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Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trialsby Marc Aronson
Prologue: Boston, 1688: The Possession of the Goodwin Children
MATHER VS GLOVER
The trouble began in the summer of 1688. Thirteen-year-old Martha Goodwin noticed that some of her family's linen was missing and sharply questioned their washerwoman, who she suspected had stolen it. The laundress's mother was furious and attacked Martha with terrible words. Goody Glover's "bad language" seemed to afflict Martha like a contagious disease. The girl, and soon her three younger siblings, fell into fits. These seemed so painful that the prominent minister who later wrote up the case reported that "it would have broke a heart of stone to have seen their agonies." When the respected physician Thomas Oakes was called in, the only possible explanation he could offer for the children's suffering was witchcraft.
Luckily, it was not hard to guess who was responsible for harming the Goodwin children. Glover — her first name is not known for certain, though she is often mistakenly called "Mary" — was made-to-order for the part. An angry older woman, she was just the sort of person whom people suspected of being a witch. In fact, not six years earlier, as a woman lay dying, she had revealed to another woman that Glover had bewitched her to death. And just as the woman who was carrying this secret was preparing to testify against the witch, her son was assaulted by a "black thing with a blue cap" that appeared in his room to torment him. Though Glover was just a poor woman, she seemed able to cause great harm by using the powers of evil. Her imprisonment immediately healed the youngest of the Goodwin children, but when she again railed at them, the other three relapsed.
To face off against Glover and the devil — the evil one who surely was responsible for the anguish Glover was causing the Goodwin children — a young but important minister arrived at the household. He was Cotton Mather — son of Increase Mather, one of the leading ministers and theologians of his day, and grandson of John Cotton, one of the most important ministers and authors in the early history of New England. In his lineage, his already impressive learning, and his presence, Cotton Mather was the ideal person to aid the Goodwin children. If he could entrap Glover and get her to reveal her satanic bond, he could free the young people from her malign influence.
Mather, already in Boston, arrived at their home to try to help four children who lived near the church in which he preached. But he was also there to participate in what he knew was a far larger and more momentous cause. This case was both a test and a potential rallying point for all of New England Puritans.
Of MEETINGHOUSES and the blood of WOLVES: the PURITAN journey
The Puritans' mission in America was clearest in the early days of their New England settlements. The Puritans had arrived on ships. Built of long wooden planks, their churches were like simple wooden boats on land, safeguarding the believers inside. And, as one of their descendants, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote, when one of them killed a wolf, he claimed his reward by nailing it "on the porch of the meetinghouse," where the blood would drip onto the doorstep. This balance of simple strength and fierce combat was the essence of Puritanism.
Puritans turned completely away from what they saw as the old props of religion. Rich cathedrals full of statues, stained-glass images, ceremonies where the scent of incense or the sound of ancient chants might set the mood, priests speaking in a foreign language — all had no place in their religion. Instead, they built their faith on clean, simple planks, like the timber of their churches, on the Word of God as written in the Bible, translated into English, and shared by the congregation.
The Puritans, or "the Godly" as they were often called in England, were pleased with their spare, simple churches with their hard wooden benches. Religion for them was not a moment here or there — a sermon on the Sabbath Day, a prayer at meals, pious phrases on holy days. Nor were they called "Puritans" because they wanted a pure, clear faith filling every part of life and every moment of every day. Each household was considered a little congregation, with the father as a kind of minister. He would lead the family in prayer and Bible reading, and he would discipline those who needed it. Children were viewed as prideful and stubborn. Their early education involved breaking them of that willfulness and making them more humble and obedient. While in some ways this was a very severe kind of family life, Puritans thought of it as based on love. They believed that husbands and wives should love each other, passionately and intimately. And the harsh treatment of young children only made sense since it gave them the best chance of discovering God's love, which was the greatest gift of all.
The Puritans believed that each person was on the most difficult, dangerous, and uncertain path: the journey toward God. In England they had to struggle against the government even to practice their faith. Their absolute devotion to religion as they understood it, their unwillingness to accept compromise, and their hatred of Catholics clashed with the policies of English kings content with an easier faith that asked less of people. Faced with this kind of opposition in 1603, King James I warned that he would chase them out of the country. But this persecution only strengthened their faith. Puritans who crossed the sea and arrived in New England felt they were participating in a new kind of pilgrimage, the physical epic of starting over in a new land. And the physical was linked to the spiritual growth. Every tree felled, field planted, simple meetinghouse built was a step in the creation of the kingdom of the Lord.
