At the height of the witch hunt, some who had played a significant part in it repudiated their role. Margaret Jacobs was the granddaughter of George Jacobs. He was a lame old man who walked with two canes, but he was vigorous and plainspoken. His maidservant, Sarah Churchill, was one of the afflicted girls. He openly gave his opinion of the matter: the girls were “bitch witches.” He was then accused of being a wizard and was arrested. At his hearing he was disdainful, stating that “You tax me for a wizard; you may as well tax me for a buzzard.” Along with other members of the Jacobs family, Margaret had been arrested. In prison, after persistent interrogation and threats by the magistrates, she confessed to being a witch and agreed to testify against her grandfather. This she did, but afterwards she dictated a recantation to be given to the justices, avowing that she had acted out of fear of hanging (“with my own vile and wretched heart, to save my life”). She declared that her testimony against him and another accused had been wholly false and had caused “the wounding of my own soul.” Her words were made known to her grandfather, but they didn’t alter the guilty verdicts that had been handed down. When Reverend Burroughs — the other person she testified against during her time as a witch — was incarcerated in the same prison, she came to his cell and begged his forgiveness; this he granted her, then prayed with and for her. Both men were hanged; Margaret remained in prison.
From the ranks of the afflicted girls, the two oldest — both twenty — made efforts to break free. One was George Jacobs’ maidservant. Though Sarah Churchill had testified against him, she later publically stated that none of what she had said was true. She was immediately accused by the girls of being a witch and was sent to prison, where she underwent constant questioning. She described the long and grueling sessions in this way: “If I told Mr. Noyes but once I had set my hand to Satan’s book, he would have believed me, but if I told him a hundred times I had not he would not believe me.”
The other girl who tried to separate herself from the circle of accusers was also a maidservant. Mary Warren worked in the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor. The Proctors were a respected and prosperous family; he had extensive land holdings and owned a tavern. John Proctor was a man used to speaking his mind and having his words heeded by others. The day Rebecca Nurse was being examined he came to get Mary from the meetinghouse, and he angrily announced to the onlookers, referring to the girls, “They should all be at the whipping post. If they are let alone we should all be devils and witches.” He added that he intended to set Mary at the spinning wheel and that, if necessary, he’d thrash the devil out of her. Soon after he spoke these words the girls cried out against John Proctor’s wife; she was ordered to a preliminary hearing. As part of her examination Elizabeth was put to a test that was often used: she was told to recite the Lord’s Prayer. The first time, instead of saying “deliver us from evil,” she said, “deliver us from all evil,” and the second time she used the word “hollowed” instead of “hallowed.” Her failure to correctly recite the prayer confirmed her guilt. After she was ordered to prison, John was accused and joined her. Mary remained at the Proctor home, taking care of their younger children, and she began to make comments against the girls. She said that “They did but dissemble” and that their words should not be given any more credence than those of Keyser’s daughter (a demented child in the village). The girls responded by announcing that Satan had, as with Sarah Churchill, gained control of one in their own. Mary was arrested.
At her hearing, with herself the object of the girls’ fits and Hathorne’s questioning, Mary fell to the floor; her words were disjointed: “Oh, good Lord, help me . . . I will, I will speak, Satan . . . They did! They did! They did! . . . She saith she will kill me. Oh, she saith she owes me a spite and will claw me off.” Mary was taken to prison where, in the next days, the distraught girl — at times her limbs were locked so rigidly they could not be moved — was visited by ministers and magistrates. Sarah eventually confessed to signing the devil’s book at the urging of Elizabeth Proctor; she did it with her forefinger and it left a black mark. And she said that, yes, both Proctors were in unholy alliance with the devil. She renounced Satan, the ministers pronounced her cleansed of sin, and she was allowed to rejoin the girls in court. The same sequence of events was played out in the case of Sarah Churchill. There would be no more attempts at defection among the girls.
The Proctors fought hard from prison. More than seventy people in Salem Village and nearby communities signed petitions in their favor; these were presented to the justices for consideration at the trial. But John Proctor went further; he circumvented the justices by sending a letter to five ministers in Boston. In it he reiterated the complaint of many accused regarding the spectral evidence used against them. The justices were holding to the belief that the devil could not take the shape of someone without their consent. Proctor pointed out that in the Bible Satan impersonated an innocent without his consent when the witch of Endor appeared in the shape of Samuel, a glorified saint.
