Thomas Knowlton

Witchcraft 1687: The Deposition of Thomas Knowlton against Rachel Clinton

Reprinted in Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England in 1982 By John Putnam Demos

Long before the Salem witchcraft trials in 1692-93, Puritans had been blaming witches for problems—economic hardship, epidemic illnesses, political conflict, and social unrest. In fact, during the second half of the seventeenth century charges of witchcraft became rampant in New England communities. Usually, but not always, women were the targets of the charges, and frequently these women lived alone either because they were unmarried, had been widowed, or had been deserted by their husbands. Some had been prosperous citizens who fell on hard times and thus became outsiders. One such woman was Rachel Clinton (see biography entry) of Ipswich, Massachusetts, who was accused of witchcraft in the mid-1680s, around the time prominent Boston Minister Increase Mather's Remarkable Providences (see primary source entry) added fuel to the witch-hunt frenzy.

Clinton moved to Ipswich from England with her parents, Richard and Martha Haffield, in 1635. Richard had five daughters, two from a previous marriage and three with Martha. (Rachel therefore had two half-sisters and two sisters of full relation.) The Haffields lived as prosperous members of the community until Richard died in 1639. He left a will that was intended to prevent any conflicts over the estate, giving all the children equal amounts of his property. Nevetheless, there was a continued battle over the settlement and by 1665, when all of Rachel's sisters were married, Rachel and her mother were living together in a small cottage. As a result of unusual behavior, Martha Haffield was certified as insane and unable to care for herself financially. The local court put Thomas White, the husband of Rachel's sister Ruth, in charge of the estate.

Around 1666 Rachel married Lawrence Clinton, an indentured servant who had several years left on his contract. An indentured servant was an immigrant who had signed a contract to work for an employer for a specified number of years in exchange for free passage to America. The servant did not have to serve the remainder of his or her time if someone compensated the employer for his loss of the servant. Rachel therefore used money from her inheritance to pay Lawrence's employer. White felt Rachel did not have the right to the family's money, however, so he decided to take her to court. After years of legal battles, Rachel lost not only her house and money but also good relations with her family. She also lost her husband, whom she divorced after a series of domestic problems, and by 1681 she was alone. The once wealthy and respectable Clinton was now relying on public support. For years she felt betrayed by the town and her family, who had watched her lose everything. Then, in 1687, she was charged with being a witch.

Sometime in 1687 Ipswich residents were invited to give sworn court testimony against Clinton. According to their complaints, people fell dead when she walked past them, and she frequently turned into a dog, cat, or turtle in order to cast spells on upstanding members of the community. (A popular superstition was that a witch could inhabit the body of an animal and work evil spells in the form of that animal; this was called becoming a "familiar.") The following deposition, given by a man named Thomas Knowlton, describes Clinton going to a household and asking for food and drink. When her request was refused, she reacted violently. In response, several townspeople claimed they suffered pains and ailments caused by her witchcraft. Clinton was then arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned as a witch.

Rachel Clinton was said to have been seen flying around the village at night with her familiar.

Reproduced by permission of the Gamma Liaison Network.

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