Witchcraft in New England before the Salem hysteria

Something I pretty much skip over in my history of Dover is the Puritan authorities’ close examination of the bodies of the early Quaker women missionaries for any signs revealing them to be witches, from 1656 on.

That was down in Boston, for one thing, and I’ve seen no indication of similar actions along the Piscataqua watershed in New Hampshire and Maine, the center of my new book.

But it has come back to haunt me.

Much of my argument regarding the readiness for a significant portion of the Dover population’s joining Quakers has to do with the ways they differed culturally from the Puritan majority in the Massachusetts Bay colony and Connecticut. What David Hackett Fischer terms “folkways.”

For example, in all of their fearful piety, what made the Puritans so morbidly curious about the naked female flesh, anyway? And just what, exactly, were they looking for? This gets weird, doesn’t it? I’m not sure I want specifics, as in details, much less in those parading through Salem, Massachusetts, these days in preparation for Halloween. I’ll have to admit that part leaves me feeling queasy.

Puritan Costumes. Illustration from The Comprehensive History of England (Gresham Publishing, 1902).

Just consider the stereotypical presentation of witches in pointed hats and black capes and then recognize how much that resembles the dress of Puritan women in New England at the time. As for flying on brooms? How strange! Just how did that conflation happen, anyway? Put another way, witches didn’t dress differently than anyone else. As for the brooms? Every housewife had one.

Well, maybe that points to the male authority role in all of this, something I’m perceiving as a gender power play.

Back to the Quakers. As historian Arthur J. Worrall explains, “Two groups of Quakers arrived in 1656. The first, led by Anne Austin and Mary Fisher, came to Boston in July. The Massachusetts government promptly imprisoned them for five weeks; after checking them for signs of witchcraft, they expelled them in August. A second group of eight Quaker missionaries came to Boston two days after their expulsion,” aboard the Speedwell.

“Massachusetts imprisoned this group for eleven weeks and expelled them also, after the clergy had examined and debated with them.”

For perspective, Fischer notes that from 1647 to 1692, the Puritan colonies accounted for ninety percent of the accusations and eighty-five percent of the executions for witchcraft in English-speaking America. That is, almost ALL of them.

Moreover, “In England, every quantitative study has found that the recorded cases of witchcraft were most frequent in the eastern counties from which New England was settled.” Specifically, the Puritan heartland, in the motherland and then in the New World.

“Even white magic was regarded as a form of blasphemy. In 1637, for example, Jane Hawkins was punished for selling oil of mandrakes in Boston. Many other magicians and sorcerers were treated in the same manner.”

So just what defined a “witch,” anyway? Anyone who drew on folk remedies? Or even a midwife who knew more than she was supposed to?

Fischer goes into ways the Puritans’ Calvinist teaching and likely their earlier folkways combined to make them especially fearful.

As I observe, Salem itself was a cauldron of controversy from early on and a place where the Puritan invasion clashed with the existing population. Like Dover, the Puritans were latecomers there.

I’m still curious about the zealot ferocity of the Puritan outburst at the time of the infamous mistrials in Salem, 1692, in a perfect storm that may have fused an outbreak of hallucinogenic ergot in rye, a clash between traditional ways of examination versus newer ones, a gap in the governorship and jurisprudence, and a drive to curb the influence of the now well in place Friends by attacking their servants instead. Many, many other factors, perhaps even the weather, likely also come into play. All of the other angles I’ve heard point in the same direction.

One of the overlooked aspects in all the controversy is how the witch persecutions in Salem solidified the collapse of the rigid Puritan reign in New England. In a way, the old guard overplayed its hand and had to bear the consequences. With widespread revulsion at the executions and their abuse of the court system, a new strand of teaching and emphasis emerged in the Congregational churches. In another century-and-a-quarter, many of them would even become Unitarian, a far cry from the Puritan orthodoxy.

What makes witches so romantic for so many today?

Did the accused “witches” have their revenge in the end?

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