The Chronology of Witchcraft in Puritan New England

Posted on September 24, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Hello and welcome to part 2 of our short series on the Puritans and the factors behind the seeming madness of their accusations of witchcraft. Again we’re referring to John Demos’ book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many keen observations on what caused the Puritans to make these accusations.

One of his most interesting conclusions is that witchcraft accusations came about during times of relative political and social peace. When communities were first founded, people’s time was completely occupied with building homes, clearing fields, putting in crops, and other necessities of life. During the first few years of a new town’s life, there were few or no witchcraft accusations. This was not only because people had little time to pursue such accusations, but because the populations were so new—people did not all know each other well. The core founders may have come over from England together, or a core group may have left one town to start another, but most of the rest were people who joined in from all over, and did not really know each other. We mentioned in part 1 that people lived in very close quarters and had a great deal of daily, often intimate (in the home) contact with each other over the course of years, and when people were difficult neighbors in these circumstances they more likely to be accused of witchcraft. As Demos says, the first tumultuous years of settlement, with high population turnover and few established relationships, “were not conducive to the development of full-blown witchcraft proceedings, which required time and a certain constancy of social relations.” [371]

After the initial tumult of founding, however, people had time to get to know each other, sometimes all too well, and the accusations would begin—usually about a decade in to the life of the town. At that point, only one thing could disrupt the attention to witchery: outside conflict. War, threats to the town or the colony, dissension in the town’s church; these were all events that devoured the attention of townspeople, putting them back into a life-or-death situation similar to the early founding years. The 1640s were a time of relative peace in New England, and during this decade the colonies in Massachusetts and Connecticut experienced a high-water mark of witchcraft trials. But when the Hartford Controversy (a bitter conflict over church leadership) broke out in 1656, the number of witchcraft cases in that colony dropped sharply, and remained down until the controversy was ended.

After a conflict, there was a brief resting period, and then witchcraft accusations would resume, sometimes more vigorously than before, as excess energy and anger left over from the conflict found a vent.

There is an important difference here, as Demos notes, between conflict and “harms” or “signs”. Epidemic disease, insect infestations, comets, hurricanes, and other such events were considered harms or signs from God, warning the people of the need to repent their sins. These harms and signs often triggered witchcraft accusations, as people attempted to harrow (as they would put it) and purify their communities in the face of God’s demonstrated anger.  Unusual or inexplicable events fueled fear of witches, but concrete, clearly human conflicts did not. Political fights, wars with or fear of Indians or the French in Canada and Maine, and church divisions were not sent from God but were the result of very human arguments, and these did not provoke quests to uncover witches.

The Puritans arrived in North America in numbers in 1630. For that first decade of settlement in the 1630s, witchcraft cases were few. It was in the 1640s that settled communities began prosecuting witches, and this persisted into the 1650s. By the 1660s, witchcraft cases in Massachusetts Bay Colony had dropped, while harms and signs (a smallpox epidemic and repeated crop failures) in Connecticut led to an increase of cases there. 1660 was a pivotal year: Charles II was restored to the English throne, and the Puritans in America justly feared for their safety and continued political independence with a Stuart back on the throne, since it had been Puritans who had executed his father. When the new king sent commissioners to inspect the colonies in 1664, fear of political takeover choked off witchcraft cases. In the late 1660s, a critical conflict in the mighty First Church Boston also preoccupied the colonists’ attentions, and it was not until the early 1670s that witchcraft cases rose again in Massachusetts, which was suffering through a series of droughts and storms (harms and signs), while almost disappearing in Connecticut, which was still struggling with religious divisions (human conflict).

In the late 1670s, both Massachusetts and the Connecticut colonies experienced a very low number of witchcraft cases—almost none—thanks to the turmoil and fear of King Philip’s War: as Demos puts it, “For the time being danger from the invisible world was superseded by combat with a host of quite present and visible Indian enemies.”

After the war, the usual witchcraft cases driven by residual fear and anger cropped up,  and a fire in Boston and other “harms and signs” exacerbated the tension. But in the 1680s and 90s cases dropped off again as fears of a royal political takeover grew—the Massachusetts Bay Colony was fighting for its independence as its charter was called into question in London. It was revoked finally in 1691, and the MBC became a royal colony with a royally appointed governor, a calamity that put almost all witchcraft accusations to rest.

But then came the one witchcraft episode that most Americans know about—Salem. Its date gives its motives away. The first accusations were in 1692, a year after the loss of the charter, and were clearly part of the usual post-traumatic stress of a big conflict. Other factors made Salem explode into a witch hunt such as had never been seen before (see our series on Salem here), but the unusually large trouble of losing political independence obviously contributed to an unusually large case of witchcraft accusations.

After Salem, the 1690s saw almost no witchcraft cases in Massachusetts or the Connecticut colonies, and this was likely, in part, a reaction against the Salem mania.

This chronological tour of rises and falls in witchcraft cases in New England shows us some interesting points:

—witchcraft was on people’s minds mostly in the absence of human conflicts

—witchcraft accusations were not constant over time

—Puritans did not blame witchcraft for concrete crises and problems, but for more abstract, hard to explain events like storms, failed crops, and epidemics.

—Witchcraft accusations were often safety valves used to release accumulated tension and anger after a human conflict, and sometimes a way to strike at all-too human enemies who had emerged victorious from a conflict that should have destroyed them, according to the accuser.

Next time we’ll see how demographic and geographic growth ended witchcraft cases altogether in Puritan New England by the early 1700s.

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