The Superstitions of Witchcraft
by Howard Williams
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The suspicion of imposture thus raised was quickly silenced by fresh proof. Robert Sherringham, farmer, deposed that 'about two years since, passing along the street with his cart and horses, the axle-tree of his cart touched her house and broke down some part of it; at which she was very much displeased, threatening him that his horses should suffer for it. And so it happened; for all those horses, being four in number, died within a short time after. Since that time he hath had great losses by sudden dying of his other cattle. So soon as his sows pigged, the pigs would leap and caper, and immediately fall down and die. Also, not long after, he was taken with a lameness in his limbs that he could neither go nor stand for some days.'[152]

[152] This witness finished his evidence by informing the Court that 'after all this, he was very much vexed with a great number of lice, of extraordinary bigness; and although he many times shifted himself, yet he was not anything the better, but would swarm again with them. So that in the conclusion he was forced to burn all his clothes, being two suits of apparel, and then was clear from them.'—Narratives of Sorcery, &c., from the most authentic sources, by Thomas Wright.

The extreme ridiculousness, even more than the iniquity, of the accusations may be deemed the principal characteristic of such procedures: these childish indictments were received with eagerness by prosecutors, jury, and judge. After half an hour's deliberation the jury returned a unanimous verdict against the prisoners, who were hanged, protesting their innocence to the end. The year before, a woman named Julian Coxe was hanged at Taunton on the evidence of a hunter that a hare, which had taken refuge from his pursuit in a bush, was found on the opposite side in the likeness of a witch, who had assumed the form of the animal, and taken the opportunity of her hiding-place to resume her proper shape. In 1682 three women were executed at Exeter. Their witchcraft was of the same sort as that of the Bury witches. Little variety indeed appears in the English witchcraft as brought before the courts of law. They chiefly consist in hysterical, epileptic, or other fits, accompanied by vomiting of various witch-instruments of torture. The Exeter witches are memorable as the last executed judicially in England.

Attacks upon the superstition of varying degrees of merit were not wanting during any period of the seventeenth century. Webster, who, differing in this respect from most of his predecessors, declared his opinion that the whole of witchcraft was founded on natural phenomena, credulity, torture, imposture, or delusion, has deserved to be especially commemorated among the advocates of common sense. He had been well acquainted in his youth with the celebrated Lancashire Witches' case, and enjoyed good opportunities of studying the absurd obscenities of the numerous examinations. His meritorious work was given to the world in 1677, under the title of 'The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft.' Towards the close of the century witch-trials still occur; but the courts of justice were at length freed from the reproach of legal murders.

The great revolution of 1688, which set the principles of Protestantism on a firmer basis, could not fail to effect an intellectual as well as a political change. A recognition of the claims of common sense (at least on the subject of diabolism) seemed to begin from that time; and in 1691, when some of the criminals were put upon their trial at Frome, in Somersetshire, they were acquitted, not without difficulty, by the exertion of the better reason of the presiding judge, Lord Chief Justice Holt. Fortunately for the accused, Lord Chief Justice Holt was a person of sense, as well as legal acuteness; for he sat as judge at a great number of the trials in different parts of the kingdom. Both prosecutors and juries were found who would willingly have sent the proscribed convicts to death. But the age was arrived when at last it was to be discovered that fire and torture can extinguish neither witchcraft nor any other heresy; and the princes and parliaments of Europe seemed to begin to recognise in part the philosophical maxim that, 'heresy and witchcraft are two crimes which commonly increase by punishment, and are never so effectually suppressed as by being totally neglected.'

In France, until about the year 1670, there was little abatement in the fury or number of the prosecutions. In that year several women had been sentenced to death for frequenting the Domdaniel or Sabbath meeting by the provincial parliament of Normandy. Louis XIV. was induced to commute the sentence into banishment for life. The parliament remonstrated at so astonishing an interference with the due course of justice, and presented a petition to the king in which they insist upon the dread reality of a crime that 'tends to the destruction of religion and the ruin of nations.'[153]

[153] 'Your parliament,' protest these legislators, 'have thought it their duty on occasion of these crimes, the greatest which men can commit, to make you acquainted with the general and uniform feelings of the people of this province with regard to them; it being moreover a question in which are concerned the glory of God and the relief of your suffering subjects, who groan under their fears from the threats and menaces of this sort of persons, and who feel the effects of them every day in the mortal and extraordinary maladies which attack them, and the surprising damage and loss of their possessions.' They then review the various laws and decrees of Church and State from the earliest times in support of their convictions: they cite the authority of the Church in council and in its most famous individual teachers. Particularly do they insist upon the opinions of St. Augustin, in his City of God, as irrefragable. 'After so many authorities and punishments ordained by human and divine laws, we humbly supplicate your Majesty to reflect once more upon the extraordinary results which proceed from the malevolence of this sort of people; on the deaths from unknown diseases which are often the consequence of their menaces; on the loss of the goods and chattels of your subjects; on the proofs of guilt continually afforded by the insensibility of the marks upon the accused; on the sudden transportation of bodies from one place to another; on the sacrifices and nocturnal assemblies, and other facts, corroborated by the testimony of ancient and modern authors, and verified by so many eyewitnesses, composed partly of accomplices and partly of people who had no interest in the trials beyond the love of truth, and confirmed moreover by the confessions of the accused parties themselves, and that, Sire, with so much agreement and conformity between the different cases, that the most ignorant persons convicted of this crime have spoken to the same circumstances and in nearly the same words as the most celebrated authors who have written about it; all of which may be easily proved to your Majesty's satisfaction by the records of various trials before your parliaments.'—Given in Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions. Louis XIV., with an unaccustomed care for human life, resisting these forcible arguments, remained firm, and the condemned were saved from the stake.

