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Story of the Thirteen Colonies - Helene Guerber

Salem Witches

About four years after the Revolution of 1688, in England, arose the Salem witchcraft delusion, which you will now hear about. In olden times, as you have seen, people had very few and poor chances of learning, compared with what you have now. Almost everybody then believed in witches. These were supposed to be persons who had sold their souls to Satan, could ride through the air on broomsticks, make others ill by looking at them with an evil eye, cast a spell upon cattle, houses, or furniture, and, in short, do all sorts of impossible things.

As you know, some children have very lively imaginations, and hearing people talk of such things as seriously as if they were quite true, a few children in Salem, Massachusetts, began to fancy they must be bewitched, because they were not quite well and had fits. The grown-up people, who should have known better and merely given the children medicine to cure their illness, believed these youngsters, and anxiously inquired who could have cast a spell upon them.

The children, remembering that their elders often spoke of the witches as old, first began to talk of such and such a woman who had looked at them crossly or threatened to beat them with her staff when they played tricks upon her. These poor old creatures, who were really in their second childhood, and not responsible for what they said or did, were put into prison, and tortured in many cruel ways, so as to force them to confess that they were witches. Bewildered, and hoping to get free, some of the poor old creatures finally acknowledged that they were witches.

Almost everybody believed in witchcraft at that time, and for many years supposed witches had been treated with great cruelty in Europe. When persons accused of witchcraft refused to confess, some people thought that the only way to find out the truth was to throw them into the water. If the victims sank, it was said they could not be witches, but if they swam, it was considered a sure sign that they had sold themselves to the Evil One, and they were sentenced to death, either by hanging, burning, or torture. But this was, after all, only a choice of deaths, for the poor creatures who sank were allowed to remain under water so long, to make sure they were innocent, that they were generally dead when taken out.

Persons who were only suspected of witchcraft were put in the stocks, fastened to the pillory, whipped at the cart tail, or placed on the ducking stool, or had their ears chopped off. These were punishments often applied to criminals in those days, and if you care to see pictures of pillory, stocks, and ducking stool, you can find them in any large dictionary. Both men and women were accused of witchcraft in Salem, and one of the men was put to death by a torture called peine forte et dure, by which he was slowly crushed under a thick door, upon which tremendous weights were laid. He was, fortunately, the only person in our country who was ever punished in this inhuman way.

Nearly one hundred and fifty people of all kinds were arrested for witchcraft in Salem, and nineteen of them, after being tried by a court, were found guilty and put to death. But people finally saw that it was all folly, and even the learned minister, Cotton Mather, who had believed in witches just like the rest, had to own that he had been mistaken. The children were now punished when they pretended to be under a spell, and the Salem witchcraft delusion came to an end. Ever since then, no one with a grain of sense has believed in witches; but you will often hear people speak of the terrible time they had in Salem while the belief in them lasted. The building shown in the picture was one of the houses of Salem at that time; and it is still pointed out there as "the witch house."

The Salem Witch House


Mather, the famous "Patriarch of New England," who believed in witches, was a very learned man. He wrote more books than there are days in the year, and was so busy that he wrote over his door, "Be short," so that people should not take up his time with idle talk. In one of his books he once read that smallpox could be prevented by vaccination. He told this to Boylston, a Boston doctor, who tried it on his own son and servants. But when the Bostonians first heard of it, they were so indignant that they wanted to kill Boylston.

In time, however, people saw that the doctor was right and ever since vaccination has been practiced, few people have died of the disease which once swept away whole families. Because Boylston went ahead and did what was right, in spite of people's threats, he is now greatly honored, and a fine street in Boston bears his name.