May 14, 2023

The Possession of Martha Robinson

Today is a beautiful sunny day, but I'm sitting inside the house reading about demonic possession in colonial New England. I'm fascinated by the story of Martha Robinson, a young Bostonian who became possessed by the Devil in December of 1740. Well, at least people thought she was possessed. Long after the Salem witch trials had ended, people in New England still thought the Devil was trying to lead people astray...

Martha was the twenty-something daughter of Samuel and Mary Robinson. Her parents were members of the Old South Church, but Martha was ambivalent about religion until she heard the famous minister George Whitefield preach. Whitefield was an evangelist who preached to huge crowds across the American colonies in the 1700s, moving people with his emotional sermons. After hearing Whitefield preach in Boston, Martha decided to join the Old South Church. 

William Blake, The Ghost of A Flea, 1819 - 1820

Her move to godliness did not proceed according to plan. After joining the church, Martha went to hear a sermon by Gilbert Tennent, another traveling evangelist. She was impressed with his preaching, and arranged a private meeting with him. But as she began to talk with Tennent, she was suddenly filled with incredible anger:

"The Devil filled me with such rage and spite against [Tennent] that I could have torn him to pieces and I should have torn his clothes off if my friends had not held me."(quoted in D. Brenton Simons, Witches, Rakes and Rogues. True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630 - 1775, 2005)

A shocked Tennent said Martha was possessed by the Devil, and immediately began to pray over her, with the assistance of other ministers who were present. Their prayers didn't work. After that encounter with Tennent, Martha frequently blasphemed, used obscenities, and sang nonsense songs. She, her family, and friends all believed she was possessed by the Devil.

Our main source of information about the possession of Martha Robinson is the diary of Joseph Pitkin, a wealthy merchant from East Hartford, Connecticut. Pitkin was visiting Boston for business in March, 1741, and during that visit he was invited to meet Martha Robinson. She had heard that Pitkin was a devout Christian, and wanted to talk with him. Pitkin visited Martha twice during his 1741 visit, both times accompanied by local Bostonians. 

Martha displayed a wide variety of behavior during Pitkin's two visits to her home. At times she was polite and pleasant, speaking cordially with Pitkin. She prayed with him. At other times she raged, screamed, and said "There is no God" and other blasphemous statements. Martha also told Pitkin of a strange occurrence the previous night. She and her aunt had heard the noise of a large goat bleating from the inn where Pitkin was staying. The eerie bleating was then swept away by a strong wind. 

Joseph Pitkin went home to Connecticut, but returned to Boston in 1743, and once again visited Martha Robinson. She no longer acted strangely, and said she was no longer possessed by the Devil. Martha said that "God had gradually delivered her from that distress" (quoted in Simons, Witches, Rakes, and Rogues, 2005). She was apparently cured of her strange ailment. In 1746, she married a Charlestown man and settled into a more traditional life. 

Was Martha Robinson really possessed by an evil spirit? As many historians have noted, Puritan New England was not a great place to be a young woman. Young women and girls were near the bottom of the social hierarchy, having little freedom or power. Their behavior was also restricted by social norms that said women should be modest, moderate-tempered, and well-behaved. Much like the allegedly bewitched girls in 1692 Salem, acting as if she was possessed may have given Martha an opportunity to misbehave, openly express anger at authority figures, and even question the existence of God, one of the foundations of New England society. She may have consciously faked her possession, or perhaps she was acting out the role unconsciously, simultaneous defying society's restrictions but also enacting the expected social behaviors of someone who was possessed.

Joseph Pitkin's diary is available online, but I've based this blog post on material from D. Brenton Simons's excellent 2005 book, Witches, Rakes and Rogues. True Stories of Scam, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in Boston, 1630 - 1775. It's a great book!