By Charles M. Skinner in 1896
The extraordinary delusion recorded as Salem witchcraft was a reflection of kindred insanity in the Old World that was not eliminated until thousands had counted its victims. 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 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. 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 was 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 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. They 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. Although the Reverend Moody was generally commended for his substitution of sense and justice for the law, some bigots persecuted him so constantly that he left for 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 the witch’s blood, 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. In the country’s early history, 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 relationship between Satan and the Indians. He declared that certain 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. 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 due to 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 night hours, the light of fires gleamed from its top while shadowy forms glanced athwart it. Old men say the lights are still there in winter, though modern doubters declare they were the aurora borealis.
But, the belief in witches did not die even when the Salem people came to their senses. In the Merrimack Valley, the devil found converts for many years after. Goody Mose of Rocks Village was thought to have sent a beetle to disrupt a nearby party. The beetle flew into the faces of the guests relentlessly, buzzing its wings angrily. Finally, one of the partygoers swatted the insect and crushed it with his foot. At that very moment, Goody Mose, who had a sinister reputation, fell down the stair in her house. Goody Sloper, of West Newbury, who had a reputation as a witch, went lame after a man struck his ax into the beam of a house that she had bewitched. However, she later redeemed herself when she rescued two people from drowning in the river. Goody Whitcher, of Amesbury, whose loom kept banging day and night after she died. Goodman Nichols of Rocks Village cast a spell on a neighbor’s son, compelling him to run up one end of the house, along the ridge, and down the other end, troubling the family extremely by his strange proceedings. Susie Martin, also of Rocks Village, was hanged despite her devotions in jail, but not before the rope moved so much that it could not be tied for some time. The hill below Easton, Pennsylvania, called Hexenkopf (Witch’s head), was described by German settlers as a place of nightly gathering for weird women, who whirled about its top in “linked dances” and sang in deep tones mingled with awful laughter. After one of these women, in Williams township, had been punished for enchanting a twenty-dollar horse, their celebrations were held more quietly. In Newburyport, Goodwife Elizabeth Morse was accused of witchcraft in 1679 by neighbors who had grudges against her. One neighbor even claimed that she made his calves dance on their hind legs and roar. They also said she had baskets and pots that danced through her house and had been seen flying about the sun. She was sentenced to death but ultimately pardoned by the governor.
Juan Perea, of San Mateo, New Mexico, would fly with his chums to meetings in the mountains in the shape of a fireball. During these sallies, he left his own eyes at home and wore those of some brute animal. It was because his dog ate his eyes when he had carelessly put them on a table that he had always afterward to wear those of a cat. In the 1800s, an old woman who lived in a hut on the Palisades of the Hudson River was held to be responsible for local storms and accidents. As late as 1889, two Zuni Indians were hanged on the wall of an old Spanish church near their pueblo in Arizona on a charge of having blown away the rain clouds in a time of drought. It was held that there was something uncanny if given the name of Gallows Hill to an eminence near Falls Village, Connecticut, for a strange black man was found hanging, dead, to a tree near its top one morning.
Moll Pitcher, a successful sorcerer, and fortune-teller of old Lynn, Massachusetts, has figured in obsolete poems, plays, and romances. She lived in a cottage at the foot of High Rock, where she was consulted, not merely by people of respectability, but by those who had devilish schemes and wanted to learn the outcome of their designs in advance. Many a ship was deserted at the hour of sailing because she boded evil of the voyage. She was of medium height, big-headed, tangle-haired, long-nosed, and had a searching black eye. The sticks she carried were cut from a hazel that hung about a brook where an unwedded mother drowned her child. A girl, who went to her for news of her lover, lost her reason when the witch, moved by a malignant impulse, described his death in a fiercely dramatic manner. One day the missing ship came bowling into port, and the shock of joy the girl experienced when the sailor clasped her in his arms restored her erring senses. When Moll Pitcher died, she was attended by the little daughter of the woman she had so afflicted.
John, or Edward, Diamond, grandfather of Moll Pitcher, was a benevolent wizard. When vessels were trying to enter the port of Marblehead, Massachusetts, in a heavy gale or at night, their crews were startled to hear a trumpet voice pealing from the skies, plainly audible above the howling and hissing of any tempest, telling them how to lay their course to reach smooth water. This was the voice of Diamond, speaking from his station, miles away in the village cemetery. He always repaired to this place in troublous weather and shouted orders to the ships made visible to him by mystic power as he strode to and fro among the graves. When thieves came to him for advice, he charmed them and made them take back their plunder or caused them to tramp helplessly about the streets bearing heavy burdens.
