemonology, in Forme of a Dialogue … (Edinburgh: Robert Walde-graue: 1597). The new interest in witches is evident in the opening scene of the play about the Scottish King Macbeth. Thomas Middleton (who revised Macbeth to include two songs from his own The Witch (1615) and possibly all the Hecate scenes), portrayed witches as malevolent but necessary for the social structure because the elites depended on their power.

The Puritans, who produced several scholarly works on witches, removed the non-scriptural superstition from the study of witches, and emerged, in time for the Commonwealth, the Protestant version of the witch, a human who consciously engages with Satan to become part of his Anti-Elect usually in exchange for some preternatural power—a concept approved by the most eminent Puritan authority, and ready-made for consumption in New Jerusalem. Direful times produce revels of demons and witches, and the great war with the Indians—while the founding of Plymouth was still in the living memory of some—was evidence of God withdrawing his providential hand from the Saints. There was no doubt that God had to have withdrawn his protection, because as Increase Mather said: “it is not beyond Satans power to effect such things, if the great God give him leave, without whose leave he cannot blow a feather, much less raise a thunder-storm.”  An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences: Wherein an Account is given of many Remarkable and very Memorable Events, which have hapned this last Age, Especially In New-England (Boston: Samuel Green for Joseph Browning: 1684), (“Illustrious Providences“), p 89 [page citations will be to the Offor edition (London: John Russell Smith: 1856)].

Increase Mather wrote Illustrious Providences in the midst of an extended spate of enthusiasm induced by having seen two comets. He convinced himself that something God said to Moses (Exodus 4:8) was intended to explain what he saw. After immersing himself in the “literature” of comets (and even looking through Harvard’s telescope), he wrote Kometographia, Or a Discourse Concerning Comets (Boston: S[amuel]G[reen] for S[amuel]S[ewall]:  1683). He collected supposed correlations between comet appearances and cataclysmic events through history and drew conclusions about God’s agency. ((Michael G. Hall, The Last American Puritan (Wesleyan U. Press: c1988), pp 158-71.) His brother, Nathaniel Mather, a minister in Dublin, found the entire enterprise preposterous: “I am perswaded Comets doe no more portend than Eclipses, and Eclipses no more than the constant conjunctions of the sun & moon, that is, just nothing at all.” (Collections of Mass Hist Soc’y, 4th ser., Vol 8, at 49 (1866).) None discouraged, he took up a plan to assemble all the prodigies of New England (and some of England) in Illustrious Providences. He edited and included the most incredible anecdotes with the purpose of stemming the increasing secular and materialist outlook of the age. What resulted was arguably the most incoherent and unpersuasive book ever written by a Harvard President. He clearly wrote for the already convinced because he made no attempt to hide that he is proving his conclusions solely by the assumption he made before accumulating the proof. “We have seen amongst ourselves that the Lords faithful servants have sometimes been the subjects of very dismal dispensations. … Such things sometimes fall upon those that are dear unto God, to intimate, ‘If this be done to the green tree, what shall be done to the dry? that is, fit for nothing but the fire.'” (pp 239-40; cf. Luke 23:31, a description of end of days’ calamities.) So why make such a list? “[A] judgement may be so circumstanced as that the displeasure of Heaven is plainly written upon it in legible characters; on which account it is said, ‘That the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men,’ Rom. i, 18.” (p 240.) Thus, when a young man is converted to Quakerism on Long Island and vows to use his tongue like a pen in the cause, the discovery of his body by the sea-side with holes like knife wounds in his neck, his eye having been popped out and his tongue removed shows a divine judgment (evidently because God acts like an assassin to Quakers) (pp 241-43). The book is replete with evidence of divine signs such as this, from miraculous sea rescues (pp 1-22); to survival after hideous injuries from accidents and Indian depredations (pp 23-50); and to lightning stories (pp 51-95).

But the book would hardly be remembered today were it not for its collection of witch and possession stories. The bewitching of Ann Cole of Hartford in 1662 was the first story.  During her fits a demon took possession of her speech for periods of time, after which she had no recollection. In some of these possessions she spoke with a Dutch accent even though she was not “familiarly acquainted” with the Dutch family in town. She was watched during these fits and several people copied down what she said, which led to one Greensmith, “a lewd and ignorant woman,” who was already in prison on suspicion of witchcraft (pp 96-97). When Goldsmith was confronted with the discourse of the bewitched Cole, she confessed her (and others’) “familiarity with the devil.” She had been seduced by Satan, who at first appeared to her as a fawn skipping about her. She always went with him when he asked, and the devil promised they would have a “merry meeting” on that most frightful of non-Puritan holidays, Christmas, when they planned to subscribe to their accord. The witch’s tale (and its ending) came right out of witch tales of the Thirty Years’ War (and before):

“she said that the devil had frequently the carnal knowledge of her body; and that the witches had meetings at a place not far from her house; and that some appeared in one shape, and others in another; and one came flying amongst them in the shape of a crow. Upon this confession, with other concurrent evidence, the woman was executed; so likewise was her husband, though he did not acknowledge himself guilty. Other persons accused in the discourse made their escape.” (p 98.)

