OLD Salem rises to correct, as regularly as it crops up, the widespread and persistent error that she burned the witches. She protests that she only hanged them, except the one she "pressed to death."
Where knowledge is lacking, superstition and fear always rush into the vacuum. Until modern science began to explain the physical universe and teach man how to conquer nature or protect himself against it, the poor, helpless creature trembled in the presence of natural phenomena. He beheld in every unusual manifestation a special act of God or some mischief of the devil, directed straight at him. The educated John Winthrop gravely assumed that the Almighty had revealed the presence of a spider in his breakfast cereal as a personal favor to the governor of Massachusetts.
The court physician of the Hohenzollerns was ennobled for having healed the Swedish army of the affliction of witchcraft in 1637. Obscure towns in Germany put Salem to the blush for witch killings, and the Scotch rivaled the Germans. England continued the wholesale hangings of witches until within thirty years of the Salem cases. Sir Matthew Hale, Lord Chief Justice, declared that there was no doubt of the reality of witchcraft. The British hanged witches and burned their dead bodies even after the Salem outbreak in 1692. The statute books of the kingdom retained until 1734 the death penalty for "dealing with evil and wicked spirits."
Although the great mass of American colonists believed there were witches, most of the colonies remained strangely immune to the mania for witch-hunting. Maryland hanged one person for witchcraft, and Connecticut two.
Massachusetts must have owed her bad eminence to her Puritanism, which overemphasized the teaching that all but the elect had been delivered into the hands of the devil by a wrathful God. Years before Salem fell a prey to the frightful delusion, the Puritan colony had put to death a Charlestown, a Dorchester and a Boston woman and two or three others in Springfield on the charge of witchcraft.
Yet even Massachusetts might not have gone on a general witch hunt if nature herself had not first gone on a rampage. Furious outbursts of thunder and lightning, accompanied by earthquakes and coinciding with ghost stories from haunted houses, so terrified Rev. Dr. Increase Mather, learned president of Harvard College, that he thought the Massachusetts Legislature ought to "do something about it." At his instigation, the Great and General Court instructed the clergy to look into the strange occurrences, and that set the zealous parsons on the mad trail which ended in Salem.
Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather, son of the Harvard president, was zealot-in-chief. After conducting solemn laboratory tests on the fits, tantrums and antics of some children, Cotton Mather decided the little ones were bewitched by the family washerwoman. To the great relief of the reverend doctor, the poor woman was hanged.
Four years after that Boston hanging, two little girls in the parsonage of Salem Village, which is now part of Danvers, began to "act queer." With arms outspread for flight, they cried, "Whish! Whish! Whish!" and tried to fly up the wide chimney of the big open fireplace. Other little girls of the neighborhood came to the parsonage, where they crawled into holes and under chairs, jabbering together and making shrill outcries. When one of the slaves of the parson said she had seen Rebecca Nourse bewitching the children, that honest woman of seventy-one was dragged from her home, which stands as a memorial of her tragedy.
On an air poisoned by fear and suspicion, the mental infection sped from head to head. In the meetinghouse of the village, people cast uneasy glances at one another. With nerves on edge, they jumped from their seats at the slamming of the church door by a gust of wind; as it happened to blow in just as Rebecca Nourse's sister was leaving the meeting, she, too, was accused.
All around and about, strange acting children became stranger in their actions as they felt themselves watched. Hysterical women began to have spells. Unbalanced minds flew quite off their base. The witches' cauldron was boiling over.
That terrible midsummer madness of 1692 dethroned reason throughout the province of Massachusetts Bay. No one was madder than the Royal Governor, Sir William Phips, who gravely reported to the English government that some people had been "dragged out of their houses and carried over the tops of trees and hills for many miles". . . on broomsticks! The court that prejudged the unfortunate victims of the hysteria was a special tribunal set up by the Royal Governor, and the trials were conducted under a law of Massachusetts which only followed the law of England . . . and of the Bible itself: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
Eccentric old women and cranky old men were caught in the dragnet, which gathered in also some perfectly normal persons who were so unfortunate as to have enemies. It was an easy way to be rid of a creditor, an annoying neighbor or a scolding wife. Wives and husbands testified against one another and children against parents. Perhaps one or two of the suspects actually thought they possessed the power to bewitch people. A witch's puppet, with pins sticking in it, was found in Bridget Bishop's cellar.
The trials, and they were jury trials, necessarily were a mockery. The very bodies of the accused sometimes were made to testify against them, their birthmarks being regarded as the devil's brandings. A defense was impossible, since the offense alleged existed only in the minds of the accusers. And it was proof of a defendant's guilt if his touch or his glance threw his accuser into a fit.
As the court was hanging every one who came before it, more than fifty of the terrified creatures in the jail saved themselves from the gallows only by owning up that they were witches.
Giles Corey, an octogenarian, bore witness against his wife, and she was hanged. When his own turn came, he saved his property from confiscation by taking advantage of an English law, which provided that if an accused person "stood mute" he could not be tried for his life, nor could his chattels be forfeited. But the law provided further that he should be subjected to torture for the purpose of compelling him to plead, and stone after stone was piled upon the chest of the old man as he lay on his back. Still his stubborn lips would not plead and deliver him from his agony, and Giles Corey was "pressed to death."
Almost the ugliest phase of the horror was the social discrimination that was practiced throughout the scourge. The court persistently refused to condemn or execute sentences on any one who came from its own social station. That class consciousness finally stopped the prosecutions. When some two hundred highly placed persons in Boston, including clergymen who had run in the van of the bloodthirsty pack, heard themselves accused; when a clergyman in Beverly and a magistrate in Andover, who had been most relentless in the sacrifice of other people, saw their own wives pointed out as witches, the ruling caste began to doubt the credibility of the testimony that had sent nineteen humble folk to the gallows.
The black clouds of suspicion were lowering upon Lady Phips herself, when Governor Phips called a halt on the hanging of eight more victims who had been condemned. The Legislature ordered a fast and a convocation of the clergy for the purpose of reconsidering the course of the province.
The clergy had charted the wild course that the now sadder but wiser province had pursued. If some of them had raised the cry against witches in the hope of regaining their old grip on the people, they had made a fatal miscalculation. The Puritan theocracy had hanged itself on Gallows Hill in Salem.
James Morgan, The Birth of the American People, 1930