American History Stories—Volume I - Mara L. Pratt

Salem Witchcraft

No one knows when the belief in witches first sprang up in Europe. There was a time, when James the First was king, that England was wild with excitement over witchcraft. The people believed there were witches in the forests, in the rivers, in the air, and I don't know where else. They stood in mortal fear of them, and believed every strange old woman they saw might be a witch and about to work some evil charm on them.

It is no wonder that, from time to time, witch excitements sprang up in the colonies. They died out soon, however, without much harm being done.

But in the year 1692, there sprang up such a fire of excitement over the witch belief, that no power seemed able to quell it. It seems strange to us, in these days, that grown up men and women could be so foolish. These people believed that the cause of witchcraft was the devil; when a person was bewitched, that meant that the devil had taken possession of that person, and was making him do the most terrible things. The devil, they believed, was an enormous creature, with a long tail, a pair of horns, and terrible hoofs. He could take all sorts of shapes, and was often known to take the form of a goose or a black cat.

The excitement over witchcraft in Salem seems to have started in a minister's family.

One day his little girl began to behave very strangely. The minister, being a strong believer in witchcraft, declared at once that the child was bewitched. He begged the child to tell him who had bewitched her; and the child, frightened half out of her wits by her father's terrible stories, cried out that it was a certain old woman who lived near by.

The poor old woman was brought into the presence of the child. The child, excited as she was now, probably, believed that the old woman had, indeed, afflicted her; and, frightened still more when she was brought before her, the child fell into convulsions. This, the minister thought, was sure proof; and the poor old woman was loaded with chains and thrown into prison.

Soon others in Salem began to declare themselves bewitched. If the butter would not come, the housewives declared there were witches in their churns; if the animals on the farms died, it was said to be the work of witches. Every possible disaster was laid at the door of witchcraft.

Although the excitement over witchcraft was highest and hottest in Salem, there was no small amount of it in all the other towns. In the town of Boston it took such a firm hold upon the people that an educated woman, the sister of one of the governors, one who had, therefore, hosts of friends who used their power and influence to save her, was hanged, as a witch, on Boston Common.

This woman, Mrs. Anne Hibbins, was the wife of a wealthy merchant in Boston. Mrs. Hibbins had, we fear, a very proud, selfish disposition, which caused her neighbors to dislike her most heartily. Being the wife of a wealthy merchant, she rather looked down upon her more humble friends, and was not at all careful to hide her feelings from them. When she and her husband were quite old, there came a long line of business troubles, which swept away their money, leaving them as poor as the poorest of their neighbors.

Mrs. Hibbins' crabbed disposition did not grow any sweeter under this misfortune, you may be sure. She grew to be so ugly and so cruel to the little children that they would run screaming to their mothers if she came towards them. She had very sharp eyes and ears, and seemed to see and hear all that happened in the town. She was, also, very keen, and was sure to ferret out the very boy who stole her apples, or stoned her cat, or broke her windows. At last, the mothers began whispering that they believed she was a witch.

"The Devil himself tells her these things," said they, "else how does she know everything that happens?"

As they grew to fear her more and more, they began really to believe she was a witch. Many a mother would run into her house and hide her baby if the cross old woman was seen coming. Soon her neighbors became so sure that she was a witch that they went to the town officers about it; and in a very, very short time, all Boston was filled with fear of this unhappy old woman, whose selfish, proud heart had made her such a disagreeable object.

This fear of her having broken out, it was not long before the people began to clamor for her death. Every accident in the town was laid to her; every sickness in the homes was laid to her; every trouble in the church was laid to her.

At last she was publicly accused and thrown into prison. Her brother, who stood high in the colony, made no effort to save her; her three sons, whom she loved with all the tenderness of which she was capable, were all away and knew nothing of her arrest. And so the poor old woman, who had once held her head so high, was dragged forth from her prison, tried, and sentenced to be hanged. After she was hanged, the people went back to their homes satisfied that in hanging a witch they had done a good deed, one which the Heavenly Father would reward them for!

It doesn't seem possible that only two hundred years ago people could have been so cruel and so foolish.

By and by not only poor old women were accused, but young people, some of them from the leading families in the colonies. Everybody had accepted this wicked belief, doubting not, so long as no one but poor, friendless old women had been accused. But when, at last, the young people and the wealthy people, who had friends to defend them, began to suffer, then the people began to come to their senses.

"How do we know that this man saw Goody Glover flying on a broomstick? How do we know that he saw Martha Corey turn into a black cat? How do we know that he saw the children ride up the stairs on a white horse?" they began to ask when people came forth at a witch's trial to testify to these wonderful sights.

"We do not know," the judges at last honestly declared; and from that time the witchcraft excitement began to die away.

One of the chief believers in this cruel nonsense was a prominent minister, named Cotton Mather. It is said, however, that when he became old he deeply regretted the part he had taken in it and frankly confessed that he would give years to undo the harm he had done.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt