A Bewitching of Christmas Past (VII)

Richard Baxter, Puritan, chaplain in Parliament's Army, imprisoned non-conformist., and late in life a fighter against materialist Sadduces. He cited both Mathers' works on witches to show the certainty of the world of spirits (the titleof his 1691 book). Oil on canvas  (1670) after Robert White. By permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click to enlarge.

Richard Baxter, Puritan, chaplain in Parliament’s Army, imprisoned non-conformist, and late in life a fighter against materialist Sadducees. He cited both Mathers’ works on witches to show the certainty of the world of spirits (the title of his 1691 book). Oil on canvas (1670) after Robert White. By permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click to enlarge.

Wonders of the Invisible World was a big book in Cotton Mather’s mind. It was so important he sent it off immediately to be printed in London. John Dunton, the English publisher, was eager enough to get the volume out that he divided the printing among several printers. He advertised it on Christmas Eve 1692 and had it ready for sale on December 29, 1963, before the Boston edition was ready. Mather must have hoped that he would achieve further fame in Puritan circles in England. He proudly, but with typical Mather false modesty, noted how Richard Baxter, the “Venerable Baxter,” had “more than once or twice” cited his previous work on witches concerning the Goodwin children.* But Baxter was dead now. So Mather would have to take up the war against modern Sadducees himself. And so he took up 17-year old Mercy Short.

[The previous parts of this story can be found at Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V and Part VI.]

Mercy Short was not one of the Salem Village girls. She lived in Boston, probably the charge of some family, and probably a servant of some sort. (In a society where males died off young in disproportionate numbers owing to wars and other adventures and not all that remained had a sufficient livelihood to maintain a family, girls were a surfeit. Providing food and lodgings in exchange for tedious work was a charity.) She must have been attached to a prosperous family because she attended North Church. It was there that on December 4, 1692, she had a bewitching outburst at the church.

Since the hangings of George Burroughs and the others in August there had been other convictions and indeed other executions. September 21 was a particularly grisly day when Martha Corey and seven others were hanged in Salem. But there was a growing consensus, even among the Puritan clergy, that things had to stop. In Early October Governor Phips halted the proceedings and stayed all executions pending word from the Home Office. But now with an outbreak in Boston itself, in Cotton Mather’s very own Church, there was danger that the thing would spiral out of control again. So Mather would visit Mercy Short daily to observe her.

Mercy Short was not from either Salem or Boston. She had only arrived less than two years before. She was raised in Salmon Falls, now Maine, when she was witness to an unspeakable atrocity. Cotton Mather would tell the story a decade later, once the witching nonsense had passed and he saw his renown to be gained in historical writing, with only a little fantacy—his one important work Magnalia Christi Americana.†

Bronze Statue of Comte de Frontenace (1886) on the facade of the Quebec Parliament Building, Quebec City.

Bronze Statue of Comte de Frontenac (1886) on the facade of the Quebec Parliament Building, Quebec City.

The story begins, as do all stories of unspeakable sorrow, long away with Great Men who had not the slightest interest in the likes of Mercy Short. When James II was deposed, he fled to France. England then joined the League of Augsburg, which was made up of the rest of the European powers, and designed to contain Louis XIV. New France (Canada) had been harassed and its claimed borders threatened by the Iroquois, the allies of the English settlers. So France took the opportunity of the Glorious Revolution in England to return to Canada and to the office of Governor-General the Comte de Frontenac to strengthen and if possible expand the borders of New France. Frontenac had previously been recalled in disgrace over his attention to the fur trade. Opposition arose  to how he furnished arms and liquor to the Indians in exchange for the furs that proved so lucrative in France. Accusations arose that he took payoffs from the trade, and factions developed such heat that there were fisticuffs on the streets. Corrupt or not, no one had doubted that Frontenac had strengthened New France’s defenses and had made alliances with certain Indian tribes that were now useful. And so with France, and New France, now threatened, the niceties of frontier policies could be ignored and the flamboyant and self-assured Frontenac was free to design his own offense.

At the beginning of 1690 Frontenac launched an offensive against English frontier settlements in New York and Massachusetts. Frontenac designed a policy to strike the English only and not molest the Iroquois in the hope of attaching the warriors to French interests. The campaign had three thrusts by irregular forces  (“Half Indianized French, Half Frenchified Indians” Mather described them). One force was aimed at Albany in the Province of New York and two others at the frontiers of the new Crown Colony of the Province of Massachusetts, one in what is now New Hampshire, the other near what is now Portland, Maine. In February the French forces attacked the Dutch settlement of Schenectady, north of Albany at night with frightful slaughter and captives. The settlements in Massachusetts were warned to be on alert, but  believing the deep snow would prevent attack, Massachusetts settlers failed to maintain adequate guard.

