An English Witch Feeds Her Familiars (1579)
‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’ Exodus 22:18.
The concept of someone turning away from the light (that which is good) and toward the dark (that which is evil) in order to gain power over other people is older than Christianity. This may have something to do with the two dozen or so mentions of witchcraft in the Holy Bible (as translated into English in the King James Version, 1611).
16th Century English laws dealt with witches and their ways. Under King Henry VIII, in 1542, conviction of using witchcraft (being a witch) was made punishable by death without benefit of clergy. (No last minute prayer on your behalf by someone in good with God—you were going straight to Hell.) An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts, passed under Queen Elizabeth I in 1562, imprisoned a witch (male or female) instead of executing the person, if no harm had been done to the victim. The Scots outlawed witchcraft or consulting with a witch in 1563 and prescribed death to a person convicted of either.
In 1597, King James I (who was also King James VI of Scotland) was so moved by his concern over witches and their ways (he apparently had previously been threatened by witches) that he published ‘Daemonologie.’
‘If any person or persons use, practice or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil and wicked spirit, or shall consult, covenant with, entertain, employ, feed or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose, or take up any dead man, woman, or child out of his, her or their grave, or any other place where the dead body rests or the skin, bone, or any part of any dead person, to be employed or used in any manner of witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment, or shall use, practice, or exercise any witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery, whereby any person shall be killed, destroyed, wasted, consumed, pined or lamed in his or her body or any part thereof: every such offender is a felon without benefit of clergy .‘
Seven years later, the same year King James ordered forty-seven scholars to translate the Holy Bible from Hebrew, Greek, and Roman, so Englishmen might read it in their own language. Parliament passed An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits. It prescribed death without benefit of clergy for conviction.
This background explains why the Englishmen who settled Jamestown Colony, the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth Colony, and the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay and other New England colonies believed that witches existed. They ‘knew’ that an evil person who had made a pact with Satan could stare at you and utter an incantation, and later you would be hit by a tree limb that mysteriously broke just as you were standing under it. Perhaps you wouldn’t be hit by something, but get sick, instead, and die from it.
Matters not explainable by obvious details were often attributed to witchcraft. Crop failures and cow and hog sicknesses were blamed on them, the unexpected death of innocent children, and people becoming deranged. You had to be constantly on your guard against them because it was almost certain that one or more witches were living in your community. They were a constant topic of gossip and rumor.
Pity the widow who didn’t gush with friendliness after the death of her husband (her sole source of income). If an old woman showed anger or was stubborn about something, and particularly if she showed resentment at other people telling her what to do, the wagging tongues of gossips would soon make her a candidate for witchery. She might have been doing exactly what was best for her in whatever it was she did that caused the gossip to begin, but it didn’t matter. It meant her not going with the flow, of standing out in the community. She had broken the unity of the community. A sharp tongue and a temper destroyed more than one or two old women in colonial New England.
16 February 1693.
‘Hugh Crotia, Thou stand here presented by the name of Hugh Crotia of Stratford in the Colony of Connecticut in New England; for that not having the fear of God before thine eyes, through the Instigation of the Devil. Thou hast forsaken thy God and covenanted with the Devil, and by his help hast in a preternatural way afflicted the bodies of sundry of his Majesties good subjects, for which according to the Law of God, and the Law of this Colony, thou deserve to die."
It is likely you’ve heard of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Before the insanity of that summer and fall was over, nineteen people had been convicted of witchcraft and hanged, an old man had been crushed to death for refusing to stand trial, and several of more than two hundred people put in jail had died while there. Hysteria it may have been, but it was real.
Between 1645 and 1697, there were about two hundred and sixty witch trials in New England. (Virginia had already held the first witch trial in the English North American colonies, in 1626.) Two thirds of these trials were held in Essex County Massachusetts, of which Salem was the major town, so only a third of them were held in other towns in Massachusetts, and in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. In only thirty-six cases was the accused convicted and sentenced to death. (Eight people died in jail. Perhaps one in ten fled for their lives to a distant place.) In some cases ‘spectral evidence’ of a demon seen only by the victim was admitted as sworn testimony.
