May 02, 2019

Goody Glover: Execution of An Irish Witch in Boston

Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but Boston is a very Irish town. Our basketball team is the Celtics, and you can buy Red Sox hats emblazoned with shamrocks. You can also buy shamrock t-shirts at Target all year long. There are Irish pubs everywhere, Saint Patrick's Day is a huge holiday, and we've had a string of Irish-American mayors for many, many decades. Irish-Americans make up 22% of the population of the metropolitan Boston area. I'm part of that 22%.

It wasn't always this way. Boston really only became an Irish (and Catholic) stronghold in the 19th century when waves of Irish immigrants came to the United States. Before then Boston was an English and Protestant town where life could be difficult for people of Irish descent. For example, take the case of Goody Glover, an elderly Irish woman executed for witchcraft on November 16, 1688. Goody is shortened form of Goodwife, a title that married women had in early New England. It is similar to the way we use Mrs. today. According to tradition her first name was Ann, but I'm not 100% sure that is accurate. 

Goody Glover's problems started in the summer of 1688. She and her daughter made their living as laundresses, and that summer her daughter was accused of stealing linens by Martha Goodwin, a 13 year-old girl whose family utilized the Glovers' services. Goody Glover did not take kindly to this accusation and "gave the girl harsh language."

From this site. 
Shortly after being yelled at by Goody Glover young Martha began to have unexplained fits. The fits spread like a contagion to three of her younger siblings as well. The Reverend Cotton Mather wrote:
Sometimes they would be deaf, and sometimes blind, and often, all this at once. One while their tongues would be drawn down their throats; another while they would be pulled out upon their chins, to a prodigious length. They would have their mouths opened unto such a wideness, that their jaws went out of joint; and anon they would clap together again with a force like that of a strong spring lock.... They would make the most piteous outcries, that they were cut with knives, and struck with blows that they could not bear. 
A physician, one Dr. Thomas Oakes, examined the children and declared that "nothing but a hellish witchcraft could be the original of these maladies."

Some of the Goodwins' neighbors suggested using folk magic to fight the witchcraft but the Goodwin parents declined. They were pious Puritans and instead asked four local ministers to come to their home and pray for the children. The youngest was immediately cured, but the older three continued to be bewitched. Clearly something stronger than prayer was needed.

The Boston magistrates arrested Goody Glover and put her on trial for witchcraft. Our main source of information about the trial comes from Cotton Mather's 1689 book Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. Mather was not an impartial observer (he calls Goody Glover an "ignorant and scandalous old woman" and "a hag") so everything he writes should be taken with a big grain of salt.

His account is confusing and somewhat contradictory. For example, he claims that Goody Glover refused to answer in English, only in Gaelic, although she and her family spoke English at home. Still she somehow confessed to being a witch, and when confronted with poppets made of goat hair and rags found in her home admitted to using them to bewitch her victims. When she caressed these poppets in the courtroom the Goodwin children writhed in torment. 

Despite her confession the court was not entirely convinced of her guilt and asked several physicians to ascertain that she was mentally competent. They learned that she was Roman Catholic and that she could say the Lord's Prayer in Latin. Well, at least most of it. There were always a few lines that eluded her which only confirmed suspicions that she was a witch. The physicians told the court that she was mentally sound.

Goody Glover was executed on November 16, 1688. As she was led to the gallows she declared that the Goodwin children would not be freed of their torment even after her death. There were other witches secretly tormenting them, she said. Those were apparently among her last words, either in English or Gaelic.

Goody Glover was right: the three Goodwin children continued to be tormented. They were unable to definitively name the other witches, and Mather and the other ministers thought they were now simply possessed by demons, not attacked by witches. The children barked like dogs, their heads were nailed to the floor by invisible spikes, and they flew like geese, waving their arms with only their toes touching the ground. Sometimes the children tried to harm themselves, but oddly the demons only made them do this when there was someone present to stop them from actually throwing themselves into a lit fire or down a flight of stairs. Equally odd, the demons increased their level of torture if the parents ever lost their tempers and scolded the children.

By the winter of 1689 the Goodwin children were no longer tormented. Maybe the demons gave up, maybe all the prayers worked, or maybe the children just got bored with faking it. But their antics had a much wider impact beyond their family and Goody Glover's execution. Mather's account of their experience, Memorable Providences, was quite popular and probably helped inspire the Salem witchcraft trials three years later. Those trials ultimately led to the execution of 19 innocent people. 

Three hundred years later things were very different. Boston was now dominated by Irish-Americans, and in 1988 the Boston City Council declared November 16 "Goody Glover Day." An Irish pub called Goody Glover's opened in the North End around 2008. The owners mounted a plaque with the following inscription outside it:
Not far from here on 16 November 1688 Goodwife Ann Glover an elderly Irish widow, was hanged as a witch because she had refused to renounce her Catholic faith... This memorial is erected to commemorate "Goody" Glover as the first Catholic martyr in Massachusetts. 
The pub eventually closed down and the plaque was relocated to Our Ladies of Victories Church on Isabella Street in Boston's Bay Village neighborhood. I believe that church is now closed and I am not sure what will become of the plaque. 

Was Glover a martyr for the Catholic faith? Maybe, but maybe her religion (and Irish ethnicity) just marked her as a woman who defied the repressive social norms of the time. Three other Boston women were executed for witchcraft before her. Those three weren't Catholic or Irish but were argumentative (Ann Hibbins), sexually promiscuous (Alice Lake), or working in a profession contested by men (the healer Margaret Jones). Hopefully someday there will be a plaque in Boston remembering all of them. 


Julia Ergane said...

Yes, these so-called victims were just a bunch of brats who involved the judiciary in committing their acts of murder, achieving much more than the 15 minutes of fame that they were allowed. In today's law, they would be the conspirators who would take the full onus of punishment.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Julia! Thanks for your comment. It's amazing to me that the courts believed that the children were truly being tormented by Goody Glover. It seems pretty clear even from Cotton Mather's account that they were faking it (although he doesn't believe they were).

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post, Peter! It was amazing that the trials never looked first at the children faking it. Was there cases that found the victims were lying?