February 29, 2024

Cotton Mather and the Connecticut Triton

Many of you are probably familiar with Cotton Mather, the 17th century Puritan minister. Mather was born in Boston in 1663, and was the son of Increase Mather, the city’s leading minister. Cotton attended Harvard, entering at age eleven and a half, making him the youngest person to attend the university. (Thanks for that tidbit, Wikipedia!) Clearly, he was a smart person. After graduating, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a minister, serving with him as co-pastor of Boston’s most prominent church. 

During the 1692 Salem witch trials, the colony’s political leaders asked Cotton Mather for his opinion on witchcraft. They wanted some guidance on what types of evidence were acceptable, and to know if witchcraft was even real. Mather replied that witchcraft was indeed real, and that execution was an appropriate punishment for the most dangerous witches. He did tell the judges to proceed with caution and be careful with the types of evidence they accepted, but he otherwise said the Salem trials were valid. He maintained this position even after most other people in Massachusetts realized no witches were being executed, just innocent people. 

Ultimately, nineteen people were executed during the Salem trials, one man was crushed to death during questioning, and several people died in jail. Some, or maybe many, of those deaths might have been avoided if Cotton Mather had given the magistrates a different opinion.

Cotton Mather was twenty-nine in 1692. I had a lot to learn about life when I was twenty-nine, and it's pretty obvious that Cotton Mather did too. Luckily, no one was asking me to make life-or-death decisions, or maybe I would have screwed up like he did. Mather's misjudgment about the Salem trials tainted his reputation for the rest of his life. He expected to become president of Harvard, like his father was, but that didn't happen. A shadow hung over him until he died, and still hangs over our memory of him today. 

Despite Mather’s superstitious and ignorant beliefs about witches, he was also one of the best-educated people in Massachusetts and was very interested in science. In 1721, he even helped to start an inoculation campaign in Boston against smallpox, one of the first in the Western world. Most of Boston's physicians violently opposed the campaign, but it turned out to be a resounding success. It's odd to think of Mather as the voice of scientific reason, but in that situation he was.

Mather also wrote dozens of letters to the Royal Society, England’s national academy of sciences, describing interesting phenomena in New England. Some of his letters discussed topics that today we might think of as appropriately scientific, like local New England wildlife (snakes, muskrats, moose), people suffering from unusual medical conditions, and earthquakes. Other letters covered somewhat stranger topics, such as prophetic dreams, ghosts, and a calf born with a human face. The boundaries between science, religion, and magic were poorly delineated at the time, and Cotton Mather was not alone in mixing these topics together. 

One letter, which he wrote in July of 1716, describes a triton, or what we might call a merman. In the letter, Mather writes that he doubted the existence of merfolks until learning about three men who had seen a triton off the coast of Connecticut. On February 22, 1716, the men had been sailing from Milford to Branford when they saw a “creature that seemed a man, lying on the top of a rock” close to the Branford shore. 

“… his head, and face, and neck, and shoulders, and arms, and elbows, and breast and back, all of a human shape, only his arms were little more than half the length of a man’s. He wanted not for hair, which was of a grayish color. However – desinit in piscem (Latin – “it ends in a fish”); his lower parts were those of a fish, and colored like a mackerel. His tail was forked, and he had two fins about a half foot above the tail. The whole animal was about five or six feet in length.” 

That's a very vivid and specific description. Was this a hoax played on Cotton Mather, or did the men actually see something strange on that rock? Or maybe they misidentified a large seal or some other creature? My mind tries to find a rational explanation, but here in the 21st century we're more skeptical about the existence of mermen and mermaids. People were still learning how the physical world worked back in the 17th century and were more willing to believe strange, half-human creatures lurked in the ocean.

It’s interesting that Cotton Mather considered the triton an animal, rather than a mythical being, a monster, or some kind of sea-demon. I suppose he was trying to be scientific, and not superstitious. I’m sure he would have liked to study the triton, but he did not get the opportunity. The men who saw the triton attempted to capture it, but it jumped off the rock and quickly swam away. 

The truth about the Connecticut triton will never be known. Was there a scientific explanation, or a supernatural one? It's fun to speculate there might supernatural creatures like tritons. That type of speculation is less fun when those "supernatural" creatures are innocent people being accused of witchcraft.