While most of the Governments of Europe were now content to leave sorcerers and witches to the irregular persecutions of the people, tacitly abandoning to the mob the right of proceeding against them as they pleased, without the interference of the law, in a remote kingdom of Europe a witch-persecution commenced with the ordinary fury, under express sanction of the Government. It is curious that at the last moments of its existence as a legal crime, one of the last fires of witchcraft should have been lighted in Sweden, a country which, remote from continental Europe, seems to have been up to that period exempt from the judicial excesses of England, France, or Germany. The story of the Mohra witches is inserted in an appendix to Glanvil's 'Collection of Relations,' by Dr. Anthony Horneck. The epidemic broke out in 1669, in the village of Mohra, in the mountainous districts of Central Sweden. A number of children became affected with an imaginative or mischievous disease, which carried them off to a place called Blockula, where they held communion and festival with the devil. These, numbering a large proportion of the youth of the neighbourhood, were incited, it seems, by the imposture or credulity of the ministers of Mohra and Elfdale, to report the various transactions at their spiritual seances. To such a height increased the terrified excitement of the people, that a commission was appointed by the king, consisting of both clergy and laity, to enquire into the origin and circumstances of the matter. It commenced proceedings in August 1670. Days for humiliation and prayer were ordered, and a solemn service inaugurated the judicial examinations. Agreeably to the dogma of the most approved foreign authorities, which allowed the evidence of the greatest criminals and of the youngest age, the commission began by examining the children, three hundred in number, claiming to be bewitched, confronting them with the witches who had, according to the indictment, been the means of the devil's seduction. They were strictly interrogated whether they were certain of the fact of having been actually carried away by the devil in his proper person. Being answered in the affirmative, the royal commissioners proceeded to demand of the accused themselves, 'Whether the confessions of those children were true, and admonished them to confess the truth, that they might turn away from the devil unto the living God. At first most of them did very stiffly, and without shedding the least tear, deny it, though much against their will and inclination. After this the children were examined every one by themselves, to see whether their confessions did agree or no; and the commissioners found that all of them, except some very little ones, which could not tell all the circumstances, did punctually agree in their confessions of particulars. In the meanwhile, the commissioners that were of the clergy examined the witches, but could not bring them to any confession, all continuing steadfast in their denials, till at last some of them burst out into tears, and their confession agreed with what the children said; and these expressed their abhorrence of the fact, and begged pardon, adding that the devil, whom they called Locyta, had stopped the mouths of some of them, so loath was he to part with his prey, and had stopped the ears of others. And being now gone from them, they could no longer conceal it, for they had now perceived his treachery.' The Elfdale witches were induced to announce—'We of the province of Elfdale do confess that we used to go to a gravel-pit which lies hard by a cross-way, and there we put on a vest over our heads, and then danced round; and after this ran to the cross-way and called the devil thrice, first with a still voice, the second time somewhat louder, and the third time very loud, with these words, "Antecessor, come and carry us to Blockula." Whereupon immediately he used to appear, but in different habits; but for the most part we saw him in a grey coat and red and blue stockings.[154] He had a red beard, a high-crowned hat with linen of divers colours wrapt about it, and long garters about upon his stockings. Then he asked us whether we would serve him with soul and body. If we were content to do so, he set us on a beast which he had there ready, and carried us over churches and high walls, and after all he came to a green meadow where Blockula lies [the Brockenberg in the Hartz forest, as Scott conjectures]. We procured some scrapings of altars and filings of church clocks, and then he gave us a horn with a salve in it, wherewith we do anoint ourselves, and a saddle, with a hammer and a wooden nail thereby to fix the saddle. Whereupon we call upon the devil, and away we go.'

[154] Accommodating himself to modern refinement, the devil usually discards the antiquated horns, hoofs, and tail; and if, as Dr. Mede supposed, 'appearing in human shape, he has always a deformity of some uncouth member or other,' such inconvenient appendages are disguised as much as possible. As Goethe's Mephistopheles explains to his witch:

'Culture, which renders man less like an ape, Has also licked the devil into shape.'

