A Bewitching of Christmas Past (VI)
The hangings on Friday, August 19, 1692—George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr., Martha Carrier, John Willard and John Proctor—left a great pall over Salem and Salem Village. It wasn’t just that George Burroughs was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer. (Nevertheless, even if Cotton Mather were right that devils could recite the prayer, it must have been unsettling to see Christians execute a man who had just recited it.) The other defendants also gave good accounts for themselves in their last hours.
Thomas Brattle, Harvard ’76 (later Treasurer), fellow of the Royal Society and important Boston merchant, detected the stench of the proceedings and suspected it came from the rotting corps of Puritan theocracy, which he called “Salem superstition and sorcery.” He recorded the event:
“As to the late executions, I shall only tell you, that in the opinion of many unprejudiced, considerate and considerable spectatours, some of the condemned went out of the world not only with as great protestations, but also with as good shews of innocency, as men could do.
“They protested their innocency as in the presence of the great God, whom forthwith they were to appear before: they wished, and declared their wish, that their blood might be the last innocent blood shed upon that account. With great affection they intreated Mr. C. M. [Cotton Mather] to pray with them: they prayed that God would discover what witchcrafts were among us; they forgave their accusers; they spake without reflection on Jury and Judges, for bringing them in guilty, and condemning them: they prayed earnestly for pardon for all other sins, and for an interest in the pretious blood of our dear Redeemer; and seemed to be very sincere, upright, and sensible of their circumstances on all accounts; especially Proctor and Willard, whose whole management of themselves, from the Gaol to the Gallows, and whilst at the Gallows, was very affecting and melting to the hearts of some considerable Spectatours, whom I could mention to you: —but they are executed, and so I leave them.” (Letter of Thomas Brattle, F.R.S., October 8, 1692 in George Lincoln Burr (ed.), Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648-1706 (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1914) [“Burr”], p 177.)
In all this bewitched land, the greatest grief had to be that of Margaret Jacobs. And lonesomeness could not begin to describe the forsaken state she found herself in. Only 17, she was in prison, accused of consorting with Satan. Her father and uncle had earlier escaped arrest and fled. Her mother was insane, imprisoned since May for witchcraft. And her grandfather, whom she once implicated, had just been hanged. Her troubles began when she was confronted with the writhings and contortions in her presence of the afflicted who claimed her specter was responsible for their torment. She was told that the only way to escape the noose was to confess, which she did. She implicated her grandfather, George Jacobs Sr., John Willard and George Burroughs (all of whom were under accusation of many others, some of which were her own accusers). But she recanted when she realized the enormity of her sin in false confession. She was now imprisoned facing almost certain death. She had visited Rev. Burroughs the day before his execution to confess her perjury, and he not only forgave her but prayed with her. Her recanting had no effect on the court, which never received exculpatory evidence. The day after the hangings she wrote her father from “the Dungeon in Salem-Prison”:
“After my Humble Duty Remembred to you, hoping in the Lord of your good Health, as Blessed be God I enjoy, tho in abundance of Affliction, being close confined here in a loathsome Dungeon, the Lord look down in mercy upon me, not knowing how soon I shall be put to Death, by means of the Afflicted Persons; my Grand-Father having Suffered already, and all his Estate Seized for the King. The reason of my Confinement is this, I having, through the Magistrates Threatnings, and my own Vile and Wretched Heart, confessed several things contrary to my Conscience and Knowledg, tho to the Wounding of my own Soul, the Lord pardon me for it; but Oh! the terrors of a wounded Conscience who can bear. But blessed be the Lord, he would not let me go on in my Sins, but in mercy I hope so my Soul would not suffer me to keep it in any longer, but I was forced to confess the truth of all before the Magistrates, who would not believe me, but tis their pleasure to put me in here, and God knows how soon I shall be put to death. Dear Father, let me beg your Prayers to the Lord on my behalf, and send us a Joyful and Happy meeting in Heaven. My Mother poor Woman is very Crazey, and remembers her kind Love to you, and to Uncle, viz. D.A. So leaving you to the protection of the Lord, I rest your Dutiful Daughter,
The skeptical were beginning to feel that political connections had more to do with guilt or innocence than the hand of God. Margaret Thatcher, widow of Boston’s wealthiest merchant and then the first pastor of Old South Church, had been named by several of the afflicted, but she was never summoned. People pointed out that Salem Judge Jonathan Corwin being her son-in-law as the reason. Other respectable folk were under varying degrees of legal jeopardy, but the law winked at them. Boston merchant Hezekiah Usher, though under a mittimus to be imprisoned, was suffered to remain in a private house for two weeks and then permitted to escape the province. Even the most stalwart witch prosecutors among the establishment were surprised when John Alden was arrested. In his 60s but still fit, Alden was the son of the Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins (whose love life Longfellow would write a popular rhyming tale about). The venerable elder Alden had only died five years before. The younger John Alden was a valiant and important soldier in the war against the French and only two years before had been a prisoner. He was now 70 and venerable. Nonetheless he was accused and arrested for the capital offense of witchcraft. It’s said that he used emphatic “sea language” when he was confronted at his judicial interrogation, but he was remitted to Boston jail anyway. He was allowed to escape in August.