Old Mammy Redd of Marblehead, a notorious witch, could curdle the milk as it came from the cow and transform it into blue wool afterward. She had the evil eye, and if she willed, her glance or touch could blight like palsy. She only needed to wish a bloody cleaver to be found in a cradle to cause the little occupant to die, while the whole town ascribed to her the annoyances of daily housework and business. Her unpleasant celebrity led to her death at the hands of her fellow citizens who had been “worrited” by no end of queer happenings: ships had appeared just before they were wrecked and had vanished while people looked at them; men were seen walking on water after they had been comfortably buried; the wind was heard to name the sailors doomed never to return; footsteps and voices were heard in the streets before the great were to die; a corpse in its coffin chased one man; the devil pursued another in a carriage drawn by four white horses; a young woman who had just received a present of some fine fish from her lover was amazed to see him melt into the air, and was heart-broken when she learned next morning that he had died at sea. So far away as Amesbury, the devil’s power was shown by the appearance of a man who walked the roads carrying his head under his arm and by the freak of a windmill that the miller always used to shut up at sundown but that started by itself at midnight. Evidently, it was high time to be rid of Mammy Redd.
Margaret Wesson, “old Meg,” lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, until she died by a shot fired at the siege of Louisburg, 500 miles away, in 1745. Two soldiers of Gloucester, while before the walls of the French town, were annoyed by a crow that flew over and around them, cawing harshly and disregarding stones and shots, until it occurred to them that the bird could be no other than old Meg in another form, and, as silver bullets are an esteemed antidote for the evils of witchcraft, they cut two silver buttons from their uniforms and fired them at the crow. At the first shot, its leg was broken; at the second, it fell dead. On returning to Gloucester, they learned that old Meg had fallen and broken her leg at the moment when the crow was fired on and that she died quickly after. An examination of her body was made, and the identical buttons were extracted from her flesh that had been shot into the crow at Louisburg.
As a citizen of New Haven was riding home — this was at the time of the goings on at Salem — he saw shapes of women near his horse’s head, whispering earnestly together and keeping time with the trot of his animal without effort of their own. “In the name of God, tell me who you are,” cried the traveler, and in the name of God, they vanished. The next day the man’s orchard was shaken by viewless hands, and the fruit was thrown down. Hogs ran about the neighborhood on their hind legs; children cried that somebody was sticking pins into them; one man would roll across the floor as if pushed, and he had to be watched lest he should go into the fire; when housewives made their bread, they found it as full of hair as food in a city boarding-house; when they made soft soap, it ran from the kettle and over the floor like lava; stones fell down chimneys and smashed crockery. One of the farmers cut off an ear from a pig that was walking on its hind legs, and an eccentric old body of the neighborhood appeared presently with one of her ears in a muffle, thus satisfying the community that she had caused the troubles. When a woman was making potash, it began to leap about, and a rifle was fired into the pot, causing a sudden calm. In the morning, the witch was found dead on her floor. Yet killing only made her worse, for she moved to a deserted house near her own, and there kept a mad revel every night; fiddles were heard, lights flashed, stones were thrown, and yells gave people at a distance a series of cold shivers, but the populace tried the effect of tearing down the house, and quiet was brought to the town.
In the early days of the 19th century, a skinny old woman known as Aunt Woodward lived in a log cabin at Minot Corner, Maine, enjoying the awe of the people in that secluded burg. They moved around but little at night, on her account, and one poor girl was in mortal fear lest by mysterious arts she should be changed, between two days, into a white horse. One citizen kept her away from his house by nailing a horseshoe to his door, while another took the force out of her spells by keeping a branch of “round wood” at his threshold. At night she haunted a big, square house where the ghost of a murdered infant was often heard to cry, and by day she laid charms on her neighbors’ provisions and utensils and turned their cream to buttermilk. “Uncle” Blaisdell hurried into the settlement to tell the farmers that Aunt Woodward had climbed into his sled in the middle of the road and that his four yokes of oxen could not stir it an inch, but that after she had leaped down one yoke of cattle drew a load of wood without an effort. Yet she died in her bed.
About the Author: Charles Montgomery Skinner (1852-1907), an American writer, is best known for his collections of myths, legends, and folklore found both in the United States and across the world. His writings were wide-ranging, including his popular folklore tales, gardening and urban beautification guides, and natural history. This tale is from his nine-volume set of Myths and Legends of Our Own Land, published in 1896. However, as it appears here, the story is not verbatim, as it has been edited for clarification, additional information, and ease of the modern reader. However, the context remains essentially the same.