Many interrogatories were put. Amongst others, how it was contrived that they could pass up and down chimneys and through unbroken panes of glass (to which it was replied that the devil removes all obstacles); how they were enabled to transport so many children at one time? &c. They acknowledged that 'till of late they had never power to carry away children; but only this year and the last: and the devil did at that time force them to it: that heretofore it was sufficient to carry but one of their own children or a stranger's child with them, which happened seldom: but now he did plague them and whip them if they did not procure him many children, insomuch that they had no peace or quiet for him. And whereas that formerly one journey a week would serve their turn from their own town to the place aforesaid, now they were forced to run to other towns and places for children, and that they brought with them some fifteen, some sixteen children every night.' As to their means of conveyance, they were sometimes men; at other times, beasts, spits, and posts: but a preferable mode was the riding upon goats, whose backs were made more commodious by the use of a magical ointment whenever a larger freight than usual was to be transported. Arrived at Blockula, their diabolical initiation commenced. First they were made to deny their baptism and take an oath of fealty to their new master, to whom they devoted soul and body to serve faithfully. Their new baptism was a baptism of blood: for their lord cut their fingers and wrote their names in blood in his book. After other ceremonies they sit down to a table, and are regaled with not the choicest viands (for such an occasion and from such a host)—broth, bacon, cheese, oatmeal. Dancing and fighting (the latter a peculiarity of the Northern Sabbath) ensue alternately. They indulge, too, in the debauchery of the South: the witches having offspring from their intercourse with the demons, who intermarry and produce a mongrel breed of toads and serpents. As interludes, it may be supposed, to the serious part of the entertainment the fiend would contrive various jokes, affecting to be dead; and, a graver joke, he would bid them to erect a huge building of stone, in which they were to be saved upon the approaching day of judgment. While engaged at this work he threw down the unfinished house about their ears, to the consternation, and sometimes injury, of his vassals.[155] Some of the witnesses spoke of a great dragon encircled with flames, and an iron chair; of a vision of a burning pit. The minister of the district gave his evidence that, having been suffering from a painful headache, he could account for the unusual severity of the attack only by supposing that the witches had celebrated one of their infernal dances upon his head while asleep in bed: and one of them, in accordance with this conjecture, acknowledged that the devil had sent her with a sledge-hammer to drive a nail into the temples of the obnoxious clergyman. The solidity of his skull saved him; and the only result was, as stated, a severe pain in his head.

[155] Le Sage's Diable Boiteux, who so obligingly introduces the Spanish student to the secret realities of human life, is, it may be observed, of both a more rational and more instructive temperament than the ordinary demons who appear at the witches' revels to practise their senseless and fantastic rites.

All the persuasive arguments of the examiners could not induce the witches to repeat before them their well-known tricks: because, as they affirmed, 'since they had confessed all they found all their witchcraft was gone: and the devil at this time appeared very terrible with claws on his hands and feet, with horns on his head and a long tail behind, and showed them a pit burning with a hand out; but the devil did thrust the person down again with an iron fork, and suggested to the witches that if they continued in their confession he would deal with them in the same manner.' These are some of the interesting particulars of this judicial commission as reported by contemporaries. Seventy persons were condemned to death. One woman pleaded (a frequent plea) in arrest of judgment that she was with child; the rest perseveringly denying their guilt. Twenty-three were burned in a single fire at the village of Mohra. Fifteen children were also executed; while fifty-six others, convicted of witchcraft in a minor degree, were sentenced to various punishments: to be scourged on every Sunday during a whole year being a sentence of less severity. The proceedings were brought to an end, it seems, by the fear of the upper classes for their own safety. An edict of the king who had authorised the enquiry now ordered it to be terminated, and the history of the commission was attempted to be involved in silent obscurity. Prayers were ordered in all the churches throughout Sweden for deliverance from the malice of Satan, who was believed to be let loose for the punishment of the land.[156] It is remarkable that the incidents of the Swedish trials are chiefly reproductions of the evidence extracted in the courts of France and Germany.

[156] Narratives of Sorcery, &c., by Thomas Wright, who quotes the authorised reports. Sir Walter Scott refers to 'An account of what happened in the kingdom of Sweden in the years 1669, 1670, and afterwards translated out of High Dutch into English by Dr. Anthony Horneck, attached to Glanvil's Sadducismus Triumphatus. The translation refers to the evidence of Baron Sparr, ambassador from the court of Sweden to the court of England in 1672, and that of Baron Lyonberg, envoy-extraordinary of the same power, both of whom attest the confessions and execution of the witches. The King of Sweden himself answered the express inquiries of the Duke of Holstein with marked reserve. "His judges and commissioners," he said, "had caused divers men, women, and children to be burnt and executed on such pregnant evidence as was brought before them; but whether the actions confessed and proved against them were real, or only the effect of a strong imagination, he was not as yet able to determine."'


Witchcraft in the English Colonies in North America—Puritan Intolerance and Superstition—Cotton Mather's 'Late Memorable Providences'—Demoniacal Possession—Evidence given before the Commission—Apologies issued by Authority—Sudden Termination of the Proceedings—Reactionary Feeling against the Agitators—The Salem Witchcraft the last Instance of Judicial Prosecution on a large Scale in Christendom—Philosophers begin to expose the Superstition—Meritorious Labours of Webster, Becker, and others—Their Arguments could reach only the Educated and Wealthy Classes of Society—These only partially Enfranchised—The Superstition continues to prevail among the Vulgar—Repeal of the Witch Act in England in 1736—Judicial and Popular Persecutions in England in the Eighteenth Century—Trial of Jane Wenham in England in 1712—Maria Renata burned in Germany in 1749—La Cadiere in France—Last Witch burned in Scotland in 1722—Recent Cases of Witchcraft—Protestant Superstition—Witchcraft in the Extra-Christian World.

