In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

by Mary Beth Norton


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Award-winning historian Mary Beth Norton reexamines the Salem witch trials in this startlingly original, meticulously researched, and utterly riveting study.

In 1692 the people of Massachusetts were living in fear, and not solely of satanic afflictions. Horrifyingly violent Indian attacks had all but emptied the northern frontier of settlers, and many traumatized refugees—including the main accusers of witches—had fled to communities like Salem. Meanwhile the colony’s leaders, defensive about their own failure to protect the frontier, pondered how God’s people could be suffering at the hands of savages. Struck by the similarities between what the refugees had witnessed and what the witchcraft “victims” described, many were quick to see a vast conspiracy of the Devil (in league with the French and the Indians) threatening New England on all sides. By providing this essential context to the famous events, and by casting her net well beyond the borders of Salem itself, Norton sheds new light on one of the most perplexing and fascinating periods in our history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375706905
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/14/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 555,227
Product dimensions: 5.15(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mary Beth Norton is Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History at Cornell University. She is the author of The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774—1789 (1972); Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750—1800 (1980); Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (1996), which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and (with five others) A People and a Nation (6th ed., 2001). She has also edited several works on women’s history and served as the general editor of The AHA Guide to Historical Literature (3rd ed., 1995).

Read an Excerpt


Under an Evil Hand

January 15–March 6, 1691/2

Monday, January 25, 1691/2; York, Maine. About noon, in heavy snow, when (in the words of a contemporary historian) “the Inhabitants were in their unguarded Houses, here and there scattered, Quiet and Secure,” about 150 Indians led by Madockawando, a sachem of the Penobscot band of the Wabanakis, took York completely by surprise. One by one they captured most of the town’s garrisoned houses and split into small parties to burn houses and to kill livestock and people. Captain John Floyd, who with a small troop of militia rushed to the scene from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, found on his arrival that “the greatest part of the whole town was burned & robed,” with nearly 50 killed and another 100 captured. Among the dead was the Reverend Shubael Dummer, who was, Floyd reported, “barbarously murthered stript naked Cut & mangled by these sons of Beliall.” The Indians seemed to have known when and where to strike, and help had arrived much too late.1

From the neighboring town of Wells, the Reverend George Burroughs described “the Sorrowfull tideings” from York for the leaders of Massachusetts. “The beholding of the Pillours of Smoke, the rageing of the mercyless flames, the insultations of the heathen enemy, shooting, hacking, (not haveing regard to the earnest supplication of men, women, or Children, with sharpe cryes & bitter teares in most humble manner,) & dragging away others, (& none to help) is most affecting the heart.” Burroughs concluded that “God is still manifesting his displeasure against this Land, he who formerly hath set to his hand to help us, doth even write bitter things against us.”2

When he wrote that letter George Burroughs would not have known that about a week before the attack on York, two little girls living in the house of the Reverend Samuel Parris in Salem Village—a house Burroughs had once occupied—had begun to have strange fits. Nor, unless he had the occult powers eventually attributed to him, would he have known that as a result just three months later he too would personally experience “bitter things.”


In the winter of 1691–1692, Salem Village, a thinly populated rural precinct bordering the crowded, bustling seaport of Salem Town, simmered with contention, much of it revolving around the church. Its pastor, the Reverend Samuel Parris, had become the focal point for considerable discontent, which his actions in the coming months would magnify rather than dampen. Indeed, the strange behavior of the girls in his household beginning in mid-January would, as he later reflected, set off a “horrid calamity (which afterwards, plague-like, spread in many other places).”3

Land grants in the mid to late 1630s had initiated movement into the area that eventually became known as Salem Village, which was located north and west of the town center. Salem, the first permanent settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was founded in 1626 on a peninsula commanding a superb natural harbor, and the town quickly became the focal point of the area around Cape Ann. Immigrants flowed in during the 1630s, and furs and fish flowed out. The newcomers moved inland to found new towns and to settle in Salem’s own hinterland, first referred to simply as “the Farms.”4

