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The Witch Trials

In response to:

The Puritan You Love to Hate from the January 25, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

I should like to correct a statement of Professor Morgan’s in his review of Cotton Mather by David Levin [NYR, January, 25]. Speaking of the notorious Salem witch trials of 1692, he refers to the posture assumed by Cotton Mather; Professor Morgan states that it is “difficult to prove that he [Mather] disapproved of the trials.” Professor Morgan goes on to state “But who at the time disapproved, apart from the accused?” Anyone familiar with the works of the late Perry Miller, The New England Mind, or the more recent study by the late Arthur Tourtellot on the Puritan background of Benjamin Franklin, is aware of who the contemporaries of Cotton Mather were who disapproved of the witchcraft trials. They were Dr. Samuel Willard, pastor of the Old South Church and later president of Harvard College, and Thomas Brattle, merchant and mathematician of Boston. Not only did these independent intellectuals disapprove of the trials, they attacked them in the printed word. Neither deserves to be overlooked by a modern scholar writing for The New York Review of Books.

Perry T. Rathbone

New York City

Edmund S Morgan replies:

Since Mr. Rathbone’s letter raises questions that cannot be answered by a simple denial, I must beg the reader’s patience in trying to set the record straight.

The Salem witch trials have generated controversy ever since they ended, and the controversy has generally centered on the responsibility for starting and stopping them, or rather for failing to stop them. The trials, held in a special court of oyer and terminer appointed by the newly arrived Governor William Phips, began on June 2, 1692. By September 22 the court had sent nineteen persons to the gallows and caused another to be pressed to death. It then adjourned with the intention of continuing its work in November, for accusations were out against hundreds more; but before it could meet again the governor put an end to it, and in January a newly appointed superior court, following different procedures, acquitted all but three of the remaining persons under indictment. Phips promptly reprieved the three. By this time the hysteria was over, and nearly everyone concerned was feeling shaken and ashamed.

As well they might, for the court of oyer and terminer had followed procedures that the ministers of the colony, who were supposed to be knowledgeable about witchcraft, had considered dubious from the beginning. The court convicted people largely on the basis of “spectral” testimony, testimony offered by an afflicted person that he or she was being tormented by a specter in the shape of the accused. The ground for accepting such evidence was the assumption that the devil could take the shape only of a person who had confederated with him. The appearance of a specter in the shape of a particular person would therefore be evidence that that person was a witch. The experts, however, thought it unlikely that the devil was confined in his permutations to the shapes of his confederates; and spectral evidence, while generally considered to be admissible at some stage of the proceedings against a suspect, was not generally thought sufficient for conviction.

As early as May 31, 1692, Cotton Mather cautioned John Richards, one of the judges, against relying on spectral evidence. After the first execution Governor Phips sought the advice of the ministers, and on June 15 they presented him with “The Return of Several Ministers,” probably drafted by Cotton Mather, again cautioning against spectral evidence. Mather repeated his disapproval of spectral evidence in a sermon on August 4 and in a letter to a member of the Massachusetts assembly on August 17. Unfortunately in the “Return” and in his other pronouncements, Mather failed to give a clear condemnation of the trials themselves or of the executions and offered respectful and encouraging words to the judges, commending the success of their “sedulous and assiduous endeavours” and urging “the speedy and vigorous prosecutions, of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious.”

We have to remember that in 1692 virtually no one in New England or in England and Europe disbelieved in witches or thought that they should go unpunished. Although the Salem trials, so far as I know, were the last in New England, trials and executions continued in Europe throughout the eighteenth century and popular lynchings of alleged witches into the nineteenth. At Salem popular sympathy went to the victims of witchcraft not to the suspects, who were often social outcasts of one sort or another. Accusations against highly respected and well-to-do persons were often discounted. Indeed it was only when such persons began to be widely accused and convicted that concern for fair trials began to outweigh concern for the victims.

The fact is that no one, to the best of our knowledge, publicly condemned the trials themselves or called for an end to the special court before the final executions of September 22. On October 3 Increase Mather (Cotton’s father) circulated the manuscript of a book entitled Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men (the book was not printed until November) in which he condemned spectral evidence more thoroughly than anyone else had up to that point. Mather’s condemnation, when printed, carried a prefatory endorsement by fourteen other ministers. It is generally agreed that it was this démarche (together with the increasing number of respected persons in the widening ranks of the accused) which finally moved the governor to dissolve the court.

