Arthur Miller Casts His Spell

The Crucible

a play by Arthur Miller, directed by Yaël Farber
The Old Vic, London, June 21–September 13, 2014
Johan Persson
Samantha Colley (top center) as Abigail Williams in Yaël Farber’s production of The Crucible

The last person to be hanged as a witch in Boston, Massachusetts, was an Irish laundrywoman named Ann (or perhaps Mary) Glover, put to death on November 16, 1688. A virtual slave who barely spoke any English, a stubborn Catholic in a city of stubborn Puritans, Goody Glover stood accused of casting spells on four of her employer’s six children after one of them, thirteen-year-old Martha Goodwin, claimed to have caught Glover’s daughter stealing laundry. The elderly defendant could speak only Gaelic on the stand; she could recite the Lord’s Prayer only in that language or in Latin, and never perfectly: proof positive, to her accusers, that there must be something amiss with her soul. A local merchant, Robert Calef, would later protest: “Setting aside her crazy answers to some ensnaring questions, the proof against her was wholly deficient. The jury brought her in guilty.”

Shortly after her hanging, an ambitious young Boston divine (who was also the Goodwins’ minister), twenty-six-year-old Cotton Mather, published an account of the case, Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689), which also included “an Appendix, in vindication of a Chapter in a late Book of Remarkable Providence, from the Columnies of a Quaker at Pen-silvania.” Mather himself had examined “the Hag” and kept one of the afflicted Goodwin children for a time in his own home. Goody Glover’s death, as she herself had predicted on the scaffold, failed to stop their fits. Mather took pains to demonstrate the scientific and legal rigor of the case:

To make all clear, The Court appointed five or six Physicians one evening to examine her very strictly, whether she were not craz’d in her Intellectuals, and had not procured to her self by Folly and Madness the Reputation of a Witch. Diverse hours did they spend with her; and in all that while no Discourse came from her, but what was pertinent and agreeable…. In the up-shot, the Doctors returned her Compos Mentis; and Sentence of Death was pass’d upon her.

Thus persuaded that Goody Glover had been treated with impeccable rationality, Mather sped his volume on its way with an exhortation:

Go then, my little Book…. Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches; and that tho those night-birds least appear where the Day-light of the Gospel comes, yet New-Engl[and] has had Exemples of their Existence and Operation; and that no[t] only the Wigwams of Indians, where the pagan Powaws often raise their masters, in the shapes of Bears and Snakes and Fires, but the House of Christians, where our God has had his constant Worship, have undergone the Annoyance of Evil spirits.

Soon after its publication, Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences entered the library of the Reverend Samuel Parris, first minister of Salem Village, a Puritan…

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