Needless to say, this cured Ann Cole. The rest were stories of hauntings, possessions and preternatural happenings of even greater dubiety. Mather next gathered from the Lives of the (Protestant) Saints (e.g., of Luther’s dealings with demons),  classical historians (Pliny), and even profane poetry (Ovid) to set out tales of possessions, including that of the werewolf, Lycanthropos (p 123). Demonic possession, Mather said, was a fact conceded by all, but there was a rising tide of rationalism that opposed the belief in witches.

Reginald Scot, MP and country squire, published a very forward-looking book to disprove witchcraft (on religious and evidentiary grounds), The discouerie of witchcraft wherein the lewde dealing of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, the knauerie of coniurors, the impietie of inchantors, the follie of soothsaiers, the impudent falshood of cousenors, the infidelitie of atheists, the pestilent practises of pythonists, the curiositie of figurecasters, the vanitie of dreamers, the beggerlie art of alcumystrie, the abhomination of idolatrie, the horrible art of poisoning, the vertue and power of naturall magike, and all the conueiances of legierdemaine and iuggling are deciphered: and many other things opened, which have long lien hidden, howbeit verie necessarie to be knowne (London: [Henry Denham for] William Brome: 1584). The publication was such a devastating and persuasive condemnation of the widespread (and unremarked) execution of social misfits and the mentally ill that James I rounded up the copies that could be found and burned them. The King, who presided over witch executions in Scotland would go on to become the leading English witch-killing monarch. Scot’s book reappeared in 1651, 1654 and then again in 1665 (edited to make it more equivocal, however).

wagstaffeAn even more powerful book appeared in 1671: John Wagstaffe, The Question Of Witchcraft Debated. Or a Discourse against their Opinion that affirm Witches (London: [?]: 1669) (an expanded version was printed for Edw. Millington in 1671). The book not only compiled the latest rational thinking, it more importantly offered a rationale explaining the church’s obsession with such prosecutions: keeping its own grip on power.

Although Mather tried to stem this tide of materialist thinking attacking belief in witchcraft, his arguments are frequently interrupted by long equivocal digressions (as though he couldn’t help being at least partly a materialist skeptic). In the end his efforts add up to no more than a scholastic piling up of medieval authorities. Mather would soon be rid of this particular enthusiasm as colony politics engaged his attention, but whether the book entertained or enlightened anyone, it at least accomplished two things. First, Mather gathered a list from other authorities and defined, codified if you will, the acceptable evidence of possession (as distinguished from mental illness or epilepsy):

“1. If the party concerned shall reveal secret things, either past or future, which without supernatural assistance could not be known, it argueth possession.
“2. If he does speak with strange languages, or discover skill in arts and sciences never learned by him.
“3. If he can bear burthens, and do things which are beyond humane strength.
“4. Uttering words without making use of the organs of speech, when persons shall be heard speaking, and yet neither their lips nor tongues have any motion, tis a sign that an evil spirit speaketh in them.
“5. When the body is become inflexible.
“6. When the belly is on a sudden puft up, and instantly flat again.” (p 121.)

These signs, singly or in any combination, would be used to identify both a bewitching (so that the accusers testimony would be trusted) and the conduct of witches who actually consorted with Satan (so that they could be executed). But more importantly the book influenced the thinking of his son, Cotton, and directed his career orientation.

The whole line of Mathers, notwithstanding the Honor Thy Father injunction, had strained father-son relationships. Increase’s dispute with his own father erupted into open theological warfare over the colony-wide dispute concerning infant baptism. (It probably did not help that Increase’s wife became his step-sister when his father married the widow of Reverend John Cotton, Maria’s father.) Increase would only come to terms with his father, after the latter’s death, when Increase wrote his biography: The life and death of that Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather, teacher of the church in Dorchester in New-England (Cambridge: Printed by S[amuel] G[reen] & M[armaduke] J[ohnson]: 1670). Increase was distant to his oldest son, Cotton. He tried to persuade his congregation at North Church not to hire Cotton when he graduated from Harvard. When they did nonetheless, he delayed Cotton’s ordination for three years. (Hall, above, pp 175-77.) Cotton doubtless duly revered his father, but his effort to please his father by displaying his own brilliance had the exact opposite effect. In many ways he was more talented; he was more nimble intellectually and had a greater facility with languages. He was also more analytic. But he displayed his facilities too overtly, and he too frequently flaunted his erudition. This grated on old time Puritans, who appreciated Increase’s sparse and direct style. Sewall found disgust in a Thursday lecture by Cotton, “for some expressions; as, sweet sented hands of Christ, Lord High Treasurer of Æthiopia, Ribband of Humility — which was sorry for, because of the excellency and seasonableness of the subject, and otherwise well handled.” (January 28, 1685/6, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th series, vol 5 (1878), pp 119-20.)

