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Gender in Colonial New England

The Witches and Witch Trials of New England

An accusation of witchcraft was a serious matter in seventeenth century New England. The regional religious climate of the period was so fervent that people actually believed the Devil was literally lurking just around the corner. He could be manifested in any number of guises, just waiting to tempt people into sin and eternal hellfire. Women were considered especially vulnerable to the Devil's temptations; after all, European culture dating back to the Medieval Ages had depicted females as temptresses who could lead men astray, and the Bible claimed that Eve and her kind had been forever tainted with sin from the moment she accepted the serpent's apple in the Garden of Eden.

Because witchcraft accusations were so serious in colonial society—witchcraft was punishable by death—the justice system intervened to try to prevent false accusations of witchcraft or possession by harshly punishing those who made false charges. When, in 1647, a Springfield, Massachusetts, woman named Mary Parsons was accused of spreading rumors that a local widow was a witch, a local judge sentenced her to be "well whipped...with 20 lashes by the Constable unless she could procure the payment of 3 pounds" to the widow in question "for and towards the reparation of her good name." Still, not even such harsh punishments for false accusations could prevent witchcraft hysteria from repeatedly erupting within New England communities. The first accusations predated the infamous Salem Witch Trials (1692) by almost half a century; the first person in North America to actually confess to witchcraft was Mary Johnson, in 1648. Even before the Salem witch hysteria, more than 300 people were charged with witchcraft in New England, and most of them were middle-aged women. Over 30 were hanged.

A witch, Puritans believed, was a person who made a pact with the Devil in order to obtain supernatural powers. Such powers were held responsible for social afflictions such as crop failures or stillborn children. Popular faith in the existence of witchcraft—and the danger posed by it—was brought to America from Europe, where hangings for witchcraft dated back to medieval times and were often presided over by the most prominent village officials. The Puritan clergy of New England compounded this historical legacy by constantly warning their congregations of Satan's omnipresence and his devices of temptation. Because Massachusetts was well known for its religiosity, church elders reasoned that their colony—the so-called Bible Commonwealth—was a special target for a Devil who targeted the godly. Schoolchildren were taught in their primers that Satan would attempt to lure boys by offering them permission to skip school and play all day long. In short, New England Puritans believed that the Devil was a visceral presence in their daily lives, that they must remain constantly vigilant against him, and that if they failed to do so it would be at the peril of their own souls. An all-encompassing terror of eternal damnation was a constant presence in the lives of these settlers.

The Salem Witch Trials

The heightened tensions and anxiety of the post-Glorious Revolution period in North America contributed to an outbreak of unparalleled witchcraft hysteria in late 1691. The colony of Massachusetts was undergoing a difficult transition to its new status as a royal province in which religious toleration was mandated from the crown and town membership surpassed church membership as the prerequisite for voting power. Salem Village, scene of the infamous witch trials, was in the process of trying to break free from the taxes and influence of its neighbor, the larger Salem town on the coast. These subtle sources of anxiety and tension may have made the town residents even more willing than most Puritans to believe that the Devil was present and active in their midst. A recent historical reinterpretation has argued that a frontier conflict with nearby Indians known as King William's War was an essential precursor to the witchcraft trials. In this new account, historian Mary Beth Norton argues that the colonists saw themselves as punished for their sins by visible spirits (the Native Americans) and invisible ones (the Devil's Satanic possession).

The story of how the Salem witch hysteria began has a few subtly different versions, but all of them involve several pubescent girls in the town. One explanation describes how the girls began to experiment with fortune-telling by dropping an egg white into a glass and asking what trade their future husbands would practice. Another says that the girls met in the kitchen of town minister Reverend Samuel Paris, to hear his West Indian slave Tituba tell them voodoo stories. Both accounts might well be true, and ultimately the girls began experiencing nightmares and suffering fits, in which they shouted, barked, and seemed to undergo involuntary spasms. The town doctor and other adults interpreted these symptoms as signs of demonic possession. The girls identified Tituba and two other women, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, as their tormentors and as Satan's servants. The three women were arrested. Tituba confessed to the charge and then proceeded to identify several people in town who she said were also performing Satan's deeds.

By March, 1692, seven more people in town were said to be afflicted, including a well-respected matron, a desperately poor man, four maidservants, and one child, twelve-year-old Anne Putnam. Men, women, and children were accused of witchcraft. When a former preacher returned to Salem to preach in the meetinghouse, he found what was considered to be solid proof of Satan's presence: the possessed group spoke in church and commented on the sermon, two actions forbidden to any member of the congregation regardless of sex, age, or status.