The Puritans were a minority among the English settlers in New England, and from the first, they had conflicts with others who came to North America only to make money or to live according to their own rules. But their sense of what crossing the ocean meant was very influential. Anyone today who feels that Americans have a special destiny as a force for religious faith or democracy or economic opportunity is sharing in and carrying on the Puritans' vision of this land.
Devout Puritans interpreted everything that happened to them on their pilgrimage in the new land — epidemics of illness, wars with Indians, the sickness or health of their families, earthquakes, even the severity of New England winters — as judgments of their behavior. They saw themselves as living out the story of the Jews, the chosen people in the Bible, who had to wander in the wilderness after they left Egypt. The stark meetinghouse colored with the blood of a wolf was the modern version of the tents of the Jews, carrying the Word of the Lord to the Promised Land.
Puritans drew great strength from seeing themselves in combat with the world around them. In their wars against the Indians, for example, they could be completely and coldly destructive. For a time they offered bounties for the scalps of murdered Indians. In this sense they were like those fundamentalists of all religions today who can justify extreme measures against others — whether that be attacking U.S. cities, killing doctors who perform abortions, or settling in occupied territories — on the grounds that they have a divine right to take them. They considered themselves an outpost of saints in a hostile wilderness. Any victory against their foes seemed to prove the rightness of their mission; any defeat was a sign of God's dissatisfaction.
Seeing themselves as a spiritual community, Puritans especially feared being attacked by the devil, the enemy of God. Those who rejected God entirely and made pacts with the devil were, in the eyes of Puritan believers, a combination of our worst fears of spies and terrorists. Since you could not immediately recognize these traitors, they could pass as the most pious of churchgoing neighbors — which meant you constantly had to be on guard. Anyone who yearned for a simpler, easier way to happiness could be tempted. According to one woman who confessed to being a witch during the Salem trials, the devil promised her, "We should have happy days and then it would be better times for me." The devil felt equally present to people who thought they were failing God. Like Elizabeth Knapp, they feared they had lost their souls already.
Witchcraft and prayer actually had something very important in common. If the devil was lurking nearby, turning people into witches, then God was equally close at hand, saving souls. The threat of one proved the existence of the other. This equation was very important to Cotton Mather when he came to help the Goodwin children, for on every front the mission that had brought his family to New England was under assault.
Four years before, in 1684, the frighteningly pro-Catholic Charles II had dissolved the original charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had allowed the Puritan leaders to govern as they saw fit. New England was now being run by an arrogant Englishman named Sir Edmond Andros. Andros was questioning whether long-established farmers really owned their land. Worse, he was insisting that any Christian could come into the community. That meant that Quakers had to be tolerated. All good Puritans knew that Quakers trembled and shook in their meetings and claimed to be in touch with an inner light. To the Godly, this sounded suspiciously like possession. Puritans were being told to allow people who might be directly in touch with the devil into their towns and villages.
Outside New England's borders the news was equally frightening. King Philip's War, a ferocious conflict with the Indians a decade earlier, had led to extremes of death and suffering on both sides. Though unprecedented killing and cruelty allowed the New Englanders to win, the war left scars: disabled men, lost relatives, and the certainty that remaining Indians could see their neighbors only as mortal enemies. Farther north, the Catholic French and their Indian allies were a constant threat. In order to help people picture the danger witchcraft posed, Cotton Mather described the devils themselves as something very like those Catholics. Think of them, he urged, as "vast regiments of cruel and bloody French dragoons [soldiers], with an Intendant [general] over them, overrunning a pillaged neighborhood."
Despite these very serious threats, young people did not seem to need the church in the same ways as their parents. And even those in the older generation paled in comparison to their forebears, who had braved the unknown in an effort to create a model society in a new land. For Cotton Mather, a tangle with a witch was an opportunity to remind everyone in New England of why they were there: They were participants in a great battle, a cosmic struggle as in biblical times, and they could never take their enemy, the true enemy of God, too lightly.
Testing a WITCH
What was a witch? It depended upon whom you asked. On the popular level, judging by the way people told stories and eyed their neighbors and brought cases to court, a witch was a person who could do harm through magical means. A witch, male or female, could curdle milk, hobble animals, and even cause young children to sicken and die. There were many folkways that told people how to figure out if someone was a witch, and how to combat one who had been flushed out. For example, one English folk belief held that if a child or baby was passed through a hole in a natural object such as a rock or a tree, that child would be immune to witchcraft. Apparently, there was a tree in Salem that had a gap of just the right size, and parents continued to pass their babies through it long after the trials. The last recorded case of using the tree this way took place on July 8, 1793.
