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?

NIMBY can be a manifestation of racism, no matter how subtle, but true

This time, it’s a Not in My Backyard reaction triggered by opposition to a wind-energy farm 20 miles offshore because it “would spoil the view.”

From what, the yacht?

Get real!

I’m sure they wouldn’t be as vocal if it were a coal-fired plant going up near neighborhoods next to industrial wastelands – the places poor people live.

The people and the places they’re trying to escape, along with the shared responsibilities and real community. And poor people are largely envisioned as Black, no matter that many are white.

Well, the NIMBY crowd might pipe up if they can see the development from the expressway into town. Heavens!

The fact is that if we want electrical power or sewers and water or trash removal, it all has to happen somewhere. Shipping it off to the less fortunate rings sour in more ways than one.

Less fortunate, indeed.

Just don’t try to put them in you-know-whose backyard.

Murder capital of Maine

With a population of only 31,121, Washington County is essentially rural and small town. It’s 90 percent white, five percent Native American, and has a fourth of its residents over age 65.

At first glance, then, it’s not the kind of place you would expect to be suffering a homicide in each of the past six months.

The entire state reported only 22 in 2021 – two of them in Washington County, starting the six-month count. Quite simply, the county can currently be seen as the murder capital of the state.

Back in November, the victim in Machias was a 17-year-old male from New York. We could shake our heads and assume drugs had something to do with the case.

The rest, however, have been unmistakably local.

Several were domestic violence. One of those, the death of a valued employee, resulted in a family decision not to reopen a popular lobster pound in downtown Eastport, so we see these events having public consequences.

The latest instance had a 43-year-old Passamaquoddy woman as the victim and two of her neighbors arrested on homicide charges. Investigators have been unusually tight-lipped, leading to widespread speculation. Happening within a community of about 600, this takes a hard toll, ripping through at least three extended families.

The news, coming on the heels of a heavier than usual number of funerals in the tribe, adds to the grieving.

We can ask what is prompting this wave of violence and death.

Poverty is no doubt a factor. Individual and household incomes are only two-thirds of the national average, but probably skewer sharply down on one side or up the other, creating a gulch in real practice. The Covid-related closures of the international border to and from Canada have taken a toll on businesses, employment, and families, too.

The despair leads to drug abuse, as is related in everyday conversations around here.

As much as this region can be a paradise, it’s not problem-free. Not by any means.

Don Draper and the life I thought I’d be living

My first awareness of the Mad Men television series, about a decade ago now, came in my daughters’ outraged question – “Was there really that much sexual abuse in the workplace back then? They’re making that up, aren’t they?”

They were incredulous at the blatant sexism and racism of the time I grew up in, even after I confirmed it was there.

What they described was confirmed and more in my recent binge viewing of the series. Let’s just say I was quickly emotionally engaged in the show.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was repeatedly told I belonged in New York rather than in my hometown. Advertising was, in fact, one of the career paths I was considering, and like journalism and publishing in general, Manhattan was still the center of the universe.

Watching the presentations reminded me, to some extent, of the first offices I worked in, even in Ohio. And Don Draper, the advertising creative director at the core of the story (I started to say “heart” but he is rather heartless), reminded me of some of my livelier bosses as well as a kind of ideal of what I was aspiring to or perhaps was being groomed for, at least before the hippie influence kicked in.

Yes, there was cigarette smoking everywhere, and liquor – and functioning alcoholics. (Should I say “functioning alcoholics who smoked”? Or is that too redundant?)

There were also some incredible secretaries, who were far more than typists. The best held the office together, far more than the corner office they reported to.

Let’s just say that the workplace changed drastically in the years since, in part through the digital revolution.


The show also hit close to home through the father of my best friend in high school, who was a vice president in a boutique advertising agency, one titled with the initials of the three of the partners’ surnames. Not that he was anything like the ad men in the show. Through him, though, I learned of the intricacies of billing, production challenges, deadline crunches, marketing analysis, and purchasing print, broadcast, billboard, and direct mail access – things that were touched lightly on, if at all, in the plots but still a factor.

And during college and the first year after, I was exposed to families that could well have mingled with the Drapers – executives, attorneys, and politicians, plus their wives and children of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.


My daughters were swept up in the show’s fashion mindfulness of the ‘50s and early ‘60s but unhappy with the styles as the chronology moved on in the final seasons. We can argue there.

My biggest criticism is of the cheap shots taken at hippies, falling into stereotypes rather than the more carefully crafted type studies up to that point. In doing so, the writers and producers lost an opportunity to more sharply critique the cynical, superficial world Draper and his colleagues inhabited. The tone of these segments, quite simply, was out of line with the rest of the production.

