Term Paper, 2006, 14 Pages
2. The Wonders of the Invisible World
3. Mather’s Personal Experience
4. Mather’s Sources and Arguments
5. Mather’s Role in Salem
6. Witchcraft in Salem
7. The End of the Witch Hunt
The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 represent a cruel part of New England history. Twenty people were killed after they were accused of being witches or wizards. Dozens were imprisoned. One of the key figures today around the trials is Cotton Mather. Although he was not directly involved in accusing or judging the people, he wrote a book about the trials, called The Wonders of the Invisible World. In this book, he listed the different indicators about how to discover someone practicing witchcraft. This essay will concern Cotton Mather’s arguments concerning witchcraft, their origin, and his theories about their treatment. The trials in Salem will play an essential part, because the practices during the trials show how witchcraft was proved then, regardless of the guilt of the accused. It was impossible for an accused person to escape punishment in Salem and Mather’s and his colleagues arguments served as additional justification for killing innocent people in Salem.
Mather wrote his book The Wonders of the Invisible World directly after the Salem witchcraft trials. He was given the official records of the trials for use in preparation of this book, because the judges hoped it would favorably describe their role and their judgments. So Mather wrote about his experience with the afflicted Goodwin children from Boston, the Salem trials and how the devil tried to enlarge his reign in New England. He used the incidents at Salem to support his arguments about witchcraft and about the devil, who tried to gain power in New England. To put more attention to these events, he quoted other sources from witch-hunts in Europe: "He was an avid reader who leaped at the chance to write about witchcraft, having read many of the books and chapbooks turned out after the witch-hunts of Europe had grabbed readers' attention" (Carlson 55-56). The Wonders of the Invisible World became a best-seller and resulted in many accusations against Mather’s strict attitude and behavior concerning the trials.
Before the Salem trials, Mather had already examinated the Goodwin children in Boston, who showed signs of bewitchment: “He had managed both to cure them and to suppress the accusations they made after they came under his care.” (Hansen 168) He presented his findings and conclusions in his book Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions from 1689, and after this was brought in as a consultant on several other cases when children were afflicted in Boston as well as Salem. There was no known cure or explanation for the behavior of affected people, like fits and cramps. Mather then concluded that it must be the devil’s work: "Whether it was the Black Man hallucination or the White Spirit hallucination, Mather and his cohorts had no means of explaining why people were experiencing these unusual visions or how they were to be interpreted." (Carlson 47) Only witchcraft could be the cause, and in Mather’s view, by rooting out witches, there would be no more afflicted people.
Mather was absolutely sure that witches and the devil existed. In The Wonders of the Invisible World he writes: “An Army of Devils is horribly broke in, upon the place which is the Center and after a sort, the First-born of our English Settlements: and the Houses of the Good People there, are fill'd with the doleful Shrieks of their Children and Servants, Tormented by Invisible Hands, with Tortures altogether preternatural” (Mather 17). He thinks that the town of Salem is threatened by the devil and his witches. As a strict Puritan, Mather naturally believed that the devil tried to fight against good Christians and that he was in league with witches and wizards. This led Mather to preach about exposing and hunting witches: “He claimed that witches, having signed the Devil's book, were agents of the Devil in his plot to destroy the church. He preached that the witches were aiding the Devil, both in person and with specters, by tormenting the afflicted" (Robinson 13). It was therefore the duty of good Christians to fight against this plot of the devil. This justifies the witch-hunt in Salem insofar, as Mather wanted to defend the city against the threat of witches and unchristian behavior in general.
Mather names several sources in The Wonders of the Invisible World for discovering and exposing witches: William Perkins, John Gaule and Bernard of Batcombe. He consulted these three authors and summarized their ideas about witchcraft in his book. Applying only a few of their presumptions was usually sufficient enough for juries to declare an innocent person as witch or wizard.
Mather accordingly lists many indicators for discovering witches. One of the easiest ways of declaring somebody as being a witch was to accuse the person of practicing witchcraft. It was then the duty of the judges to examine the accused person. If they found any indicators of witchcraft, like broomsticks or simple puppets with needles in them, this was seen as strong evidence. A similar case was, when one became sick and then accused someone else of bewitching him with a curse: “If a man being dangerously Sick, and like to Dy, upon Suspicion, will take it on his Death, that such an one hath Bewitched him, it is an Allegation of the same Nature, which may move the Iudge to Examine the Party” (Mather 40-41). The same counted when an animal or a man died and the accused was seen before near the subject, swearing or muttering something: “If the suspect had made threats or boasts which seemed to require occult power and which came true, this was valid evidence.” (Hansen 97-98) Muttering to oneself was found to be suspicious because people feared that a curse might be pronounced. These examples already show that if someone wanted somebody else to be convicted as witch or wizard, it was rather easy to convince the jury of someone’s allegiance with the devil.
According to Mather and Perkins, the simplest and best evidence for witchcraft was a ‘credible’ confession when being questioned. A confession meant that the defendants gave in to the accusations, because then they were able to avoid a possible execution in Salem by staying longer in prison: “After the first execution […] took place in June it became obvious to everyone that persons who confessed, like Tituba and Dorcas Good, were not being brought to trial. Thus any suspected person might have his life by confessing” (Hansen 87-88). Accused witches and wizards claimed that they also had been bewitched and named those who had forced them to give in to the devil. Oftentimes, confessions were spoken out after the accused were threatened or tortured in some ways. They admitted practicing witchcraft to be released of pain and pressure. A confession was also considered to be an act of repenting, so that a confessing sinner was to be given the chance of coming back to God instead of being executed.
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