Two Thoughts on Salem

Christians Blamed Native Americans for Witchcraft

Boston clergyman Cotton Mather saw New Englanders like Mercy Short as particularly vulnerable to attacks by the Devil in the late seventeenth century due to the presence of Christianity on Native American land (or, more in his parlance, land formerly occupied only by the indigenous). Mather’s A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning of 1693 opens with two sentences outlining how Mercy Short was captured by “cruel and Bloody Indians” in her youth.[1] They killed her family and held her for ransom, which was eventually paid. This first paragraph may seem out of place, its only purpose seemingly being to evoke sympathy: see how much this young woman has suffered. “[S]he had then already Born the Yoke in her youth, Yett God Almighty saw it Good for her to Bear more…”[2]

However, the paragraph serves to establish a tacit connection between indigenous people and the witchcraft plaguing Salem. This is made more explicit later in the text, when Mather writes that someone executed at Salem testified “Indian sagamores” had been present at witch meetings to organize “the methods of ruining New England,” and that Mercy Short, in a possessed state, revealed the same, adding Native Americans at such meetings held a book of “Idolatrous Devotions.”[3] Mather, and others, believed Indigenous peoples were involved in the Devil’s work, so torturous to New Englanders. This was perceived to be a reaction to the Puritan presence. “It was a rousing alarm to the Devil,” Mather wrote in The Wonders of the Invisible World (1692), “when a great company of English Protestants and Puritans came to erect evangelical churches in a corner of the world where he had reigned…”[4] The Devil, displeased that Christianity was now “preached in this howling wilderness,” used native peoples to try to drive the Puritans out, including the sorcery of “Indian Powwows,” religious figures.[5] Because of Christianity’s presence in the “New World,” people like Mercy Short were far more at risk of diabolical terror — Mather thought “there never was a poor plantation more pursued by the wrath of the Devil…”[6]

The Accusers Parroted Each Other and No One Noticed

During the Salem witch trials of 1692, hysteria spread and convictions were secured due in part to near-verbatim repetition among the accusers. It seems likely that, rather than arousing suspicion, the fact that New Englanders accusing their neighbors of witchcraft used the precise same phrasing was viewed as evidence of truthtelling. Elizabeth Hubbard, testifying against a native woman named Tituba, reported: “I saw the apparition of Tituba Indian, which did immediately most grievously torment me…”[7] This occurred until “the day of her examination, being March 1, and then also at the beginning of her examination, but as soon as she began to confess she left off hurting me and has hurt me but little since.”[8] This is nearly identical to the testimony that occurred the same day from Ann Putnam, Jr. She said, “I saw the apparition of Tituba, Mr. Parris’s Indian woman, which did torture me most grievously…till March 1, being the day of her examination, and then also most grievously also at the beginning of her examination, but since she confessed she has hurt me but little.”[9] Though premeditation is in the realm of the possible (in other words, Putnam and Hubbard aligning their stories beforehand), this could be the result of spontaneous mimicking, whether conscious or subconscious, in a courtroom that was rather open (the second testifier copied the first because she was present to hear it).

This was a pattern in the trials that strengthened the believability of witchcraft tales. At the trial of Dorcas Hoar, accusers testified that “I verily believe in my heart that Dorcas Hoar is a witch” (Sarah Bibber), “I verily believe that Dorcas Hoar, the prisoner at the bar, is a witch” (Elizabeth Hubbard), “I verily believe in my heart that Dorcas Hoar is a witch” (Ann Putnam, Jr.), and “I verily believe in my heart that Dorcas Hoar is a most dreadful witch” (Mary Walcott).[10] Like the statements on Tituba, these occurred on the same day — a self-generating script that spelled destruction for the accused.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

[1] Cotton Mather, A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning, in George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the New England Witch Trials (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2012), 259.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 281-282.

[4] Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World, in Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 49.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Elizabeth Hubbard against Tituba,” in Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 92.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 93.

[10] “Sarah Bibber against Dorcas Hoar,” “Elizabeth Hubbard against Dorcas Hoar,” “Ann Putnam Jr. against Dorcas Hoar,” and “Mary Walcott against Dorcas Hoar,” in Richard Godbeer, The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018), 121-122.