On March 18, 1690 the French under François Hartel (Artel to Mather), a fur trader, and the Abenaki under Chief Wohawa (Hope-Hood to Mather) fell on the frontier settlement of Salmon Falls (southwest of what is now Portland, Maine and near what is now Dover, New Hampshire). The settlement was reduced with the kind of savage ferocity that happens when peoples treat their enemies as a different species. Mercy Short was present for this horrifying catastrophe. Both parents and three of her siblings were butchered. But this was only the beginning of the nightmare. She and her remaining siblings were taken captives.

Mather gives only a few anecdotes of the atrocities the 15-year-old Mercy Short had to behold, but they are enough to give an idea of the hell she lived through and would repeat in Boston, where the Puritans mistook it for their own mythological struggle against Satan. Shortly after setting off, one of the captives, the corpulent Robert Rogers (so fat he was known as Robin Pork) was left alone long enough to attempt an escape. He was not in the physical condition necessary to outrun the Indians, and not clever enough to hide his tracks, and so he was soon found, hiding in a hollow tree. The Indians brought him back, stripped him naked and tied him to a tree and tormented him while eating and dancing. They brought the other prisoners (tied together) to watch, as he was required to bid his leave of them. Then they set fire on him but were careful not to kill him too quickly. While thus torturing him, they cut off “collops of Flesh” from his limbs and threw it in his face. The English Army later found his body lying in smoldering embers.

Other tales involved torturing and killing babies for crying. One five-year old has his eye-ball pushed out to teach him not to cry. The punishment was not enough to repress his terror and bereavement. So he was eventually killed by an ax to the head. Another baby had his head smashed on a tree in front of its mother. Other babies were held under water and returned near dead to their terrified mothers.

Portrait of Sir William Phips. Oil on canvas by Thomas Child, Boston, ca. 1687-94.

Portrait of Sir William Phips. Oil on canvas by Thomas Child, Boston, ca. 1687-94.

Among the many captives in these never-ending Indian wars in New England, Mercy Short was fairly lucky. William Phips was in Boston in March 1690, just after Governor Andros had been deposed (see Part V). Phips was well-known in the colonies and in England for having organized several successful treasure hunting operations (recovering Spanish bullion from wrecks). But in New England he was equally well known for having created a shipyard which made a commercial vessel. Before it sailed, however, it  was used to save a settlement from a surprise Indian attack. (The Indians destroyed the yard and the cargo and ruined Phips financially. But Phips was a phoenix. And a New England hero.) The provisional government, the Massachusetts General Court, authorized Phips to organize an expedition against the French.  At the end of April he set out with a fleet of five ships. On May 9 he arrived before Port Royal (in what is now Nova Scotia), the capital of Acadia, the eastern province of New France, which extended far South into what is now Maine. On May 10 he demanded the surrender of the fort.

The garrison sent a Catholic priest to negotiate the terms. The treaty was thought to involve the securing of property and the right of free practice of the Catholic religion. The terms, however, were not memorialized in writing. It made no difference, however, since French soldiers and towns folk were seen removing stores from the fort. This was a violation of the rights of spoils to the victor, which everyone recognized, but especially the treasure hunter Phips. So he had the town sacked.

Phips returned to Boston a hero and a wealthy one. He prepared next an expedition to seize Quebec. New France, however, was stunned by the loss and jolted into action. Frontenac arranged for Quebec to prepare for a siege. He reached Quebec from Montreal with his 3,000 militia on October 14. Phips’s fleet arrived two days later. Phips demanded surrender; Frontenac refused. Phips’s bombardment of the fort had no effect, but the French battteries rained down effective destruction. The English ground forces attempted to overrun the fortified earthworks of the French. They did so in the English tradition, loud, red, exposed, that would do them in less than a century later when they fought the colonial rebels. The English, out of ammunition and food, were forced to capitulate, and Phips was forced to return having failed in his purpose. On October 23, they exchanged prisoners. Among the group evidently was Mercy Short. The English returned to Boston, humiliated and diseased. Hundreds were dead, and the living brought back smallpox. Even Mercy Short’s redemption wasn’t entirely glorious. And though no one recorded it, the Saints in Boston could not have looked up this as a sign of divine approbation.