Increase himself saw his son’s growing abilities and acceptance by newer, less severe, churchmen as a sign of his own obsolescence. He dramatically reminded Cotton and his congregation of his imminent demise frequently. While he on the one hand was postponing Cotton’s ordination, he preached a sermon (in August 1684) about how Hezekiah fought against his own death (just as Increase had just done) probably, suggested Increase, because he “had no son to succeed him, so that if God had taken him away, there must have been great Trouble in the Kingdom.” (Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (NY: Harper & Row: c1970), p 43.) Puritans, it seems, were not above passive aggression.

Cotton responded to this kind of withholding of support by having constant bouts of self-doubt. Even after his ordination, Cotton would frequently point out his own lack of merit and experience in his addresses. Even if it were an affectation, at least Increase had impressed upon him the need for modesty.

With Increase on his mission to the king, Cotton would now have to fill a vacuum. It was not just the absence of the senior pastor of North Church, and the patriarch of his family, although that created doubts enough in Cotton’s mind. The entire society was being transformed, against its will, into something unlike its original Errand into the Wilderness. The Church was unmoored from government and had been ever since the colony was notified the charter was annulled. The Book of Common Prayer had been read from the pulpit! There was an enforced tolerance for the unorthodox that would inexorably pull apart the very tightly wound bonds that held this society together. It was already showing itself in the tendency not only toward secularization and materialism, but more disturbing to churchmen, toward immorality. Dancing (even lessons during Thursday lectures!), theater, out-of-wedlock births, prostitution, Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, cursing, brawls—all this and more seemed on the rise. But the most serious problems were Governor Andros and his factotum Randolph, both of whom were set on reducing the power of the Puritans and both felt the Mathers were seditious.

Randolph had tried to ruin Cotton’s father, perhaps on direct order of Andros. To this point, at every turning point in his life Mather had been filled with self-doubt, often crippling. But although Cotton Mather had never been tested by adversity before, he was able to thread the Valley of the Shadow of Death while standing for ancient Puritan freedoms. He sided with the older ministers against the new regime, he assisted in drafting manifestos and propaganda, he included ambiguous sentiments in sermons that could encourage resistance. He was able to avoid Randolph’s snares long enough. On the day the warrant was issued to arrest him for libel (it was for a Puritan critique of the Book of Common Prayer printed anonymously) word came of the Glorious Revolution. The tables had turned on Andros and Randolph, who were both arrested. It was now that Mather’s agency in the resistance became apparent. And Randolph in custody was able to watch Mather write out orders, like a revolutionary committee of safety member (see Silverman, above, at 71). It was no small risk to depose the lawful authority, even Stuart nominees after the ascension of William and Mary. In New York Lieutenant Governor Francis Nicholson was deposed under a similar claim of supporting the new King and Queen. But for all that, it resulted in the execution of the leader, Jacob Leisler.

But politics was not the only legacy of his father that Mather pursued. Not long after Increase departed, leaving his son in his Slough of Despond, Mather heard of the distress of the Goodwin family (see Part I). What he heard was a story right out of Illustrious Providences. The children suffered violent seizures, exhibited inhuman contortions and explained their torments in horrifying detail. But what truly astonished Mather was that they completely rejected the core of Puritan organization: submission. That had to be Satanic:

“Upon the least Reproof of their Parents for any unfit thing they said or did, most grievous woful Heart-breaking Agonies would they fall into. If any useful thing were to be done to them, or by them, they would have all sorts of Troubles fall upon them. It would sometimes cost one of them an Hour or Two to be undrest in the evening, or drest in the morning. For if any one went to unty a string, or undo a Button about them, or the contrary; they would be twisted into such postures as made the thing impossible. And at Whiles, they would be so managed in their Beds, that no Bed-clothes could for an hour or two be laid upon them; nor could they go to wash their Hands, without having them clasp’t so odly together, there was no doing of it. But when their Friends were near tired with Waiting, anon they might do what they would unto them. Whatever Work they were bid to do, they would be so snap’t in the member which was to do it, that they with grief still desisted from it. If one ordered them to Rub a clean Table, they were able to do it without any disturbance; if to rub a dirty Table, presently they would with many Torments be made uncapable. And sometimes, tho but seldome, they were kept from eating their meals, by having their Teeth sett when they carried any thing unto their Mouthes.” C. Mather, Memorable Provinces in Burr, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases (full cite in Part I), at 109.