A review of the superstitions of witchcraft would be incomplete without some notice of the Salem witches in New England. An equally melancholy and mischievous access of fanatic credulity, during the years 1688-1692, overwhelmed the colony of Massachusetts with a multitude of demons and their human accomplices; and the circumstances of the period were favourable to the vigour of the delusion. In the beginning of their colonisation the New Englanders were generally a united community; they were little disturbed by heresy; and if they had been thus infected they were too busily engaged in contending against the difficulties and dangers of a perilous position to be able to give much attention to differences in religious belief. But soon the purity of their faith was in danger of being corrupted by heretical immigrants. The Puritans were the most numerous and powerful of the fugitives from political and religious tyranny in England, and the dominant sect in North America almost as severely oppressed Anabaptists and Quakers in the colonies as they themselves, religious exiles from ecclesiastical despotism, had suffered in the old world. They proved themselves worthy followers of the persecutors of Servetus. Other enemies from without also were active in seeking the destruction of the true believers. Fierce wars and struggles were continuously being waged with the surrounding savages, who regarded the increasing prosperity and number of the intruders with just fear and resentment.

Imbued as the colonists were with demoniacal prepossessions, it is not so surprising that they deemed their rising State beset by spiritual enemies; and it is fortunate, perhaps, that the wilds of North America were not still more productive of fiends and witches, and more destructive massacres than that of 1690-92 did not disgrace their colonial history. From the pen of Dr. Cotton Mather, Fellow of Harvard College, and his father (who was the Principal), we have received the facts of the history. These two divines and their opinions obtained great respect throughout the colony. They devoutly received the orthodox creed as expounded in the writings of the ancient authorities on demonology, firmly convinced of the reality of the present wanderings of Satan 'up and down' in the earth; and Dr. Cotton Mather was at the same time the chief supporter and the historian of the demoniacal war now commenced. It was significantly initiated by the execution of a papist, an Irishman named Glover, who was accused of having bewitched the daughters of a mason of Boston, by name Goodwin. These girls, of infantile age, suffered from convulsive fits, the ordinary symptom of 'possession.' Mather received one of them into his house for the purpose of making experiments, and, if possible, to exorcise the evil spirits. She would suddenly, in presence of a number of spectators, fall into a trance, rise up, place herself in a riding attitude as if setting out for the Sabbath, and hold conversation with invisible beings. A peculiar phase of this patient's case was that when under the influence of 'hellish charms' she took great pleasure in reading or hearing 'bad' books, which she was permitted to do with perfect freedom. Those books included the Prayer Book of the English Episcopal Church, Quakers' writings, and popish productions. Whenever the Bible was taken up, the devil threw her into the most fearful convulsions.

As a result of this diagnosis appeared the publication of 'Late Memorable Providences relating to Witchcraft and Possession,' which, together with Baxter's 'Certainty of the World of Spirits,' a work Mather was careful to distribute and recommend to the people, increased the fever of fear and fanaticism to the highest pitch. The above incidents were the prelude only to the proper drama of the Salem witches. In 1692, two girls, the daughter and niece of Mr. Parvis, minister, suffering from a disease similar to that of the Goodwins, were pronounced to be preternaturally afflicted. Two miserable Indians, man and wife, servants in the family, who indiscreetly attempted to cure the witch-patients by means of some charm or drug, were suspected themselves as the guilty agents, and sent to execution. The physicians, who seem to have been entirely ignorant of the origin of these attacks, and as credulous as the unprofessional world, added fresh testimony to the reality of 'possession.'[157] At first, persons of the lower classes and those who, on account of their ill-repute, would be easily recognised to be diabolic agents, were alone incriminated. But as the excitement increased others of higher rank were pointed out. A black man was introduced on the stage in the form of an Indian of terrible aspect and portentous dimensions, who had threatened the christianising colonists with extermination for intruding their faith upon the reluctant heathen. In May 1692, a new governor, Sir William Phipps, arrived with a new charter (the old one had been suspended) from England; this official, far from discouraging the existing prejudices, urged the local authorities on to greater extravagance. The examinations were conducted in the ordinary and most approved manner, the Lord's Prayer and the secret marks being the infallible tests. Towards the end of May two women, Bridget Bishop and Susannah Martin, were hanged.

[157] A phenomenon of apparently the same sort as that which was of such frequent occurrence in the Middle Age and in the seventeenth century, is said to have been lately occupying considerable attention in the South of France. The Courrier des Alpes narrates an extraordinary scene in one of the churches in the Commune of Morzine, among the women, on occasion of the visitation of the bishop of the district. It seems that the malady in question attacks, for the most part, the female population, and the patients are confidently styled, and asserted to be, possessed. It 'produces all the effects of madness, without having its character,' and is said to baffle all the resources of medical science, which is ignorant of its nature. There had been an intermission of the convulsions for some time, but they have now reappeared with greater violence than ever.—The Times newspaper, June 6, 1864.

