February 03, 2019

Copp's Hill Burying Ground: Grave Art, Witch Hunters, and Spectral Evidence

I have been a little under the weather this week, but last weekend I did stroll to Boston's North End to visit Copp's Hill Burying Ground. It's the second oldest cemetery in the city and has a lot of really interesting history attached to it.

A folk story claims that the cemetery gets its name from the word "corpse" and was originally called "corpse hill." I suppose if you say "corpse" with a heavy Boston accent it does kind of sound like "copps." Try it and you'll see what I mean. Sadly, this story doesn't seem to be true. The burial ground  was actually named after the Copp family who lived nearby in the 1600s.

The first interments happened in 1659; the final ones sometime in the 1850s. An estimated 10,000 people were buried there over those two centuries, although there are only 1,200 gravestones. In the 19th century urban planners wanted to give Copp's Hill a more parklike feeling so they laid out pedestrian paths and arranged the gravestones in neat, orderly rows. They didn't bother to move the bodies though. These facts mean two things. One, there are a lot of unmarked burials at Copp's Hill. Two, many of the burials are probably mis-marked. When you walk there you're probably stepping on someone but you'll never know who.

Copp's Hill Burying Ground is on a high elevation overlooking the harbor, and I think because of this there is some serious decay among the older gravestones. Still, there are some nice examples of New England funerary art here. The oldest gravestones are decorated with the classic winged death's head motif. The Puritans weren't big on sugar-coating bad news.

In the mid-1700s, a different motif began to appear on New England gravestone's: cherub's heads. These are slightly more cheerful than the death's heads and perhaps reflect a gentler strain of religious thought that began to appear in the area at that time.

The third motif appeared in the late 1700s. Some historians speculate that the willow and urn motif represents a more abstract and philosophical approach to death, while others argue that this and all the other motifs are simply just fashions unrelated to religion or philosophy.

Whenever I visit Copp's Hill I always stop by the Mather family tomb. This is the resting place of three of Boston's most famous Puritan ministers: Increase Mather and his sons Cotton and Samuel. For such an important family their tomb is surprisingly low-key.

The Mathers are mostly remembered now for the roles Increase and Cotton played in the Salem witch trials, but during their lives they did a lot of good things for Boston and New England. Increase Mather (1639 - 1723) served as president of Harvard College for 20 years, wrote numerous books and articles about New England history and politics, and successfully got a new charter for Massachusetts Bay Colony from King William III after the initial one was revoked. All this while serving as a minister until his death.

His son Cotton (1663 - 1728) was also a very influential person in early New England. Cotton was very interested in science and conducted experiments with plant hybridization. He also supported the first smallpox vaccination campaign in Boston. Cotton Mather published more than 400 books and pamphlets on a variety of topics during his life.

Unfortunately, Cotton was also a fervent believer in the literal reality of witchcraft. He thought that witches lived in Massachusetts and were subverting God's plan for a Puritan society in New England. In 1689 he published Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions which described the trial and execution for witchcraft of Goody Glover, an Irish washerwoman from Boston. The book also describes the strange behavior of several children supposedly afflicted by Goody Glover. Memorable Providences is now believed to have laid the groundwork for the larger Salem witch trials that came three years later.

Although he lived in Boston Cotton Mather was active in the Salem trials. He attended several executions, including that of fellow Puritan minister William Burroughs. When Burroughs successfully recited the Lord's Prayer, something it was believed a witch could not do, Mather supposedly intervened and said that even the Devil sometimes could take the form of an angel. The execution went forward and Burroughs was hanged. Mather also wrote about the trials while they were occurring and they helped to glorify God.

During the Salem trials the court turned to the ministerial community for guidance in how to deal with spectral evidence. It was believed at the time that witches had the ability to send their souls (or specters) out of their bodies to afflict their enemies. Often only the person being afflicted would see the witch's specter. The judges wanted to know if this really happened and if they should accept accounts of it as evidence.

To answer the judges Increase Mather published a book called Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Impersonating Men. In it he clearly stated that the judges should ignore spectral evidence for many reasons, most importantly because demons could take the form of innocent people and afflict someone. He was about to publish it when he was asked by his son Cotton to add a chapter defending the trials and the judges.

You see, Cotton had been asked by the colony's governor to write a defense of the Salem trials. It was called Wonders of the Invisible World and although in it he too dismissed spectral evidence he also claimed the other evidence was strong enough for the trials to continue. Because he didn't want Increases's book to contradict his own he asked his father to add a chapter supporting the trials to Cases of Conscience. Increase agreed, even though it muddied the main argument of Cases. When the judges read it they thought Cases of Conscience supported what they were doing and continued to accept spectral evidence. The Salem witch trials only stopped when Governor William Phips declared that spectral evidence could no longer be accepted.

That's all pretty bad, but to make things worse Increase and Cotton Mather never apologized or said they were wrong about the trials. They continued to maintain they were right, even after the Salem trials ended and many of the judges publicly acknowledged they had done something horrible. Even after some of the key witnesses admitted they had lied. Even after public opinion turned against them the two ministers refused to admit any wrongdoing. Over time they slowly lost their political influence and today are often seen as villains of the Salem witch trials. Certainly there is a lesson to be learned here about pride and accepting blame.

Well, that's a lot to chew on. Next week I'll write about some less grim stories from Copp's Hill Burying Ground.


Anonymous said...

Two small corrections: 1) It was William III, and “only those afflicted could *see* the specter.”

I enjoy your blog, and remember Copp’s well.

Peter Muise said...

Thank you for the comment! I've made those edits! Glad you enjoy the blog.

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post, Peter! Little did the Mathers know how infamous they would (deservedly) become, unfortunately men playing on people's fears still exist and we always have to be on guard for the next.