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The United States of America: A History
Book 1: Chapter VI - Witchcraft in New England


WHEN the Pilgrims left their native land, the belief in witch- craft was universal. England, in much fear, busied herself with the slaughter of friendless old women who were suspected of an alliance with Satan. King James had published his book oil a few years before, in which he maintained that to "forbear from knitting witches to death was all odious treason against God." England was no wiser than her King. All during James's life, and long after he had ceased from invading the kingdom of Satan, the yearly average of executions for witchcraft was somewhere about five hundred.

The Pilgrims carried with them across the Atlantic the universal delusion. Their way of life was fitted to strengthen it. They lived on the verge of vast and gloomy forests. The howl of the wolf and the scream of the panther sounded nightly around their cabins. Treacherous savages lurked in the woods watching the time to plunder and to slay. Every circumstance was fitted to increase the susceptibility of the mind to gloomy and superstitious impressions. But for the first quarter of a. century, while every ship brought news of witch-killing at home, no Satanic outbreak disturbed the settlers. The sense of brotherhood was yet too strong among them. Men who have braved great dangers and endured great hardships together, do not readily come to look upon each other as the allies and agents of the Evil One.

In 1645 four persons were put to death for witchcraft. During the next half century there occur at intervals solitary cases, when some unhappy wretch falls a victim to the lurking superstition. It was in 1692 that witch-slaying burst forth in its epidemic form, and with a fury which has seldom been witnessed elsewhere.

In the State of Massachusetts there is a little town, then called Salem, sitting Pleasantly in a plain between two rivers; and in the town of Salem there dwelt at that time a minister whose name was Paris. In the month of February the daughter and niece of Mr. Paris became ill. It was a dark time for Massachusetts; for the colony was at war with the French and Indians, Indians, and was suffering cruelly from their ravages. The doctors sat in solemn conclave on the afflicted girls, and pronounced them bewitched. Mr. Paris, not doubting that it was even so, bestirred himself to find the offenders. Suspicion fell upon three old women, who were at once seized. And then, with marvellous rapidity, the mania spread. The rage and fear of the distracted community swelled high. Every one suspected his neighbour. Children accused their parents. Parents accused their children. The prisons could scarcely contain the suspected. The town of Falmouth hanged its minister, a man of intelligence and worth. Some near relations of the Governor were denounced. Even the beasts were not safe. A clog was solemnly put to death for the part he had taken in some Satanic festivity.

For more than twelve months this mad panic raged in the New England States. It is just to say that the hideous cruelties which were practised in Europe were not resorted to in the prosecution of American witches. Torture was not inflicted to wring confession from the the victim. The American test was more humane, and not more foolish, than the European. Those suspected persons who denied their guilt, were judged guilty and hanged. Those who confessed were, for the most part, set free. Many hundreds of innocent persons, who scorned to purchase life by falsehood, perished miserably under the fury of an excited people.

The fire had been kindled in a moment; it was extinguished as suddenly. The Governor of Massachusetts only gave effect to the reaction which had occurred in the public mind, when he abruptly stopped all prosecutions against witches, dismissed all the suspected, pardoned all the condemned. The House of Assembly proclaimed a fast—entreating that God would pardon the errors of His people "in a late tragedy raised by Satan and his instruments." One of the judges stood up in church in Boston, with bowed down head and sorrowful countenance, while a paper was read, in which he begged the prayers of the congregation, that the innocent blood which he had erringly shed might not be visited on the country or on him. The Salem jury asked forgiveness of God and the community for what they had done under the power of "a strong and general delusion." Poor Mr. Paris was now at a sad discount. lie made public acknowledgment of his error. But at his door lay the origin of all this slaughter of the unoffending. his part in the tragedy could not be forgiven. The people would no longer endure his ministry, and demanded his removal. Mr. Paris resigned his charge, and went forth from Salem a broken man.

If the error of New England was great and most lamentable, her repentance was prompt and deep. Five-and-twenty years after she had clothed herself in sackcloth, old women were still burned to death for witchcraft in Great Britain. The year of blood was never repeated in America.


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