John Goodwin did not attend North Church; his church was in Charlestown, but he requested his minister as well as the four Boston ministers (Mather among them) to come to his house to pray over his daughter, who had been suffering for three months. Goodwin himself explained a parent’s stark terror: “she was not only tormented in her Body, but was in great distress of Mind, Crying out, That she was in the dark concerning her Souls estate, and that she had mispent her precious time; She and we thinking her time was near at an end.” (Id. at  126-27.) Whatever other result flowed from Mather’s involvement in the Goodwin case, he made them a family of loyal adherents. In 1690 John and his wife were made members of North Church. Later his children would follow their lead. His eldest son Nathaniel (the one not involved in the bewitchings) would become an administrator of Mather’s estate. John Goodwin, a mason, was not a typical parishioner of North Church, the richest and most conservative of the Boston churches. (Mather’s condescension seeped through his description of the written memorial Goodwin provided of Mather’s good offices, which Mather called “Discourse by an Hand used only to the Trowel” (id. at 126). Mather, Harvard graduate, descendent of renowned divines on both parents’ sides, pronounced him “a sober and pious man.” A dozen years later, when the enlightened opinion prevailed that the prosecution of the supposed witches was flawed and that their executions were judicial murder, Goodwin (now a member of Mather’s church) offered a certificate (in 1701) defending Mather:

“[Mather] never gave me the least advice, neither face to face nor by way of epistles, neither directly nor indirectly; but the motion of going to the authority was made to me by a minister of a neighboring town, now departed; and matters were managed by me, in prosecution of the supposed criminal, wholly without the advice of any minister or lawyer, or any other person. The ministers would now and then come to visit my distressed family, and pray with and for them, among which Mr. Cotton Mather would now and then come, and go to prayer with us. Yet all that time he never advised me to anything concerning the law, or trial of the accused person; but after that wicked woman had been condemned about a fortnight, Mr. Cotton Mather invited one of my children to his house; and within a day or two after that the woman was executed.” William Frederick Poole, Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft (Cambridge: University Press: Welch, Bigelow & Co.: 1869), p 20.

When he visited the convicted witch Ann Glover, Mather took for granted that she was guilty:

“She never denyed the guilt of the Witchcraft charg’d upon her; but she confessed very little about the Circumstances of her Confederacies with the Devils; only, she said, That she us’d to be at meetings, which her Prince and Four more were present at. As for those Four, She told who they were; and for her Prince, her account plainly was, that he was the Devil.” (Mather, Memorable Providences, in Burr at 106.)

To Mather, this woman—who he claimed to visit for her spiritual comfort—was a Hag. The evidence against her was “spectral” (i.e., testimony by the bewitched or others that her likeness appeared to them and threatened or actually harmed the witness), but Mather did not object to it in his retelling. Beside being “spectral,” it was ancient double hearsay:

“[O]ne of her Neighbours had been giving in her Testimony of what another of her Neighbours had upon her Death related concerning her. It seems one Howen about Six years before, had been cruelly bewitched to Death; but before she died, she called one Hughes unto her. Telling her that she laid her Death to the charge of Glover; That she had seen Glover sometimes come down her Chimney; That she should remember this, for within this Six years she might have Occasion to declare it.” (Id. at 105.)

When Hughes was called to give testimony, her own child became sick, just like the Goodwin children. This too was charged to Glover.

Glover’s confession was equivocal, even if it was accurately translated (she spoke only Irish), describing her Prince and other host, she was so incoherent that even the magistrates—no civil libertarians, as we have seen—asked a group of doctors to determine her competence. (There was never a vast supply of formally trained doctors in Boston, so the group probably included apprentices and clerics with some training in medicine.) The doctors opined that she was compos mentis. Boston merchant Robert Calef, who watched the hysteria turn from one injustice to another, had a more trenchant assessment: “In the times of sir Edmond Andros’s government, Goody Glover, a despised, crazy, ill-conditioned old woman, an Irish Roman Catholic, was tried for afflicting Goodwin’s children; by the account of which trial, taken in short hand for the use of the jury, it may appear that the generality of her answers were nonsense, and her behaviour like that of one distracted.” (Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World or The Wonders of the Invisible World Displayed (Printed in London, 1700, reprinted in Salem by John D. & T.C. Cushing, Jr. for Cushing and Appleton: 1823), p 299.) But her condition was even worse than that. She originally lived in Ireland with her husband, who were among those Irish Catholics ruined in the Civil War. The massacre at Drogheda (in retaliation for the Catholic slaughter of Protestants at Ulster) during Cromwell’s Irish campaign was not the end of suffering. After Cromwell returned to London, Parliament’s troops continued the atrocities, displacing, killing, and selling into slavery 50,000 Catholic civilians to Bermuda and Barbados. [As we saw, Marvell celebrated Cromwell’s return from Ireland, regretting only the king’s death; he also celebrated the Puritan establishment at Bermuda, where some of these civilians were sold.] Ann and her husband were sold to Barbados, where her husband was killed, refusing to renounce his Catholicism. Somehow Ann and her daughter ended up in Boston, where they took in and washed linen for others. This wretched dispossessed widow, who knew that there was no mercy or justice for her kind on earth, refused to cooperate with the magistrates or with the Puritan minister for her tormentors. Mather, who had not a whit of compassion for her ilk, saw only a Hag.

But it is true that he did not disclose the names of the four witches that Glover named to him, even though, as Glover promised him on the way to the gallows, that the children would continue to suffer even after her death, because of these four. Mather always made a point to note that he never revealed the names given to him during confessions or by the bewitched. Despite God’s unequivocal command to kill all witches, Mather admitted withholding names. Throughout the proceedings of the next five years, Mather would remain deeply ambivalent about legal proceedings against witches and their proper punishment. Especially at this early stage in his career as minister and career as a student of the nether world, he did not assert himself publicly. In fact, he treated the case clinically, observing the girl, devising and conducting experiments, and acting much like a psychoanalyst (Freud explained hysteria by using id and superego; Mather used satanic and angelic forces).