In Essex County, there were other girls who would later be visited by witches and devils who had encountered the horrors of the frontier wars. Mercy Lewis (George Burroughs’s maid and one of his accusers), was about the same age as Mercy Short, but she was 3 at Casco Bay [now Maine] when Indians attacked killing two grandparents, aunts, uncles and many cousins. She escaped with her parents. Susannah Sheldon, a year older than Mercy Short, was 2 when in 1675 Black Point [Maine] was attacked. Her uncle was brought back to the garrison where he died. That same year Sarah Churchwell [Churchill?] was in Saco [Maine] when the Wabanaki attacked. None of these other three, however, had the close and long contact with the Indian enemy that Mercy Short had.‡

PTSD. Mixed media by Luis Gutierrez (2008).

PTSD. Mixed media by Luis Gutierrez (2008).

Mercy evidently showed no violent symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder for a year and a half. But the mass hysteria began in Salem Village, and Sarah Good, having been examined, was brought to Boston Jail to await trial. Some time in May or June Mercy Short visited the jail on an errand, and there she saw the impoverished, deranged wretch, in captivity, degraded with no hope (whose four-year old daughter would also fall into the hands of her captors), begging for tobacco. She saw herself, just as she was in captivity. And she reacted like her captors; she threw sawdust at her and said, That’s good enough for you. Days later she fell into fits. Her fits would last throughout the summer during which time she would go for long periods without eating. But she did recover, through prayer of her neighbors, according to Mather.

At the end of November she had a relapse. This time Mather visited her and while preaching on the need for fasting and prayer in such cases (Mark 9:28-29) she flew at him and ripped the page. But after not eating for nine days she recovered again for three more days. Then on December 4 she attended North Church where she fell into a trance that so debilitated her “that many strong men with an united Force, could not well carry her any Further than the House of a kind Neighbour, who charitably took her in.” There she would stay during her “affliction.” (From the Mss A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning, dated “1693,” transcribed in Burr, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases [see Part I], p. 261.) Mather could hardly ignore a parishioner suffering close-by. So he visited daily and improved upon this duty by taking notes and writing a long manuscript, which he circulated, as a detailed case study.

Joseph Glanville. Engraving by William Faithorne, printed in 1681

Joseph Glanvill. Engraving by William Faithorne, printed in 1681. By permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click to enlarge.

But Mather was not interested in learning, at least not from his senses. Mather was never an analytic thinker. He reasoned, like most scriptural authorities, by analogy. And while he noted differences between Mercy’s behavior and what he heard of the girls in Essex County, he never wavered in attributing the afflictions to the same cause. He pushed explanations even when his own observations were flatly implausible. He even fabricated non-existent standards to judge her experience by. He says, for example, that she saw a demon that was “just of the same Stature, feature, and complexion with what the Histories of the Witchcrafts beyond-sea ascribe unto him …” (Burr, p. 261.) But there was no established figure of the Devil as “A Short and a Black Man” as Mather claimed, at least not in Puritan demonology. Joseph Glanvill, former Puritan and Cambridge philosopher of science (or perhaps the philosopher of non-scientific thinking), had given his intellectual imprimatur to metaphysical thinking on witches in Saducismus triumphatus: or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions. In two parts. The first treating of their possibility. The second of their real existence.** His book collected anecdotes of witches, complete with the ringleader who is often referred to as a “Man in black Cloths” or a “Man in black” although he himself is not referred to as a black man (pp. 334, 345, 346, 350, 351, 352, 356, 357, 360, 361, 362, 363, 372). There are other cases involving a black man in the book, although in at least some of them he is a wizard and not the devil (e.g., p. 381). But in no case was there ever an apparition of a tawny man or Indian. Yet, that is exactly what Mercy Short saw as her chief tormentor: “he was not of a Negro, but of a Tawney, or an Indian colour” (Burr, p. 261). Still Mather not only failed to see this as a reaction to her captivity but also found it “remarkable” how he was “just of the same Stature, Features, and complexions with what the Histories of the Witchcrafts beyond-sea ascribe unto him ….”

If “Saducism” was the error of material literalness, the Thomas who had to put his fingers in the wound, and that error led to atheism, then Mather would have no “Sadducism.” But he could not force himself to act the fool. He would vouch for things others would see; was very wary himself, however. He knew when to credit a story, he thought, usually because it confirmed everything he already believed. Such as how the damned (like the Anglicans and Catholics) loved Christmas so much that they would reveal themselves:

“On the twenty-fifth of December it was, that Mercy said, They [the demons and specters] were going to have a Dance; and immediately those that were attending her, most plainly Heard and Felt a Dance, as of Barefooted People, upon the Floor; whereof they are willing to make oath before any Lawful Authority.” (Burr, p. 274.)