Women, Witches, and Puritan Society

Few avenues were open to women who sought influence in the community and among its traditional elites. Through witchcraft, which cast women as the medium between the natural and supernatural worlds, women could attain a power that terrified many New Englanders. Fear of female empowerment cannot entirely explain the psychology behind any of the New England witch trials, but the hysterical response to alleged witches does, obliquely, speak volumes about the limited avenues open to women during this period. Perversely, witchcraft trials allowed women to testify and took women's words (both in accusation and defense) seriously; the only other place where New England women could speak in church or influence church governance was the Quaker meetinghouse.

Significantly, Salem magistrates treated their witnesses' testimony with a great deal of respect during the infamous witch trials of 1692. Women who had long since been deprived of any political or judicial authority were suddenly taken at their word, and their testimony carried the power to end lives and to destabilize the entire community only because it was given credence by powerful male authority figures. The magistrates believed the statements of those such as Elizabeth Johnson and William Barker who claimed that Satan was planning a literal attack upon Salem, to be followed by attacks throughout the region, so that he might abolish all the churches and set up his own Devil's kingdom. The metaphorical dimensions of Satan's trap quickly slipped into the literal dimension and back again during the course of this testimony. Both accusers and the accused described meetings with the Devil and over 200 people who professed their allegiance to him. One man testified that he saw accused witch Susannah Sheldon carried through her yard and over a stone wall by some other witches. Although ministers never described Satan physically in their sermons, they believed the various representations of him that emerged during the trials: he appeared as a "black man" (not necessarily connoting an African man), a large black dog, a hog, a red cat, a black cat, a little yellow bird, and even a clawed monkey with the face of a man and the feet of a cock. All of these versions seemed plausible to a society that assumed the Devil could appear in various guises to tempt his victims.

The Case of George Burroughs, Bad Husband and Accused Wizard

Not all of those tried were women; the former minister of Salem, George Burroughs, had left town for Maine nine years earlier but was brought back for trial as a wizard. During his trial, neighbors John and Rebecca Putnam—parents of Ann, who was one of the "possessed"—testified that while he was town minister during the 1680s, Burroughs had asked the Putnams to hear his side of a serious argument with his wife. He had wanted her to sign a covenant that she would never reveal his secrets; the Putnams were shocked to hear this, as most Puritans would have been obligated to consider the covenant of marriage sufficient for such a promise. The Putnams also remarked that Burroughs was very "sharp" with his wife in their presence, though they observed that "she was a very good and dutifull wife to him."

The girls at the center of the trial accused Burroughs of being a ringleader for the witches, the very man who forced women to sign the Devil's black book. They said that his two dead wives had appeared and testified that he had killed them. Clearly village gossip had circulated throughout the private homes of Salem, thus sealing the minister's negative reputation with the town's women and, as it turned out, his fate. The testimony of neighbors reinforced these accusations, and his reputation was further damaged by the appearance of two matrons from his new congregation in Maine, both of whom described Burroughs's unkindness to his second wife and his paranoia over her conversations with other women. Another man accused of witchcraft, Giles Corey, was "stoned"—literally pressed to death by heavy stones. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the accused witches were women.

That the young girls who drove Salem's witchcraft hysteria could be taken at their word by adults and especially by powerful members of the community certainly empowered them with an influence seldom experienced by such young Puritans, let alone Puritan females. In a telling encounter towards the end of 1692, as the hysteria subsided, some of the girls encountered an elderly woman resting on a bridge as they traveled through neighboring Ipswich. They began shouting "A witch!" and writhing around as though possessed; but when no one took notice, the girls got up and proceeded on their way, suggesting that that Salem's witchcraft hysteria may have been, in part, a simple matter of adolescent attention-seeking.

The Results

By September 1692, it became clear that accused witches who confessed to their possession would be spared their lives. Such confessions were consistent with Puritan theology and court procedure. Those women who denied any guilt, even just initially, had manifested a sense of independence and a resistance to authority that demanded punishment. Sarah Good insisted upon her innocence all the way through to the day of her execution, when she warned her minister that "You are a lyer; I am no more a Witch than you are a Wizard, and if you take away my Life, God will give you Blood to drink." Such denials and refusals to confess flew in the face of a strictly hierarchical Puritan faith; they defied both the court and the notion of a woman's proper comportment. The accusations continued to spread, and as they did, the leaders of Massachusetts Bay Colony became concerned.

