The picture of witchcraft in the colonial period is as complex and varied as the imaginations of the people who lived during that time. Witchcraft was a real and frightening
Some pagan rituals, such as skipping around the May pole, were no longer looked upon as harmless or acceptable. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation (Bellevue).
force to the colonists, partly because people believed in its power to harm them and also because it served as a binding force in troubled communities. Case studies and historical data help tell the stories of the victims of these fears. Some stories reveal injustice and prejudice, and others indicate that some people actually believed they were practicing witchcraft. Evidence shows that victims of "witchcraft" were mysteriously changed in inexplicable (unexplainable) physical and psychological (mental) ways. Many communities were quick to judge and try their own people, while others remained skeptical and cautious about falsely accusing innocent people.
The first recorded witch trial in New England resulted in the hanging death of Alse Young in 1647 in Wethersfield, the oldest Puritan settlement in Connecticut. Historians know nothing of the accusations that sent Young to the gallows. Records show, however, that Wethersfield inhabitants had experienced much turmoil in the preceding decade, and at the time Young was executed the community had been struck by a massive, deadly flu and smallpox epidemic. Within a year Mary Johnson of the same town was also hanged as a witch upon her own confession that she had a relationship with the Devil. Johnson was a young, lower-class maidservant who claimed the devil had promised her power and relief from unhappiness if she made a pact with him. It is not known whether she was forced to make this confession to the authorities or she was emotionally unstable, but certainly her case opened a doorway to other trials.
In 1648 Margaret Jones was tried and hanged in Charlestown, a village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The detailed journals of Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649), which describe the trial and the accusations that led up to it, provide a glimpse into the prevailing superstitions of the day. Jones was an elderly healer and midwife (who assisted in the birthing of babies) in Charlestown. She lived alone and survived on her trade, but she had a history of theft that tainted her reputation and made her a suspect. Her ability to heal was also considered evidence against her, regardless of the outcome of her actions. Patients claimed to fall into violent fits of illness after Jones treated them, and some even became temporarily deaf or blind. Others were miraculously healed, but they charged that her knowledge was supernatural and therefore suspicious. In other words, Jones was doomed by any action she took as a healer, whether she cured or injured her patients, because she was suspected of working for the devil. She was imprisoned and brought to trial as a witch, but she confessed only to committing an act of theft several years earlier. She steadfastly protested accusations of witchcraft. When Puritan authorities examined her body they found a "witch's teat" (an extra nipple). While Jones was being held in jail, witnesses came forward and testified that she had caused the deaths of many local children and that she was often seen with a child spirit that she nursed with her extra teat. This was considered sufficient evidence, and Jones was hanged as a witch.
Anne Hibbens (also spelled Hibbins) of Boston, Massachusetts, was another unfortunate victim of slander and suspi cion. Hibbens, the reputedly quarrelsome sister of Governor Bellingham, was widowed in 1654. Thus she was left without the protection of marriage and her former social status. Hibbens was always considered to be cranky and outspoken, but after her husband's death she was directly accused of witchcraft by two women who were her neighbors. The women claimed that while they were talking about Hibbens one day, she came along and confronted them. They testified in court that she had perfectly reconstructed their conversation and then walked away, uttering curses at them. Both women said they suffered minor misfortunes as a result of her curses. Hibbens's case was initially refused by court magistrates, who felt there was not enough evidence to convict her. Nevertheless, other villagers came forward to insist on her guilt, taking the case to the General Court. Hibbens was finally found guilty and executed by hanging in 1656. Even her contemporaries were slightly shocked by the severity of the trial. For instance, the case was later openly condemned by John Norton, a Boston minister, who reportedly said that Hibbens was hanged just for being smarter than her neighbors.
Some cases occurred spontaneously when people suddenly underwent sudden changes in behavior. For example, in 1671 Elizabeth Knapp of Groton, Massachusetts, began experiencing strange symptoms while sitting by her fire one quiet evening. She reported that her throat was closing up and that her breasts, legs, and arms were being pinched hard by invisible forces. She then went into violent convulsions (spasms), leap-ings, and other strange agitations that came and went for several months. Detailed records of Knapp's case note that during these fits her tongue would be drawn into a semicircle at the roof of her mouth. Often her tongue could not be budged, while other times it would become very long and stiff and protrude from her mouth. Knapp also had hallucinations (imagined visions) about demons, dogs, and witches torturing her and attempting to lead her into satanic activities. While under the influence of these demons, she would speak in strange voices and accuse local people of witchcraft, picking specific individuals out of a crowd with her eyes closed. Yet the Groton community responded to Knapp with surprising restraint. Not a single person—including Knapp—was brought to trial or put to death. Groton residents believed that perhaps the devil was trying to create strife and break down their community by tricking people into turning on each other. This showed that people were
Possession and Hysterics: Modern Psychological Interpretations
Modern psychoanalysts who study abnormal mental conditions have proven that many of the symptoms shown by victims of "witchcraft" can be observed in individuals experiencing severe hysteria, a classified psychological disorder. The sensation of one's throat closing up, for example, is today known as Bolus Hystericus, a common symptom in panic attacks and more advanced stages of hysteria. The disorder makes people feel like they can no longer breathe because of a ball in the throat or "invisible hands" around the neck. Modern psychoanalysts have seen hundreds of patients who have the sensation of being pinched, lapse into convulsive fits, and experience protracted stiffness of the tongue during seizures. Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893), the nineteenth-century French neurologist, recorded symptoms that exactly match those experienced by victims of
"witchcraft." It is especially typical for a hysterical patient to have hallucinations of being persecuted by figures that represent the most dreaded fears. An hysterical patient also becomes paranoid (suspicious) and acts out strong resistance to such encounters. Also common are vivid, imaginary sexual experiences. Victims of hysteria lapse into an extreme psychological state in order to express the dark corners of the psyche.