The most egregious subversion of the proceedings by the wealthy and connected, however, concerned Philip English and his wife. English (originally Philippe L’Anglois) was a proper and wealthy Huguenot merchant who lived a lavish life-style in Salem Town not to the liking of the farmers in Salem Village. He even had run-ins with the villagers. One villager, William Beale, he made the mistake of litigating with over land boundaries. Beale would later testify against his specter in the proceeding that would endanger his life and deplete his fortune. Perhaps it was his sudden wealth that so irritated the villagers. He arrived a young refuge in Salem some time before 1670, was taken in by the wealthy family of merchant William Hollingworth, whose daughter Philip married in 1675 (while William was in Virginia where he soon was killed by Indians). English employed at least part of his new fortune in financing the transport of emigrants from the Isle of Jersey, under a system of indenture whereby he would hire out the men for four years and the women for seven and collect their wages as repayment for his original outlay. In 1683 he was wealthy enough to construct a many-gabled mansion in Salem, known as “English’s great house,” which lasted down to 1833. His trade was with France, Spain and the West Indies and was extremely profitable (at least by Puritan farmer standards). By 1692 he owned 14 buildings in Salem, 21 vessels, a wharf and other real property. When the marshal’s deputy went to the great house to arrest English in May 1692, a mob followed, broke into the house and stole everything (including portraits) inside. The Puritans of Salem may have had a godly fear of witches, but not so of their property.
Mary (who was a regenerate member of Salem’s First Church since 1681) was arrested first; Philip after visiting her in prison. Their friends were able to arrange their transfer to a more accommodating prison in Boston. There with the help of Reverends Samuel Willard and Joshua Moodey, they escaped to New York to ride out the hysteria. (Alden had a connection with Willard as well, being a member of Willard’s Third Church in Boston).
The fact that the authorities seemed concerned only with poor, demented and friendless witches and not the rich and powerful ones might have bothered the politically unconnected. But something else entirely about these proceedings concerned some of the Puritan elite, and it was best articulated by the Anglican Thomas Brattle—it was causing the flock to commit sorcery and wickedness and abomination. A growing practice was developing where those with sick friends or relatives would consult the afflicted children to find out if they were being bewitched and if so by whom. These bewitched children were asked to consult the demons that assaulted them for answers! One prominent Boston gentleman took his sick child the 20 miles to Salem to consult with bewitched children. He was told that the child was bewitched by two named individuals. When he returned to Boston he sought an arrest warrant against the accused witches. When Increase Mather heard of this, he confronted the man and sternly rebuked him “asking him whether there was not a God in Boston, that he should go to the Devill in Salem for advice . . . ” (Burr at 179-80).
Brattle said that this consulting of the afflicted children is what caused the hysteria in Andover. A horse and driver was sent for several of the afflicted children from Salem (nearly 20 miles away). The children began accusing residents of Andover (almost all respectable church-going folk) and once the arrests began the process soon became self-perpetuating just as in Salem. Captain Dudley Bradstreet, son of former governor Simon Bradstreet and poet Anne, and grandson of Governor Thomas Dudley, was a respected Justice of the Peace in Andover. As such he issued arrest warrants for about forty accused witches. But growing skeptical of the claims of the victims, he stopped. But the operation admitted no impediments and he himself, together with his wife, were accused of committing nine murders by witchcraft. They fled. (Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World: Or, The Wonders of the Invisible World, Display’d in Five Parts (London: Printed for Nath. Hillar: 1700) in Burr 296-393 at 372.)