As the decades passed, friction developed between the Town and the Farms. Residents of Salem Town wanted the tax revenues contributed by residents of the Farms; for their part, the Farmers, though usually outvoted by the more numerous Town dwellers, sought to avoid civic obligations in the distant Town. By the early 1670s the Farmers’ fight for greater autonomy focused on their desire to build their own meetinghouse and to support their own minister. Like other residents of outlying areas of colonial New England settlements, they complained of the long weekly journey to the town center to attend church services, arguing that they should be able to establish their own parish. In October 1672 the Massachusetts General Court agreed to their request. For years thereafter, however, Salem Town still claimed the right to assess Farmers for ecclesiastical expenses, and the Farms, later Salem Village, did not become the independent town of Danvers until 1752.5

Ironically, the long-sought meetinghouse and minister—the subject of so much contention with Salem Town—also proved to be a major source of discord within Salem Village itself. Whether because strife in the Village came to focus on the church or because the Villagers made inappropriate choices of clergymen, each of the first four ministers who served the Village failed to earn consistent support from his parishioners. The first minister, James Bayley—a young Harvard graduate when hired in 1672—lasted the longest, until 1680. George Burroughs, who had fled Falmouth, Maine, in 1676, during the First Indian War, succeeded Bayley, but in early 1683 agreed to return to his former congregation. Deodat Lawson, an English immigrant, served in Salem Village only from 1684 to 1688; in the winter of 1688–1689 he ministered to troops on a campaign against the Indians in Maine, then settled in Boston. Finally, the Reverend Samuel Parris, whose ministry would prove the most controversial of them all, was hired in June 1689 and resigned approximately seven years later after a long and bitter struggle within the Village. Thus when one of the Andover men who confessed to witchcraft in the late summer of 1692 explained to the examining magistrates that the devil and his witches had targeted Salem Village for destruction “by reason of the peoples being divided & theire differing with their ministers,” no one would have been surprised by his statement.6

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum have argued persuasively that the Village was so contentious because of its anomalous status, neither wholly independent of nor wholly dependent on Salem Town. “Structural defects in its organization,” they observe, “rendered the Village almost helpless in coping with whatever disputes might arise.” The two hundred or so adult residents of Salem Village, in short, did not differ from settlers in other New England towns in being more cantankerous, but rather in not having any local means of resolving their quarrels. Deprived of formal decision-making bodies controlled by Villagers, they always had to appeal to outside authorities—to Salem Town, to the General Court, to synods of ministers, to arbitrators or mediators—to achieve solutions to their conflicts. Furthermore, persistent boundary disputes with neighboring towns kept tempers flaring on all sides.7

When some Villagers formally organized a church in November 1689, leading to Samuel Parris’s ordination by neighboring clergy, they added fuel to the fire. Parris, born in England but raised largely in Barbados, attended Harvard for several years in the early 1670s but before completing his studies returned to Barbados to settle his deceased father’s estate. After failing to establish himself as a merchant first in Barbados and later, in the 1680s, in Boston, he accepted the post as Salem Village pastor and sought ordination.8

Before his arrival, although successive Village ministers preached regularly to the congregation, the precinct had no “church” as Puritans understood it—a covenanted body of saints selected from the wider community. A clergyman could only be ordained by a church, and only an ordained clergyman could administer communion to its members or baptize babies. The organization of a church, with twenty-six original members in addition to Parris himself, created a formal, lasting division in the ranks of Villagers. Nothing more dramatically symbolized that division than the dismissal of nonmembers from the meetinghouse after the sermon on sacrament days, before the members took communion together. Adding to the exclusionary atmosphere was the church’s decision in early 1690 to reject the so-called Halfway Covenant, which permitted the baptism of infants born to parents who had themselves been baptized but who had not formally joined a church. In Salem Village, the much-desired sacrament of infant baptism, already denied to those Villagers who did not belong to other nearby churches, would be limited to children who had at least one church-member parent. In his sermons, Parris likewise tended to stress the sharp distinctions between church members and other folk. Perhaps understandably, therefore, by late 1691 discontent with Parris’s ministry permeated the nearly three-fourths of adult Villagers who had not joined the local church. That discontent took the form of refusing to contribute to his salary or to supply him with firewood, and of organizing for his removal. Parris responded primarily by sharpening his attacks on his opponents.9

