The home life of colonial New England was unique. Its like has appeared nowhere else in human history. Mostwise it was beautiful as well. In it religion was central and supreme. The General Court of Plymouth very early passed the following order: "Noe dwelling-howse shal be builte above halfe a myle from the meeting-howse in any newe plantacion without leave from the Court, except mylle-howses and ffermehowses." In laying out a village the meeting-house, as the hub to which everything was to be referred, was located first of all. The minister's lot commonly adjoined. Then a sufficiency of land was parcelled off to each freeholder whereon to erect his dwelling. Massachusetts from the first, and Plymouth beginning somewhat later, also made eminent provision for schools--all in the interest of religion.
The earliest residences were necessarily of logs, shaped and fitted more or less rudely according to the skill of the builder or the time and means at his disposal. There was usually one large room below, which served as kitchen, dining-room, sitting-room, and parlor, and on the same floor with this one or two lodging-rooms. An unfinished attic constituted the dormitory for the rising generation. A huge stone chimney, terminating below in a still more capacious fireplace, that would admit logs from four to eight feet in length, conveyed away the smoke, and with it much of the heat. This involved no loss, as wood was a drug. Communicating with the chimney was the great stone baking-oven, whence came the bouncing loaves of corn-bread, duly "brown," the rich-colored "pompion" pies, and the loin of venison, beef, or pork.
Over these bounties--and such they were heartily esteemed, however meagre--often as the family drew around the table, its head offered thanks to the heavenly Giver. Each morning, after they had eaten, he read a goodly portion of God's Word, never less than a chapter, and then, not kneeling but standing, led his household in reverent and believing prayer for protection, guidance, stimulus in good, and for every needed grace. What purity, what love of rectitude, what strength of will did not the builders of America carry forth from that family altar! He who would understand the richest side and the deepest moving forces of our national life and development must not overlook those New England fireside scenes.
Prayers ended, the "men folks" went forth to the day's toil. It was hard, partly from its then rough character, partly from poverty of appliances. For the hardest jobs neighbors would join hands, fighting nature as they had to fight the Indians, unitedly. Farming tools, if of iron or steel, as axe, mattock, spade, and the iron nose for the digger or the plough, the village blacksmith usually fashioned, as he did the bake-pan, griddle, crane, and pothooks, for indoor use. Tables, chairs, cradles, bedsteads, and those straight-backed "settles" of which a few may yet be seen, were either home-made or gotten up by the village carpenter. Mattresses were at first of hay, straw, leaves, or rushes. Before 1700, however, feather beds were common, and houses and the entire state of a New England farmer's home had become somewhat more lordly than the above picture might indicate. The colonists made much use of berries, wild fruits, bread and milk, game, fish, and shellfish. The stock wandered in the forests and about the brooks, to be brought home at night by the boys, whom the sound of the cow-bell led. In autumn bushels upon bushels of nuts were laid by, to serve, along with dried berries and grapes, salted fish and venison, as food for the winter. Every phase and circumstance of this pioneer life reminded our fathers of their dependence upon nature and the Supreme Power behind nature, while at the same time the continual need and application of neighbor's co-operation with neighbor brought out brotherly love in charming strength and beauty.
But to old New England religion, as a clerical, public, and organized affair, there is a far darker side. In the eighteenth century belief in witchcraft was nearly universal. In 1683 one Margaret Matron was tried in Pennsylvania on a charge of bewitching cows and geese, and placed under bonds of one hundred pounds for good behavior. In 1705 Grace Sherwood was ducked in Virginia for the same offence. Cases of the kind had occurred in New York. There was no colony where the belief in astrology, necromancy, second sight, ghosts, haunted houses and spots, love-spells, charms, and peculiar powers attaching to rings, herbs, etc., did not prevail. Such credulity was not peculiar to America, but cursed Europe as well. It seemed to flourish, if anything, after the Reformation more than before. Luther firmly believed in witchcraft. He professed to have met the Evil One in personal conflict, and to have vanquished him by the use of an inkstand as missile. Perhaps every land in Europe had laws making witchcraft a capital crime. One was enacted in England under Henry VIII., another in James I.'s first year, denouncing death against all persons "invoking any evil spirit, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding, or rewarding any evil spirit, or taking up dead bodies from their graves to be used in any witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment, or killing or otherwise hurting any person by such infernal arts." A similar statute was contained in the "Fundamentals" of Massachusetts, probably inspired by the command of Scripture, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." This law, we shall see, was not a dead letter.
