August 05, 2012

The Possession of Mercy Short

In 1692, a Boston servant girl was sent by her mistress on an errand. En route, she was asked for some tobacco by a poor woman on the street.

The servant girl, named Mercy Short, threw wood shavings at the woman and said, "There's tobacco good enough for you!" The woman cursed at her, and Mercy completed her errand. Just another day in Puritan Boston, right?

The woman who cursed her was Sarah Good, of Salem Village, who was later executed after being accused of witchcraft. When Mercy returned home she was afflicted with fits for several days, but they abated after she fasted. OK, so maybe it wasn't just another day in Boston, but it wasn't so bad. At least the fits cleared up!

Mercy wasn't out of the woods, though. About a year after her encounter with Sarah Good, she once again became afflicted with fits, but this time with a twist: the Devil came to visit her.

He was a wretch no taller than an ordinary Walking-Staff; hee was not of a Negro, but of a Tawney, or an Indian colour; hee wore an high-crowned Hat, with strait Hair; and had one Cloven-Foot. 

The Devil came with specters, who looked like neighbors and people that Mercy knew. They tormented her and urged her to pledge herself to Satan by signing a red-lettered Book of Death. Only then would they stop torturing her. She didn't even have to actually sign - just touching the book with her little finger would suffice for Mercy to give herself to Satan.

Copp's Hill Burying Ground, Boston

Mercy refused, so her fits continued, but in a spectacular fashion.

  • The Devil and his specters blinded her and stopped up her ears, so at times she was unaware of her surroundings and the neighbors and ministers who came to help her.  
  • They pinched her and stabbed her with small pins. Witnesses saw small bloody marks appear on her body, and pulled physical pins from her limbs. 
  • Mercy's hellish tormentors poured a white liquid down her throat, which made her "swell prodigiously, and bee just like one poisoned with a Dose of Rats-bane."
  • Cotton Mather visited Mercy, and witnessed the following: "They would Flash upon her the Flames of a Fire, that was to Us indeed (tho not unto her) Invisible… Wee saw Blisters thereby Raised upon her."
  • Mercy was forced to speak profanely and sarcastically about people she knew and refused to listen to discussions about God or religion. 

In the late winter of 1693, Governor Phips visited Mercy at her request. She told him that the Book of Death, the Devil's book itself, was hidden in the attic of a wealthy neighbor's house. The governor directed one of the neighbor's servants to retrieve it.

When the Servant was Examining the place directed, a great Black Cat, never before known to bee in the House, jumping over him, threw him into such a Fright and Sweat, that altho' hee were one otherwise of Courage enough, he desisted at that Time from looking any further.

Finally in March of 1693 a good spirit appeared to Mercy and told her she would be delivered from the Devil's torments on Thursday, March 16. On that Thursday, the spectres came but were unable to harm Mercy, no matter how hard the Devil exhorted them. They departed and Mercy was free.

It's an amazing story, and similar to many demonic possession stories across the centuries, but Mercy had a traumatic experience before her possession that helps shed light on it.

In March of 1690, Mercy and her family were abducted from their home in New Hampshire by Wabanaki Indians. Mercy's parents and several of her siblings were killed, and Mercy was held captive in Quebec for eight months before being sent to Boston. It seems likely that her possession was a way for her to deal with horrific experience she had. It's no coincidence that Mercy saw the Devil as an Indian. Living in a society without psychological concepts like trauma and PTSD, Mercy dealt with her experiences using the ideas available to her.

D. Brent Simmons, in his book Witches, Rakes and Rogues, notes that in 1694 Mercy married a man from Nantucket, but the marriage didn't last. Mercy was found guilty of adultery and excommunicated from the Puritan church. She returned to Boston, and her gravestone can still be seen in Copp's Hill Burying Ground in the North End.

In addition to Simmons' book, I found my information in Cotton Mather's narrative about Mercy Short, A Brand Pluck'd Out of the Burning.

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