Beginning in November 1691, Samuel Parris preached a sermon series on the first verse of Psalm 110: “Sit thou at my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool.” Emphasizing spiritual warfare between the saved and the damned, he told his congregation on January 3, 1691/2, that “the Church is separated from the world,” and that “it is the main drift of the Devil to pull it all down.” The devil, he asserted, was “the grand enemy of the Church,” assisted by “Wicked & Reprobate men,” presumably including his many detractors in Salem Village.10 That was the last sacrament-day sermon Parris’s nine-year-old daughter Betty and his somewhat older niece Abigail Williams heard before they began to behave strangely.11


A few days after January 15, Abigail Williams fell ill. Her cousin Betty may have sickened first or, more likely, soon thereafter.12 In any event, Samuel Parris, his wife Elizabeth, and other observers quickly realized that this was no ordinary illness. The girls were “sadly Afflicted of they knew not what Distempers,” wrote the Reverend John Hale of neighboring Beverly, the only independent eyewitness to these events who later described them in print. The children “were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any Epileptick Fits, or natural Disease to effect.” Further, “sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choaked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move an heart of stone, to sympathize with them, with bowels of compassion for them.”13

Parris, like any concerned parent or guardian under such circumstances, consulted physicians, “yet still they grew worse,” Hale recalled. Finally, after what Parris described as a period of “several weeks,” a doctor—believed to be William Griggs—concluded that the girls were “under an Evil Hand.” The neighbors “quickly” accepted the diagnosis, according to Hale, deciding that the children were bewitched.14

William Griggs, an elderly, probably self-taught medical practitioner, was the only physician in Salem Village in 1692. He and his second wife, Rachel, lived in Rumney Marsh (Revere) during the 1660s, then spent more than a decade in Gloucester before moving to Salem Village sometime between 1685 and 1689. Although neither joined the Salem Village church, they almost certainly supported Samuel Parris. Rachel (though not her husband) had been a member of Boston’s First Church, the same church Samuel Parris joined during his years in Boston; moreover, William Griggs Jr., the oldest son of his father’s first marriage, also a First Church member after 1670, undoubtedly knew and associated with Parris while both resided in the town. Accordingly, it seems likely that Parris would have consulted William Griggs and trusted his judgment.15

Two years later, Samuel Parris reflected that the appearance of such afflictions “first in my family” was “a very sore rebuke, and humbling providence.” That he also thought so in early 1692, and that Dr. Griggs had diagnosed witchcraft by mid-February, is suggested by the contents of Parris’s two sacrament-day sermons on February 14. Continuing to preach on Psalm 110, verse 1, he spoke of how God was “sending forth destroyers” as a consequence of men’s “slighting of Christ.” He reminded his congregants—who certainly knew of the girls’ fits—that Jesus “Governs his church, not only by his word & spirit, but by his Rod, & afflictions: therefore we are to beware of fainting when we are chastened, or despising the Rod.” Undoubtedly reassuring himself as well as his listeners, Parris described the “eternal life” Christ promised to believers; “Satan would pluck them out of my hand,” he intoned, “but . . . shall never be able to do it.” He thus informed Villagers, and himself, that his faith would allow him to bear God’s afflicting rod and that he understood that God “chastens us for our profit.”16