The manuscript is a cabinet of curious and bizarre behavior, explained by Mathers’ view of demons and witches, who caused burns and pricks and heaviness on her chest, and muteness about scriptural things. Silly games with books and page turnings and disappearing Catholic texts (which the demons would use during their nightly meetings) were described in minute detail. Mather’s cure, if there was one, was prayer and fasting, but it was never reliable. She went through cycles of recovery and relapse, then she seemed completely restored and then again relapsed. And finally on Thursdays Evening, March 16, 1693, she seemed to have recovered completely. There was no great insight into the world of spirits or our own. Why God allowed this to happen, and why he ended it is not even ventured.

In his diary he congratulated himself because the trial of Mercy Short would lead to the salvation of “scores, of young People, awakened by the Picture of Hell, exhibited in her Sufferings …” (Diary of Cotton Mather 1681-1708, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 7th series, Volume 7 (1911), p. 161 (after entry for February [12 mo.] 12, 1693 [1692 o.s.])). But the story did not end there, for Cotton Mather believed that his wife was made to deliver a deformed baby (a later autopsy showed it had an obstructed colon) as a result of his battle against these demons. He says on March 28:

“I had great Reason to suspect a Witchcraft, in the preternatural Accident; because my Wife, a few weeks before her Deliverance, was affrighted with an horrible Spectre, in our Porch, which Fright caused her Bowels to turn within her; and the Spectres which, both before and after, tormented a young Woman in our Neighbourhood, brag’d of their giving my Wife that Fright, in hopes, they said, of doing Mischief unto her Infant at least, if not unto the Mother: and besides all this, the Child was no sooner born, but a suspected Woman sent unto my Father, a Letter full of railing against myself, where shed told him, Hee little knew, what might quickly befall some of his Posterity.”  (p. 164.)

Chilling as this is, it might have been the whimper that ended the witching crisis in Massachusetts. In October 1692 Governor Phips issued an order prohibiting the use of specter evidence in witch cases. In January he had ended the Commission of Oyer and Terminer, which he had created to deal with the witching crisis. He blocked Judge Stoughton’s order to execute convicted witches whose sentence had been postponed because of their pregnancy. (Stoughton, a true believing witch judge, resigned  as a result.) And by May 1603, Governor Phips pardoned all remaining persons in prison accused of witchcraft.

But Mather was not one to let spectacular metaphysical speculation go unwritten, so in September 1603 he was again contemplating writing a history of the New England witching epidemic. He was then again attacked by the evil spirits. On his way to preach at Salem, his notes were stolen from him by demons! (Diary, p. 172.) God helped Mather to remember his sermons, so they went off without a hitch. While in Salem, Mather had the opportunity of talking to a Mrs. Carver, who had recently conversed with “shining Spirits” (who were “good Angels”). These supernatural creatures advised her that a “new Storm of Witchcraft would fall on the Countrey; to chastise the Iniquity that was used in the willful Smouthering and Covering of the Last; and that many fierce Opposites to the Discovery of that Witchcraft would bee thereby confined.” (Diary, p. 172.)

It never took Mather long to improve upon the suggestion of a bewitching. And soon there was Margaret Rule for him to minister to. She had a disturbance at a Public Assembly on Lord’s Day September 10, 1693, and then she fell into the usual trance. Mather would again tell the story in a private manuscript, but this time it was more defensive. Mather was aware that skepticism was growing. Of course this was what the exploration of the spirit world was designed to refute. When Mather had returned from Salem where he learned the prophesy of the shining Spirits, he discovered a written libel against him for his troubles in the witching crisis. So he was careful in the new memorandum to meet criticism head on:

“It were a most Unchristian and uncivil, yea a most unreasonable thing to imagine that the Fitt’s of the Young Woman were but meer Impostures; And I believe scarce any, but People of a particular Dirtiness, will habour such an Uncharitable Censure; however, because I know not how far the Devil may drive the Imagination of poor Creatures when he has possession of them, that at another time when they are themselves would scorn to Dissemble any thing, I shall now confine my Narrative unto passages, wherein there could be no room left for any Dissimulations.” (Burr, p. 312.)

A bewitched child levitated by demons from Joseph Glanvill's Saducismus Triumphatus.

A bewitched child levitated by demons from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus.

Mather again patiently told the story of suffering, and visions, and prickings and burnings and forced feeding, all at the insistence of invisible demons acting while Mather and others looked on. And Mather would vouch for things that he didn’t see, but others of unquestioned veracity did. Like the time Margaret was lifted by invisible spirits up to the ceiling in front of numerous witnesses. And how it took “as much as they could all do to pull her down again.” Or when someone (it turned out to be Mather) felt an invisible imp, like a rat moving on her bed. (Burr, p. 313.) Surely these were enough to dispel any doubt that there was no material explanation.

