November 30, 2017

John Godfrey: Witch and Troublemaker

When I was a kid in Haverhill, Massachusetts I wasn't that interested in local history. I knew about the city's heroine Hannah Duston, but that was about all I knew. Other stories from my hometown's past remained unknown to me. Perhaps if I had known about John Godfrey, a trouble-making witch who lived in the mid-1600s, I would have been more excited about Haverhill history.

Was Godfrey really a witch? Probably not, but he was definitely a trouble-maker. Most of what we know about him comes from court records in Essex County, where he was involved in dozens of legal cases. Sometimes he was the defendant, sometimes he was the accused. Most of these court cases involved disputes over small amounts of money or property; in others Godfrey sued neighbors for slander. At other times Godrey appeared in court to face charges of drunkenness, theft and cursing.

As historian John Demos writes, "Taken as a whole, the records depict a man continually at odds with his peers..." And as we know, people at odds with their peers in 17th century New England were often accused of witchcraft.

It appears that John Godfrey emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime around 1635 and found employment as a herdsman in the town of Newbury with wealthy settler John Spencer. Godfrey was most likely a teenager at this time. Young Godfrey was kind of odd, and even then some folks thought he might be a witch. For example, in 1640 he talked with a Newbury man named William Osgood about finding a new employer. Osgood at the time was building a barn for Godfrey's current employer, John Spencer.

John Godfrey, being then Mr. Spencer's herdsman, he on an evening came to the frame where diverse men were at work; and said that he had gotten a new master against the time he had done keeping cows. 
The said William Osgood asked him who it was; he answered he knew not. He again asked him what his name was; he answered he knew not. He then said to him, "How wilt thou go to him when thy time is out?" He said, "The man will come and fetch me." Then William Osgood asked him "Hast thou made an absolute bargain?" He answered that a covenant was made and he had set his hand to it... 
William Osgood then answered "I am persuaded thou has made a covenant with the Devil. He (Godfrey) then skipped about and said, "I profess, I profess." (from David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991). I added modern punctuation for clarity.)

Osgood may have lied about this conversation, but its also possible Godfrey was actively cultivating an image as a witch. As a young man with no family and a lowly job, he may having a reputation as a witch was a way to gain some influence and intimidate people. That's just speculation on my part, but it seems some people in 17th century New England did knowingly cultivate witchy personas. Further supporting my hunch, Godfrey later explained to one Charles Brown of Rowley how the Devil took care of his witches:

...Godfrey spoke that if witches were not kindly entertained the Devil will appear unto them and ask them if they were grieved or vexed with anybody and ask them what he should do for them and if they would not give them beer or victuals they might let all the beer run out of the cellar and if they looked steadfastly upon upon any creature it would die... (Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England (1991).)

It's easy to picture Godfrey explaining this to Brown, and then asking him for food and drink in a vaguely threatening tone. Hand it over, friend, because I might just be a witch!


Godfrey left Newbury and became an itinerant herdsman, finding employment with a variety of landowners and farmers across Essex County in Massachusetts. Godfrey lived and worked in many towns, including Ipswich, Andover, Haverhill and Salem. He never married and had no children.

This made Godfrey an anomaly among the local Puritans, who generally were rooted in one location and had networks of close kin to support them. Historian John Demos speculates that Godfrey may have been homosexual, noting his unmarried status and his use of the term "c*ck-eating boy" to insult someone who got a herding Godfrey wanted for himself. This is just speculation, but it's not impossible. Legal documents clearly describe homosexual men living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony around this time.

By 1658 Godfrey's argumentative personality, unusual lifestyle and talk about witchcraft caught up with him. He was accused of witchcraft. Other witchcraft accusations followed in 1659, 1666 and 1669. Amazingly, Godfrey was never found guilty, but documents from his trials give a fascinating glimpse into 17th century witchcraft beliefs in New England.

For example, witnesses talk about familiar spirits, the small demons that did a witch's bidding. It was believed that witches had small teats hidden on their bodies from which their familiar spirits sucked blood for sustenance, and Charles Brown testified that he once saw Godfrey yawn in church and saw a strange teat under his tongue. Further, Job Tyler later testified that one night John Godfrey came to visit the Tyler family's house. When he entered the house a large black bird flew in the door with him. Godfrey tried to catch the bird, which finally escaped through a hole in the wall. When Job Tyler asked Godfrey why the bird came in the house, Godfrey answered: "It came to suck your wife." Maybe Godfrey was perhaps joking, but maybe he was implying that Goodwife Tyler was herself a witch. Either way he demonstrated his knowledge about familiar spirits. (Godfrey's comment reminds me of that really gruesome scene from The Witch with the crow!)


John Remington Jr., a fifteen-year old boy from Haverhill, also testified about a large black bird. Remington was riding a horse back to his family's home when the dog accompanying him began to whine and whimper. Remington also suddenly something strange that reminded him of apple cider. At this point a large crow appeared. Remington's horse abruptly fell on its side, injuring Remington's leg. When he recovered he mounted the horse again and rode towards home, but the crow followed, swooping down and biting the dog. Godfrey had argued with Remington's father earlier about working for him as a herdsman, but had not been hired. Godfrey was later heard to say that had Remington Jr. been a full-grown man something much worse would have happened to him. Remington's testimony implies that the crow was somehow controlled by Godfrey, but it's not clear if it was supposed to his familiar spirit, Godfrey transformed into a crow, or an animal he was controlling.

Strange animals appear in several other witnesses' testimony. Isabelle Holdred and her husband argued with Godfrey over money, and after the argument Holdred was assaulted by a progression of  animals that appeared to her over the course of several nights. Holdred was first attacked by a bumblebee, followed by a bear that growled and asked her if she was afraid. The next night a snake appeared, which frightened Holdred so much she couldn't talk for thirty minutes. A spectral horse also appeared in her bedchamber, as did a large black cat that lay on her as she slept and stroked her face. Holdred was the only one who saw those animals, but her son was with her when a neighbor's ox attacked her after looking at her with "great eyes."

Witnesses also claimed that Godfrey could send his spirit double (or specter, to use the Puritan terminology) to cause trouble. John Singletary, who had argued with Godfrey over money, claimed that he was visited by Godfrey's specter while in jail. The specter said that if Singletary paid Godfrey what he was owed he would free him. Singletary refused Godfrey's offer and tried to strike him with a stone, but "there was nothing to strike and how he went away I know not." Elizabeth Button claimed that Godfrey appeared in her bedchamber several times one night, even though the door was firmly bolted, implying that it was his spirit that had visited her.

A man named John Griffing even testified that Godfrey could travel over great distances quickly or appear in two places at once. For example, he once saw Godfrey on the road to Newbury at the same time Godfrey was confined to jail in Boston. Griffing also said he and Godfrey once set out together for the Rust family's house in Andover. It was a cold day and snow covered the ground. Griffing was on horseback and easily outpaced Godfrey, but when he go the Rust home he found Godfrey already inside, warming himself by the fire. Clearly he could only have gotten there by witchcraft.

Despite all this testimony against him, Godfrey was never found guilty of witchcraft. Perhaps the judges knew he was just a troublemaker who fought with all his neighbors. They certainly saw him in court often enough to be familiar with him! John Godfrey died in 1675, probably in Boston or Charlestown. Not much is known about his death, but fittingly there was a trial to decide who would receive his modest estate. Even in death Godfrey couldn't stay out of court.

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In addition to David Hall's book, I found John Demos's "John Godfrey and His Neighbors" in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Apr., 1976) to be really valuable

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