Wednesday, November 27, 2013

“We walked in the clouds and could not see our way.”

            Governor Phips was foremost a military man, and the Indian War in the north often necessitated his absence from Massachusetts. When he was back in Boston he found himself deluged with petitions from the accused and their families, and he was increasingly under pressure to act by the swell of opposition. That people in high places were now among those calling for action no doubt influenced him; also, the accusation directed at his wife, though brushed off as a mistake, brought things close to home. Since the witchcraft trials were considered a matter for the clergy to deal with, Phips asked prominent ministers for their opinions on how they were being handled. Some had already denounced the trials. But, as has been seen, the two leading religious figures, Increase and Cotton Mather, had been sending mixed messages. A probable reason for the circumspect stance they took had to do with the high standing of the justices. To openly criticize the trials would be to criticize Chief Justice Sir William Stoughton, deputy governor of Massachusetts Colony; this was not something done lightly. A further consideration was that the justices were personal friends of the Mathers. On the other hand, the refusal of the justices to heed private requests to use caution in accepting spectral evidence must have seemed like a rebuke to someone with the eminence of Increase Mather. The case of Cotton was more convoluted. He had long positioned himself as a bulwark against witchcraft. He saw it as a threat of the greatest urgency, one that had to be addressed with severity. And it was being treated with urgency and severity in Salem. The part he played in the hanging of George Burroughs was a validation of the trials and executions. Cotton had been present at the trial of Burroughs, and he hadn’t spoken out in objection to the use of spectral evidence. Yet he turned back a crowd, uneasy after Burroughs’ flawless recital the Lord’s Prayer, by telling them, in effect, that the devil had given Burroughs the power to do what was considered impossible. He was using the argument against spectral evidence — i.e., that the devil had unfathomable powers and could thus appear in the shape of an innocent — to sanction an execution based on spectral evidence.
            Increase Mather eventually took a firm stand, though the process he chose was a slow one: he wrote a book. A copy of the manuscript was submitted to Governor Phips. Mather restated what had been said by others, but this time his words were unambiguous. He wrote that the devil had “perfect skill in optics” and could thus cause someone to see whatever he wishes. His myriad powers are such that he is “able to change himself into what form or figure he pleaseth.” He appeared to Martin Luther in the form of Jesus Christ, so he could take the form of the specter of one who is innocent. This being the case, Mather concluded, spectral evidence should not be allowed.
            In this matter, which needed quick and decisive action, events moved with glacial slowness. Phips next called for a conference of clergymen to address, as a body, how the prosecutions were being conducted. They deliberated and issued their opinion. Though they asserted their belief in the existence of witches and witchcraft, they declared that no spectral evidence was to be introduced in the trials. At this conference Increase Mather read a line from his book: “It is better that ten suspected witches escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.”
            On September 22, eleven days before he spoke these words, seven witches and a wizard were hanged on Gallows Hill. Reverend Noyes pointed to the bodies swinging from ropes and proclaimed to the crowd, “There hang eight firebrands from hell.”
            Governor Phips was finally ready to vigorously enforce his will. In October,1692, he dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer and prohibited any further arrests for witchcraft; he also put an end to forfeiture and confiscation. To address the cases still on the docket he assembled a Superior Court of Judicature, composed of five justices. Some were holdovers from the previous court, including Chief Justice Stoughton, but one of the new justices Phips added had long been an outspoken critic of the proceedings. Phips forbade the use of spectral evidence. Without it, there was nothing left. The girls could no longer give testimony, since all they said and did involved specters; their power had abruptly vanished. When fifty-two accused witches came to trial on January 3, 1693, forty-nine were found not guilty (the other three had confessed to being witches). Still, the new justices issued eight death warrants — for the three confessed witches and for five women who had been reprieved due to pregnancy and had subsequently delivered their babies in prison. But these pregnant women had been sentenced to death on the basis of spectral evidence, so Phips pronounced their convictions invalid. In regard to the three confessed witches, they too now came under the umbrella of innocence. Some ministers had long cautioned against accepting their word, as they could be deluded or demented, or could have acted out of fear or intimidation. Also, many confessed witches had renounced their confessions and testimony. They too were granted pardons by Phips. In protest Stoughton angrily resigned his seat on the court. The court met only two more times; no guilty verdicts were handed down.
            Some people had been set free in October (or had returned from exile), but hundreds remained in prison. In May, 1963, Phips issued a proclamation of general pardon for all convicted, accused and confessed witches. However, this pardon did not mean freedom for everyone. Before being released jail fees had to be paid — fees for the prisoners’ room and board plus charges for the use of their chains. There were those who were unable to pay these fees and had no family members or friends who were able to help them. Some had to offer themselves into servitude in exchange for their freedom.
