Witches, Wizards, Puritans and Periwigs

witch-trial

One… of Windsor arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch (Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1647)

What?! Executed? For being a witch?

It’s hard to believe, 369 years later. But it happened in New England in the 17th century, and more than once. The largest frenzy occurred in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, when 20 people were hanged for practicing witchcraft.

The “one” who was executed at Hartford was a woman named Alse Young. She was the first person executed in North America, in 1647, for (supposed) witchcraft. Her fate is forever recorded in Governor Winthrop’s above diary entry.

Not much is known about poor Alse. She had a daughter named Alice Young Beamon, who was also accused of witchcraft, 30 years later, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Alse may have been married to a “John Young” of Windsor. But he disappeared soon after Alse’s unfortunate demise.

Maybe he smelled something in the air.

Americans often like to think of themselves as more enlightened than their forebears. But the new American colonies were little different from England and Europe in many ways. The three principal New England colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut) all had rigid theocracies. Church attendance was mandatory. The Bible was the primary religious and legal document. Dark forces and the specter of Satan were everywhere. Just like merry olde England, superstition and belief in the supernatural were commonplace.witch-sculpture

For example, in 1660 a Plymouth colonist named Jeremiah Burroughs (no relation to the English Puritan of the same name) accidentally drowned. A later court inquest blamed the incident on his canoe. The court determined the canoe was possessed.

The Salem trials and executions were ignited when several young girls began having fits. Their symptoms included screaming uncontrollably, hurling objects, and crawling under furniture (this actually sounds like my daughter when she was in 7th grade).

The girls also complained of being pinched, and pricked with pins. Current theory is that these symptoms resulted from infected bread, or a type of encephalitis, or maybe an exaggerated need for attention, among other things.

But in superstitious 17th-century New England, when a skin mole could be a mark of the devil and mental illness was a virtual death sentence… these upright, dogmatic Puritan leaders with their periwigs (later called just “wigs”) became really  wigged out when these girls behaved so.

“Let’s see… whom can we blame for such behavior?”

Well, not surprisingly, the first colonists accused of witchcraft were women, and they lived outside mainstream Puritan culture. Sarah Good (Salem) was a beggar woman. Sarah Osborne (Salem) avoided church and had married an indentured servant. “Tituba” (Salem) was a West Indian slave.

Goodwife “Goody” Glover (Boston) was an Irish Catholic who was executed in 1688 for witchcraft. Puritan minister and author Cotton Mather wrote that Glover was “a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholic and obstinate in idolatry.”

cotton_mather

Engraving of Cotton Mather

Unlucky enough that Glover was Irish, Catholic, and poor in a parochial society of English Puritans. But her fate was sealed when, due to the fact she could only speak Irish and Latin, she was unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English. This was considered a sure sign of witchcraft.

The old men with the white wigs slammed their gavels on their Bibles. But… considering they were Christians and held the Bible as sacred (and this isn’t intended to be a defense)… they merely felt they were carrying out orders.

Why?  Because in King James’ version of the Bible, Exodus 22:18 says Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. And Leviticus 20:27 says A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.

I’m not a theologian.  And since I don’t agree with Bible verses such as above, I guess I’m not much of a Christian, either.  I won’t try to interpret the meaning of these agitating words, but it seems obvious that the Old Testament believes in the existence of witches and wizards, as well as capital punishment for “hathing” a “familiar spirit” (whatever that is).

We’ll never know whether Alse Young, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, Tituba, or Goody Glover did hath or hathn’t such a spirit. I’m inclined to think they hathn’t.

Either way, I’m not going to let it ruin my Halloween.  Have a happy one, everyone… and watch out for possessed canoes.

moon

Advertisements