Neither the unequal application of justice nor the use of sorcery as a basis of accusation and convictions stopped the proceedings. In fact, September 1692 was the most grisly month so far. On September 9 six more were sentenced to hang. Nine more received the same sentence a week later. On that same day, Saturday September 17, the most gruesome judicial act in the history of the Puritan commonwealth took place. Criminal procedure at the time required a defendant to enter a plea (guilty or not guilty) before it could proceed. Until the prisoner pleaded, the court was powerless to proceed. (No one had yet considered the expedient of deeming that the defendant pleaded not guilty unless he affirmatively pleaded guilty.) If a defendant was not convicted of a capital offense, the state was powerless to seize the felon’s property. Giles Corey had been imprisoned since April (a month after his wife Martha had been imprisoned). He was an ancient and stubborn man (he was 81), who rightly sized up the situation—trial inevitably meant a death sentence. And he was unwilling to deprive his daughters and their husbands of the real property he acquired over a lifetime of hard dirt-farming, or so some have thought. Perhaps he simply refused to be killed the way they wanted to kill him. In any event, he refused to plead—he “stood mute.” The law had a procedure in such a case, called peine forte et dure. It involved applying more and more weights on the body of the defendant until he either entered a plea or died. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told the story of Giles Corey in the verse drama Giles Corey of Salem Farms (in his New England Tragedies (Boston: Ticknor & Fields: 1868), he had a very heroic Corey explain his decision thus:
I will not plead.
If I deny, I am condemned already,
In courts where ghosts appear as witnesses,
And swear men’s lives away. If I confess,
Then I confess a lie, to buy a life
Which is not life, but only death in life.
I will not bear false witness against any,
Not even against myself, whom I count least.
(Act V, Scene 2.)
A more romantic (and even less factually accurate) prose drama was written by popular short story author Mary E. Wilkins [later Freeman] and published in the December 1892 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Ms. Wilkins’s Corey explains his decision to his daughter (who he is urging to marry after his death): “Lass, I must listen to naught but the voice of God. ‘Tis that speaks, and bids me do this thing. Thou must come not betwixt thy father and his God.” (Gil Corey, Yeoman (Act V), p 39.)
Eye witnesses who say the rocks pressing upon the board that covered Corey told a less romantic tale. It took three agonizing days to kill him. “In pressing his Tongue being prest out of his Mouth, the Sheriff with his Cane forced it in again, when he was dying.” (Calef, More Wonders in Burr at 367.) Samuel Sewall reported the matter in his customary Late Puritan manner as though it were Corey’s fault: “Monday, Sept. 19, 1692. About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press’d to death for standing Mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.” But it was all explained the next day to Sewall’s satisfaction, from an infernal source no less: “Sept. 20. Now I hear from Salem that about 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stampd and press’d a man to death, but was cleared. Twas not remembred till Ane Putnam was told of it by said Corey’s Spectre the Sabbathday night before the Execution.” (Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th series, vol 5 (1878), p 364.) He was thus not only unreasonably stubborn but probably deserved it (in precisely the manner he received it) anyway. Death of the insignificant was easily explained by old Puritans.
And yet there were others who were willing to attack the system, some openly, others anonymously. The “Anabaptist Minister” William Milborne had two pamphlets printed, the first shortly after the first executions. One, an address to the General Assembly, asserts that innocent people were accused on illegal evidence, and in the author’s
“request that ye validitie of specter Testimonie may be weighed in ye balance of your grace [grave] and solid Judgments it being the womb that hath brought forth inextricable damage and misirie to this Province and to order by your votes that no more credence be given thereto than the word of God alloweth by which means God will be glorified their Majesties honored and the Interest and welfare of the Inhabitants of ye Province promoted . . .” (George Henry Moore, Bibliographical Notes on Witchcraft in Massachusetts: Read before the American Antiquarian Society April 25, 1888 (Worcester: for the Author: 1888), p 4-5.)
The other pamphlet has disappeared, but on June 25, 1692, the Council resolved that the pamphlets contained “very high reflections upon the administration of public justice within this their Majesty’s Province …” and therefore ordered the he “be committed to prison or give bond of £200 with two sureties to appear at next Superior Court to answer for framing, contriving, writing and publishing the said seditious and scandalous papers or writings …” (See George H. Moore, “Notes on the History of Witchcraft in Massachusetts with Illustrative Documents,” 2 Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (new series) 162 (1882-83), at 171 n1.)