No wonder such a law was of more effect in New England than anywhere else on earth. The official religion of the Puritans was not only superstitious in general but gloomy in particular, and most gloomy in New England. Its central tenet, here at least, seemed to be that life ought to furnish no joy, men seeking to "merit heaven by making earth a hell." Sunday laws were severe, and rigidly enforced from six o'clock Saturday evening till the same hour the next. Not the least work was allowed unless absolutely necessary, nor any semblance of amusement. Boys bringing home the cows were cautioned to "let down the bars softly, as it was the Lord's day." Sunday travellers were arrested and fined. Men might be whipped for absence from church. A girl at Plymouth was threatened exile as a street-walker for smiling in meeting. Increase Mather traced the great Boston fire of 1711 to the sin of Sunday labor, such as carrying parcels and baking food. In Newport, some men having been drowned who, to say good-by to departing friends, had rowed out to a ship just weighing anchor, Rev. John Comer prayed that others might take warning and "do no more such great wickedness."
Sermons were often two hours long; public prayer half an hour. Worse still was what went by the name of music--doggerel hymns full of the most sulphurous theology, uttered congregationally as "lined off" by the leader--nasal, dissonant, and discordant in the highest imaginable degree. The church itself was but a barn, homely-shaped, bare, and in winter cold as out-of-doors. At this season men wrapped their feet in bags, and women stuffed their muffs with hot stones. Sleepers were rudely awakened by the tithing-man's baton thwacking their heads; or, if females, by its fox-tail end brushing their cheeks. Fast-days were common. Prayer opened every public meeting, secular as well as religious. The doctrine of special providences was pressed to a ridiculous extreme. The devil was believed in no less firmly than God, and indefinitely great power ascribed to him. The Catechism--book second in authority only to the Bible--contained of his Satanic Majesty a cut, which children were left, not to say taught, to suppose as correct a likeness as that of Cromwell, which crowned the mantels of so many homes.
In a people thus trained the miracle is not that witchcraft and superstition did so much mischief, but so little. Had it not been for their sturdy Saxon good sense its results must have proved infinitely more sad. The first remarkable case of sorcery in New England occurred at Boston, in 1688. Four children of a pious family were affected in a peculiar manner, imitating the cries of cats and dogs, and complaining of pains all over their bodies. These were the regulation symptoms of witch-possession, which presumably they had often heard discussed. An old Irish serving-woman, indentured to the family, who already bore the name of a witch, was charged with having bewitched them, and executed, the four ministers of Boston having first held at the house a day of prayer and fasting.
Young Cotton Mather, grandson of the distinguished Rev. John Cotton, a man of vast erudition and fervent piety, was at this time colleague to his father, Increase Mather, as pastor of the Boston North Church. His imagination had been abnormally developed by fasts and vigils, in which he believed himself to hold uncommonly close communication with the Almighty. His desire to provide new arms for faith against the growing unbelief of his time led him to take one of the "bewitched" children to his house, that he might note and describe the ways of the devil in her case. The results he soon after published in his "Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions." This work admitted no doubt as to the reality of the demoniac possessions, which indeed it affected to demonstrate forever. All the Boston ministers signed its preface, certifying to its "clear information" that "both a God and a devil, and witchcraft" existed. "Nothing too vile," it alleged, "can be said of, nothing too hard can be done to, such a horrible iniquity as witchcraft is." The publication excited great attention, and to it in no small measure the ensuing tragedy may be traced.
In February, 1692, three more subjects, children of Rev. Mr. Parris, minister at Danvers, then called Salem Village, exhibited bad witchcraft symptoms. The utmost excitement prevailed. Neighboring clergymen joined the village in fasting and prayer. A general fast for the colony was ordered. But the "devilism," as Cotton Mather named it, spread instead of abating, the children having any number of imitators so soon as they became objects of general notice and sympathy. Old Tituba, an Indian crone, who had served in Parris's family, was the first to be denounced as the cause. Two other aged females, one crazy, the other bed-ridden, were also presently accused, and after a little while several ladies of Parris's church. Whoso uttered a whisper of incredulity, general or as to the blameworthiness of any whom Parris called guilty, was instantly indicted with them.
