By Charles M. Skinner in 1896
The extraordinary delusion recorded as Salem witchcraft was but a reflection of a kindred insanity in the Old World that was not eliminated until its victims had been counted by thousands. That human beings should be accused of leaguing themselves with Satan to plague their fellows and overthrow the powers of righteousness is remarkable; but, that they should admit their guilt is incomprehensible, albeit the history of every popular delusion shows that weak minds are so affected as to lose control of themselves and that a whimsy can be as epidemic as small-pox.
Such was the case in 1688 when the witchcraft madness, which might have been stayed by a seasonable spanking, broke out in Massachusetts, the first victim being a wild Irishwoman, named Goody Glover who was hanged in Boston, which, within a few years involved the neighboring community of Salem Village.
The mischief done by “witches” was usually trifling, and it never occurred to their prosecutors that there was an inconsistency between their pretended powers and their feeble deeds, or that it was strange that those who might live in regal luxury should be so wretchedly poor. Aches and pains, the blight of crops, disease of cattle, were charged to them; children complained of being pricked with thorns and pins, and if hysterical girls spoke the name of any feeble old woman, while in flighty talk, they virtually sentenced her to die. The word of a child of eleven years sufficed to hang, burn, or drown a witch.
Giles Corey, a blameless man of eighty, was condemned to the medieval peine forte et dure, his body being crushed beneath a load of rocks and timbers. He refused to plead in court, and when the beams were laid upon him he only cried, “More weight!” The shade of the unhappy victim haunted the scene of his execution for years, and always came to warn the people of calamities. A child of five and a dog were also hanged after formal condemnation. Gallows Hill, near Salem Towne, witnessed many sad tragedies, and the old elm that stood on Boston Common until 1876 was said to have served as a gallows for witches and Quakers. The accuser of one day was the prisoner of the next, and not even the clergy was safe.
A few escapes were made, like that of a blue-eyed maid of Wenham, whose lover aided her to break the wooden jail and carried her safely beyond the Merrimack River, finding a home for her among the Quakers; and that of Miss Wheeler, of Salem, who had fallen under suspicion, and whose brothers hurried her into a boat, rowed around Cape Ann, and safely bestowed her in “the witch house” at Pigeon Cove. Many, however, fled to other towns rather than run the risk of accusation, which commonly meant death.
When the wife of Philip English, Mary, was arrested he, too, asked to share her fate, and both were, through friendly intercession, removed to Boston, where they were allowed to have their liberty by day on condition that they would go to jail every night. Just before they were to be taken back to Salem Towne for trial they went to church and heard the Reverend Joshua Moody preach from the text, “If they persecute you in one city, flee unto another.” The good clergyman not only preached goodness, but practiced it, and that night the door of their prison was opened. Furnished with an introduction from Governor Phips to Governor Fletcher, of New York, they made their way to that settlement and remained there in safe and courteous keeping until the people of Salem Towne had regained their senses when they returned. Mrs. English died, soon after, from the effects of cruelty and anxiety, and although the Reverend Moody was generally commended for his substitution of sense and justice for the law, there were bigots who persecuted him so constantly that he removed to Plymouth.
According to the belief of the time, a witch or wizard compacted with Satan for the gift of supernatural power, and in return was to give up his soul to the evil one after his life was over. The deed was signed in blood of the witch and horrible ceremonies confirmed the compact. Satan then gave his ally a familiar in the form of a dog, ape, cat, or another animal, usually small and black, and sometimes an undisguised imp. To suckle these “familiars” with the blood of a witch was forbidden in English law, which ranked it as a felony; but, they were thus nourished in secret, and by their aid, the witch might raise storms, blight crops, abort births, lame cattle, topple over houses, and cause pains, convulsions, and illness.
If she desired to hurt a person she made a clay or waxen image in his likeness, and the harms and indignities wreaked on the poppet would be suffered by the one bewitched, a knife or needle thrust in the waxen body being felt acutely by the living one, no matter how far distant he might be. By placing this image in running water, hot sunshine, or near a fire, the living flesh would waste as this melted or dissolved, and the person thus wrought upon would die. This belief is still current among some affected by the voodoo superstitions of the South. The witch, too, had the power of riding winds, usually with a broomstick for a conveyance, after she had smeared the broom or herself with magic ointment, and the flocking of the unhallowed to their sabbaths in snaky bogs or on lonely mountain tops has been described minutely by those who claim to have seen the sight. Sometimes they cackled and gibbered through the night before the houses of the clergy, and it was only at Christmas that their power failed them. The meetings were devoted to wild and obscene orgies, and the intercourse of fiends and witches begot a progeny of toads and snakes.
Naturally, the Indians were accused, for they recognized the existence of both good and evil spirits, their medicine men cured by incantations in the belief that devils were thus driven out of their patients, and in the early history of the country, the red man was credited by white settlers with powers hardly inferior to those of the oriental and European magicians of the middle ages. The Reverend Cotton Mather detected a relation between Satan and the Indians, and he declared that certain of the Algonquin tribes were trained from boyhood as powahs, or wizards, acquiring powers of second sight and communion with gods and spirits through abstinence from food and sleep and the observance of rites. Their severe discipline made them victims of nervous excitement and the responsibilities of conjuration had on their minds an effect similar to that produced by gases from the rift in Delphos on the Apollonian oracles, their manifestations of insanity or frenzy passing for divine or infernal possession. When John Gibb, a Scotchman, who had gone mad through religious excitement, was shipped to this country by his tired fellow-countrymen, the Indians hailed him as a more powerful wizard than any of their number, and he died in 1720, admired and feared by them because of the familiarity with spirits out of Hobbomocko (hell) that his ravings and antics were supposed to indicate. Two Indian servants of the Reverend Mr. Purvis, of Salem, having tried, by a spell, to discover a witch, were executed as witches themselves. The Indians, who took Salem witchcraft at its worth, were astonished at its deadly effect, and the English may have lost some influence over the natives in consequence of this madness. “The Great Spirit sends no witches to the French,” they said. Barrow Hill, near Amesbury, was said to be the meeting place for Indian powwows and witches, and at late hours of the night, the light of fires gleamed from its top, while shadowy forms glanced athwart it. Old men say that the lights are still there in winter, though modern doubters declare that they were the aurora borealis.