During these weeks, Parris, following the standard religious advice in such cases, engaged in “Fasting and Prayer,” not only by himself but also in conjunction with others. Hale described “two or three private Fasts at the Ministers House, one of which was kept by sundry Neighbour Ministers” (surely including himself).17 Unknown to the clergymen, however, Mary Sibley, a church member who lived near the parsonage and who therefore saw the children’s sufferings in person, decided to try some traditional countermagic rather than rely on the spiritual methods pursued by Parris and his colleagues. She directed Parris’s Indian slave couple, Tituba and John, in the making of a witchcake. Mixed from the children’s urine and rye meal, baked in the ashes, it was then fed to the family dog. The ingestion of such a witchcake, it was believed, would lead to the discovery of a witch’s identity. And that indeed appeared to happen. Hale and other contemporaries concur that, after the countermagic was employed, “the Afflicted persons cryed out of the Indian Woman . . . that she did pinch, prick, and grievously torment them, and that they saw her here and there, where no body else could.”18

Parris was horrified when he learned what had been done without his knowledge. Somewhat more than a month later, before communion on March 27, he admonished Goodwife Sibley in front of the church, charging that “by this means (it seems) the Devil hath been raised amongst us, and his rage is vehement and terrible, and when he shall be silenced, the Lord only knows.” She—a church member!—had, he exclaimed, gone “to the Devil for help against the Devil,” an action “accounted by godly Protestants . . . as diabolical.” Abashed and repentant, Sister Sibley acknowledged “her error and grief for it”; the church accepted her apology.19

Still, Samuel Parris now confronted an even more pressing problem than before, for his daughter and niece had accused his female Indian slave of bewitching them. According to John Hale, after the witchcake incident and the initial accusation, Parris sought the best advice available to him, summoning “some Worthy Gentlemen of Salem, and some Neighbour Ministers [again surely including Hale himself] to consult together at his House.” The men “enquired diligently into the Sufferings of the Afflicted,” concluding along with Dr. Griggs that the fits were “preternatural,” displaying “the hand of Satan.” But they counseled Parris against taking hasty action; he should instead “sit still and wait upon the Providence of God . . . and to be much in prayer for the discovery of what was yet secret.” And they took a further step, questioning Tituba herself. She admitted making the cake and said that “her Mistress in her own Country was a Witch” who had taught her some countermagic. But, she declared, “she herself was not a Witch.”20

Who was Tituba, and what was “her own Country”? Many scholars have addressed those questions, some at great length. Every surviving piece of contemporary evidence identifies her as an Indian. Later tradition transformed her into an African or half-African slave, but the contemporary unanimity is convincing.21 No late-seventeenth-century source describes her geographic origins, though a mid-eighteenth-century one does. Thomas Hutchinson, who in composing his history of the Bay Colony in the 1760s had access to documents that no longer exist, declared unhesitatingly that she was “brought into the Country from New Spain.” More precision than that is probably impossible. Still, Hutchinson’s statement might well mean that Tituba came from Florida or the Georgia Sea Islands, where most of the people termed “Spanish Indians” in early New England originated.22

Tituba, then, was almost certainly not born in New England, although her husband John might have been (nothing is known of his background). She was thus not of Wabanaki origin. Yet the surviving records consistently refer to her as “Tituba Indian,” “the Indyen woman,” “titibe an Indian Woman,” or the like, implying that Villagers viewed her ethnicity as an inseparable part of her identity. Less than a month after the devastating raid on York and following more than three years of unrelenting frontier warfare, in other words, the first person identified as a witch in the Salem crisis of 1692 was someone known to all primarily as an Indian. The girls, asked who tormented them, thus named a woman with whom they were intimately acquainted, and who could be seen as representing the people who were then “tormenting” New England as a whole.23

According to Hale, just “a short time” after the “Worthy Gentlemen” questioned Tituba and advised Parris to await God’s providence, “other persons who were of age to be witnesses, were molested by Satan, and in their fits cryed out upon Tituba and Goody O[sborne] and S[arah] G[ood] that they or Specters in their Shapes did grievously torment them.” If the surviving documents accurately indicate the date of those others’ initial fits, they took place on February 25. Hale’s qualifying phrase “persons who were of age to be witnesses” revealed an important aspect of the crisis hitherto unremarked upon by the participants. In the 1690s, following legal doctrines laid down by Sir Matthew Hale about two decades earlier, English jurists had begun to hold that, as a general rule, children under fourteen were incapable of testifying under oath in court in capital felony cases, although exceptions could be made and adults could describe young children’s behavior. The youth of Parris’s daughter and niece made them possibly questionable witnesses, and so no legal steps were taken against Tituba or other possible witches until older sufferers emerged.24

