The End of Witchcraft Trials in New England

Posted on October 1, 2013. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Puritans | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our short series on the practical whys and wherefores of witchcraft cases in Puritan New England ends with a look at reasons for the decline and disappearance of these cases. Again we are relying on John Demos’ priceless book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and and the Culture of Early New England for many of our specific examples.

As Demos points out, and as we noted in part 1 of this series, one of the exacerbating factors in witchcraft accusations was close proximity: in early New England towns, the entire population lived in small houses crowding the small square, saw each other daily in a variety of roles, socialized together, worshipped and worked together, and basically could not get out of each other’s hair for one minute. If you disliked someone in town, you would not be able to avoid interacting with them every day, and, in their blunt Puritan way the person you disliked would likely barge into your yard and home whenever they wanted, sometimes just to bother you. We have seen that most people accused of witchcraft were difficult people who demanded favors, gifts, and intimacy from those around them, giving nothing back in return. If a neighbor refused a gift or favor, the difficult person might curse or threaten them. Then, if by coincidence some harm befell the neighbor, the difficult person would fall under suspicion of having used witchcraft to make good their threats.

So if witchcraft accusations were provoked in some part by too-close proximity, it makes sense that once New England had expanded enough to conquer its frontier, and it was safer and less laborious to start new towns, two things happened to slow witchcraft accusations: towns began to grow, and people began to move more often. As Demos puts it:

“Eventually witchcraft would disappear as a matter of formal proceedings. This last part of the sequence is extremely hard to analyze from a distance of three centuries; perhaps, however, one key factor was a certain loosening of the social tissues themselves.  …The growth and dispersion of the local populace, a somewhat broadened range of economic activity, an increasingly firm system of social stratification: these interlocking trends seem gradually to have modified the tensions amid which witchcraft had flourished.” (371)

If the average town goes from 150 people to 1,000, you are less likely to constantly deal with the same people each day, and your neighbor is less likely to focus his full attention on you 24 hours a day simply because there are more people to be interested in. Your neighbor is also less likely to also be your tax collector, fence inspector, pew-fellow, midwife, cattle-driver, etc. A small number of intensely intimate relationships are replaced by many more casual ones.

When Demos talks about loosening of the social tissues, remember that the Puritans were dedicated to the principle of mutual watch: the loving oversight of their community. This meant playing a role in the spiritual lives of your community, and welcoming your community’s involvement in your own spiritual life. Puritans worshipped, prayed, and debated together on a regular, almost daily basis, and their ideal was to work out all conflicts through loving negotiation. Ideally, no matter would ever have to go to court. Many times, when a problem did go to court—including witchcraft cases—it was sent back to the town by the judge with a recommendation that the problem be solved privately, by the interested parties, through prayer, negotiation, and applied goodwill. Ministers, deacons, and especially godly church members were on constant call to mediate conflicts, and were successful far more often than might be expected.

As towns grew, and people knew each other less well, mutual watch became difficult and then impossible to carry out. Just as a growing population meant less intimate, less frequent contact between townspeople, so too it meant less conviction that the community was bound, or able, to mediate conflicts. And larger, more mobile populations meant fewer personal problems between individuals had the chance to fester and grow. Problems went directly to court and were settled there. This meant that the weeks, months, or even years of private tension over a suspected witch, and the weeks, months, or years of attempted mediation and accumulated anxiety and bad feeling were done away with. Without that long history of conflict, fewer accusations of witchcraft were made. Without that long history of conflict to produce dozens of witnesses for and against the accused, those witchcraft cases that did go to court were weaker and taken less seriously. It was easier to see the case as the result of a personal conflict. The wind was taken out of the sails of witchcraft.

So we see that by the end of the 17th century, a century of intense population growth in New England, witchcraft cases are dwindling to nothing. In fact, after the Salem witch trials in 1692, there were “no more executions, no convictions, indeed no actual indictments” related to witchcraft in any New England court. (Demos 387) We talked in part 2 about why Salem, the largest witch trials, happened as witchcraft trials themselves were dying away. Here we want to focus on its aftermath. The hysteria at Salem deeply shocked and shamed New Englanders, who saw government go off the rails, replaced by accusation and panic, and they were embarrassed to think of how they looked to the outside world. The Age of Reason was influencing how people thought about natural and unnatural phenomena, even New England Puritans.

Thomas Brattle is a good example of this. Brattle lived in the town of Cambridge and wrote a letter to a friend about the events in Salem just as they were ending, in October 1692. Brattle’s account of the way the trials were conducted is a powerful example of a good Puritan completely rejecting the irrationality of the Salem trials:

“First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fit. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, though not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fits. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, though of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft.

…I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion. [This] Salem philosophy, some men may call the  new philosophy; but I think it rather deserves the name of Salem superstition and sorcery, and it is not fit to be named in a land of such light as New-England is… In the mean time, I think we must [be] thankful to God for it, that all men are not thus bereft of their senses; but that we have here and there considerate and thinking men, who will not thus be imposed upon…

What will be the issue of these troubles, God only knows; I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land. I pray God pity us, humble us, forgive us, and appear mercifully for us in this our mount of distress.”

Puritans had always treasured reason. They believed it was God’s greatest gift (after saving grace), given to humans to allow them to comprehend God’s creation and to seek to understand God’s will. Their legal code was a model of reason. As the 17th century drew to a close, Puritans began to doubt that their courts should be hearing witchcraft cases. Like Thomas Brattle, they felt there was no way for a judge to ” discover witchcraft” because witchcraft was supernatural—it could not be addressed in a human court: witchcraft was “that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion.” Most Puritans felt the same, and witchcraft accusations were handled privately after Salem.

They were handled privately because witchcraft accusations didn’t disappear after Salem; they dwindled, and  they entered the realm of ambiguity. “Witchcraft was hard to square with ‘enlightened’ standards and values, yet it could not be dismissed entirely” [Demos 387], and in this state of limbo witchcraft accusations were reduced to the status of gossip and private fulminations and, eventually, legend. Ministers reported strange cases that alarmed them, but never led them to publicly reveal the suspected culprits. Almost every little town seemed to have a local witch who fueled gossip and folklore but was mostly left in peace. “The figure of the witch was effectively scaled down, so as to shrink the elements of death-dealing power, and to emphasize those of sheer eccentricity. …The harm attributed to witchcraft was confined more and more to routine domestic mishap, nightmares, and simple ‘mischief’… such elements had always been part of the witch’s maleficium, but now they were virtually the whole of it.” [Demos 390]

Puritans had always been skeptical of claims that someone was truly a witch in league with and empowered by the devil, and required many witnesses and much evidence in trials, and even then dismissed most cases. By the 1700s, that skepticism was complete. 1630-1700 is a pretty brief window for witchcraft, and since we see that witchcraft cases really began in Puritan New England in the mid-1640s and ended after 1692, the window is even briefer. It is odd, therefore, that Puritan New England is so identified with witch trials and witch hunts. Poor Thomas Brattle was right, it seems, to fear that “ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon our land.” Americans love to reproach the Puritans with their “witch mania”, unfair though that accusation may be, given that English colonists throughout North America believed just as firmly in witches. If only there had been a Salem in Virginia, another anomaly that drew attention away from its laser focus on Massachusetts, we might have a better general understanding of the role of witchcraft belief in the early modern western world.

As it is, we will leave off here feeling we’ve done our small part to set the record straight.

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