But the Goodwin case took place right after the departure of Mather’s father, before Mather trusted his own political instincts and suffered doubts over his own abilities. With his father away Mather grew increasingly sure-footed and in some respects autocratic. He became obsessed with the invisible world of demons and angels and increasingly preached on the subject. And critically he became convinced that the apocalyptic war against the Saints was about to take place in New England and that he would play a central role in it.

As a boy when King Philip’s War set the frontiers ablaze, the war’s barbarity as well as its significance likely was impressed upon him by his father, who published two books on the events. When he was 15 he watched a smallpox epidemic spread through Boston. (He and Nathaniel were mildly infected; his sister seriously.) He described to his uncle seeing “coffins crossing each other as they have been carried in the streets” (Hall, above, at 147). It literally decimated Boston, taking 1 of 10 living there. Increase Mather saw this epidemic, as he saw the Indian war, as a sign of the end of times from Revelations (6:2-8): “We have seen the red Horse {war} amongst us, even bloody judgements and desolation, but we are not bettered there. Now there is a pale Horse {carrying Death} come, and his Name that sits thereon is Death.” It was these judgments that impelled Increase Mather to petition the General Court to call a synod for the Renewal of the Covenant. With a father as domineering Increase, Mather could not help but fall under the power of the man who was increasingly becoming the prophet of the Final Dispensation. It was an awe-filled time to be called by God to lead a flock, and this probably increased Mather’s anxiety when ordination approached.

When news reached that the charter of the Massachusetts Bay was annulled—the very foundation of New Jerusalem, it was like when the children of Israel were led away into captivity for failing to heed the warnings of the prophets. When the agents of Nebuchadnezzar—first Randolph and then Andros—were sent, the very lives, liberties and estates of Mather and his father were put at stake. And then Cotton was left alone to face these times of judgment when his father sailed for England. As he negotiated the treacherous politics of the Stuart Restoration, he learned how to control large groups of men more emotional and less refined than his North Church congregation. But even as he rose in popular esteem, God was still able to bring him low. In 1688 his 5 month-old child died. Mather preached that very afternoon, telling his listeners that in such circumstances a Christian ought to seek the reason for God’s chastisement. (Silverman, above, at 76.) The Puritan strain of Protestantism was not a religion of comfort and joy.

Seal of Dominion of New England. Colonist and native bow to James II under a cherub with flag quoting Claudian: “Never more gracious is liberty shown {than under a pious king}.”

Andros’s administration proved as grievous to the Saints as Samuel had warned the children of Israel a king would be to them. (The Saints, however, did not clamor for this affliction.) Commerce would grind to a halt now that the Navigation Acts (designed to exploit colonists for the sake of the homeland) would be enforced. Land titles were revoked on the ground that the entities which had granted them had no legal existence. Land holders had to petition and pay a fee for their titles to be confirmed. Town meetings were abolished. In Massachusetts Bay church membership no longer determined the civic vote. Neither the governor nor his councillors would be elected. In early 1688 [January 13, 1687 o.s.] Andros imposed a penny on the pound tax to support his administration.

That March Andros set out on a provocative adventure against the French along the Penobscot river in the Maine frontier. When the French representative (the eccentric Baron Catine) refused to meet with him, Andros committed an outrage on his residence among the Penobscot Indians (to one of whom he was married). (Sofie Swett, Stories of Maine (NY: American Book Co: c1899), chapter XI.) This resulted in a series of increasingly dangerous encounters between the English colonists and the natives. Even before James II was deposed there were armed hostilities in Maine. And when the Glorious Revolution deposed the Catholic James, the new King William entered the anti-French league resulting in a war that lasted nearly a decade. In New England the war between the French and English (called “King William’s War”) started the natives on a course of brutal killings and kidnappings (accompanied by torture and mutilations), the likes of which had not been seen since the great barbarity of King Philip’s War when Cotton Mather was a boy. In 1690 Massachusetts fitted out an expedition to capture Quebec. When the militias were landed they faced heavy fire, and the ships themselves were nearly sunk by cannon fire from the city. The expedition returned badly beaten, with well over 300 men dead from enemy fire, dysentery, and worst of all small pox.

All of these great afflictions Mather confronted without the aid of the spiritual guidance of his father. The four ministers who provided the preface to Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences noted that God’s judgments were inscrutable:

“The Secrets also of God’s Providence, in permitting Satan and his Instruments to molest His children, not in their Estates only, but in their Persons and their Posterity too, are part of His Judgments that are unsearchable, and His Wayes that are past finding out; only this we have good Assurance for, that they are among the All things that work together for their good.” (In Burr at 96; by Charles Morton (of the Charlestown church), James Allen and Joshua Moodey (of First Church) and Samuel Willard (of South Church).)