Hundreds of people were imprisoned, both before and after trial. There were no jail cells or prisons in New England into which to put people for an extended stay, which probably made things difficult. (The exact details of what went on have escaped us.) Something else worth noting is that nine percent of the accused persons sued their accuser for defamation after acquittal at trial. (No rate of success was reported on these cases, but if you got off on a charge of witchcraft, you surely had evidence that someone had told a damaging lie about you.)
The conviction and punishment of a person accused of witchcraft was not a lightly-treated matter. Execution of the convicted prevented correction if the judgment was later deemed to be flawed. So of course trial of a witch was done slowly, step by step. There was no rush to judgment nor was torture used to obtain evidence. If a victim claimed to have been harmed in some way, he or she would be examined by the nearest medical authority (the local person with the most experience, who might not have attended medical school). If there was another reasonable explanation for the injury than witchcraft, the charge against the accused likely would be dismissed. (At least thirty-eight imprisoned people had charges dropped against them without trial.) If the victim’s habits and way of living might plausibly have led to the injury, the charge was often dropped. Only if there was no rational explanation for something having happened to the victim was the matter carried forward.
If the accused was not already being guided by a clergyman, a minister was called in. He and the accused knelt in prayer. (They were long ones and and there was more than one in the same meeting). The accused was told to pray on his or her own and to fast for entire days, to be humble in all things. When this did not correct the problem (how could they know?), only then did the matter go to trial. A prosecuting attorney was chosen (or a pious person who was known for calm reason). Depositions from witnesses were collected, so it was known what they would say in court. A medical person examined the accused for ‘witch’s tits’ (an extra set sucked only by Satan). A jury was impaneled (more pious people who believed witches existed). Evidence and testimony was presented by both sides, and character witnesses spoke both for and against the accused. (Some people were not afraid to speak up for an accused witch, to say that he or she had no reason to believe the accused to be one. The ancestors of our founding fathers who invaded North America were not cowards.)
17 February 1651.
‘John Carrington thou art indicted by the name of John Carrington of Wethersfield—carpenter—that not having the fear of God before thine eyes thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan, the great enemy of God and mankind, and by his help hast done works above the course of nature for which both according to the law of God and the established law of this Commonwealth thou deserve to die."
This brings us to a curious matter of someone having been accused of witchcraft in Northampton Massachusetts (original name Nonotucke), in 1656. Northampton was eighty miles west of Boston (and about ninety miles southwest of Salem). It was not a religious settlement, but had been founded two years before for commercial purposes. It was on a major river that had lots of small tributaries. There were plenty of beaver in the area and people sold their pelts to white men. There were great meadows for farming and forests full of game.
In 1654, the General Court of Massachusetts had granted a petition from people in Hartford (endorsed by people in Springfield) for the land in Nonotucke and the right of self-government for inhabitants. A meetinghouse was built on Meeting House Hill (sawn lumber, not logs, 26’ by 18,’ 9’ high). Three people who built homes in the new township were appointed to handle the town’s business and mediate between neighbors if small disputes arose. They assessed and collected taxes for government, and gave government approval to marriages. There was a town commons and an appointed shepherd to look after cows and sheep that grazed on it. (This was only in daylight; they were taken home at night.)
Northampton (the name was soon changed from Nonotucke) adopted a couple regressive laws that allowed secular control of the township. (In the beginning there was no church except the meetinghouse, or a reverend to interpret God’s will. At meeting, people read aloud from the Holy Bible.) If you were not one of the original settlers, you had to apply to the town council for permission to buy land in Northampton. If accepted, you had to live on your land and develop it for four years before receiving title to it. (This stopped investors from buying land they wouldn't develop.)
Both the accused and the accuser of witchcraft in 1656 had moved to Northampton from Springfield after that town had gone through a short ‘witch hunt’ in 1651. In March 1656, a woman from Springfield came to visit one Sarah (‘Goody’—Goodwife) Bridgman. Goody Branch was told the story of Mary Parsons, wife of one of the town’s better-off men. It seems Mary Parsons had bought some yarn from a local spinner and had also asked that one of the spinner’s daughters be sent to live in the Parsons household (to be a servant). When the request for the daughter was refused, fault was found with the yarn. More yarn was spun and weighed before witnesses before being sent to Mary Parsons, but was declared to be short in weight, anyway. The daughter who had been requested as a servant grew sickly and lost weight. A cow belonging to the spinner’s husband died two weeks later. After the husband made a joke that implied Mary Parsons rode a broomstick, Mary Parsons found out about it and gave him a tongue-lashing. One of his pigs got lost, was found, and died.