Even so, I was devastated by the final episode.

Could that have actually been me? Thank God, I escaped.

A trail of misunderstanding and betrayal

Martin Pring, after becoming the first known European explorer of the Piscataqua River in 1603, then continued south to Cape Cod, where his party engaged in harvesting sassafras tree bark and roots, “a plant of sovereign virtue for the French pox,” as he elaborated in his journal. It was highly lucrative back in Europe and would handsomely repay the Bristol investors backing his journey.

French pox, do note, was what we now call syphilis. If only it worked as a remedy or a cure.

Sassafras was also touted as “good against the plague and many other maladies,” as well, just in case. And you thought it was merely a “tonic” served as tea or the flavoring for root beer?

During their six weeks ashore at Truro, Pring’s crew built a barricaded encampment. It was often visited by as many as 60 Wampanoag at a time, sometimes bringing different kinds of food to the party.

In one instance, in response to the playing of a kind of guitar, groups of up to 20 broke into dancing in a ring and singing “lo, la, lo, la, la, lo,” which works when you don’t know the words. For his part, the young musician was rewarded with gifts of tobacco and pipes, fawn skins, and snake skins up to six feet long, “which they used for girdles.”

But it was an uneasy relationship. Pring’s two mastiffs in particular terrorized the Natives. Anytime the sailors felt threatened, they’d release the big canines. As Pring recorded, the Wampanoag were more afraid of the two dogs than they were of 20 men.

The tension finally exploded when about 140 “savages armed with their bows and arrows” approached the barricade and a “a piece of great ordinance” was shot off in response as a warning and call to arms.

Recognizing that they’d worn out their welcome, the Englishmen quickly packed up and scooted off behind the protection of the mastiffs and set off for home while the Wampanoag set a mile-width of forest aflame and chased the ship in their canoes.

Of course, we’re never told what so soured the relationship. I doubt that the mariners were very tidy or respectful in their ravaging the forest, and I suspect that may have had something to do with their reaction.

Still, when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, remains of Pring’s palisades were still visible.

What do you imagine had so enraged the Wampanoags?

Whatever it was, it seemed to set the pattern for much of what followed.


The episode is rarely told in American history, and, when it is, it’s quickly skimmed over.

Like so much of the New England record that follows, we’re rarely given the Natives’ side of the events.

One thing we can be sure of, though, is that there were huge differences in expectations and values, to say nothing of hygiene or manners.

For instance, as I’ve heard, the Wampanoag word for “treaty” translates as “making relatives,” which is hardly what English settlers had in mind for their part. Far from it. Something similar no doubt happened when the colonists “purchased” land from a sachem.

As the Wampanoag believed, “the land knows you,” more than the other way around.

Quite simply, from their end of these transactions, they were betrayed.


These days, residing in Downeast Maine – that is, Passamaquoddy country, which stretches over into Canada as well – I’m learning of another series of these one-sided deals.

Joe Clabby’s excellent A History of Eastport, Passamaquoddy Bay, and Vicinity chronicles much of the federal and state maltreatment, misrepresentation, and mismanagement regarding the tribe and its members. One instance, by no means the most outrageous, is this, from 1950: Indian Agent “Hiram Hall allowed the state to charge the Passamaquoddy Fund $8,000 per home for home construction (the homes are worth only $2,500).” This came more than a year after the tribe requested that the state remove him for misappropriation of state aid, favoritism, and disinterest in tribal government.

Driving to and from Eastport, I pass many of these houses, now in serious need of repair. Don’t blame the residents.

As I relate in my new book New England relations with the Natives got off on the wrong foot, starting with the kidnapping of Squanto and four  others. (Virginia hadn’t done any better.)

Shame, shame, shame.

Is anyone else pestered by seemingly endless car warranty calls?

I’m assuming they’re robocalls, which I believe should be outlawed with horrendous consequences. Or even if live, rather than recorded, going for the throats of the higher-up perpetuators, rather than the poor offshore minions who actually speak into the phone from wherever.

But still, don’t they get the idea that I got the picture that they’ll never, ever, be this responsive if I pay up and ever need a repayment by way of a claim?

It’s an aging vehicle, after all, and will need some costly repairs. How much? The so-called insurance expects to be far ahead of any premiums in the long run, no questions asked.

Got any ideas on how to turn the table on this nuisance? My readers and I are all ears!