            Tituba, the first confessed witch — whose words had made everything seem so clear to the people of Salem — spent over fifteen months in prison. Her release came when she was bought by someone in another state, and at this point Tituba disappears from history.
            The Salem witchcraft craze was over. It spanned a period of only seven months, if one marks as its beginning the first hearing and its end the establishment of a new court which did not allow spectral evidence. Nineteen people had been hanged, thirteen women and six men; one man was pressed to death. Others — though the number is unknown — died in prison; some, weakened by their ordeal, died soon after their release. 
            What was left were wounds, guilt, anger, doubts, recriminations. Salem Village was an exhausted and chastened community. If they had made a terrible mistake, many were able to face their mistake and try to make redress. In front of his congregation Reverend Samuel Parris read a document in which he took blame for his role in the “late horrid calamity,” saying that “God has been righteously spitting in my face.” But, while asking for pardon, he claimed that he had been motivated by a sense of duty, not malice, and portrayed himself as a victim of “Satan’s wiles and sophistries.” In his sermons he turned to the Calvinistic doctrine that all men were corrupt at heart; he told the people of Salem that  “Satan has been served by our envy and strife.” He prayed that they might all work together to better themselves. But he was the last person to initiate a reconciliation; many villagers had turned their backs upon him irretrievably. Still, Parris battled to stay on as reverend until, in 1697, worn down by lawsuits and disputations and petitions for and against him, he and his wife — who was on the brink of death — departed. With them was their daughter Betty, the child whose scream began this story.
            Twenty-two-year-old Reverend Joseph Green took his place; he was a fortuitous choice. His calm, wholesome nature was well-suited to heal the wounds which Parris’s contentious personality had kept open. Many had stopped attending church services; Green asked those “so offended as that they could not comfortably join with us to return to the congregation.” Many did return; they found that Green had rearranged the seating plan so that those who had been accusers and those who had been victims sat in the same pew. Thus Thomas Putnam, father of Ann, was placed near Samuel Nurse, son of Rebecca. And, to their credit, the members of the congregation took their new seats (though some gave only a stony silence to the person beside them). In his sermons, which were free of theological complexities, Green emphasized forgiveness and charity — also words found in the Bible.
            The twelve members of the jury issued a written apology in which they spoke of being under “the power of a strong and general delusion” and humbly asked forgiveness for their actions, for which they bore “the guilt of innocent blood.” On January 15, 1697, Massachusetts Colony set aside a day of fasting in repentance of the wrongs committed in the witchcraft craze. The pronouncement asked God to “show us what we know not and help us wherein we have done amiss to do so no more.” On that day Samuel Sewall, one of the justices on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, stood in front of the congregation while his confession was read; in it he asked forgiveness and took on the “blame and shame of it.” Many offered humble penitence; some never did. Some forgave; some never did.
            In the following years the excommunications of those found guilty of witchcraft were revoked. This was a step by the church to clear the stain on the names of those who had suffered, though it was a formality. At the time that the excommunications took place, many had not considered them to have divine authority. A reverend was usually regarded as a spiritual and moral leader in a Puritan community, but this was not the case in fractious Salem. What mattered the words of a Parris or a Noyes? It was God who would do the final judging of souls.
            Though Cotton Mather would not admit publically to error, he confided to his diary that he was “afflicted last night with discouraging thoughts, as if the unavoidable marks of the Divine displeasure might overtake my family for my not appearing with Vigour to stop the proceedings of the judges when the Inexplicable storm from the Invisible World assaulted the country.” Even his belief was shaken; he wrote that he had “temptations to atheism, and to the abandonment of all religion as mere delusion.”
            Reverend John Hale, who had testified against Bridget Bishop, wrote that “We walked in the clouds and could not see our way.” In his words we find a recurring caveat to the admissions of guilt and error; all had been deluded by Satan and thus were, in a sense, victims. Margaret Jacobs’ words from prison stand out in contrast. In testifying against her grandfather and Reverend Burroughs she admitted that her actions had been dictated by “my own vile and wretched heart, to save my life.” When amnesty was granted Margaret had no one to pay the jail fees; her family had fled the area, frightened and destitute. Margaret remained in prison until a stranger came forward with the money for her release. At last she was free. But, in a sense, she had freed herself of guilt with her confession; during her time in prison she wrote of finding an inner peace.
            John Hathorne was unrepentant to the end of his life; he insisted that the witches had been guilty. In his role as magistrate he had acted from a firm conviction that he was doing the right thing — following the word of God — and that his hard task must, for the good of all, be carried out. He showed no compassion for the accused because, to his way of thinking, they were witches and a witch deserved no compassion. Hathorne was not alone in his unwavering certitude. The justices (with the lone exception of Samuel Sewall) remained steadfast in the belief that they had acted righteously. William Stoughton insisted that the trials should have been continued until all the land had been cleared of witches.