The Salem Village residents who had their first recorded fits on Febru- ary 25 and who attributed them to an apparition of Tituba were Ann Putnam and Elizabeth (Betty) Hubbard. Ann (often called Jr.), the twelve-year-old daughter of Thomas and Ann Carr Putnam, church members and staunch supporters of Samuel Parris, also failed to meet the standard age criterion for testimony in capital cases. Her father, generally known as Sergeant Thomas because of his post in the local militia, was a veteran of King Philip’s War and the oldest male of the third generation of Putnams in Salem Village. Collectively, the Putnam family had prospered in the Village, its branches controlling substantial property by the 1690s. Yet subdivisions through inheritance had led to decreasing sizes of individual landholdings. The afflicted girl’s mother, also Ann (usually called Ann Sr.), had been born in the northern Essex County town of Salisbury, the daughter of George Carr, a wealthy shipbuilder. Probably initially drawn to Salem Village because her older sister Mary was the wife of James Bayley, Ann Carr married Sergeant Thomas Putnam in 1678.25

Because Betty Hubbard was the first afflicted person older than four- teen, her torments could well have tipped the balance toward legal action. A seventeen-year-old indentured maidservant of Dr. William Griggs, she was also most likely an orphaned or impoverished great-niece of his wife, Rachel Hubbard Griggs. Betty had for a time lived in Boston as a servant of Isaac Griggs, a son of the doctor’s first marriage. But when Isaac and his wife died in 1689, William paid his son’s executor for the time remaining on Betty’s contract. As a member of the household of the man who had originally diagnosed witchcraft, Betty—although not living as close to the parsonage as were the Putnams—would have been intimately familiar with the fits experienced by Abigail Williams and Betty Parris.26

Between February 25 and February 28, Betty and Ann Jr. identified not only Tituba but also Sarah Osborne and Sarah Good as their tormentors. They described being “most greviously tortor[ed]” by the apparitions of Osborne and Good by “pinching and pricking . . . dreadfully.” Those who witnessed Betty’s and Ann’s agonies surely felt the same compassion for them as Hale and others had felt for the initial sufferers.27

The two additional women thus named as possible witches had both lived in Salem Village for years, although neither was born there. Sarah Warren Prince Osborne, aged about forty-nine in 1692, had moved to Salem Village from Watertown when she wed Robert Prince (whose sister married into the Putnam clan) in 1662. After her first husband’s death, she scandalized Villagers by marrying Alexander Osborne, a young servant whose indenture she purchased. She and her second husband then became involved in a prolonged dispute (still unresolved in 1692) with the father and uncle of Sergeant Thomas Putnam, who were the executors of Robert Prince’s estate. Prince had wanted to pass some land on to his two sons, who were Ann Jr.’s second cousins, while the Osbornes sought to acquire it for themselves. Sarah Solart Poole Good, born in Wenham, was only thirty-eight years old, but she otherwise fit the classic stereotype of a witch. From a prosperous family, she had become impoverished as a consequence of two unfortunate marriages and an unfairly withheld inheritance. Known to be dissatisfied with her lot in life, she had antagonized even those who tried to help her and had aroused suspicions that she was engaging in malefic practices, bewitching her neighbors and their livestock.28

The first three accused witches, then, could be characterized thus: one (Sarah Good) who had been previously suspected of witchcraft by her neighbors; one (Sarah Osborne) who was involved in a legal battle with the family of an accuser; and one (Tituba) who was linked to the Indian war. Similar patterns would appear again and again throughout the crisis.

