From the horrors of Malleus Maleficarum (1486) to the fervor of the Salem Witch Trials (1692), many women were accused of and persecuted for witchcraft. These women (and some men) were often poor, middle-aged, and considered to have abrasive personalities. These personalities disrupted the sensibilities of the rigid and religiously devout communities of New England. In these communities, belief in witchcraft was inextricably linked with belief in the divine. Witchcraft provided scapegoats for inexplicable phenomena, whether they were actual, imagined, or fabricated: the loss of livestock, sudden injury, or fits and illnesses. Interest in witchcraft was further encouraged by published narratives and treatises, written and printed both in England and in the American colonies.
During this 1651 trial in Bermuda, two of the many accepted tests for witchcraft were described: Jeane Gardiner was pricked to see if she would bleed and twice thrown into the sea where “she swyme like a cork and did not sinke.” It was a common belief that witches, because of their pact with Satan, would neither bleed nor drown. Gardiner was convicted and later executed.
The earliest printed and most popular witchcraft treatise was German Inquisitor Heinrich Institoris’ Malleus Maleficarum, or “Hammer of Witches.” First published in 1486, it was a “bestseller,” being reprinted more than thirty-five times over the course of almost two hundred years. Institoris’ focus in singling out poor, elderly, unmarried women had an enormous influence on future cases.
John Webster, a preacher and chemist, argued that the harm inflicted by witches could be explained by natural means, such as poisons and hallucinogens. However, he also maintained that witches convened with Satan. Webster’s arguments were unpopular: he was denied publication by ecclesiastical censors. Three years later, the Royal Society, an English learned society, licensed and printed the book.
During England’s worst period of persecution, philosopher Joseph Glanvill attacked the emerging skepticism toward the existence and accusations of witchcraft. Saducismus Triumphatus was a rebuttal to John Webster’s The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft. This edition, published in 1700, includes woodcuts by English engraver William Faithorne depicting various examples of witchcraft.
Minister Francis Hutchinson believed there were spirits in the world, but attributed the rise of witchcraft to be “made by the accusations of men.” Hutchinson was fond of Jane Wenham, an accused widow whose conviction was stayed. He opined, “The credulous Multitude will ever be ready to try their Tricks, and swim the old Women, and wonder at and magnify every unaccountable Symptom and odd Accident.”
New Hampshire Secretary Richard Chamberlayne published this testimony of a lithobolia (“stone-throwing” in Greek) allegedly committed by the accused, an elderly woman named Hannah Jones. In revenge for her land being confiscated, she pelted a neighbor’s estate with stones. She had been heard to say with “much Bitterness” that he “should never quietly injoy that piece of Ground.” Cotton Mather claimed this narrative was written by a “worthy hand.”
Physician John Cotta argued that witchcraft investigators should rely on trained medical opinion, for bizarre behavior could actually be symptoms of disease. He posited, “It is a hard and difficult matter to detect Witch-craft so it is likewise equally difficult for many a just man to prove and clear his opposed innocency.”
Boston minister Cotton Mather’s Late Memorable Providences… includes his firsthand account of the accusation of witchcraft against an Irish laundress and her eventual execution in Boston, 1688. Goodwife Glover is a rare example of an accused witch who confessed to the charges against her. She claimed to have used small rag dolls, which were discovered in her home, to torment the four children who had implicated her as a witch.
The earliest account of the Salem Witch Trials was printed in 1692, two months before the first accused, Bridget Bishop, was hanged. It was reprinted in this book, Increase Mather’s A Further Account of the Tryals of the New-England Witches, 1693. Former Salem Minister Deodat Lawson begins by detailing young Abigail Williams’ accusations against the soon-to-be executed 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse, referred to here as “Goodw. N.”
This exhibition, curated by reference librarians Crystal Toscano and Rebecca Grabie, is on view through February 28, 2019 in the library’s display cases, which were generously provided by funding from the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.