Proctor told the ministers that torture (which was illegal) was being used. In order to get the Carrier boys to denounce their mother, they had been tied necks to heels until blood came from their mouths. John’s son had been similarly tortured (all adult members of the Proctor family had followed Elizabeth and John into prison). Proctor claimed that the present justices were convinced of the guilt of the accused before they were tried, and he wanted them replaced by others who were impartial. As an example of unfairness, he pointed out that the accused had been denied legal counsel. He requested that the trials be held in Boston or, at the least, the ministers come to observe the proceedings. As for the girls, he complained of the circus-like atmosphere their presence created; since their words and actions at the hearings were already admitted as evidence, he asked that they not be allowed at the trials
Despite all his resources and force of character, John’s efforts came to naught. At the trial of the Proctors their maidservant, Mary Warren, newly-restored to the ranks of the afflicted girls, was among those condemning them. Not helping their case was the fact that the letter he sent to the ministers had fallen into the hands of the justices. Both John and Elizabeth were found guilty. He would hang, she would survive; she was spared because she was pregnant, and an innocent could not be put to death.
On an August day in 1692 five condemned people, including John Proctor, rode in a cart making its way through the streets to Gallows Hill. Something happened on the scaffolding that would make a disturbing impression on the crowd. It involved the Reverend George Burroughs.
“Oh, dreadful, dreadful! Here is a minister come. What, are ministers witches too?” The words were spoken by Ann Putnam, Jr. She had a vision of witches alighting in a pasture to celebrate their Sabbath; leading them was George Burroughs, who had been minister at Salem ten years ago. His stay had been a particularly stormy one.
Burroughs was pursued to his home in Maine and arrested (he was having dinner with his wife and seven children). At his hearing the girls went into a wild uproar, accusing him of being the grand wizard of all Massachusetts. Besides murdering his two previous wives (the girls saw them float into the assembly and corroborate that charge), he had committed many spectral murders. He both tortured and tempted the girls to get them to sign the devil’s book. Mercy Lewis related how he had taken her to “an exceedingly high mountain and had shown me all the kingdoms of earth and told me he would give them all to me if I would write in his book.” Confessed witches testified that he sounded a trumpet to convene them; at one of these gatherings Rebecca Nurse and Elizabeth Proctor had distributed the sacramental wine of blood. Villagers gave accounts of his supernatural strength, claiming that he could hold out a gun with a seven foot barrel by one forefinger in the muzzle.
Throughout his hearing and trial Burroughs denied all accusations, but he based his denial on his belief that witchcraft and witches were figments of people’s imaginations. These heretical words, coming from a minister, were particularly damning, and a guilty verdict was handed down.
On the day of his execution, as George Burroughs stood at the gallows, all eyes were fixed on this wizard who had posed as a man of God.
As was demonstrated at Elizabeth Proctor’s hearing, one of the confirmed beliefs in people’s minds was that a witch or wizard was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Satan himself, Prince of Deceit, could not say it. If someone stumbled or paused, or missed a word, this was evidence against them, even though they might claim their failure was due to fear or exhaustion or confusion.
But Burroughs, facing the expectant crowd, spoke the Lord’s Prayer slowly and flawlessly. At his “Amen” a murmur of wonder and unease passed through the gathering. As preparations for the hanging continued, voices were raised in protest, then some men began to push toward the gallows. It was at this moment that Reverend Cotton Mather, mounted on a horse, intervened.
Cotton was the son of Increase Mather; the two were among the most respected men in the colonies. Increase was pastor of the Second Church of Boston, president of Harvard University and ambassador to England (his dual roles show how the influence of the clergy extended into the political arena). The Mathers had, like all New Englanders, taken a keen interest in the events in Salem, and their preeminent position gave considerable weight to their opinions. On the controversial matter of spectral evidence they sent conflicting messages. Privately they wrote to the justices that such evidence should be handled with caution. But when Increase attended one of the trials, he pronounced that it had been handled fairly (despite the fact that spectral evidence was a major factor in the conviction). Cotton had long been embroiled in matters of witchcraft and was considered to be the leading authority on the subject. He was a frequent visitor to Salem. His widely-read reports served to support the belief in the existence of specters who could carry out malignant acts. When Bridget Bishop was being taken to her hearing, he wrote of something he had witnessed: “She gave a look toward the great and spacious meeting-house of Salem, and immediately a demon, invisibly entering the house, tore part of it down.”
