September 28, 2020

Pale, Ghastly, Deadly: An Old Boston Ghost Story and The Politics Behind It

On May 2, 1687, Joseph Beacon was sound asleep in his Boston, Massachusetts home when suddenly someone appeared in his bedroom. It was 5:00 a.m. in the morning.

It was Joseph's brother. Joseph, who couldn't tell if he was asleep or awake, was puzzled by this since his brother was thousands of miles away in London, England. He was also concerned since his brother's "countenance was very pale, ghastly, deadly and he had a bloody wound one side of his forehead."

"Brother!" says the affrighted Joseph.

"Brother!" answered the apparition. 

Said Joseph, "What the matter brother? How came you here."

The apparition replied, "Brother, I have been most barbarously and injuriously butchered, by a debauched and drunken fellow, to whom I never did any wrong in my life."

The bloody apparition went on to say that his murderer was trying to flee London and would sail to New England on one of two ships, either the Foy or the Wild. The apparition urged Joseph to get an order from the governor if either ship arrived and have the murderer arrested. "I'll stand by you and prove the indictment," the apparition said. Then it vanished.  

At the end of June, Joseph Beacon received word from London that his brother was dead. While trying to hail a coach he had been attacked by a drunk stranger. The drunkard hit him on the head with a fire iron, and Joseph's brother lay unconscious until he died on May 2nd. The murderer was arrested and brought to trial but managed to escape execution. 

Cotton Mather, 1663 - 1728

That story appears in Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), which was written by the Reverend Cotton Mather of Boston, one of the most prominent Puritan clergymen in New England. Wonders is mainly concerned with defending the legitimacy of the Salem witch trials, which had just occurred the previous year. Many people questioned the trials even when they were happening, and after they ended public opinion began turning against everyone involved. Mather was trying to counteract that:

We cannot but with all thankfulness, acknowledge the success which the Merciful God has given unto the sedulous and assiduous endeavors of our honorable rulers, to detect the abominable witchcrafts which have been committed in the country... If in the midst of the many dissatisfactions among us, the publication of these trials, may promote such a pious thankfulness unto God for justice being so far executed among us, I shall rejoice that God is glorified...

It might seem weird to include a ghost story in a book defending the Salem witch trials, but I think it was part of Mather's strategy for the book. "See? There are ghosts, so therefore there must be witches too..."

Or, to break it down step by step, his strategy might look like this: 

A. Do you believe in ghosts? If yes, then...

B. You have to believe in witches. And if you believe in witches, then...

C. You have to believe the Salem trials were legitimate and not a tragedy.

I don't think it's the best argument. Believing in ghosts doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe in witches. And even if you do believe in witches, it doesn't mean the Salem trials were legitimate. For example, Reverend John Hale, another Puritan clergyman, argued in his 1697 book A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft that it's impossible to prove witchcraft in a trial. Hale believed that witches might exist but argued that the the Devil can take the form of an innocent person. That time you saw your neighbor tormenting you with witchcraft? It may really have been the Devil in disguise. 

Ultimately Cotton Mather lost the argument and his reputation was ruined for defending something indefensible. He was on the wrong side of history. The lesson of the Salem trials was pretty clear: don't accuse your neighbors of being part of a supernatural conspiracy. 

Sadly, the lesson didn't really stick. In the 1980s hundreds of people were accused of being part of a child-abusing Satanic conspiracy. The Satanic Panic, as it was called, destroyed families and led to prison terms for many innocent people. It was all based on sham psychology but no one stopped the Satanic Panic until it was too late. 

Now we have the Q Anon conspiracy theory, which has been spreading online for several years. Basically, this theory claims that a cabal of wealthy and powerful Satanists are abducting children for nefarious purposes and that Donal Trump will defeat them with mass arrests of his political opponents and journalists. It's obviously a fake rumor designed to rile up sentiment against the Democrats, but many people still believe it. 

Folks, you can put on the brakes. Liking or believing in one weird thing doesn't mean you have to believe all of them. Just because you like crystals doesn't mean you have to be an anti-vaxer. Just because you believe in UFOs doesn't mean you have to buy into Q Anon or any other conspiracy that is going to harm actual, living humans. The paranormal should be something fun to explore. It shouldn't be a slippery slope leading to mob violence and witch trials. 

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