Some of the methods for telling the future, doing harm to others, and detecting malign forces were part of what Mather called "little sorceries" but which we would no longer call "witchcraft." The year before the Salem outbreak, Mather lamented that "in some towns it has been a usual thing for people to cure hurts with spells, or to use detestable conjurations, with sieves, keys, and peas, and nails, and horseshoes, and I know not what other implements to learn the things for which they have a forbidden, and an impious curiosity. 'Tis in the Devil's name that such things are done."
The rituals Mather cited were the seventeenth-century equivalent of such diversions as checking your horoscope in the daily paper, hunting for four-leaf-clovers, or consulting a Ouija board. For instance, according to a late-sixteenth-century English manuscript, the sieve and scissors were used this way: "Stick a pair of shears [scissors] in the rind [handle] of a sieve and let two persons set the top of each of their forefingers upon the upper part of the shears holding it with the sieve up from the ground steadily; ask Peter and Paul whether A, B, or C hath stolen the thing lost; and at the nomination of the guilty person the sieve will turn around."
English settlers brought these practices with them across the Atlantic, but Mather and other leading ministers were trying to eliminate them. On the one hand, they thought these games were dangerous, for they toyed with using the devil's own powers, even if they were not used for devilish ends. The ministers saw no distinction between "white" and "black" magic. The only nonhuman power a person should rely on, they believed, was God. On the other hand, the ministers saw themselves as men of reason who relied on experiment and knowledge, not superstition. To them, spiritual matters were a type of science. Dealing with evidence of the occult required the very same rationality and discipline applied to navigating across the seas or planning how to sow your crops. Folk magic had no place in their world.
To ministers such as Mather, as well as to the law of the day, a witch was a person who had made a pact with the devil. Claims of having been harmed by magic could be used to arouse suspicion about a person. But a witch could be convicted only by confessing or by the testimony of two or more witnesses who were sure they had seen evidence of the diabolical link.
Mather set out to get Glover to reveal who and what she was. At first he tried a simple test: He asked her to recite the Lord's Prayer. Many believed that being in league with the devil would make it impossible for a person to speak these holy words. Glover mangled line after line. This was the seventeenth-century equivalent of failing a lie detector test today, and she was quickly brought to trial. Suddenly, a complication arose. Glover claimed not to understand English, only Gaelic. This was possibly true, as Glover was from Ireland and was a Catholic. But through an interpreter, she confessed all. The court hurried to search her home, and damning evidence was found: "several small images, or puppets, or babies, made of rags, and stuffed with goat's hair." Everyone knew that witches used such props to hurt people from a distance.
The importance of puppets in witch trials suggests something of what witches meant to people at the time. A witch had given up her soul so that she could command Satan's power. In that sense she was a puppet master. She could now use invisible forces to harm her victims. But by deadening her soul, she had also lost her humanity and made herself into a tool of evil. She was now a puppet herself. Either way, as powerful tormentor or as soulless pseudohuman, a witch was terrifying. Not only was she different in that she was a woman living an odd, inexplicable kind of life, not only was she a troublemaker because of her angry words and loud mouth, but a witch was the less-than-human more-than-human force in the village who was personally responsible for anything that went wrong. A witch subverted lives that should have been good. But that was only because God allowed her to do so, as a test of or a punishment for the faithful.
Despite having the crucial evidence found in Glover's home, the judges did not want to jump to conclusions, and they tried yet another test. Glover was in a bad way, but she perked up when her puppets were brought to her. Yet as soon as she held one in her hands, "the children fell into sad fits." Cause and effect: Put a puppet in the hands of a witch and children suffer.
Mather understood that catching Glover presented an exceptional opportunity. Like modern doctors who try to halt the course of a contagious disease by tracing the contact history of a person who is carrying it, ministers would question witches to learn more about the devil and any others he may have converted to his ways. Mather went to visit Glover in jail to question her, and she admitted meeting her prince, the devil, and four others. Mather prayed with her, and he was gratified to report that though she had resisted at first, she wound up thanking him.