Finally, the governor intervened when his own wife was accused of witchcraft. The special court at Salem was disbanded and the remaining suspects were released. After a year of hysteria, more than 100 arrests, and nineteen hangings (including a 71-year-old woman and several husbands of the convicted witches) the witch trials reached an end.

This disturbing chapter in the region's history pointed to more than simply adolescent hormones run amok (most of the testimony ultimately came from adults) or underlying feuds among the families of the town. The fact that most of the accused were women, and that most of those women had somehow manifested an independence or insubordination deemed inappropriate and even potentially disruptive or dangerous, should provide one of the most telling explanations of all. It is also worthy of note that most of the accused were middle-aged, without sons or brothers; they thus stood to inherit property and to live as autonomous spinsters, an existence that in and of itself threatened to defy or unseat the carefully maintained and cherished patriarchal order of this seventeenth-century society.

Women's Work Is Never Done

Women who lived on farms woke at four in the morning and made breakfast for their families by five or five-thirty. They woke the children, fed the livestock, churned butter, prepared lunch, tended the garden, cleaned the house, herded and milked the cows, hoed the cabbage, prepared dinner, and got the children ready for bed. They knitted linen and cotton, made candles and soap, combed, spun, bleached, and wove wool to make clothes, hemmed sheets, sewed quilts, mended, altered, and knit the family's clothing, washed the laundry, hauled water, and chopped wood. They taught their daughters to sew and to spin wool so that they in turn could knit stockings, dishcloths, caps, and mittens. They performed medical aid for injured livestock and for family injuries. Because of the high rate of childbirth, many women gave birth every other year for a decade or more, and performed most of these tasks while pregnant.

As if this weren't enough, some women also labored outside the home in the eighteenth century. Most of the babies born in colonial North America were delivered by midwives, a profession that did not decline until the advent of "male science," the forceps (a surgical instrument used in childbirth and resembling tongs), and obstetrics during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When a mother gave birth in seventeenth and eighteenth century New England, she was surrounded by the women of the community; midwifery manuals advised mothers to provide refreshments for these guests. The women provided valuable moral support, but they also gathered herbs from the garden and the field which they crushed and made into medicinal concoctions to help alleviate the mother's pain during childbirth, which of course occurred without the modern accoutrements of the sterile hospital room, the educated physician, or any modern form of anesthetic.

Family Life

During the eighteenth century, women also became the center of the family, as the father-dominated and disciplined unit gave way to a "modern" approach simultaneously popular in Europe, which stressed affection on the part of the parents and encouraged self-expression in children. Previously, whites had disparaged Native American parents along the Atlantic coast for what was perceived as their lax approach to parenting. Ironically, as time went on, whites adapted parenting techniques more reminiscent of the Indians' very permissiveness, even if both cultures remained fundamentally distinct from one another. Nor did white male patriarchy disappear; men still retained control over family finances and disciplinary forms varied from family to family. But the advent of the nuclear family, even in its earliest stages, was a significant outgrowth of this period.

Opportunities and Liberties

In towns, women were shopkeepers and tavern hostesses, and could also work as printers, painters, doctors, teachers, silversmiths, shipwrights, and tanners. In many but not all of these cases, the women were widows who carried on their deceased husbands' careers. Women enjoyed greater control over property than they did in Europe, and the Puritan call for order and stability at home led to legislation designed to discourage spousal abuse and granting women the ability to divorce, but only in some cases and usually as the town magistrates saw fit.

Since the very earliest settlements, "godly" women had been enjoined to meditate, read, and write. A very small number of them published their writings, notably Anne Bradstreet, whose work The Tenth Muse was published in England in 1650 and in the colonies in 1678. Bradstreet's preface read: "I am obnoxious to each carping tongue / Who says my hand a needle better fits"; in other words, Bradstreet acknowledged her critics, who thought that she would be better suited to sewing instead of writing. Yet the Puritan clergy, such as Bradstreet's own brother-in-law John Woodbridge, proudly presented her work to the public, and her book was prefaced by commendations from six other men. Nonetheless, long-standing notions of ultimate male superiority and female dependency and subordination were imported from Europe and remained very much intact and prevalent throughout the colonies.

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