On June 2, a formal commission sat, before which the most ridiculous evidence was gravely given and as gravely received. John Louder deposed against Bridget Bishop, 'that upon some little controversy with Bishop about her fowls going well to bed, he did awake in the night by moonlight, and did see clearly the likeness of this woman grievously oppressing him, in which miserable condition she held him unable to help himself till next day. He told Bishop of this, but she denied it, and threatened him very much. Quickly after this, being at home on a Lord's day with the doors shut about him, he saw a black pig approach him, at which he going to kick, it vanished away. Immediately after sitting down he saw a black thing jump in at the window and come and stand before him. The body was like that of a monkey, the feet like a cock's, but the face much like that of a man.[158] He being so extremely affrighted that he could not speak, this monster spoke to him and said, "I am a messenger sent unto you, for I understand that you are in some trouble of mind, and if you will be ruled by me you shall want for nothing in this world." Whereupon he endeavoured to clap his hands upon it, but he could feel no substance; and it jumped out of window again, but immediately came in by the porch (though the doors were shut) and said, "You had better take my counsel." He then struck at it with a stick, and struck only the ground and broke the stick. The arm with which he struck was presently disabled, and it vanished away. He presently went out at the back door, and spied this Bishop in her orchard going towards her house, but he had no power to set one foot forward to her; whereupon, returning into the house, he was immediately accosted by the monster he had seen before, which goblin was now going to fly at him; whereat he cried out, "The whole armour of God be between me and you!" so it sprung back and flew over the apple-tree, shaking many apples off the tree in its flying over. At its leap, it flung dirt with its feet against the stomach of the man, whereupon he was then struck dumb, and so continued for three days together.' Another witness declared in court; that, 'being in bed on the Lord's day, at night he heard a scrambling at the window; whereat he then saw Susanna Martin come in and jump down upon the floor. She took hold of this deponent's foot, and, drawing his body into a heap, she lay upon him nearly two hours, in all which time he could neither speak nor stir. At length, when he could begin to move, he laid hold on her hand, and, pulling it up to his mouth, he bit some of her fingers, as he judged into the bone; whereupon she went from the chamber down stairs out at the door,' &c.

[158] 'Rara avis in terris.' A mongrel and anomalous species like the German Meerkatzen—monkey-cats.

On July 19 five women, and on August 19, six persons, were sent to the gallows, among whom was Mr. George Burroughs, minister, who had provoked his judges by questioning the very existence of witchcraft. At the last moments he so favourably impressed the assembled spectators by an eloquent address, that Dr. Mather, who was present, found it necessary to prevent the progress of a reactionary feeling by asserting that the criminal was no regularly ordained minister, and the devil has often been transformed into an angel of light. So transparently iniquitous and absurd had their mode of procedure become, that one of the subordinates in the service of the authorities, whose office it was to arrest the accused, refused to perform any longer his hateful office, and being himself denounced as an accomplice, he sought safety in flight. He was captured and executed as a recusant and wizard. Eight sorcerers suffered the extreme penalty of the law on September 22. Giles Gory, a few days before, indignantly refusing to plead, was 'pressed to death,' an accustomed mode of punishing obstinate prisoners; and in the course of this torture, it is said, when the tongue of the victim was forced from his mouth in the agony of pain, the presiding sheriff forced it back with his cane with much sang froid. At this stage in the proceedings, the magistrates considered that a justificatory memoir ought to be published for the destruction of twenty persons of both sexes, and, at the express desire of the governor, Cotton Mather drew up an Apology in the form of a treatise, 'More Wonders of the Invisible World,' in which the Salem, executions are justified by the precedent of similar and notorious instances in the mother-country, as well as by the universally accepted doctrines of various eminent authors of all ages and countries. Increase Mather, Principal of Harvard College, was also directed to solve the question whether the devil could sometimes assume the shape of a saint to effect his particular design. The reverend author resolved it affirmatively in a learned treatise, which he called (a seeming plagiarism) 'Cases of Conscience concerning Witchcraft and Evil Spirits personating Men,' an undertaking prompted by an unforeseen and disagreeable circumstance. The wife of a minister, one of the most active promoters of the prosecution, was involved in the indiscriminate charges of the informers, who were beginning to aim at more exalted prey. The minister, alarmed at the unexpected result of his own agitation, was now convinced of the falseness of the whole proceeding. It was a fortunate occurrence. From that time the executions ceased.[159]

[159] If, however, individuals of the human species were at length exempt from the penalty of death, those of the canine species were sacrificed, perhaps vicariously. Two dogs, convicted, as it is reported, of being accessories, were solemnly hanged!