But if God’s judgments were beyond man’s ken, Mather came to believe, after the Goodwin case, that he could understand the ways of the evil angels that surrounded men that were occasionally permitted by God to afflict men. As Memorable Providences was about to go to press another case arose, which Mather described in a Notandum:

“Since the Finishing of the History which concerns Goodwin’s Children, there has been a very wonderful Attempt made (probably by Witchcraft) on another Family in the Town. There is a poor Boy at this time under very terrible and amazing Circumstances which are a Repetition of, with not much Variation from those of the Children formerly molested. The person under vehement Suspicion to be the Authoress [of] this Boy’s Calamities is one that was complain’d of by those Children in their Ails, and accordingly one or two of those Children has at this time some Renewal of their Afflictions also; which perhaps may be permitted by the Great God, not to disappoint our Expectations of their Deliverance, but for the Detection and the Destruction of more belonging to that hellish Knot, that has not yet perished as others of the Crue has done, before the poor prayers of them that Hope in God.” (In Burr at 143 n.2.)

He began emphasizing demons and witchcraft in his sermons and talks. The shaking of Quakers was described as “like a Diabolic Possession.” He saw the Indian war as demonic: “The Devils are stark mad, that the House of the Lord our God, is come into these Remote Corners of the World’ and they fume, they fret prodigiously.” (See Silverman at 88, for these and other examples.)

The discoveries he made in the Goodwin case (e.g., whether devils can read one’s thoughts; that devils don’t object to Quaker or Catholic books, only Puritan) he felt so noteworthy he published Memorable Providences (with its acknowledgement to his father’s Illustrious Providences; Cotton’s book went through five editions). He also preached two sermons after the event, which he included in his first edition of Memorable Provinces (not included in Burr’s Narratives, however). In them he explained his view of devils. They are (as scriptures holds) fallen angels. Angels represent an order of creation, like humans. They live, together with the souls of the damned, in the dark regions of the atmosphere above earth. There are vastly more devils than humans, but since they act with a conformity of purpose, they can be referred to as The Devil. They are both “rational” and “spiritual.” (Silverman, above, at 91-92.) Mather’s experience made him the greatest expert in demonology in New England.

When the Salem outbreak occurred, Mather was sick. His regimen of prayer and fasting, together with the work he kept undertaking, often produced a physical collapse. Nevertheless, he suggested that the afflicted girls be separated and offered to take six of them in himself (for prayer and fasting). He later declined Magistrate John Richard’s request to accompany him to the trial, again on account of exhaustion. It is not unlikely that others consulted Mather in Boston, however, although his diary for this period is missing and there is no other documentary evidence. (In retrospect the missing diary might be incriminating since Mather carefully preserved all things relating to himself, even self-indulgent recitals of hurt that he received. It may not have supported his later claims that he did not urge any prosecutions. What is particularly suspicious is that he actually provides a summary of events for the period with specific dates, as if from notes, instead of his usual daily entries.) Nevertheless, Deodat Lawson’s Thursday Lecture on March 24 bore striking similarities to Mather’s core thinking on witchcraft, particularly that the Devil can transform himself into “an Angel of Light” (Christ’s Fidelity the Only Shield Against Satan’s Malignity … (2d ed. London: R. Tokey: 1704), pp 14 & 40-41), that a community so afflicted should be humbled (p 62), and that the only effective exorcism is prayer (p 85: “What therefore I say unto one, I say unto all, in this Important case; PRAY, PRAY, PRAY.”). Later Mather would use as a title for a manuscript about his own care of a bewitched girl and circulated privately (see Part VII) a quote from the very text Lawson preached on at the lecture: “A brand pluck’d from the burning.” And perhaps most importantly, his advice to the magistrates was precisely Cotton Mather’s own recommendation in his writings and sermons:

Do all that in you lies, to Check and Rebuke Satan; Endeavouring by all ways and means, that are according to the Rule of God, to discover his Instruments in these Horrid Operations: You are Concerned in the Civil Government in these Horrid Operations: You are Concerned in the Civil Government of this People, being invested with Power, by their Sacred MAJESTIES; under this Glorious JESUS … for the Supporting, of CHRIST’s Kingdom, …We entreat you, Bear not the Sword in vain … But approve your selves, a Terrour Of, and Punishment To, Evil doers … Ever Remembring, that ye Judge not for Men, but for the Lord … For the Judgement is GOD’s, and the Cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto me and I will bear it.” (pp 86-87.)

The month after Lawson left Salem Farms, the accusations started pouring forth.  By April 29 the following were in custody: Tituba, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborn, Martha Corey, Rebecca Nurse, 4-year old Dorcas Good, Elizabeth Proctor, Sarah Cloyce, John Proctor, Giles Corey, Deliverance Hobbs and Mary Easty. When John Proctor was arrested, Mary Warren, one of the afflicted children and maid to the Proctors, recanted and accused the other accusers of lying as well. Within two weeks she again reversed course and was testifying against witches again. The judges made no remark on her credibility. Then on April 30 something astounding happened: several girls accused George Burroughs, the first minister of Salem Farms, the one run off by the Putnams (see Part III). There probably could not have been a less likely target. But this avalanche was not about to stop now, and a warrant issued.