Having planted the seed in Goody Branch’s mind that Mary Parsons was a witch, Sarah Bridgman then went on to tell about her son, who had been born in spring 1655. James, Jr. died two weeks later, but not before the night when two women cloaked in white from head to foot had passed the house. Only Sarah B saw them; her daughter in the same room opened the front door and did not see them. Another of Sarah B’s sons went out looking for cows and was struck to the ground by something that was invisible. He also wrenched a knee and hobbled around for some time.
Apparently the success of Sarah Bridgman’s relation of witchery to Goody Branch led Sarah B to relate it to other women in Northampton. The insinuation that Mary Parsons was a witch developed into suspicion, which of course led to embellishments of the stories told and new ones being made up. Sarah B claimed the boy with the wrenched knee had been told by Mary Parsons that she would pull it off.
When the mother of Mary Parsons heard about the stories, she of course denied that her daughter was a witch. This led Sarah B to declare that she had heard from Springfield that Mary Parsons was suspected of being a witch because of incidents that had happened there. Apparently Mary P and a blind old man had had cross words with each other and then a child of the blind man began to have fits.
Word of the gossip concerning his wife reached Joseph Parsons. He put a stop to it before it reached the ear of a clergyman or an officer responsible for keeping the law. If he had not, things might have gotten out of hand and ruined his position in Northampton. He sued James Bridgman for Sarah Bridgman having slandered his wife. (A woman could be charged with a crime, but could not be sued in a civil matter.) Joseph P accused Sarah B of calling his wife a witch.
There were no magistrates in Northampton until 1657. The matter was heard by the three appointed town councilors. Evidence and testimony for the offended Joseph Parsons was heard by them and the gossip was related. The councilors decided that the matter was more than they were empowered to consider. If they made a bad decision, they would be condemned for it. If they made the right decision, Parsons might sue them for exceeding their authority. Neither outcome would be good for the commissioners and might affect their future. They punted.
In August, the matter was heard before ‘commissioners’ in Springfield. More damning testimony against Mary Parsons was presented. One citizen, George Colton, declared that when the witches had been apprehended in Springfield, Mary Parsons had acted strangely, the same way as children thought to be possessed by the Devil acted. He also said that Mary wandered in the night (probably in full-bodied nightclothes), even though Joseph Parsons locked her in the cellar and she had to escape it. She had been discovered at this, having fallen down in a field and gone to sleep.
Evidence supporting Mary Parsons not being a witch was presented in Springfield. Sarah Bridgman’s child, James, Jr., had been sickly from birth. The boy’s death had not been unexpected. The cow of the spinner’s husband that died in March had been examined and four or five pounds of matter was found in one of its stomachs. Even though Mary had acted odd in going around in the night, no one had then accused her of traveling with a familiar spirit (Satan). She had not been called a witch.
The commissioners in Springfield punted. In October, the matter was heard in the Magistrates’ Court at Cambridge.
‘The court having read the attachments and perused the Evidences respectively presented on both sides which are on file with the records of this court do find that the defendant hath without just grounds raised a great scandal and reproach upon the plaintiff’s wife: and do therefore order that the defendant shall make acknowledgement before the Inhabitants of the places where the said Parties dwell, North Hampton and also at Springfield, at some public meeting at each place by and in such words and manner as shall be suitable satisfaction for such an offense, within 60 days next ensuing and in case of default having notice of the time at each place the said defendant, James Bridgman, shall pay damages to the prosecuting individual ten pounds sterling. Also this court doth order that the Defendant shall pay to the prosecuting individual his cost of court, seven pounds one shilling and eight pence."
By suing Mary Parsons' accuser of slander, Joseph Parsons had saved his wife from being accused of witchcraft in a court of law. It he had done nothing it is unknowable whether the matter would have died in the gossip breeze before being heard by someone who would have had to investigate. However, that seems unlikely, If the matter had reached a court of law, it would have been harder to prove Mary Parsons innocent. Certainly, it would have been more traumatic to both wife and husband. What if spectral evidence had been admitted?