It is with some reticence I bring up the subject of witch hunts given the tenor of recent politics, but I run across a contemporaneous account of the Salem witch trials while attending the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. Ever curious about the exact goings-on at Salem, Massachusetts in the 1690s, I download a copy of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England (1693) to my Kindle not long after.
What Exactly Is a Witch Hunt?
What exactly we mean when we maintain that a series of events has become a ‘witch hunt’ seems to me to be a bit elusive—are we looking for something that does not exist while condemning it nevertheless? Are we seeking something that does in fact exist but is not really harmful—although we think it is? Are we investigating witches or condemning them by any means necessary?
The most frightening book I will read this Halloween season, or ever, is Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England (1693).
1692: When Witchcraft Was a Capital Crime
What is so frightening about Cotton Mather’s account—even scarier than his fire-and-brimstone fury over the presence of the devil in all sorts of ways in Massachusetts circa the 1690s—is how much due process actually was accorded those accused of indulging in witchcraft.
The tryals’ result: 19 hanged witches and one pressed to death
These were trials presided over by judges. Indeed, educated people were involved in the pursuit and prosecution of witches. Cotton Mather himself, a Puritan minister and the author of The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England, attended Harvard.
He Said, She Said, They Said
As Mather writes in his account of the trials, there was testimony—plenty of it—from victims of the accused witches, from the families of the victims, and sometimes even from the defendants’ own children.
He presently went out at the Back-door, and spied this Bishop, in her Orchard, going toward her House; but he had not power to set one foot forward unto her. Whereupon, returning into the House, he was immediately accosted by the Monster he had seen before; which Goblin was now going to fly at him; whereat he cry’d out, The whole Armour of God be between me and you! So it sprang back, and flew over the Apple-tree; shaking many Apples off the Tree, in its flying over. At its leap, it flung Dirt with its Feet against the Stomack of the Man; whereon he was then struck Dumb, and so continued for three Days together. Upon the producing of this Testimony, Bishop deny’d that she knew this Deponent: Yet their two Orchards joined; and they had often had their little Quarrels for some years together.
Testimony of John Louder at the Tryal of Bridget Bishop, Alias Oliver, at the Court of Oyer and Terminer, held at Salem, June 2, 1962, as recounted in Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England (1693).
Although Mather apparently did not actually attend any of the trials, he did attend at least one execution of a man condemned for indulging in witchcraft: the hanging of George Burroughs.
Those who testified of specters gave compelling testimony.
It is easy, some 325 years on, to look at the entire civilization of the colony of Massachusetts as a confederacy of dunces. If your cow acts crazy, does that really mean a witch drove it mad? Or could there possibly have been other causes?
‘The Most Extraordinary Cases of Popular Delusion’
There have been various theories about what really went on in Salem in the 1690s. Ideas about the consumption of contaminated, hallucination-inducing grain, the possibility of a blatant land grab, the notion that it was all attributable to the viciously imaginative boredom of mean girls and even the likelihood that actual witchcraft was being practiced back then have all been floated.
“The Most Extraordinary Cases of Popular Delusion that Modern Times Have Witnessed”—Introduction to The Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England (1862 reprint) (writer unknown)
I suppose we will never really know what happened regarding the purported victims or those accused, except that too many of the accused were tried and convicted and executed for their ‘crimes.’
One cannot help but wonder all these centuries later how much better we have really gotten at discerning the so-called ‘truth’ from the testimony of victims and from the denials of those accused. Doesn’t it seem that those who condemned those defendants in Salem did so following thorough investigation and a full and measured trial that included the testimony of plenty of witnesses? Doesn’t it seem that those who condemned those defendants in Salem believed that the defendants’ guilt was more probable than not?
Could it sometimes be that both accuser and accusee speak truthfully?