The dangerously increasing class of informers who, like the 'delatores' of the early Roman Empire, made a lucrative profession by their baseness, and spared not even reluctant or recusant magistrates themselves, more than anything else, was the cause of the termination of the trials. If they would preserve their own lives, or at least their reputations, the authorities and judges found it was necessary at once to check the progress of the infection. About one hundred and fifty witches or wizards were still under arrest (two hundred more being about to be arrested), when Governor Phipps having been recalled by the Home Government, was induced by a feeling of interest or justice to release the prisoners, to the wonder and horror of the people. From this period a reaction commenced. Those who four years before originated the trials suddenly became objects of hatred or contempt. Even the clergy, who had taken a leading part in them, became unpopular. In spite of the strenuous attempts of Dr. Cotton Mather and his disciples to revive the agitation, the tide of public opinion or feeling had set the other way, and people began to acknowledge the insufficiency of the evidence and the possible innocence of the condemned. Public fasts and prayers were decreed throughout the colony. Judges and juries emulated one another in admitting a misgiving 'that we were sadly deluded and mistaken.' Dr. Mather was less fickle and less repentant. In one of his treatises on the subject, recounting some of the signs and proofs of the actual crime, he declares: 'Nor are these the tenth part of the prodigies that fell out among the inhabitants of New England. Fleshy people may burlesque these things: but when hundreds of the most solemn people, in a country where they have as much mother-wit certainly as the rest of mankind, know them to be true, nothing but the froward spirit of Sadduceeism can question them. I have not yet (he confidently asserts) mentioned so much as one thing that will not be justified, if it be required, by the oaths of more considerate persons than any that can ridicule these odd phenomena.'[160]

[160] Narratives of Sorcery and Magic, chap. xxxi. The faith of the Fellow of Harvard College, we may be inclined to suppose, was quickened in proportion to his doubts. To do him justice, he admitted that some of the circumstances alleged might be exaggerated or even imaginary.

So ended the last of public and judicial persecutions of considerable extent for witchcraft in Christendom. As far as the superior intellects were concerned, philosophy could now dare to reaffirm that reason 'must be our last judge and guide in everything.' Yet Folly, like Dulness, 'born a goddess, never dies;' and many of the higher classes must have experienced some silent regrets for an exploded creed which held the reality of the constant personal interference of the demons in human affairs. The fact that the great body of the people of every country in Europe remained almost as firm believers as their ancestors down to the present age, hardly needs to be insisted on; that theirs was a living faith is evidenced in the ever-recurring popular outbreaks of superstitious ignorance, resulting both in this country and on the Continent often in the deaths of the objects of their diabolic fear.

Such arguments as those of Webster in England, of Becker and Thomasius in Germany, on the special subject of witchcraft, and the general arguments of Locke or of Bayle, could be addressed only to the few.[161] Nor indeed would it be philosophical to expect that the vulgar should be able to penetrate an inveterate superstition that recently had been universally credited by the learned world.

[161] Dr. Balthazar Becker, theological professor at Amsterdam, published his heretical work in Dutch, under the title of 'The World Bewitched, or a Critical Investigation of the commonly-received Opinion respecting Spirits, their Nature, Power, and Acts, and all those extraordinary Feats which Men are said to perform through their Aid;' 1691. 'He founds his arguments on two grand principles—that from their very nature spirits cannot act upon material beings, and that the Scriptures represent the devil and his satellites as shut up in the prison of hell. To explain away the texts which militate against his system, evidently cost him much labour and perplexity. His interpretations, for the most part, are similar to those still relied on by the believers in his doctrine' (Note by Murdock in Mosheim's Institutes of Ecclesiastical History). The usually candid Mosheim notices, apparently with contempt, '"The World Bewitched," a prolix and copious work, in which he perverts and explains away, with no little ingenuity indeed, but with no less audacity, whatever the sacred volume relates of persons possessed by evil spirits, and of the power of demons, and maintains that the miserable being whom the sacred writers call Satan and the devil, together with his ministers, is bound with everlasting chains in hell, so that he cannot thence go forth to terrify mortals and to plot against the righteous.' Balthazar Becker, one of the most meritorious of the opponents of diabolism, was deposed from his ministerial office by an ecclesiastical synod, and denounced as an atheist. His position, and the boldness of his arguments, excited extraordinary attention and animosity, and 'vast numbers' of Lutheran divines arose to confute his atheistical heresy. The impunity which he enjoyed from the vengeance of the devil (he had boldly challenged the deity of hell to avenge his overturned altars) was explained by the orthodox divines to be owing to the superior cunning of Satan, who was certain that he would be in the end the greatest gainer by unbelief. Christ. Thomasius, professor of jurisprudence, was the author of several works against the popular prejudice between the years 1701 and 1720. He is considered by Ennemoser to have been able to effect more from his professional position than the humanely-minded Becker. But, after all, the overthrow of the diabolic altars was caused much more by the discoveries of science than by all the writings of literary philosophers. Even in Southern Europe and in Spain (as far as was possible in that intolerant land) reason began to exhibit some faint signs of existence; and Benito Feyjoo, whose Addisonian labours in the eighteenth century in the land of the Inquisition deserve the gratitude of his countrymen (in his Teatro Critico), dared to raise his voice, however feeble, in its behalf.