Reverend Willard was more discreet. His indictment of the system was published anonymously in Philadelphia: Some Miscellany OBSERVATIONS On our present Debates respecting Witchcrafts, in a Dialogue Between S. & B. by P.E. and J.A. (Philadelphia: Printed by William Bradford, for Hezekiah Usher: 1692). The dialogue is both respectful and extremely pedantic, but Willard explains the style by saying that “the Animosities on both sides have been sinful, and much obstructive to the coming at the Truth” something he intended to avoid here. So in this manner he provides theological bases for using basic common law procedure and evidence rules in trials of witches. Among these were: requiring probable cause before arresting and imprisoning a defendant; requiring the same standard of proof for conviction as in all capital cases; allowing witnesses (including the “afflicted” children) to testify only to things that perceived with their physical sense (i.e., no spectral evidence); that confessions only be admitted when the defendant is in his right mind and not subject to coercion; requiring two human witnesses to testify about the same one act of the supposed witch (much like the requirement in treason cases, but actually derived from the rule in Numbers 35:30 requiring two witnesses to the same act in a murder case). Against the argument that all this makes conviction of witches too difficult, Willard had one of the characters say: “God never intended to bring to light all hidden works or workers of Darkness in this World; nor will it be imputed as a Sin, that men did not punish secret sins without clear discoveries: but if in a precipitant zeal, they should cut off any for Crimes not proved, it will be imputed.” The entire argument is sensible and appeals to basic concepts of fairness. And more importantly it did not depend on belief in special speculative metaphysics as did the arguments of Mather and the evidence rulings of the magistrates.
However little all this fazed the old magistrate class, it seems to have worried Cotton Mather, who after all had expended great efforts to become the leading demonologist in America and who continually sounded the alarm that devils were running loose in New England. He did so, while his father was away. Now that Increase Mather had returned and taken a much more skeptical view of the proceedings, the son was once again in danger of being rebuked for having gone too far in his enthusiasm. This was by far the worst instance, however. People had been executed in cases where Cotton Mather had directly exhorted the judges to ensure no witch went unpunished. On Sabbath August 4, 1602, the very day before the trial and the inevitable death sentence of George Burroughs and the rest, Cotton Mather had delivered one of his most inflammatory sermons. It was chock full of witches and devils—”Devil” meant “multitude,” they were legion, they could afford to have thousands attack just one person. And it would get worse, because by Mather’s calculation this was the End of Days. There could be at most one hundred and four score years from the Reformation. Since that took place in 1517, simple addition told him that there was at most five years left, probably less. And the Book of Revelations, that scripture which allowed so many divines to predict the coming resurrection and tribulation, plainly said (XII:12): “Woe to the Inhabitants 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.” And of course the legion of devils would concentrate their last frenzy where the righteous were most thickly concentrated and where they had taken over the previous liar of Satan—New England. None of this could be denied. Said Mather at his most medieval: “That there is a Devil, is a thing Doubted by none but such as are under the Influences of the Devil. For any to deny the Being of a Devil must be from an Ignorance or Profaneness, worse than Diabolical.” And everything flowed from that according to correct interpretation of scripture. “Toward the End of his Time,” asserted Maher, “the Descent of the Devil in Wrath upon the World will produce more woful Effects, than what have been in former Ages. The dying Dragon, will bite more cruelly and sting more bloodily than ever he did before: The Death-pangs of the Devil will make him to be more of a Devil than ever he was; and the Furnace of this Nebuchadnezzar will be heated seven times hotter, just before its putting out.”
So what are the righteous to do? Mather urged a general repentance, a foregoing of “little sorceries” such as charms used to cure, and prayer. But what of the great question that involved the magistrates that were sitting before him and would sit in judgment the next day? How were they to carry out their job? Mather acknowledged that the number and nature of the accusations had caused a great number of people to question whether evidence of the conduct of the “specter” of a defendant is enough for a conviction. Indeed, the doubts about the course of the proceedings, Mather said, “have made this now to become a most agitated Controversie among us. There is an Agony produced in the Minds of Men, lest the Devil should sham us with Devices, of perhaps a finer Thred, than was ever yet practised upon the World.” But the only thing he recommended on this score was prayer: “But what shall be done, as to those against whom the evidence is chiefly founded in the dark world? Here they [the magistrates, not the defendants] do solemnly demand our Addresses to the Father of Lights, on their behalf.” His other recommendation was that the congregation stop quarreling, for wrath assists the devils in their mission. Submission to established order was the Puritan solution for all ills of the body politic.