The Afflicted Girls and Fortune-Telling

Readers of In the Devil’s Snare who are familiar with the traditional story of Salem witchcraft will have recognized that something has been missing from my narrative: an account of the afflicted girls fortune-telling circle in the winter of 1691–1692. Usually, authors begin books on Salem with a tale of bored children and teenagers experimenting together with occult practices, especially a venus glass, sometimes under the guidance of the slave Tituba. As Bernard Rosenthal has definitively shown, however, no contemporary source links Tituba to fortune-telling by the afflicted.29

Furthermore, the contemporary evidence for group fortune-telling by the young women who eventually were afflicted in Salem Village cannot withstand scrutiny. Aside from a vague comment by Cotton Mather, the entire interpretive superstructure rests on one passage from John Hale’s Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft (1702). In 1692, he tells us, “I knew one of the Afflicted persons, who (as I was credibly informed) did try with an egg and a glass to find her future Husbands Calling; till there came up a Coffin, that is, a Spectre in likeness of a Coffin. And she was afterward followed with diabolical molestation to her death; and so dyed a single person.” Hale follows that story immediately with another tale, of a woman he was “called to pray with, being under sore fits and vexations of Satan,” who had “tryed the same charm,” and whom his prayers released from “those bonds of Satan.”30 Nothing in Hale’s account links the two stories except for both women’s experimenting with the same common form of fortune-telling, yet authors have conflated them to create group activity by the afflicted girls. Hale himself seems to have regarded them as separate incidents: the first he was only “credibly informed” about, the second he participated in; the first involved one of the youthful “Afflicted persons,” the subject of the second could have been any woman of any age; the first occurred in 1692, the second is undated. Even if both incidents occurred in 1692, the second could easily refer to someone like the accused witch Sarah Cole (of Lynn) who claimed to be afflicted, and who confessed at her examination that years earlier, before her marriage, “she & some others toyed with a Venus glase & an Egg what trade their sweet harts should be of.”31

Hale’s Modest Enquiry, in short, provides evidence that one of the afflicted girls—someone who died single before 1697 (when Hale himself died, although his book was not published for another five years)—engaged in fortune-telling of a rather ordinary sort, probably although not necessarily prior to her affliction in 1692.32 That Hale regarded this story as irrelevant to the development of the crisis, and that careful scholars today should regard it as equally irrelevant, is indicated by the fact that he failed to include it in his central narrative, which occupies pages 1–40 of his book. It appears instead much later, in the middle of a discussion of Satan’s various relationships with human beings. Hale states that he intends it as a warning “to take heed of handling the Devils weapons,” never identifying the tale in any way as a cause of the witchcraft crisis.


With four afflicted and three accused now among them, Villagers decided to take action. On February 29, Thomas Putnam, his brother Edward, and two men unrelated to any of the afflicted—Joseph Hutchinson and Thomas Preston—filed formal complaints with the Salem magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, charging the three women with “Witchcraft, by them Committed and thereby much injury don” to the three children and Betty Hubbard. The accusations thus moved from the religious to the legal realm, and out of the three affected households into the wider community. That Hutchinson and Preston (both of whom later became skeptics) joined in the initial complaints reveals the extent of Villagers’ concern over the condition of the tormented children in their midst. Ann Jr.’s complaints of new tortures that very night, and Betty Hubbard’s early the following day, must have confirmed Villagers in their belief that legal steps had to be taken.33

Hathorne and Corwin were in their early fifties and related by marriage. Members of prosperous families that had settled in Salem early in the town’s history, they both also had extensive links to the northern frontier. (Hathorne speculated in large tracts of Maine land, and Corwin owned valuable sawmills at Cape Porpoise, which he had acquired in 1676 by marrying the wealthy widow Elizabeth Sheafe Gibbs, who inherited them from her first husband.)34 Experienced justices of the peace who had handled hundreds of cases previously, they soon made a crucial decision with immense consequences. Rather than following the customary procedure of conducting preliminary examinations in private, they would interrogate suspects in public. Moreover, in addition to preparing their own summaries of the evidence, they would ask that detailed transcripts be kept.