But this time there was a Sadducee willing to put his name to the matter. A merchant, likely an Anglican, Robert Calef had collected particularly striking material that would show that Mather’s involvement in the crisis was not beneficial. In fact, it showed that Mather willingly encouraged the corrupt proceedings and his dissertations on demons was not entirely based on scripture. In fact, he charged that Mather and his father went far afield, quoting pagan authors to substantiate their beliefs. And so the prosecutions could not be justified as soundly based on religious principles. It was Calef who published Mather’s manuscript concerning Margaret Rule. But worse, from Mather’s view, was that he went to see how Mather handled his ministration and recorded his observations.

Far from being the passively observing recorder of spiritual mysteries, Mather, Calef saw, would stuff the demonic details into Margaret’s head. He saw Mather ask leading questions, which Margaret would readily agree with. After watching the proceedings, both times Calef recorded his observations immediately. He sent copies of his notes to Mather for comment. Mather exploded. First he had Calef arrested for slander. (And then did not appear at Sessions when the case was called.) Then after Calef wrote him again for his comments, he replied in a January 1694 letter with barely concealed but incoherent fury. He debated whether Margaret’s breast was outside the bed covers when he rubbed her stomach. He lectured Calef that his father had prayed not a half hour but only 15 minutes, and it was silly to argue that Increase could not offer up a short prayer. Mather objected that Increase’s hand was not near the bed when Mather himself felt the invisible rat. He even sent certificates of those who saw the demons levitate Margaret. (Something that Calef did not comment on.) And at the end, he came to the real point: he understood the charge that Calef’s observations would lead to: “In … several of the Questions in the Paper are so Worded, as to carry in them a presupposal of the things inquired after, to say the best of it is very unfair …” (Burr, p. 334.) But Mather did not deny the words. How could he? Calef had contemporary notes, but Mather had waited four months to reply. It was not possible he could recall exactly what he said.

And so it would become clear, and Mather so understood the danger to his reputation, that what Mather had done with these very suggestible girls was to offer suggestions. It was here that Mather was most vulnerable. The man who would flaunt his familiarity with scripture was exposed for tainting his investigation. The intellectual apparatus behind the prosecutions was every bit as corrupt as the trials themselves.

It was not simply a dirk that Calef wielded. He worked for three more years to compile the history of the prosecutions. It was a work that bore the kind of credibility that Mather could never master for this task: It was based on eye-witness testimony. When it was ready for printing in 1697, no New England printer would touch it. The Mathers were good for a regular supply of printing jobs. There was no percentage in testing their feelings of fair play. Mather fretted when he learned that it would be sent to England for printing, and again when he arrived back in New England in 1700. “[A] very wicked Sort of Sadducee in this Town, raking together a crue of Libels” Mathers called him in his Dairy (p. 371). The Mathers had braced for the worst and had in tow several of their congregants, including John Goodwin, father of the Margaret and her three siblings whom Cotton Mather first treated for bewitching twelve years before. The pamphlet they produced Some Few Remarks upon a Scandalous Book against the Gospel and Ministry of New England, written by one Robert Calef (Boston: T. Green: 1701) did nothing to resurrect Cotton Mather’s reputation for intellectual honesty in the witching storm. Nor did his father’s reaction to Calef’s book—having it burned in Harvard Yard. What more effective mean could Puritans use to sully their reputations than burn books at their university?

While the Mathers defended themselves and their inflexible beliefs, others, not many, weighed their own actions in the balance and found them wanting. The last was by all considerations the most surprising and important. In 1706, Ann Putnam Jr., 29, unmarried, in charge of her orphaned brothers and sisters, petitioned to join the Salem Village church. As required, she confessed, and the confession was read to the congregation on August 25, while she stood mute:

“I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ’92; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though what was said or done by me against any person I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill-will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan. And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing of Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humbled for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offence, whose relations were taken away or accused.”

It was, to be sure, a quibbling thing. God, it seems, was as much at fault as she, for the minor role she thinks she played. No mention of her mother Ann Putnam Sr. (now dead), also an “afflicted” witness or father Thomas Putnam (also dead), who signed complaints against at least 36 “witches,” including his former pastor George Burroughs, the four-year-old Dorcas Good, and the old Indian Tituba who started everything but managed, surprisingly, to survive it all (she was sold into slavery to pay for her prison expenses, however). And she took refuge in the fact that she acted “with others,” which to Puritans seems to have lessened the offense, although to us it seems to reduce the genuineness of the confession. But it was enough; she was enrolled as a member.

Nine years earlier the jury who convicted Rebecca Nurse apologized. The statement by foreman Thomas Fisk and eleven other jurors lamented their role in the execution:

“We confess that we our selves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the Powers of Darkness, and Prince of the Air; but were for want of Knowledge in our selves, and better Information from others, prevailed with to take up with such Evidence against the Acused, as on further consideration, and better Information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the Lives of any, Deut. 17.6, whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, tho Ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon our selves, and this People of the Lord, the Guilt of Innocent Blood; which Sin the Lord saith in Scripture, he would not pardon, 2 Kings 24.4., that is we suppose in regard of his temporal Judgments. We do therefore hereby signify to all in general (and to the surviving Sufferers in especial) our deep sense of, and sorrow for our Errors, in acting on such Evidence to the condemning of any person.” (In Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World …, in Burr, 387.)

Those jurors probably had greater reason to complain of the lack of “better Information from others” than they wrote. For they, after listening to bizarre spectral evidence as well as testimony of neighbors expressing their strong doubt that Goodwife Nurse was anything but a God-fearing Christian, brought in a verdict of not guilty. The “afflicted,” chief among which was Ann Putnam Sr., shrieked in horror at the verdict. The judges who had never seen such a thing as a run away jury acquitting someone they knew guilty were also shocked. One judge verbalized his surprise. Another judge promised to have Nurse indicted again. The Court evidently soon thought better of going through the expense of another trial just to execute her, so a member of the Court suggested that the jury might have misconceived a particular piece of evidence. As Thomas Fisk wrote himself (on July 4, not long after the June 29 trial): The Court thought “they let slip the words, which the Prisoner at the Bar spake against her self, which were spoken in reply to Goodwife Hobbs and her Daughter, who had been faulty [guilty—dkf] in setting their hands to the Devils Book, as they have confessed formerly; the words were ‘What, do these persons give in Evidence against me now, they used to come among us …'” (More Wonders of the Invisible World, in Burr pp. 358-59). Nurse was brought back, confronted with this statement but said nothing. The jury again retired, and this time returned the proper, according to the Judges, verdict of guilty. Before Nurse was executed, she was told the significance of the extraordinary proceedings after she was acquitted. She petitioned the Court to explain that she was hard of hearing, did not understand what was being put to her and explained what she meant when referring to Hobbs and her daughter; merely, the surprise that co-defendants, who were legally barred from taking the oath, would be testifying against her. The explanation was too late and in any event insignificant to a Court who had stopped acting like one the moment it tampered with the jurors. When Governor Phips stayed her execution, the reaction was so swift that “some Salem Gentlemen” prevailed on him to withdraw it to speed her death (Burr, p. 359). She was excommunicated for good measure.

Reverend Parris, in whose family the afflictions began, also expressed his regret. He wrote that it was a great rebuke by God that such troubles would start with him  and admitted that “God has been righteously spitting in my face.”  (See Charles W. Upham’s volumes, fully cited in Part III, Volume II, p. 548.) This was in the arbitration for one of the interminable minister payment disputes that had happened with every minister since the beginning. This time, however, the Putnams, who accused the witches with Parris, stood by the minister. However sincere he was, Parris was no better able to obtain payment from these flinty people, who only were able to produce witches and disputes.

One important man alone seemed capable of genuine remorse for his actions. It was Samuel Sewall. Sewall had never been an intellectual, or even a theologian. He wasn’t even trained as a judge when he took part. His sin was in putting too much trust in the Puritan elites like the Mathers and their judges. He believed in the Puritan God and the Bible. He thought he was following both by following the Puritan clergy. He even liked and dined with George Burroughs, until the Puritans turned on him. And then it was enough that Cotton Mather condemned him.

Something happened in the years that followed. He lost his assurance in the Mathers. He even lost the certainty in the divine justice in taking his children, a certainty he had when little Henry was taken at Christmas time in 1685 (see Part I). Maybe he really wasn’t the heartless, unsentimental Puritan of those days anymore. On Christmas 1696 Sewall had to bury Baby Sarah. It required a rearrangement of all the little bodies in the burial ground:

“I was entertain’d with a view of, and converse with, the Coffins of my dear Father Hull, Mother Hull, Cousin Quinsey, and my Six chldren: for the little posthumous was now took up and set in upon that that stands on John’s; so are three, one upon another twice, on the bench at the end. My Mother ly’s on a lower bench, at the end, with head to her Husband’s head; and I order’d little Sarah to be set on her Grandmother’s feet. ‘Twas an awfull yet pleasing Treat; Having said, The Lord knows who shall be brought hether next, I came away.” (Sewall Diary, see Part I for full citation, pp. 443-44.)