Cotton rose in his stirrups and addressed the people who were pressing toward the scaffolding, warning them that the devil is never more subtly himself than when appearing as an angel of light. His words stilled the crowd, and Sheriff Corwin was able to proceed with the hangings.
The world of the English colonies in the 1690s was a small one, both in inhabited territory and population. It was a morning’s carriage ride from Salem Village to Boston. In that city (and in New York and Philadelphia) reason and logic were the guiding forces in the thinking of the educated class. Though, especially in Puritan-dominated Massachusetts, the belief in witchcraft still held sway. In Boston, a few years before the afflictions of the Salem girls, the children of a mason had displayed similar symptoms; a washerwoman had been identified as the one responsible for bewitching them and was hanged. Regarding what was happening in Salem, there were those who believed things were being handled properly; others expressed misgivings about the girls’ accusations and the type of testimony being allowed. Still, the matter was of no pressing concern to Bostonians; it was Salem’s problem. In the summer of 1692 that would change; the witchcraft craze would greatly expand. It began with the devil’s arrival in Andover.
At its height the witchcraft craze in Andover reached a pitch unmatched by that in Salem. Accusations flew about wildly; people even claimed that dogs in the street were bewitched, and some were hanged. But the craze was a brief conflagration. Perhaps its very violence served to have a sobering effect; also, from the start, one of the town’s ministers had steadfastly opposed what was happening, and people began to heed his words. Still, many more accused and confessed witches joined those crowding the prisons. And, since Andover had close ties with Boston, people there found themselves among the accused.
The still unresolved matter of Tituba’s tall, white-haired man from Boston led to an accusation which firmly grasped one of that city’s residents. This man was, Tituba had said, Satan himself, so uncovering his identity was vital. The girls came up with the name of a wealthy and well-known sea captain and soldier, John Alden. When he heard of the accusation he immediately went to Salem. He wrote an account in which he noted that the girls didn’t react to him when he first arrived in the village (strangers had become commonplace); it was only when they were told who he was that “they went into their act.” He described them as “a company of poor, distracted or possessed creatures” and “wenches who played their juggling tricks, crying out, and staring into people’s faces.” But these “wenches” and the magistrates still held the reins of power in Salem. Alden was taken into custody and made to answer questions while standing on a chair in the crowded meetinghouse. A man used to giving orders, Alden was aggressive — he called the girls liars. The girls fell down when he looked at them, so Alden turned, looked at the magistrates and asked why they too did not fall down. Although Alden’s attitude was disdainful, he was forced to take the proceedings seriously when he was ordered to face trial. Unlike others accused, he wasn’t imprisoned but was allowed to return to his home in Boston, where he was to remain under guard; perhaps the magistrates wavered in how they treated a person of such stature. At first Alden was determined to appear in court, since fleeing was considered an admission of guilt; however, friends convinced him of how potentially dangerous his situation was. Despite the guard, Alden left Boston without incident and went to the safe haven of New York, where the Dutch looked with disfavor upon the events taking place in Massachusetts.
As time went on the girls’ accusations fell on other people who held very high positions. Some of these accusations were simply ignored. When Lady Phips, wife of the governor, was called out (she had released an accused witch from Boston prison), the justices told the girls they had made a mistake. A similar mistake was made when the girls accused Reverend Samuel Willard of Old South Church in Boston, who had criticized what was going on in Salem from his pulpit. These accusations of Bostonians in the uppermost levels of the government and clergy could be attributed to the fact that only prominent people (particularly those who had committed acts of opposition) would be known to the girls. But the result was that Boston could no longer stand aside and watch.