The cessation of legal procedure against witches was negative rather than positive: the enactments in the statute-books were left unrepealed, and so seemed not to altogether discountenance a still somewhat doubtful prejudice. It was so late as in the ninth year of the reign of George II., 1736, that the Witch Act of 1604 was formally and finally repealed. By a tardy exertion of sense and justice the Legislature then enacted that, for the future, no prosecutions should be instituted on account of witchcraft, sorcery, conjuration, enchantment, &c., against any person or persons. Unfortunately for the credit of civilisation, it would be easy to enumerate a long list of illegal murders both before and since 1736. One or two of the most remarkable cases plainly evincing, as Scott thinks, that the witch-creed 'is only asleep, and might in remote corners be again awakened to deeds of blood,' are too significant not to be briefly referred to. In 1712 Jane Wenham, a poor woman belonging to the village of Walkern, in the county of Hertford, was solemnly found guilty by the jury on the evidence of sixteen witnesses, of whom three were clergymen; Judge Powell presiding. She was condemned to death as a witch in the usual manner; but was reprieved on the representation of the judge. She had been commonly known in the neighbourhood of her home as a malicious witch, who took great pleasure in afflicting farmers' cattle and in effecting similar mischief. The incumbent of Walkern, the Rev. Mr. Gardiner, fully shared the prejudice of his parishioners; and, far from attempting to dispel, he entirely concurred with, their suspicions. A warrant was obtained from the magistrate, Sir Henry Chauncy, for the arrest of the accused: and she was brought before that local official; depositions were taken, and she was searched for 'marks.' The vicar of Ardley, a neighbouring village, tested her guilt or innocence with the Lord's Prayer, which was repeated incorrectly: by threats and other means he forced the confession that she was indeed an agent of the devil, and had had intercourse with him.

But, even in the middle of the eighteenth century, witches were occasionally tried and condemned by judicial tribunals. In the year 1749, Maria or Emma Renata, a nun in the convent of Unterzell, near Wuerzburg, was condemned by the spiritual, and executed by the civil, power. By the clemency of the prince, the proper death by burning alive was remitted to the milder sentence of beheading, and afterwards burning the corpse to ashes: for no vestige of such an accursed criminal should be permitted to remain after death. When a young girl Maria Renata had been seduced to witchcraft by a military officer, and was accustomed to attend the witch-assemblies. In the convent she practised her infernal arts in bewitching her sister-nuns.[162] About the same time a nun in the south of France was subjected to the barbarous imputation and treatment of a witch: Father Girard, discovering that his mistress had some extraordinary scrofulous marks, conceived the idea of proclaiming to the world that she was possessed of the stigmata—impressions of the marks of the nails and spear on the crucified Lord, believed to be reproduced on the persons of those who, like the celebrated St. Francis, most nearly assimilated their lives to His. The Jesuits eagerly embraced an opportunity of producing a miracle which might confound their Jansenist rivals, whose sensational miracles were threatening to eclipse their own.[163] Sir Walter Scott states that the last judicial sentence of death for witchcraft in Scotland was executed in 1722, when Captain David Ross, sheriff of Sutherland, condemned a woman to the stake. As for illegal persecution, M. Garinet ('Histoire de la Magie en France') gives a list of upwards of twenty instances occurring in France between the years 1805 and 1818. In the latter year three tribunals were occupied with the trials of the murderers.

[162] Ennemoser relates the history of this witch from 'The Christian address at the burning of Maria Renata, of the convent of Unterzell, who was burnt on June 21, 1749, which address was delivered to a numerous multitude, and afterwards printed by command of the authorities.' The preacher earnestly insisted upon the divine sanction and obligation of the Mosaic law, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,' which was taken as the text; and upon the fact that, so far from being abolished by Christianity, it was made more imperative by the Christian Church.

[163] The victim of the pleasure, and afterwards of the ambition, of Father Girard, is known as La Cadiere. She was a native of Toulon, and when young had witnessed the destructive effects of the plague which devastated that city in 1720. Amidst the confusion of society she was distinguished by her purity and benevolence. The story of La Cadiere and Father Girard is eloquently narrated by M. Michelet in La Sorciere. The convulsions of the Flagellants of the thirteenth century, and of the Protestant Revivalists of the present day, exhibit on a large scale the paroxysms of the French convents and the Dutch orphan-houses of the seventeenth century. Nor is diabolical 'possession' yet extinct in Christendom, if the reports received from time to time from the Continent are to be credited. Recently, a convent of Augustinian nuns at Loretto, on the authority of the Corriere delle Marche of Ancona, was attacked in a similar way to that of Loudun. A vomiting of needles and pins, the old diabolical torture, and a strict examination of the accused, followed.

If a belief should be entertained that the now 'vulgar' ideas of witchcraft have been long obsolete in England, it would be destroyed by a perusal of a few of the newspapers and periodicals of the last hundred years; and a sufficiently voluminous work might be occupied with the achievements of modern Sidrophels, and the records of murders or mutilations perpetrated by an ignorant mob.[164]