He spent the night sending off expensive rings to people. They weren’t Christmas gifts. They were tokens for the men who had prayed with his daughter. He gave the Pall Bearers gloves.

New Year’s day brought more wearisome grief to Sewall. He and his wife were awakened by the trumpet blast heralding the New Year. They did not greet the day. Pastor Willard had a meeting at his house, but the Sewalls were no longer invited. It was because Sewall had buried his abortive son, the posthumous, last May. The burial ground was hallowed but the boy had not been baptized. So Sewall was no longer invited into Willard’s house. “It may be I must never more hear a Sermon there.” He had chosen his children over his betters. It was a start.

The problem of his childlessness weighed on him heavily that month. On January 11 he wrote: “God helped me to pray more than ordinarily, that He would make up our Loss in the burial of our little daughter and other children, and that would give us a Child to Serve Him, pleading with Him as the Institutor of Marriage, and the Author of every good work.” (Diary, pp. 444-45.)

He does not say so, but perhaps Sewall saw his recent calamities as a result of his role in the witching trials. The General Court had set aside January 14, 1697, as a day of fasting and prayer over the witching trials. Cotton Mather preached a sermon condemning all manner of sins, except wrongful witness evidently. Robert Calef was there to confront Mather on his definition of witchcraft. But it was at South Church where Samuel Sewall came to terms with the cases. He handed Reverend Willard a written apology, and stood as Willard took to the pulpit to read it:

“Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order for this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of. Desires to take the Blame and shame of it. Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins; personal and Relative: And according to his infinite Benignity, and Sovereignty, Not Visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the Land: But that He would powerfully defend him against all Temptations to Sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him in the effcacious, saving Conduct of his Word and Spirit.” (Diary, p. 445.)

Five of his children would survive beyond 1717, when Sewall’s wife died.

Calef, who never sought fame and was scorned by Cotton Mather as a pretended merchant, would be the one remembered for writing the most important book on the crisis. Cotton Mather did not achieve his goal of justifying the actions of the judges, nor did he stem materialism. The crisis undoubtedly hastened the demise of Puritanism. Calef was at the center of that change. He would occupy several useful public offices before he died in 1719 in Roxbury. He was a selectman.

Headstones of Robert (right) and son (?) Daniel (1691-1712) at Eliot Burying Grounds, Roxbvury, Massachusetts. Robert's inscription reads:

Headstones of Robert (right) and son (?) Daniel (1691-1712) Calef at Eliot Burying Grounds, Roxbury, Massachusetts. Robert’s inscription reads: “Here Lyes Buried the Body of Mr. Robert Calef Aged Seventy One Years Died April the Thirteenth 1719.” (Photo by Kathleen Giusti, October 19, 2008. From: findagrave.com.)

There is no moral to be found in how the witches and divines and judges defiled Christmas and the other days for more than a year, just as they defiled each other. Nor, as in most cases of this sort, are there heroes, only oppressors and victims, some of which acted more courageously than others. But at least Robert Calef had enough courage to question dogmatism in its last gasps. He may have helped end it (in that form anyway). And so for that New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier, poet of the common man, memorialized him, while refusing to state Cotton Mather’s name.

Calef in Boston.

from The Western Literary Messenger
Volume 13 (1849)

by J[ohn] G[reenleaf] Whittier

In the solemn days of old,
Two men met in Boston town—
One a tradesman frank and bold,
One a preacher of renown.

Cried the last, in bitter tone—
“Poisoner of the wells of truth,
Satan’s hireling, thou hast sown
With his tares the heart of youth!”

Spake the simple tradesman then—
“God be judge ‘twixt thee and I;
All thou know’st of truth hath been
Unto men like thee a lie.

“Falsehoods which we spurn to-day
Were the truths of long ago;
Let the dead boughs fall away,
Fresher shall the living grow.

“God is good and God is light,
In this faith I rest secure;
Evil can but serve the right,
Over all shall love endure.”

When the thought of man is free,
Error fears its lightest tones,
So the priest cried, “Sadducee!”
And the people took up stones.

In the ancient burying-ground,
Side by side the twain now lie—
One with humble grassy mound,
One with marbles pale and high.

But the Lord hath blest the seed
Which that tradesman scattered then,
And the preacher’s spectral creed
Chills no more the blood of men.

Let us trust, to one is known
Perfect love which casts out fear,
While the other’s joys atone
For the wrong he suffered here.


R. Calef was the author of a spirited pamphlet ex-
posing the witchcraft delusions, in 1692, and condemning
the conduct of some of the clergy of Boston in respect to it.
He was proscribed and bitterly denounced by Cotton Ma-
ther and other strenuous defenders of the witch mania.—
National Era.


