October 22, 2012

Richard Carrier: Confessions of a Cider-Drinking Witch

Richard Carrier was only eighteen years old when he and his younger brother Andrew were accused of witchcraft.

He was quite surprised, but should he have been? His mother, Martha Carrier, had recently been accused of witchcraft herself, and the Carrier family had never been popular in Andover, Massachusetts. They were considered poor even by the low standards of 1692 New England, and they were also pugnacious - Richard had been in fistfights with several other men and boys. When smallpox struck their family they had lived as pariahs on the outskirts of town.

When the constables brought Richard and his brother to Salem for questioning, they were obviously terrified. (Records note that Andrew was so frightened he stuttered when he spoke.) Both brothers pled innocent, but the afflicted girls who had accused them convulsed wildly in their presence, indicating guilt. The Carrier boys were brought into an adjacent room, where the questioning continued privately and the constables tied their heads to their ankles. Under this torture, they confessed to being witches.

When he was returned to the courtroom, Richard told how the Devil had first approached him on the Andover road one night in May of 1691. The dark man in the high-crowned hat claimed he was Jesus, and offered Richard new clothes and a horse in return for making his mark in a red book. A tempting offer for a poor Puritan, and Richard signed. His initiation was complete when the Devil baptized him in a waterfall at Newbury, Massachusetts. His brother Andrew later signed the Devil's book in an apple orchard in the presence of Richard and their mother.


As a witch, Richard followed Satan's orders. He sent his spirit to torment Timothy Swan of Andover, who had argued with another witch about the price for thatching her roof. Richard used a simple poppet to torment the wife of Salem Village's minister Samuel Parris. He attended the witch meetings, which his spirit was summoned to by the beating of a drum.

And he drank stolen cider. 

Mary Lacy, who had been accused of witchcraft shortly before the Carrier brothers, had told the court that she, the Carrier family, and other witches had flown to the home of Elizabeth Ballard and drunken all the cider in her cellar.

"Sometimes we leave our bodies at home, but at other times we go in our bodies and the Devil puts a mist before their eyes and will not let them see us." Mary Lacy had drunken the cider while invisible.

Richard confessed to this as well, but said his spirit had done it while outside his body. Mary Lacy supported his confession. "He went in his spirit, and his body lay dead the while out of doors."

After he confessed, the afflicted girls touched his hand without convulsing, a sign of his true contrition. The court spared Richard and Andrew's lives because they had confessed to witchcraft. Their mother never confessed, and was hanged. 


There are lots of things I find interesting about Richard Carrier's story. For example, he was male (most of the accused witches in Salem and New England overall were women) and the torture he and Andrew endured is horrifying.

What struck me the most, though, was the cider. Richard and all the confessed witches created stories about their witchy exploits that were believable to their accusers. People in Puritan New England believed in the reality of witches; it was part of their shared worldview. Everyone knew what witches did. All it took was a little persuasion (or torture) to tell a convincing story about your own actions as a witch.

And apparently, witches sent their spirits or invisible bodies to drink their neighbors' cider. Elizabeth Ballard's cider would have been alcoholic cider, which was one of the main drinks at the time. Water was often polluted, tea was expensive, and grain for beer was too hard to grow. People drank hard cider morning, noon and night.

Spirits entering a house to drink liquor (or eat food) is an old folklore motif. For example, the Swedish historian Olaus Magnus wrote in his History of the Northern Peoples (1555) that at Yuletide werewolves break into cellars to drink beer and mead. The line between werewolves and witches is blurry, since both are shapeshifters. Many people who confessed to being werewolves talked about sending out their spirits in the shape of a wolf, much as witches sent their spirits to do mischief.

We don't believe in these things in the 21st century, of course, but a surprising number of people leave out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. But that's just for children, right?

In parts of Medieval and Renaissance Europe it was believed that a night-riding goddess and her followers (sometimes called the Good Ladies) traveled across the countryside. To gain their favor, people would leave out food and beverages for them. In the British Isles, food was left out for faeries and elves. In many countries, food and beverages are still left out for the wandering spirits of the dead who might enter the home.

The origins of this belief in traveling spirits that enter your house to eat and drink is quite murky. Writers like Carlo Ginzburg and Claude Lecouteux trace it back to ancient shamanic practices and ideas about the dead. It sounds good to me. Apparently it is a very resilient belief that has changed shape and expressed itself differently over time.

For Halloween, maybe I'll leave out some cider for who or whatever is wandering around that night, and be thankful that I can write about this topic without being tortured. 


I got the information about Richard Carrier from Marilynne Roach's wonderful The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Chronicle of New England Under Siege.  This is the book if you want to read a straightforward and detailed narrative of what transpired in Salem.

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