On May 14, after 4 years, arrived from England Increase Mather. He carried with him the new charter and traveled with the new governor William Phips. The charter was not the charter for New Jerusalem, it was an English colonial charter. The King still appointed the governor. Church membership still counted for nothing, and the only advantage was that it guaranteed English liberties. Such as freedom of religion! Increase had been in Babylon so long that he was willing to sell out New Jerusalem for good order, property rights and English liberty. The Indian war would be a war of empire, not a war against Satan. This would take time to digest.

New Governor Phips wanted the witch crisis dealt with immediately because the Boston jail was filled and accusations continued and warrants issued. So he established a Court of Oyer and Terminer consisting of John Hathorne, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Winthrop, presided over by Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton. Cotton Mather had written a letter to John Richards that month cautioning him against the use of spectral evidence—there was no assurance that the devil was not taking the form of an innocent person in these spectral visitations. But Richards was not on the court.

If Phips thought this tribunal would deliver wisdom to a distracted community, he was mistaken. In fact, the composition of the court, including such self-important true believers as Hathorne and Stoughton, could never have calmed the hysteria, even if that was what Phips wanted. They fed the hysteria with the very thing that makes it grow—blood. The court quickly convened and tried and convicted Bridget Bishop on June 2. Within a week another afflicted girl appeared. Bishop was hanged on June 10. After the hanging, Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned from the court. He did not explain his decision publicly. He may have been the only person of influence with any honor in the affair. If he told his fellow judges of his revulsion at the mockery of justice, it did not have any affect on them, however. The maw having had one victim was developing an appetite.

Cotton Mathers again wrote to the court, this time to the new court and this time on behalf of 12 ministers. The letter to Governor Phips and the judges warned against the careless use of spectral evidence and urged that a great burden of proof was needed to justify condeming someone to death for witchcraft and even suggested that for lesser witches lesser punishments were appropriate. Significantly, however, they advised the court:

“Nevertheless, We cannot but humbly Recommend unto the Government, the speedy and vigorous Prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the Directions given in the Laws of God, and the wholesome Statutes of the English Nation, for the Detection of Witchcrafts.”

The true believers on the court disregarded the qualifications and continued to undertake their God-given responsibilities as the letter recommended. At the end of June Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes, Sarah Good, and Elizabeth Howe were tried and convicted (in a two-day period) and within three weeks they were hanged. On August 5 one day was appointed for the trial of George  Burroughs and five others.

The case against Reverend Burroughs was as appalling a travesty as any proceeding ever devised, much less a trial under the new charter guaranteeing English liberties. He was asked whether his sons were baptized. English freedom of conscience did not protect Baptists, evidently. He was asked when the last time he partook in the Lord’s Supper. Witnesses testified that he lifted things that a human was incapable of. (His bargain with the devil was one-sided: he only received side-show abilities in exchange for his soul.) Others testified that he was the leader of all the witches. It was enough. He was sentenced to death.

Cotton Mather had not participated in the proceedings although all the judges were in the Mather interest. He was in fact more interested in proceedings about 20 miles inland, at Andover. There another witching was breaking out. But the authorities there brooked none of the respect for procedure that the court in Salem showed, much less what Cotton Mather recommended. They brought some of the afflicted Salem girls to Andover, who twitched, contorted and cowered before suspected witches, and the killings were on. Believing that confessions were the only hope to save their lives, several “confessed” and implicated others. But even this method was not enough for the God-fearing of Andover. John Proctor, one of the witches accused in Salem, wrote Mather (probably Increase) and the four other Boston ministers from his Boston jail informing him that his own son and two Andover witches (ones who had confessed) had been tied “Neck and Heels till the Blood was ready to come out of their Noses.” (Calef, More Wonders in Burr at 363.) Mather likely saw some of the Andover trials because he told his flock at North Church that he had seen “Even poor Children of several Ages, even from seven to twenty, more or less, Confessing their Familiarity with Devils.” (Silverman at 104-05.) These confessions (“more or less”) stunned him and changed his view on the severity of the crisis. On August 4, the day of news of a great earthquake in Jamaica Mather preached from Revelations 12:12: “Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” It was the apocalyptic battle of the end of days. Among his hearers were judges who were to try the cases in Salem.

Headstone at Burying Point Cemetery, Salem: "George Burroughs / Hanged / August 19, 1692."The next day was Burroughs’ trial. His execution was set for August 19. Cotton Mather appeared for the hanging. He appeared on horseback. He probably saw himself as a general on God’s side of the fight. There is no report, however, whether the horse was pale. Robert Calef described the event:

“Mr. Burroughs was carried in a Cart with the others, through the streets of Salem to Execution; when he was upon the Ladder, he made a Speech for the clearing of his Innocency, with such Solemn and Serious Expressions, as were to the Admiration of all present; his Prayer (which he concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer,) was so well worded, and uttered with such composedness, and such (at least seeming) fervency of Spirit, as was very affecting, and drew Tears from many (so that it seemed to some, that the Spectators would hinder the Execution).” (More Wonders in Burr at 360-61.)