            Those who had been victims of the witchcraft craze (or their surviving relatives) asked the General Court of Massachusetts to officially expunge the guilty verdicts from the records. Cotton Mather urged legislators to comply with their request. Finally, in 1711, a legislative bill decreed that the convictions made during the trials were null and void. It also invalidated all forfeitures of goods or chattels, though it gave immunity to those who had made such forfeitures with an addenda stating that “no sheriff, constable, jailer or other officer shall be liable to any prosecution in the law for anything they then legally did in execution of their respective offices.” It’s a bitter irony that the English law authorizing these acts had prevailed for only six months; it was put into effect when the Court of Oyer and Terminer — which handed down the guilty verdicts that led to the confiscations — heard its first case, and it was suspended shortly after the court was dissolved.
            Since the confiscations and forfeitures had been declared invalid, those who lost property began to petition the government for financial compensation. This issue proved to be an intractable one.
            Though Governor Phips had directed the court to act in accordance with English law, he distanced himself from how the confiscations had been handled; in a February, 1693 report on the events in Salem to the Privy Council in England, he wrote that Chief Justice Stoughton “by his warrant has caused the estates, goods and chattels of the executed to be seized and disposed of without my knowledge or consent.” In a counteraction, the Superior Court of Massachusetts — on which Stoughton was a member — passed a ruling that specifically discharged George Corwin of any financial responsibility for anything he had done as sheriff (actions which had been directed by Stoughton). The rift between Phips and Stoughton was permanent, though short-lived. Phips was recalled to England in November, 1694; on the return voyage he fell ill and died. Stoughton became governor of Massachusetts Colony, a position he held for five years.
            The 1711 legislature bill put aside the meager sum of 598 pounds to pay for losses suffered in the confiscations; this amount was distributed, in haphazard fashion, to the survivors or the relatives of those put to death. The heirs of John Proctor received the most, 150 pounds (an amount much less than they had requested). Some received a pittance, others received nothing.  
            George Corwin died in 1697 from a heart attack; he was thirty years old. Though he had been accused of pocketing money from the confiscations, there was no indication that he reaped any notable profits; at his death his estate was modest. There had been no official accounting of the distribution of monies collected; possibly the King did not receive what was due him, but would his majesty know or care about such a trifling matter? The justices, if they were the beneficiaries, held such high positions that they were untouchable. Despite the Superior Court’s ruling that protected him, Corwin was sued by a number of people; this same Superior Court consistently found him innocent of wrongdoing.
            One of the petitions for compensation was filed by John English. He was the prosperous merchant of Salem Town who, with his wife, had made the “escape de luxe” from prison in Boston. After this escape Corwin made his biggest haul. He seized the goods in four warehouses, plus all the possessions in English’s luxurious home. English calculated the value of what he lost at 1,183 pounds. In the 1711 distribution of monies, the legislature granted him nothing; perhaps this was due to the enormity of the sum he was asking for, perhaps to his aggressive pursuit of revenge. English had issued a civil suit against Corwin, demanding the return of monies owed him. Though the courts sided with Corwin, English pursued the sheriff even after his death. He placed a lien for nonpayment of debt on the corpse; in order to proceed with the burial the Corwin family had to pay him 60 pounds. English would soon reestablish his wealth, but he remained bitter. He continued petitioning the legislature for compensation (after his death his heirs were granted 200 pounds). He called Reverend Noyes a murderer (and was sued for it) and was vocal about his hatred for John Hathorne. He never again set foot in a Puritan church. In 1733, three years before his death, he founded St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Salem Town, and he was buried in its churchyard. Would his body have rested in peace if he had known that his daughter would marry the son of John Hathorne? This union began the line that would produce, in 1804, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne (at some point in the intervening years the family had added a “w” to their name). The boy grew up walking the streets of Salem, hearing tales of what had occurred a hundred years ago, events in which his great-grandfather played such a central role. The novels he wrote brood on matters of sin, guilt, punishment and atonement.

             The tragedy and catharsis of Salem marked the end of executions for witchcraft in this country. It can also be seen as contributing to long-range beneficial effects — profound ones for the fledgling United States. The government that emerged less than a hundred years after the events in Salem established a separation of church and state; religion would no longer have the power in civil matters that it had in Puritan New England. In 1791 the Bill of Rights set up a sweeping system of safeguards that address the wrongs committed at the trials. An accused is now shrouded in a cloak of innocence — it is his guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, that must be proven. He can be found guilty only on the basis of tangible evidence or the sworn testimony of actual witnesses. Fact and logic take preeminence. The accused sits before an impartial judge and jury with counsel at his side. Our present system of jurisprudence gives the protection for the accused asked for in Increase Mather’s belated words: “It is better that ten suspected witches escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.”

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