Glover was convicted of being a witch and was properly hanged. Witches were never burned in America. Instead of repenting, at the last meeting Glover warned that her death would not help the Goodwin children. According to Mather, as she predicted, "the three children continued in their furnace as before, and it grew rather seven times hotter than it was."
EXPLORING the invisible world
With his one human suspect gone, Mather now had to use the words of the afflicted children themselves to lead him to their remaining tormentors. For it was the property of these witches to show something of themselves as they did their malicious work. Thus eleven-year-old John Goodwin could see that there were four evil shapes in the room with him, and he could almost name them, but not quite.
Again Mather tried a test: If the invisible forms that only John could see emanated from human beings, hitting one of the specters should cause an injury to the person. Rumor had it that an "obnoxious woman" whose identity Mather hid suddenly developed a wound just after the test.
The Goodwin children were in torment, sometimes barking like dogs, sometimes purring like cats; sweating and panting as if they were baking in an oven, then shivering as if drenched with cold water. Red streaks showed up on their bodies where they claimed they were being beaten with invisible sticks. One of the boys would be frozen and immobile, as if he were nailed to the floor. Then, suddenly, he and the others would seem to fly "with incredible swiftness through the air," with only a toe occasionally touching the floor.
Though the youngest among them was already seven, whenever the children had to dress or undress, they would have tantrums like the wildest toddlers. "It would sometimes cost one of them an hour or two to be undressed in the evening, or dressed in the morning. For if any one went to untie a string, or undo a button about them...they would be twisted into such postures as made the thing impossible."
Faced with this extremity of suffering, Mather took young Martha Goodwin into his own home so that he could watch over her and care for her himself. There, daily, he saw her fight invisible presences, go rigid when given food, and struggle to read the Bible even as "her eyes would be strangely twisted and blinded" and her neck seemed on the verge of breaking. Eventually, due to his constant ministrations, she and all the Goodwin children were delivered from the evils that assailed them. Choosing caution over zeal, Mather never revealed the names of any other witches he may have discovered in the process.
Lessons and WARNINGS
Cotton Mather published his account of his experiences with the Goodwin children as soon as he could, but not before their father, also named John, added a written postscript. John Goodwin understood that whatever took place in his family was just. Surely God was afflicting his children because he had failed in "admonishing and instructing" them. Still, that did not make it much easier for him to see his children suffer, "those little bodies, that should be temples for the Holy Ghost to dwell in, should be thus harassed and abused by the devil and his cursed brood." His own helplessness made it worse, for "doctors cannot help, parents weep and lament over them, but cannot ease them." Many people suggested that he try "tricks" — the kind of folk magic often used against witches — but Goodwin resisted. And in the end it was fasting and prayer, and the help of the ministers led by Mather, that delivered his children back to him.
To John Goodwin, all the misery his family experienced was justified. In part, he believed, it happened because he had not been a good enough father. But in a larger sense, he was sure, it was a lesson to all "that prayer is stronger than witchcraft."
For believing Puritans, the episode with the Goodwin children had been harrowing but ultimately a triumph. A witch had been discovered, led to confess, and killed; four children had been afflicted, but all were healed. A great minister had proven to be a caring man who would go to any lengths to help an anguished parent and four children trapped in invisible chains. Incontrovertible proof that evil was real, that the devil was present, and that witches were dangerous had played out in Boston, and yet those same events proved that stalwart ministers and fervent prayer could defeat the worst of the devil's designs. The clear lesson was to watch out for attacks from the invisible world and to rely on the leaders of the community when these attacks came. For any who might be tempted by the Quakers, here was a warning to stick with the true faith.
For skeptics, both of the time and since, a very different set of events had unfolded. A sick old Catholic woman who couldn't even speak English had religious articles in her home. Her garbled "confession" probably was as much a defense of her Catholic faith as anything else — even Mather admitted that Glover sometimes called her spirits her "saints." On this flimsy evidence she was executed. Four children underwent some form of disturbance, which perhaps hints of a rebellion against the very admonitions and instructions their father valued so highly. Perhaps they enjoyed racing about and screaming and getting attention more than being well-behaved "temples for the Holy Ghost." Whatever the initial cause of their ills, soon enough their troubles faded away. Since Mather was both a central actor in the events and the author of the sole account of what took place, it is impossible to know exactly what the children experienced. The lesson of the Goodwin children was that children's games could have serious consequences.
Four years later these two views clashed again in Salem, and those events changed New England in ways neither Mather nor his critics could have imagined.
Text copyright © 2003 by Marc Aronson
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