Nothing is harder to direct than a man in prosperity; nothing more easily managed than one is adversity. — Plutarch

Massasoit: A Story of the Indians of New England - Alma H. Burton




The Witches

It was the royal pleasure of King William, to allow Connecticut and Rhode Island to keep their own charters. But a new one was given to Massachusetts, under which the governor was to be appointed by the crown.

When the royal governor arrived, the coast was being again ravaged by the Indians, who still dwelt on the northern frontiers.

In long lines of canoes, they towed rafts, filled with pitch, and set them afire among the English shipping, as it lay at anchor in the bays.

Then they paddled swiftly away, and their mocking laugh sounded far over the waters.

They danced about the outskirts of the villages, and, in the glare of the burning buildings, slaughtered and tortured their victims like the very imps of darkness.

But just at this very time, there were worse imps than Indians within the little Puritan towns. A few years before, many witches had been burned at the stake in old England, and, some way or other, witches had come across the sea; whether on the broomstick, or in the hold of some ship, where no morning prayers were said, no one seemed to know. However they came, there they were, in the good old Puritan towns. Cotton Mather, of Boston, said so, and he was one of the most learned men of his time. Samuel Parvis, of Danvers, said so, and who preached longer sermons than Samuel Parvis? Sir William Phipps, the royal governor, said so, and he represented the king.

A daughter of a mason, in Boston, had a quarrel with a washerwoman over some clothes, and "cried out upon her" that she had bewitched her. The girl's influence over the younger children of the family was such, that she soon had them acting as if they were bewitched. The little four-year-old added her piping voice, when they all mewed like kittens, or barked like dogs, or neighed like horses. They crawled on all-fours, tried to climb the walls, and then sprang out of the house, and ran away like young colts under the lash of some invisible master. Sometimes they could not see, and stumbled blindly over the chairs, hurting themselves badly; sometimes they could not hear, and stood stupidly about when they were asked questions. The hearing was always lost when prayers were said, and the seeing when the catechism was to be read. They whistled and screamed at prayers. What could it mean, but that the children were bewitched?

There was, happily, a release from their miseries at bedtime, and all night long nature built up their little bodies for the tortures of the next day.

Ministers of Boston met to fast and pray, to deliver the children from the black charms. The wretched washerwoman, who talked fast and long in her broken Irish, made things worse and worse, in her efforts to right them. Some one testified, that some one had said, that she had been seen by some one else, to fly down a chimney. She was asked to give the Lord's Prayer in English, but as she had only learned it in Latin, and very badly at that, she was unable to do so. In the end, the helpless woman was convicted of witchcraft, and hanged.

Cotton Mather was at this time almost a boy, just out of college. He became convinced that Satan had found out the refuge of Puritans, and crossed in the hold of some of the ships. He felt it his duty to drive him out, hoof and horns, from this chosen Land of the Bays.

Other children were seized with a nervous desire to be under the witches, and under the witches they soon seemed to be. Things got worse and worse. Services in the church, were interrupted by the cries of the children. In spite of the tithing-man, Ann Putnam cried out in service, "There is a yellow bird sitting on the minister's hat."

Physicians declared that the children were well, and that it must be the work of witches. There was fasting and prayer.

At last it seemed certain, that three old women of Salem were the agents of the evil one. Tituba, who was a half Indian and half negro slave from Barbados, confessed herself a witch.

Perhaps she was so excited, that she really thought she was. And so the fight about witchcraft increased, until a hundred wizard and witches lay in jail awaiting their trials.

One, who was condemned to die, merely looked at the meeting-house in Salem, as she was on her way to the scaffold, and it was said that straightway a demon tore down a part of it. But others thought that some planks in the meeting-house had given way, from the great pressure of the crowds, which stood gaping at the unhappy woman as she passed.

Many were so distressed, that they began to believe themselves witches, and confessed to riding on sticks through the air, and changing themselves into animals at night, to prey upon their neighbors' cattle.

Twenty people were hanged on a high hill on the outskirts of Salem, fifty obtained pardon by confessing, and hundreds were accused and suspected of witchcraft.

Whispers went about, that men and women in high places were guilty. Lady Phipps, the governor's wife, was under suspicion of being a witch; several officials of state were accused of using the black arts.

At length, some confessions were proven so false, that reason began to return. The fraud, started by young girls, ended. Many, who had helped to put to death innocent people, had a troubled conscience as long as they lived.

But, after all is said, they had only followed the written law in England, which called witchcraft a crime punishable with death. If the older countries across the sea believed in witches at this time, perhaps we should not expect the Puritans to know any better. They were surrounded by a vast wilderness, and did not understand the strange sights and sounds about them. The awful storms, the strange lights in the northern sky, the falling of forest trees, made them nervous and anxious, all the time. Yet, if the white men were so easily deceived in this new world, how can we wonder at the delusions of the red man? They had always believed in witches, and now the praying towns seemed for a time to return to their old heathen customs. The neglected powwows were again consulted, to drive out the witches. They built sacred fires with their pine-knots, and threw beads, and knives, and hatchets, and skins of snakes, into the flames, and, last of all, they threw in the dusky witches. It must have seemed like old savage times to these "praying Indians," as they danced and shouted about their victims in the fire.