But this advice only resulted in the gruesome deaths that were even more unsettling than those of the demented old women that began the killing spree. Mather could not convince people that this was a battle for all time, one of cosmic significance. So he would have to show that the trials were fair and the proceedings unexceptionable. Just before the September trials were to begin he wrote Chief Justice William Stoughton with a proposition to make the proceedings known in a book to be written by Mather. His thought was to justify the ways of Puritan Judges to men, and to this end he threw in with the man who was the very heart of the corrupt proceedings: the man who admitted the spectral evidence Cotton Mather urged against, who permitted evidence of conversation between the afflicted and the court; who denied defendants defense counsel, who permitted spectators to interrupt proceedings and urge on the persecution, who sanctioned the sorcery of forcing the accused to “touch” the afflicted to see if that would release them from torment (it always did and it always was used against the defendants), who conceived it the duty of judges to act as prosecutors against the unrepresented defendants. In short, Stoughton was as morally corrupt and intellectually bankrupt a magistrate as ever arrogated to himself the right to commit judicial murder. And this was to be the source for the book that Mather hoped would justify the proceedings and just as importantly (perhaps more) hold his own reputation harmless.
Stoughton was 30 years Cotton Mather’s senior, but he was a long-time friend of Increase Mather (he was on the judicial panel in Edward Randolph’s unsuccessful defamation case against Increase Mather). Stoughton was once an up-and-coming politician after he left the ministry, but high-handed and headstrong, Stoughton resigned an elected office because a friend had not been elected as well. But the real damage to his political career came during the Stuart Restoration, when he received and accepted the position of Councilor to Governor Andros. Stoughton didn’t join the popular uprising against Andros with the fall of the Stuarts, and he failed to receive a single vote in the following election as a result. Mather then tried to resurrect his career. When his father was in England suing for the old charter, Mather wrote Increase: “Mr. Stoughton is a real friend to New-England, and willing to make any amendment for the miscarriages of the late government. I wish that you might be able to do anything to restore him to the favor of his country.” When Increase Mather returned with the new governor, a commission was brought for Stoughton to be Lieutenant Governor. The new governor also appointed Stoughton to head up the ad hoc court to try the witch cases in Salem. (In creating this court Governor Phips exceeded his legal authority.) (John Langdon Sibley, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge (Cambridge: Charles William Sever: 1873), Vol. I, pp 199-200.) Stoughton would be the driving force behind the corrupt administration of justice and the executions—the first of which took place eight days after the court was constituted.
Even without the personal and family connections, Cotton Mather would have supported Stoughton against criticism from the rabble, just as Mather supported all seemingly God-fearing authority. Although Mather had done Stoughton a great service in helping him attain the high offices he held, resurrecting his career and wiping away public disdain, it was Mather, as usual, playing the sycophant to power, when he wrote Stoughton his idea of writing a defense of the proceedings. “I have made the world sensible of my zeal to assist, according unto my poor capacity, the weighty and worthy undertakings wherein almighty God has employed Your Honor as His instrument for the extinguishing of as wonderful a piece of devilism as has been seen in the world; and yet I hope I may say that the one half of my endeavors to serve you have not been told or seen.” (September 2, 1692 in Kenneth Silverman, Selected Letters of Cotton Mather (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press: 1971) [“Mather Letters”], p 43.) Mather never suggested any doubts about Stoughton’s handling of the cases. In fact, Mather assured him that he always described the “calamity” in the “true light” and if he ever “let fall” statements of others who might have suggested “innocent people being accused” he would “humbly submit all those expressions unto Your Honor’s correction, that so there may not be one word out of point.” (Id. at 44.) Mather’s core beliefs were not so much Christian as authoritarian. While he had no difficulty raining down broken seals of the Apocalypse on the poor, the defenseless, the politically dependent, he was incapable of even suggesting that he might disagree with someone wielding temporal authority. It was not that Mather lacked the mental faculty to understand how the procedure gravely jeopardized defendants. Nor did he believe that magistrates could rely on inspiration alone; he believed that the procedure should be fair and designed to ascertain the truth. He himself had cautioned another judge, John Richards, who was a close family connection and member of the North Church, about his own doubts on the reliability of spectral evidence (“It is very certain that the devils have sometimes represented the shapes of persons not only innocent, but also very virtuous …”), whether the diabolic invasion of the “afflicted” girls required the intermediation of witchcraft at all (“the devils may (tho’ not often, yet sometimes,) make most bloody invasions upon our exterior concerns, without any witchcrafts of our fellow creatures to empower them …”), and the reliability of confessions (“even confession itself sometimes is not credible”) (May 31, 1692, Mather Letters, at 35-40). Two days before the hangings of Burroughs and the other, he even suggested that convicted witches be transported rather than executed (to John Foster, August 17, 1692, Mather Letters, at 41-43). But he showed no doubts nor made any suggestions to Stoughton. Mathers’ religion was about deference, resignation and submission to worldly authority. In the Puritan world there was no difference between Caesar and God, and therefore there was never a question of whom to render allegiance to. Despite all the huffing about popery, Mather was as submissive to worldly power as any prelate and as devoid of real, effective compassion towards the “least of mine” as any Jesuit. Puritanism, as practiced by Mather, was a suffocating exercise in authoritarianism from its Calvinist theology to its inflexible social organization, and its adamant legal system. English liberty or not, the Puritan expected no justice beyond he implacable prejudices that motivated the rulers that an all-knowing god fixed on them.