On April 11th, the Deputy Governor held in the meeting-house in Salem Village a court for a preliminary examination of the prisoners. A scene at once ridiculous and tragic followed. When they were brought in, their alleged victims appeared overcome at their gaze, pretending to be bitten, pinched, scratched, choked, burned, or pricked by their invisible agency in revenge for refusing to subscribe to a covenant with the devil. Some were apparently stricken down by the glance of an eye from one of the culprits, others fainted, many writhed as in a fit. Tituba was beaten to make her confess. Others were tortured. Finally all the accused were thrown into irons. Numbers of accused persons, assured that it was their only chance for life, owned up to deeds of which they must have been entirely innocent. They had met the devil in the form of a small black man, had attended witch sacraments, where they renounced their Christian vows, and had ridden through the air on broomsticks. Such were the confessions of poor women who had never in their lives done any evil except possibly to tattle.
On June 2d, a special court was held in Salem for the definite trial. Stoughton, Lieutenant Governor, a man of small mind and bigoted temper, was president. The business began by the condemnation and hanging of a helpless woman. A jury of women had found on her person a wart, which was pronounced to be unquestionably a "devil's teat," and her neighbors remembered that many hens had died, animals become lame, and carts upset by her dreadful "devilism." By September 23d, twenty persons had gone to the gallows, eight more were under sentence, and fifty-five had "confessed" and turned informers as their only hope. The "afflicted" had increased to fifty. Jails were crammed with persons under accusation, and fresh charges of alliance with devils were brought forward every day.
Some of the wretched victims displayed great fortitude. Goodman Procter lost his life by nobly and persistently--vainly as well, alas!--maintaining the innocence of his accused wife. George Burroughs, who had formerly preached in Salem Village, was indicted. His physical strength, which happened to be phenomenal, was adduced as lent him from the devil. Stoughton browbeat him through his whole trial. What sealed his condemnation, however, was his offer to the jury of a paper quoting an author who denied the possibility of witchcraft. His fervent prayers when on the scaffold, and especially his correct rendering of the Lord's Prayer, shook the minds of many. They argued that no witch could have gotten through those holy words correctly--a test upon which several had been condemned. Cotton Mather, present at the gallows, restored the crowd to faith by reminding them that the devil had the power to dress up like an angel of light. Rebecca Nurse, a woman of unimpeachable character hitherto, unable from partial deafness to understand, so as to explain, the allegations made against her, was convicted notwithstanding every proof in her favor.
Reaction now began. Public opinion commenced to waver. No one knew whose turn to be hanged would come next. Emboldened by their fatal success, accusers whispered of people in high places as leagued with the Evil One. An Andover minister narrowly escaped death. The Beverly minister, Hale, one of the most active in denouncing witches, was aghast when his own wife was accused. Two sons of Governor Bradstreet were obliged to flee for their lives, one for refusing, as a magistrate, to issue any more warrants, the other charged with bewitching a dog. Several hurried to New York to escape conviction. The property of such was seized by their towns. A reign of terror prevailed.
People slowly awoke to the terrible travesty of justice which was going on. Magistrates were seen to have overlooked the most flagrant instances of falsehood and contradiction on the part of both accusers and accused, using the baseless hypothesis that the devil had warped their senses. The disgusting partiality shown in the accusations was disrelished, as was the resort that had been had to torture. One poor old man of eighty they crushed to death because he would plead guilty to nothing. The authorities quite disregarded the fact that everyone of the self-accusations had been made in order to escape punishment. These considerations effected a revolution in the minds of most people. Remonstrances were presented to the courts, securing reprieve for those under sentence of death at Salem. This so irritated the despicable Stoughton that he resigned.
The forwardness of the ministers therein turned many against the persecution, After the first victims had fallen at Salem, Governor Phips took their advice whether or not to proceed. Cotton Mather indited the reply. It thankfully acknowledges "the success which the merciful God has given to the sedulous and assiduous endeavors of our honorable rulers to defeat the abominable witch crafts which have been committed in the country, humbly praying that the discovery of those mysterious and mischievous wickednesses may be perfected. It is pleasant to note, after all, the ministers' advice to the civil rulers not to rely too much on "the devil's authority"--on the evidence, that is, of those possessed. The court heeded this injunction all too little, but by and by it had weight with the public, who judged that, as the trials appeared to be proceeding on devil's evidence alone, the farce ought to cease. The Superior Court met in Boston, April 25, 1693, and the grand Jury declined to find any more bills against persons accused of sorcery. King William vetoed the Witchcraft Act, and by the middle of 1693 all the prisoners were discharged.