Now it is evident that by October 3 Increase Mather and presumably the other fourteen ministers in some sense disapproved of the trials. I did not mean to imply that no one disapproved after the damage was done. By 1697 the colony of Massachusetts officially disapproved in a day of fasting, during which the jury and some of the judges publicly confessed their errors. What I did mean to imply was that “at the time” the people who knew the court was following unacceptable procedures did not protest the resulting convictions and executions until very late in the day, that the others were no better than Cotton Mather. As S.E. Morison put it back in 1936, “In the face of this terrible frenzy, the intellectual class as a whole kept a cowardly silence.” Yes, they finally spoke up, Thomas Brattle and Samuel Willard among them, but did Brattle and Willard speak up before the rest in the summer of 1692 while the heat of the trials was on? Were they independent intellectuals, ahead of the Mathers and the other ministers of the colony?

Increase Mather’s démarche was circulated on October 3. Five days later, October 8, Thomas Brattle wrote (or at least so dated) a letter, purportedly to someone in England, in which he condemned spectral evidence and its use in the trials. He did not doubt that the devil was active in Massachusetts and surmised that thirty of the witches who confessed had done so because they were “possessed (I reckon) with the Devill.” Brattle’s letter was not printed or published until 1798 in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. It is the only evidence of his position. It will be seen, then, that he did not attack the trials in the printed word and that, so far as we know, he was somewhat later than Increase Mather and the ministers in criticizing them. Indeed his letter commends Mather and many others, including Samuel Willard. Since Mr. Rathbone chides me for neglecting Perry Miller, he will perhaps be satisfied with Miller’s statement that “Phips put an end to the court because Increase gave him the signal; Brattle’s Letter was not a factor in that decision.”

There remains the reverend Samuel Willard (who did not, to the best of my knowledge, hold a doctor’s degree). Willard wrote two tracts relating to witchcraft. The first, published in 1673, nineteen years before the Salem outbreak, was prompted by a witchcraft case in Groton, Massachusetts (where Willard was then minister) in which the afflicted person had made accusations against a neighbor. Willard was able to put the lid on these accusations, in the same way that Cotton Mather did in 1689 in the similar case of the bewitched Goodwin children in Boston. This tract of Willard’s obviously cannot be the basis for a claim that he disapproved of the Salem trials.

The other tract, entitled Some Miscellany Observations on our Present Debates Respecting Witchcrafts, was printed in 1692. It is in the form of a dialogue between S. and B., presumably Salem and Boston. Though anonymous, it has generally been attributed to Willard, but Perry Miller doubts the attribution (“It is difficult to recognize evidences of Willard’s style in the Observations“). In the dialogue S. and B. discuss what is proper evidence in a witch trial, with B. arguing strongly, in much the same terms as the Mathers, that spectral evidence should not be admitted against persons of good character, though he concedes that it may be sufficient basis for the judicial examination of persons already suspect. If Willard was the author, he was certainly speaking out and in print. But he did not put his name to his statement, and it is not clear either that he was the author or that the tract was published before Increase Mather circulated Cases of Conscience.

That Willard was at odds with other ministers on this subject is belied by his readiness to join with them in various pronouncements on witchcraft. He joined with three others in 1689 in a commendatory preface to Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences, a tract that is often, though I think wrongly, cited to show that Cotton Mather started the Salem troubles. He joined five others, including Increase and Cotton Mather, in a similar preface to Deodat Lawson’s Christ’s Fidelity the only Shield against Satan’s Malignity, a sermon delivered at Salem Village in March, 1692, which has been often cited, rightly I think, as an important factor in the widening of the Salem scare. Willard was also one of the fourteen signers of the preface to Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience. Admittedly Willard was later credited with opposing the trials, but there is no firm contemporary evidence that he spoke out against them in advance of other ministers. It is perhaps frivolous to add, since the charge was not taken very seriously (he was too respectable), that he was also one of the accused.

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