But with his fawning Mather secured the help of Stoughton, and with it he would eventually produce The wonders of the invisible world: observations as well historical as theological upon the nature, the number and the operations of the devils … (Boston: Printed and sold by Benjamin Harris: 1693). It took an immense amount of time by Mather’s standards to put together, and wasn’t printed until the following year. It ended up being a poor and unpersuasive performance. It contained Mather’s sermon delivered the day before the miscarriage of the trial of George Burroughs and the others. It summarized other Puritan witch hunters. And it contained some slanted descriptions of the Salem trials (although it contained no sensible legal analysis), but it failed in its purpose and brought down great criticism on the head of the easily hurt Mather. Mather included the cloying praise of Stoughton himself, who could not “but hold myself many ways bound, even to the utmost of what is proper for me, in my present publick Capacity, to declare my singular Approbation” of the work. Mather, reliably enough, praised Stoughton together with all other civil authority in the “Enchantments Encountered” section: “We are under the Influence of a Lieutenant Governour, who not only by being admirably accomplished both with Natural and Acquired Endowments, is fitted for the Service of Their Majesties, but also with an unspotted Fidelity applies himself to that Service.” (Having rulers of impeccable virtue was one of the reasons the devil attacked New England, according to Mather.)
It became a serious embarrassment to Mather that the book appeared at the same time as one written by his father—Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, Witchcrafts, Infallible Proofs of Guilt in such as are Accused with that Crime, All Considered according to the Scriptures, History, Experience, and the Judgment of Many Learned Men (Boston: B. Harris: 1693). Although Increase Mather used the same medieval scholastic method of basing everything on scriptural interpretation and the writings of commentators, he was guided, unlike his son, by a very clear sense of procedural justice and was not cowed by civil authority (having dealt with Kings, he could hardly be intimidated by the likes of Stoughton). The book addressed three questions, put to the clergy of Boston by Governor Phips, who had halted the proceedings to receive advice on these points.
First, Mather answered that it was “Possible for the Devil to impose on the imagination of Persons Bewitched, and to cause them to Believe that an Innocent, yea that a Pious person does torment them, when the Devil himself doth it …” This went not to the weight of the evidence but its competence altogether. It made any conviction based on it corrupt. “This then I declare and; testifie, that to take away the Life of any one, meerly because a Spectre or Devil, in a bewitched or possessed Person, does accuse them, will bring the Guilt of innocent Blood on the Land, where such a thing shall be done . . .” The second question was whether the touch of a defendant, which revives an accuser who had fallen into a fit in his presence, was competent evidence of witchcraft. Again Mather answered unequivocally: Such a “cure” could only be by supernatural power, but the act is no proof that the person touching was confederate with the devil or consenting to his actions. Moreover, such an experiment debased the court because what the judges were in fact doing was requesting someone they believed to be a witch to use diabolic power. “The Word of God instructs Jurors and Judges to proceed upon clear humane Testimony” and nowhere provided for supernatural experiments. The final question was on what evidence witches can be justifiably convicted. He strongly denounced such tests as dunking or use of hot irons and other ordeals. He concluded that the only conclusive proofs were an uncoerced confession or the testimony of two witnesses that the defendant said or did something that could not have been said or done except through association with Satan.