Nowhere did they record the rationale for these actions, but they were probably responding to intense community interest in the witchcraft accusations. Possibly Samuel Parris, Nicholas Noyes (of the Salem Town church), or other clergymen also urged them to adopt this course of action for the religious edification of local residents. Whatever their reasoning, the magistrates moved the first examinations from Nathaniel Ingersoll’s tavern, the original location, to the meetinghouse, the largest building in the Village, so that many more people could attend. That first week in March, with the ground still frozen, there would have been little pressing work for farmers or their families, and the room was undoubtedly packed.35

John Hathorne conducted the first three examinations; he later seems to have run most of the others as well. These interrogations, like others he had undoubtedly orchestrated in the past, had a single purpose: to elicit a confession of guilt. In common with other seventeenth-century colonial magistrates, he assumed that the accused had committed the offenses in question. Indeed, that assumption was usually correct. People formally charged with crimes in early New England were convicted far more often than not. Even when a suspect won acquittal or conviction on a lesser offense, that outcome occurred not because the person was thought to be innocent of the serious crime, but rather because juries and judges often proved reluctant to condemn miscreants to death. Thus, earlier in the century people undeniably guilty of adultery (a capital offense in Massachusetts) were convicted instead of “lascivious conduct,” and others thought to be witches were acquitted or jailed rather than hanged.36

Accordingly, when Sarah Good, the first to be questioned, stood before him in the crowded meetinghouse on March 1, Hathorne began with what to him was the central inquiry under traditional Bay Colony law.37 The 1648 Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts had defined a witch as one who “hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit.” (Such familiars, frequently in the shapes of animals, were believed to link witches to the devil and to suck nourishment from their bodies.) Even though the law referring to familiars had been superseded in the mid-1680s, Hathorne—simultaneously assuming and hoping to confirm her guilt—started by asking Goodwife Good, “What evil spirit have you familiarity with?” When she responded, “None,” he inquired, “Have you made no contract with the devil?” Again, she answered with a negative. “Why doe you hurt these children?” he continued, trying to win an admission that if she had not personally hurt them, she had employed a “creature” to do so. Good persisted in her denials, and so Hathorne shifted tactics. Adopting a technique that would characterize all subsequent examinations and the trials, he “desired the children all of them to look upon her, and see, if this were the person that had hurt them.” They did so, identified her, and “presently they were all tormented.” Asked to explain the agonies of the afflicted, Sarah Good insisted that Sarah Osborne (not herself) was tormenting them.

The official note-taker, Ezekiel Cheever, probably expressed the skepticism about her responses felt by many other listeners. “Her answers were in a very wicked, spitfull manner reflecting and retorting against the authority with base and abusive words and many lies shee was taken in,” Cheever inscribed at the end of his transcript of the examination. Even her husband, William, publicly voiced doubts about Sarah. William told the magistrates he feared “that shee either was a witch or would be one very quickly.” Pressed by Hathorne for specifics, he admitted he had none, but “her bad carriage to him” made him think that “shee is an enimy to all good.” A day later he added that he thought he had seen “a wart or tett a little below her Right shoulder which he never saw before,” thus suggesting the presence of the devil’s mark on her body.

Next came Sarah Osborne.38 Hathorne began with the same sequence of questions concerning familiarity with an evil spirit, contracting with the devil, and hurting the children, receiving similar denials. Then he explored her relationship to Sarah Good. Osborne indicated that she rarely saw her fellow defendant and hardly knew her. Undoubtedly hoping to spring a trap, Hathorne informed Osborne that Good had accused her of tormenting the children. “I doe not know [but] that the deveil goes about in my likeness to do any hurt,” Osborne retorted, offering what would eventually turn out to be an important line of defense for accused witches. After Hathorne asked the afflicted to look at her, they readily identified her as one of their tormentors.

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