It was an ancient and perhaps quaint superstition that held that the devil could not recite the Lord’s prayer.  But didn’t Cotton Mather himself note that Martha Goodwin herself could read Quaker and Catholic books but was unable to even look at a book by Increase Mather? And wasn’t Goodwife Glover, the Gaelic-speaking witch visited by Mather, convicted in part because she was unable to repeat the Lord’s Prayer when it was recited to her (in English)? But Mather was now on the spot to prevent any wavering in this final war with Satan. Calef continues:

“Mr. Cotton Mather, being mounted upon a Horse, addressed himself to the People, partly to declare, that he {i.e., Burroughs} was no ordained Minister, and partly to possess the People of his guilt; saying, That the Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light; and this did somewhat appease the People, and the Executions went on; when he was cut down, he was dragged by the Halter to a Hole, or Grave, between the Rocks, about two foot deep, his Shirt and Breeches being pulled off, and an old pair of Trousers of one Executed, put on his lower parts, he was so put in, together with Willard and Carryer, one of his Hands and his Chin, and a Foot of one [of] them being left uncovered.”

And so Mather explains that Burroughs’s ability to recite the Lord’s Prayer was no evidence that he was not a witch. After all the Devil can be transformed into an Angel of Light (just as Lawson told them last April).  But if this is so, couldn’t the spectral devils assume the shape of innocent people, and wasn’t this spectral evidence used against Burroughs? But no matter, the former minister was hanged and his body defiled by his former congregation and Mather approved.

Samuel Sewall sat on the court that condemned Burroughs. Sewall had known and respected Burroughs since his days as minister in Salem Village. On November 18, 1685 he had him as a guest for dinner (Sewall Diary, above, at 106). After the trial, he had been rebuked by one Mr. Melyen for the ridiculous nature of the evidence concerning Burroughs’s strength: “Mr. Melyen, upon a slight occasion, spoke to me very smartly about the Salem Witchcraft: in discourse he said, if a man should take Beacon hill on ‘s back, carry it away; and then bring it and set it in its place again, he should not make any thing of that.” (Id. at 431 (August 5, 1692).) For all that, he was in fact comforted by Mather’s attendance at the execution:

“Augt. 19th 1692. This day George Burrough, John Willard, Jn° Procter, Martha Carrier and George Jacobs were executed at Salem, a very great number of Spectators being present. Mr. Cotton Mather was there, Mr. Sims, Hale, Noyes, Chiever, &c. All of them said they were inocent, Carrier and all. Mr. Mather says they all died by a Righteous Sentence. Mr. Burrough by his Speech, Prayer, protestation of his Innocence, did much move unthinking persons, which occasions their speaking hardly concerning his being executed.” (Id. at 363.)

He wrote “Dolefull Witchcraft!” in the margin, but it is clear he heard the rumblings of the “unthinking persons” against this judicial murder. But Mather came through for his friends on the court. He used his newly developed skill in handling mobs in order to ensure the death of this minister with possible Baptist tendency. It was a day when Mather defined his reputation for the rest of time.

What began in England as a movement to purify the Church of superstition and irrationality, championed in the best universities—Cambridge and Trinity, embraced by some of the more serious thinkers, over time became encrusted with self-satisfaction, exclusivity and arrogance. The certainty of being right (so at odds with their Calvinist instincts) would lead them to overthrow a corrupt and arbitrary monarchy. But it also led to the intolerance of the absolutely certain, and with it to its own form of absolutism. In New England the Puritans who came on an Errand into the Wilderness had the kind of faith that allowed them to form self-governing societies who prospered in flinty, rock-studded farms. They created out of nothing an institution of higher learning, cultivated sciences and produced a nearly universally literate population. They convinced themselves of their favor in the eyes of God, and this conviction allowed them to prevail. But here too their certainty betrayed them into intolerance, bigotry, cruelty and eventually the hysterical superstitions that their founders in England over a hundred years before designed to eliminate. And now in August 1692 the most educated, the most widely read, the owner of the largest library in North America, arguably the most intellectual of all the inhabitants of New Jerusalem, was using superstition to justify a rigged trial brought on by rebellious and fearful children, goaded on by a hysterical mob.

Many would reflect on this event for the rest of their lives with regret.  In December 1696 Samuel Sewall, one of the judges, drafted a proclamation declaring a day of fasting and repentance for the sins of the witchcraft trials. Each of his remaining 32 years after that he set aside a day to fast and pray for forgiveness for his role. Cotton Mather, by contrast, never acknowledged that he or anyone else had erred.

The execution of Burroughs might have been a turning point, but it was not the end. Hundreds of witches were in prison. More girls were becoming afflicted. Mather was not through. He would attempt to justify his conduct and all the proceedings for posterity. And he would even take in more afflicted girls to effect cures. But that is for the next part.


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