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
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
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