March 22, 2018

I Was A Teenage Witch: Stories from the Salem Witch Trials

When most people think of a witch, they picture an elderly, disheveled woman wearing rags. This is the archetypal witch in Western culture, but when you read through witch trial accounts you'll see that all kinds of people were accused of being witches. For example, while many people accused in the Salem witch trials were indeed elderly women, many others didn't fit that profile. Women of all ages were accused, as were men. In fact, even teenagers and children were accused of and confessed to being witches.

For example, fourteen-year old Will Barker Jr. told the judges that one night while he was bringing the cows home from grazing the Devil appeared in the form of a dog. Barker ignored the Devil's enticements, but after a sleepless night the Devil appeared to him again in the form of a "black man." This is an ambiguous term that has several meanings in the witch trials. In some cases it means a man in black clothing, sometimes it means a man with dark skin, and in other cases it means a man with coal black skin. It's not entirely clear which Barker intended, but apparently he found the Devil more persuasive as a human than as a canine. Baker agreed to serve the Devil and flew with him on a pole to Five Mile Pond in Andover where he was baptized as a witch. In return for his services Barker was promised a new set of clothes, but he told the judges the Devil never honored his end of the bargain.

From Wikipedia
Stephen Johnson, also age 14, was out planting corn at midsummer when the Devil came to him in the shape of a small talking “speckled bird.” The next day he came again as a black cat. Johnson ignored the Devil those first two times. It was only when he came in the shape of a man that Johnson put his fingerprint on a sheet of paper and promised to serve the Devil. (In return for selling his soul he was supposed to receive some new boots, but he never got them.) Shortly afterwards, while swimming alone in the Shawsheen River, the Devil appeared with two men and two women and baptized him by tossing him in the water.

Can you see the pattern here?

Mercy Wardwell, age 15, said the Devil came to her first in the shape of a dog, but later looking like a man whose romantic attentions she had rejected. Wardwell did not get the luxury of a baptism in a pond or river. Instead, the Devil simply dunked her head into a bucket of water. On the other hand, Betty Johnson, who was 21 but described by her parents as "simplish at best," confessed that the Devil first came to her in the shape of a man, but then later appeared as two cats. She was baptized as a witch in a neighbor's well. The Devil said he'd give her a shilling but never did.

From the Public Domain Review
Richard Carrier, age 18 and son of accused witch Martha Carrier, told the judges that one night while walking home he encountered a well-dressed man with a high-crowned hat. The man claimed he was Jesus Christ, so the teen signed his name in the man's book. Big mistake. The man in the hat was of course really the Devil, who promised he'd give Carrier a horse and some new clothes. As you can guess, neither one ever materialized. The Devil later appeared to him as a little yellow bird.

Mary Lacy Jr., age 15, confessed that the Devil initially appeared to her as a horse, but later looked like a "round gray thing." She refused his offer of baptism and didn't sign his book, but still agreed to serve him. The Devil told her she would want for nothing in the world. He encouraged Lacy to misbehave and run away from home, which she did.

The repetitive elements are pretty apparent in these accounts. The Devil approaches the potential witch several times in different forms. Sometime he is an animal, sometimes he is a man. The Devil makes a deal with the witch, but ultimately never keeps his side of the bargain. The witch signs a document and agrees to serve the Devil. The Devil baptizes the witch.

Of course, not all these stories are exactly the same. Mary Lacy didn't agree to baptism or make a bargain, or specifically mention the Devil appearing as a man. Mercy Wardwell saw the Devil first as a man, and then as two cats; the others said they saw the Devil in a different order, first as an animal and then as a human.

These teenagers were all from Andover, Massachusetts, and were all interrogated in Salem on July 21, 1692. On the one hand, they probably all were imitating each other when they made their confessions. By July it had become widely known that no one who confessed had been executed, so many defendants from Andover were told by their relatives to confess to save their lives. Richard Carrier was at first hesitant to confess, but after the judges tortured him by tying his neck to ankles (!) he told them what they wanted to hear. These stories of the Devil in many shapes were told to avoid torture and death.

On the other hand, the judges and spectators that were present found these stories convincing. They didn't think of them as lies told by scared young adults but as true accounts of how the Devil operates in the world. The Andover teens created these stories using elements from their culture's view of the spiritual world. These stories give us insight into the older mental world that used to be prevalent in New England. It's terrifying to think they were elicited by threat or application of torture but still fascinating to learn how our local ancestors thought people became witches.

There are lots of sources for information about the Salem trials, but one of my favorites is Marilynne Roach's The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of A Community Under Siege. It's very thorough!


Sue Bursztynski said...

So glad I’m not living in 17 th century Salem! I used to have a student who heard voices. She would stare out across the sports oval and see a man in yellow nobody else could see and tell us all that the voices had told her she was the chosen one. Imagine if SHE had lived in Salem! They would have believed her and some unlucky classmate would be up in front of Messers Danforth and Hathorne...

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! I like reading about the 17th century, but I definitely wouldn't want to live back then. I think my interest in weird things would have gotten me into some really hot water.

Kyle said...

Highly recommend "In the Devil's Snare" by Mary Beth Norton, which explores the historical background and the family connections that were predominant factors in the Salem/Andover sequence of events in 1691 and 92, particularly the heavy influence of conflicts and wars involving the nearby Native American tribes and the effect that had on the psyches of 17th century Massachusetts.