All of this would have eviscerated the supposed underpinnings of the prosecutions and the sanctity of the death sentences. It would have shown that a strict conservative view of Christianity was not incompatible with a view of human dignity and personal and political rights like those embodied in the 1689 Bill of Rights. But Puritanism, as practiced by even the eminent divine Increase Mather, was not about rules of law over men, even if the laws were God’s. Leeway was always given to those in authority. Better that the powerless be hanged than a magistrate be criticized. So Mather appended to his book a Postscript which assured the world he was making no radical pronouncements. In it he tried to dispel the notion that he had any disagreement with his son’s book: “‘Tis strange that such Imaginations should enter into the Minds of Men: I perused and approved of that Book before it was printed; and nothing but my Relation to him hindred me from recommending it to the World …” He also absolved the judges for having George Burroughs executed. It was the only trial he attended. (He says nothing about the four others tried that same day and also given the death sentence. Perhaps he was too busy to spare the remainder of the day that was devoted to dispatching them):
“I was not myself present at any of the Tryals, excepting one, viz. that of George Burroughs; had I been one of his Judges, I could not have acquitted him: For several Persons did upon Oath testifie, that they saw him do such things as no Man that has not a Devil to be his Familiar could perform: And the Judges affirm, that they have not convicted any one meerly on the account of what Spectres have said, or of what has been represented to the Eyes or Imaginations of the sick bewitched Persons.”
Only a man who rifled through biblical commentary to prove a link between comets and historical events could believe the testimony proved that Burroughs had superhuman strength. But that was it—the same “evidence” that Mr. Melyen ridiculed Sewall about at his very table after Sewall agreed to the death warrant. As for the assurance by the judges that they did not rely on the “evidence” that Mather showed in his book was inadmissible at best and perhaps even sinful to permit: If the judges did not “rely” on it, why did they admit it into evidence? If they had the same view as Mather of the integrity of the judicial process (as prescribed by Numbers 35:30), then why did they corrupt it?
Increase Mather, who had returned from England with the new whig charter was not a born again liberal; nor was Puritanism at this stage of decrepitude capable of tolerance or even regular, neutral rules of procedure. It had become an authoritarian creed, no matter how much they asserted their liberty from Crown directives.
Despite the assurances of Increase, Cotton realized that the book was widely regarded as a repudiation of his own, and possibly also a repudiation of Cotton’s advice to the Judges and his enthusiasm for the prosecutions in general. The fact is that following each of the definitive statements by Increase Mather Governor Phips would take steps to gradually contain the epidemic. He issued an order prohibiting the use of specter testimony. He dissolved the (illegal) Court of Oyer and Terminer which he himself set up under the mistaken belief that it would put an end to the witching hysteria. When Judge Stoughton in January 1693 ordered that all the witches who had been given a stay of execution during their pregnancies were now to be executed, Phips stayed that order, causing Stoughton to leave the bench. Phips would eventually grant a blanket pardon to all in custody.
Cotton Mather brooded about his book and his reputation after his father’s book. He poured out his hurt feelings to his diary. To justify himself he copied his father’s statement from the Postscript. And then he engaged in a bizarre and coy false modesty that oddly reveals both a very deep insecury and a very grandiose view of himself. It is one of many glimpses his diaries give of his profound neuroses:
Tis not proper for mee to recite on this occasion, what encouraging Letters I received from some reverend Persons, about that reviled Book; and how one Sais, I think never Book came out more seasonably; and I give Thanks to our gracious God, for His Assistence of you, both in Matter and Manner; and how another sais, I solemnly profess, without the least Adulation, I never mett with an humane Author in my Life, that spake more solidly and thoroughly to the Subject hee handled; and if every one that reads it, do not close with it, I shall fear gross Ignorance, inveterate Prejudice, or a pœnel Stroke of God, the Cause thereof.
“Ease of my own Mind” was all he sought in mentioning these letter, something he was entitled to considering “the many buffeting Temptations, which attended the Publication of that Book.” But all told, he confided, even under “the severest Examination, and the solemnest Supplication” he had to conclude that “for the main, I have, written Right.” (Diary of Cotton Mather, 1681-1708, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 7th series, vol 7 (1911), pp 153-54.)
Cotton Mather was not one to hide his candle under a diary, however. When his public reputation was damaged, he always responded, usually with another book. This time Mather was going to confirm again that his own approach to bewitchings based on his own research and study and proved once before was still sound. And he therefore took in another afflicted girl. We’ll see what transpired during that relationship in our final part (which can be found here).