From the beginning some residents of Salem had denounced the girls. In the fall of 1692 they were emboldened when criticism began to rain down upon the proceedings from people outside the village and town. From far and wide the girls were accused of being liars, or malicious tricksters, or demented, or possessed. Others claimed that they were witches themselves, and that through them the devil was having his way in Massachusetts; the justices, in giving credence to the girls’ testimony, were actually doing Satan’s bidding. In beleaguered Salem the logic of what was happening came under scrutiny. So much made no sense. Why would a witch cause her specter to afflict the girls in full view of onlookers, thus insuring her condemnation? And why were witches and wizards so powerless? From the first testimonies, people told of a problem with the accused that was followed by some sort of affliction; it could be as petty as insomnia, but the main accusation was that witches had caused a multitude of deaths. If they were able to do that, why didn’t they strike down the girls and the magistrates and the justices? Instead they were helpless to protect themselves: they went to prison, some went to their executions. People became aware of their own helplessness. How could they defend themselves if they faced the accusation that their specter had committed a crime? Buoyed by the strength of their numbers, residents of Essex County banded together in opposition. During that fall the list of names on petitions attesting to the good character of accused witches swelled to nearly three hundred. The spirit of rebellion extended into the prisons; confessed witches were renouncing their confessions and the testimony they had given, using words such as “wholly false” and “wronged the truth” to describe their actions.
The issue of fairness emerged. Why was it that those with money and contacts in high places — if they were sent to prison in the first place — were so often able to escape? Surely a bribe or the word of someone of influence was used to gain freedom. One “escape de luxe” became a topic of much discussion. Philip English was a wealthy merchant in Salem Town; he and his wife were accused and imprisoned in Boston (though they were allowed out to attend church services). One evening a carriage arrived at the prison gate; they were escorted into it and given a letter from Governor Phips introducing them to the governor of New York. A distinguished group of escapees — including those who had been granted the privilege of bail or who were, like Alden, allowed to await trial in their homes — were congregating there. The justices knew their whereabouts — they weren’t in hiding, they carried on openly — yet no effort was made to have them extradited, nor was force used to retrieve them. If George Burroughs could be dragged from his dinner table in Maine, why weren’t they pursued by all means available, since the crime they were accused of was so dire?
And then there were those accusations that were dismissed as “mistakes.” When was a witch a witch? Lady Phips was not a witch, but on the word of the girls Rebecca Nurse, with an unblemished record of piety behind her, was hanged as a witch. If mistakes were made, could the accusation of Rebecca Nurse have also been one? It seemed that the girls’ words weighed heavily on some, on others it rested as lightly as a feather. As for weight, for many Giles Corey emerged as a heroic figure; ballads were written and sung about him. The Puritans, a hard people, respected a hard man who had endured a hard fate with only two words: “More weight.”
As to whether the girls were lying . . . Mary Warren, when she broke from the girls, said “They did but dissemble.” Were her words the real truth of the matter? For the girls did lie — that was an established fact. At Sarah Good’s trial one of them cried out in pain and then displayed the tip of a knife, saying it had broken off when Sarah’s specter stabbed her. Immediately a man in the audience stood up and told the court that it was from his knife, and he took out of his pocket a knife with a missing tip. The two pieces fit perfectly. He said that he had broken the knife the day before in the presence of the girl. And what did Justice Stoughton say? He told the girl not to lie, then he continued to accept her testimony as the truth. When did they lie and when did they tell the truth? The girls’ bloody hands and arms became suspect; pins hidden in their clothing could be the cause. And when they pulled up the sleeves of their dresses to show the bite mark of a specter, how was one to know whether the mark hadn’t been self-inflicted beforehand?
Resentment about the confiscations turned to anger; Sheriff Corwin became a hated figure. And suspicion set in: did the money Corwin so diligently collected “in their majesty’s name” really go into the coffer of the King or into the pockets of people closer to home? Not only Corwin was suspect; the justices directing his actions were thought by some to be using the confiscations for their personal gain.
Despite the rising tide of unrest, there was still formidable support for the witch hunt. Many residents of Essex County held to the belief that it should continue. Reverend Parris’s sermons took on a more ominous and militant tone; Reverend Noyes in Salem Town echoed him. A powerful Puritan old guard in Boston looked with approval upon Salem’s efforts to ferret out and eradicate witches. Hathorne and the justices did not waver in their resolve. So the accusations continued, the hearings and trials continued, the jailings continued — and so did the executions. Only legal intervention could bring an end to the witchcraft craze.
Continued with "We walked in the clouds and could not see our way."