* Mather makes the reference in the unpublished manuscript which he circulated among his friends concerning his “treatment” of Margaret Rule. This unedited version was inserted in Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World, without Mather’s permission. The particular reference by Mather is found on page 320 of Burr’s Narrative of the Witchcraft Cases, which reproduces  much of Calef’s work (the full citation to Burr is found in Part I). Baxter refers to the works of both Mathers on witches in his own book The Certainty of the World of the Spirits. Fully evinced by the unquestionable Histories of Apparitions and Witchcrafts, Operations, Voices, andc. Proving the Immortality of Souls, the Malice and Misery of the Devils, and the Damned, and the Blessedness of the Justified. Written for the Conviction of Sadduces and Infidels (London: for  T. Parkhurst & J. Salusbury: 1691). Mather aped Baxter’s (and earlier Joseph Glanvill’s) use of Sadducees as the term of opprobrium for materialists. Baxter’s citation of the two Mathers must have been particularly satisfying to Cotton Mather, suffering as he did from immense feelings of dependence and inferiority toward his father: “… and Mr. Increase Mather, and his Son Mr. Cotton Mather of New England, their two Books of Witches, of which, the latter hath most convincing Evidence …” (p. 17) (emphasis added).

† This was a work in seven books, that traced the history of the Massachusetts settlement from 1620 to 1698. It was published in London by T. Parkhurst in 1702. The part that dealt with the Indian Wars was called Decennium Luctuosum: An History of Remarkable Occurrences in the Long War … (which had been separately published and now included as an Appendix to Book VII). The part dealing with Mercy Short’s (and the others’) captivity begins in Article VI of the Decennium Luctuosum on page 68 of Book VII. The Decennium Luctuosum itself is reprinted in Charles H. Lincoln. Narratives of the Indian Wars 1675-1699 (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1913). The Decennium Luctuosum begins at page 169 and Article VI begins at page 205.

‡The source for the frontier experiences of the other afflicted girls (who were between 17-20 when “afflicted”) is Deborah Kelly Kloepfer, “Cotton Mather’s ‘Dora,'” 44 Early American Literature 3, 33 n.3. She collects the examples from Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witch Crisis of 1692 (New York: Knopf: 2002). Kloepfer gives a plausible explanation of Short’s symptoms as hysteria using both then-contemporary and Freudian etiologies.

** London: printed for S. Lownds: 1682 and 1688. All editions were published posthumously (I quote from the 1688 edition). Glanvill had come to the world of demons and spirits backwards: to prove the truth of scriptures, he first analyzed how those attacking it went about it—through skepticism—and decided that proof of things “incredible” was the best weapon against skepticism. In 1661 he published his Scepsis Scientifica, Or The Vanity of Dogmatizing (available with notes and introductions at exclassics.com in pdf).  Like all dogmatists, Glanvill argued that it was the skeptics who had a belief system. And that skepticism is but disguised Atheism. “Atheism is begun in Sadducism. And those that dare not bluntly say, There is no God, content themselves (for a fair step, and Introduction) to deny there are Spirits, or Witches.” Ergo, to all intellectual dogmatists, the proof of Witches is the elusive disproof of Atheism. Sadducees, by the way, get their bad name for denying the bodily resurrection. They were rebuked by Jesus for that reason. See Matthew 22:23 ff. They used a very materialistic reasoning process. Jesus employed a scholastic response. Hence, the Puritans viewed Sadducees as materialists, and they themselves on the side of Jesus.

  1. That was a heck of a read! I am shocked by how frail we are in the storm, when public opinion can be so deftly manipulated into not just believing in demons but seeing the work of them. You only have to see Derren Brown at work to know how frail the human conscience or consciousness can be. Scary stuff, and happening today as well as yesterday. One thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. I remember my history tutor telling me that early on. Hope you are well and ready to enjoy some of the festivities Christmas brings – for myself I feel more humbug than delight, but will enjoy the family being around somewhat. I think. !!

  2. Informative scholarship, “yet another leftish screed” substantiating, on both sides, the dilemma that mere finite man faces — the rarity of a coupling of the God-given gifts of superior intellectual ability with Election, a gift of The Sovereign Grace of God, being true to Christ. Without spiritual regeneration, the earnest of the Holy Spirit teaching and leading us, the finite mind falls prey to the dual threat from the intellectually gifted of both “spiritual wickedness in high places,” and “mountains of falsehood” from gifted “Sadduces” of the secular world.

  1. January 1st, 2013

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