A ‘mild case’ can still be the sickest you’ve ever felt

Here we are, coming up on the second anniversary of the Covid outbreak here and abroad, and we’re still in the midst of its disorder. So much for that initial hope of a two-week or six-week lockdown, max, which even then unfortunately had too many holdouts from the precautions. Can we blame them for leaving the Pandora’s box open for all that’s followed?

Once that first round passed, after its devastation in large urban areas like New York City, we had a breather in which medical procedures were more clearly understood and improved and vaccines became available. We’ve even been able to gather in public again, albeit in fewer numbers and spaced apart while still wearing masks. Surface contamination is no longer a major worry, either.

Where I live, the illness has often seemed to be a distant threat. While I have friends who came out of retirement to resume long hours as medical professionals, their tales of a stress still seemed confined to largely quarantined hospitals and clinics, even though they were only just down the street. Well, I also got updates from fellow clergy who couldn’t visit patients in person, that sort of thing. Still, two years later, I knew of only two cases in our Friends Meeting, both quite mild. Further east, in remote Washington County, Maine, fewer than 3,000 cases and 43 deaths have been tallied, last I looked, though those figures have nearly tripled since November.

Still, the threat kept getting closer and more personal. The surge in the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of the final Christmas performances of our beloved Boston Revels, for example. Traditionally low-rate New Hampshire recently reported the highest per capita figures in the nation. Our twice-a-month local newspaper’s half-dozen or so obituaries now regularly mention “of Covid complications” as the cause of death. (Nobody, presumably, dies directly of the infection or is at least willing to admit that openly. Am I guessing there’s a social stigma?)

We have endured the screeching dissent and violent reactions from those who feel entitled to do whatever they want in public, regardless of any harm to others, and that seems to be spiking.

How long, though, will it take for the emotional frustration of the other side to erupt?

For starters, there’s a growing weariness among those of us who have been wearing masks and getting our booster shots, in part to protect others from suffering from the illness, while enduring the arrogance of those who pooh-pooh the odds, putting their own “liberty” above the common good, and then putting the rest of the populace at risk while expecting overworked medical professionals to come to their rescue and forcing heart attack patients and crash victims to be juggled about for unavailable intensive-care beds.

Look, I know Christian Scientists who have gotten the shots, not for themselves – remember, they generally avoid doctors as a matter of their faith – but out of a sense of social responsibility for others. In contrast, I’m sensing that many of those who refuse vaccinations are also among those accusing lower-income Americans of “entitlement” when it comes to economic and social support, rather than turning the focus to the One Percent who actually benefit financially from overt entitlement in public legislation and regulation. Are these the same ones who scoff at widespread examples of global warming and impending disaster? The willful ignorance, selfish, self-centered behavior, and bullying outrage me. And before they quote – or misquote – Scripture for their positions, I can imagine them refusing Moses’ orders to paint lambs’ blood above their doors for protection from the Angel of Death – “Who are you to tell me what to do?” – but it’s the firstborn who suffer if they don’t. Drat! I can confess a vindictive urge – you know, of the smite-my-enemies vein – but revisiting the Exodus text, I’m seeing that in only one of the first nine plagues are the Israelites exempted from the evil consequences. Pointedly, all Egyptians, not just the pagans, suffer from Pharaoh’s refusal to act in accord with Divine direction.

No matter what, in the end, reality will win out, though it won’t be selective in choosing its victims.

What happens if this affliction spreads to strike down all who haven’t been vaxxed? Costly treatments that could have been avoided will be borne by all, regardless, through Medicare, insurance companies, and unpaid debts to hospitals, more than by the defiant unvaxxed ill and dying. The workforce will continue to be impacted, too.

The Omicron variant, as we’re seeing, is also hitting vaccinated people, but with lesser impact.

We look at the statistics and hear the stories that the new variety is less deadly but more infectious, along with the note that breakthrough cases among the vaxxed hit far more gently than among the unprotected, but we need to listen more closely.

Unless a patient is in need of a respirator, the diagnosis is to stay home, there’s no room at the hospital. Good luck if you’re living alone, and good luck to the rest of the household if you’re not.

Moreover, it’s considered a mild case unless you’re hospitalized or die.

As for those “mild” cases? More than one person has been quoted as saying they’ve never felt so sick in their life.

So far, I’ve been lucky, but my family’s finally been hit, notably in their recent visit to me. My test and my wife’s came back negative, but not so for the rest, despite all their precautions.

Would coming down sick be a sufficient lesson for the nay-sayers? Or would it make them dig in more deeply in denial?    


On that day

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel,

For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; and all those alert to do evil shall be cut off – those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit, who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate, and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right. …

And those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction.

Isaiah 29:19-21, 29 (NRSV)