Psychoanalysts have noted that hysterical fits occur most often in cultures in which people accept these acts as manifestations (displays) of supernatural forces. In seventeenth-century New England fits were a natural extension of the intense fear of evil and God within the extremely strict Puritan society. In other words, by accepting this behavior as real, people were able to explain and deal with one of the most fearsome elements of their culture.
not always ready to surrender to fear and hurl accusations, despite their strong belief that evil was operating among them.
Another case of disturbing psychological symptoms involved four children—three girls and a boy—of John Goodwin, a pious and respected resident of Boston, in 1688. They captured the attention of the minister Cotton Mather, who kept detailed records of his examinations and observations in The Wonders of the Invisible World (see the primary sources entry). All four children experienced epileptic fits and convulsions during which they apparently saw demons, rode on horseback, spoke in strange languages, lost the capacity to see or hear, and lashed out at invisible enemies. These activities began when one child got into an argument with Goodwife Glover, their housekeeper, who was immediately suspected of witchcraft. ("Goodwife" was the title Puritans gave to married women.) An interesting aspect of this case is that Glover openly confessed to being a witch and "proved" her own guilt by showing witnesses a collection of fetish dolls she had made. These dolls were small rag puppets stuffed with goat hair (associated with the devil since medieval times) and other significant ingredients. Records show that Glover would utter curses at her victims while rubbing spittle, which was thought to contain magical properties, onto the fetish dolls. When she was brought to court for trial she stroked several of her dolls, causing epileptic seizures and fits in all four children. Upon being asked to provide character witnesses in her own defense, Glover responded that Satan would be her only witness. She was given an immediate death sentence. On the way to the gallows Glover privately told Mather the names of several other "witches." Mather declined to reveal their identities, however, because he felt Glover may have made false accusations in an effort to destroy the community.
After Glover's execution the Goodwin children continued to have fits and seizures, prompting further inquiry into the source of their suffering. Mather decided to take the eldest daughter into his home for several months of observation and prayer. As usual, he kept detailed records of her symptoms. According to his notes, when the girl had fits her belly literally swelled up like a drum. During a fit she also acted like she was conversing with demons while riding on a wildly galloping horse. Even when she was in a quiet state she was unable to utter certain words like "God" and "Jesus" while praying. (This symptom has since been found in studies of hysterical patients.) Eventually all four children were "prayed" out of their fits and they lived to ripe old ages, never once discrediting their experiences. Mather, for his part, regarded the Goodwin case as proof of witchcraft in the colonies and used it to warn other communities. Although he told people to remain skeptical of accusations, he simply succeeded in spreading belief in witchcraft. Many people were acquitted in court because communities feared they were being tricked by the devil into killing innocent people. Yet cases like the Goodwin children's "bewitchment" only served as fuel for the fire.
Katherine Harrison: The Typical Witch
Katherine Harrison of Wethersfield, Connecticut, was a healer who was widowed in 1666. A capable healer, she had a reputation for incredible physical strength, had inherited a fortune, and never went to church. All these factors made her a prime candidate for suspicion of witchcraft. Like many New England communities, Wethersfield had experienced intense stress and conflict. Between 1665 and 1667 the town was struck by a devastating smallpox epidemic, massive drought, blight, a ruined crop season, economic setbacks, conflicts with Quakers (people who follow the religion Society of Friends), and skirmishes with Native Americans. Not surprisingly, Harrison was accused of being a witch shortly after these events had come to an end. Her case was typical in that many people testified against her, including members of a community where she had lived previously. Most of the testimonials revealed that she caused severe illnesses and deaths and frightened people by appearing in different shapes and forms. Brought to trial in 1668, Harrison was acquitted (freed of the charges) in court the following year. Nevertheless, she was forced to leave Wethersfield, and her reputation followed her when she moved to Westchester, New York. Fearing her powers, villagers demanded that she leave. She went to the local courts to argue for her right to live in Westchester and won.
Was this article helpful?