[164] Without noticing other equally notorious instances of recent years, it may be enough (to dispel any such possible illusion) to transcribe a paragraph from an account in The Times newspaper of Sept. 24, 1863. 'It is a somewhat singular fact,' says the writer, describing a late notorious witch-persecution in the county of Essex, 'that nearly all the sixty or seventy persons concerned in the outrage which resulted in the death of the deceased were of the small tradesmen class, and that none of the agricultural labourers were mixed up in the affair. It is also stated that none of those engaged were in any way under the influence of liquor. The whole disgraceful transaction arose out of a deep belief in witchcraft, which possesses to a lamentable extent the tradespeople and the lower orders of the district.' Nor does it appear that the village of Hedingham (the scene of the witch-murder) claims a superiority in credulity over other villages in Essex or in England. The instigator and chief agent in the Hedingham case was the wife of an innkeeper, who was convinced that she had been bewitched by an old wizard of reputation in the neighbourhood: and the mode of punishment was the popular one of drowning or suffocating in the nearest pond. Scraps of written papers found in the hovel of the murdered wizard revealed the numerous applications by lovers, wives, and other anxious inquirers. Amongst other recent revivals of the 'Black Art' in Southern Europe already referred to, the inquisition at Rome upon a well-known English or American 'spiritualist,' when, as we learn from himself, he was compelled to make a solemn abjuration that he had not surrendered his soul to the devil, is significant.

Nor would it be safe to assume, with some writers, that diabolism, as a vulgar prejudice, is now entirely extirpated from Protestant Christendom, and survives only in the most orthodox countries of Catholicism or in the remoter parts of northern or eastern Europe. Superstition, however mitigated, exists even in the freer Protestant lands of Europe and America; and if Protestants are able to smile at the religious creeds or observances of other sects, they may have, it is probable, something less pernicious, but perhaps almost as absurd, in their own creed.[165] But, after a despotism of fifteen centuries, Christendom has at length thrown off the hellish yoke, whose horrid tyranny was satiated with innumerable holocausts. The once tremendous power of the infernal arts is remembered by the higher classes of society of the present age only in their proverbial language, but it is indelibly graven in the common literature of Europe. With the savage peoples of the African continent and of the barbarous regions of the globe, witchcraft or sorcery, under the name of Fetishism, flourishes with as much vigour and with as destructive effects as in Europe in the sixteenth century; and every traveller returning from Eastern or Western Africa, or from the South Pacific, testifies to the prevalence of the practice of horrid and bloody rites of a religious observance consisting of charms and incantations. With those peoples that have no further conception of the religious sentiment there obtains for the most part, at least, the magical use of sorcery.[166] Superstition, ever varying, at some future date may assume, even in Europe, a form as pernicious or irrational as any of a past or of the present age; for in every age 'religion, which should most distinguish us from beasts, and ought most peculiarly to elevate us as rational creatures above brutes, is that wherein men often appear most irrational and more senseless than beasts themselves.'[167]

[165] A modern philosopher has well illustrated this obvious truth (Natural History of Religion, sect. xii.). 'The age of superstition,' says an essayist of some notoriety, with perfect truth, 'is not past; nor,' he adds, a more questionable thesis, 'ought we to wish it past.' Some of the most eminent writers (e.g. Plutarch, Francis Bacon, Bayle, Addison) have rightly or wrongly agreed to consider fanatical superstition more pernicious than atheism. When it is considered that the scientific philosophy of Aristotle, of more than 2,000 years ago, was revived at a comparatively recent date, it may be difficult not to believe in a cyclic rather than really progressive course of human ideas, at least in metaphysics. The fact, remarked by Macaulay, that the two principal sections of Christendom in Europe remain very nearly in the limits in which they were in the sixteenth, or in the middle of the seventeenth century, is incontestable. Nor, indeed, are present facts and symptoms so adverse, as is generally supposed, to the probability of an ultimate reaction in favour of Catholic doctrine and rule, even among the Teutonic peoples, in the revolutions to which human ideas are continually subject.

[166] Among the numerous evidences of recent travellers may be specially mentioned that of the well-known traveller R. F. Burton (The Lake Regions of Central Africa) for the practices of the Eastern Africans. On the African continent and elsewhere, as was the case amongst the ancient Jews, the demons are propitiated by human sacrifices. To what extent witch-superstition obtains among the Hindus, the historian of British India bears witness. 'The belief of witchcraft and sorcery,' says Mr. Mill, 'continues universally prevalent, and is every day the cause of the greatest enormities. It not unfrequently happens that Brahmins tried for murder before the English judges assign as their motive to the crime that the murdered individual had enchanted them. No fewer than five unhappy persons in one district were tried and executed for witchcraft so late as the year 1792. The villagers themselves assume the right of sitting in judgment on this imaginary offence, and their sole instruments of proof are the most wretched of all incantations (History of British India, book ii. 7). A certain instinctive or traditional dread of evil spirits excites the terrors of those peoples who have no firm belief in the providence or existence of a benevolent Divinity. Even among the Chinese—the least religious nation in the world, and whose trite formula of scepticism, 'Religions are many: Reason is one,' expresses their indifferentism to every form of religion—there exists a sort of demoniacal fear (Huc's Chinese Empire, xix.). The diabolic and magic superstitions of the Moslem are displayed in Sale's Koran and Lane's Modern Egyptians.

[167] Essay concerning the Human Understanding, book iv. 18.

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Transcriber's notes

Page 27: Deleted extra "the"

Page 39: Removed comma after "Scandinavians."

Page 90: Added missing quotation mark.

Page 107: Corrected typo "Hutchison's."

Page 165: Corrected typo "transsubstantiated."

Page 278: Added period after "xix."


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