In the span of 15 months beginning in 1692, 20 people were executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Five others died in prison. 62 people were detained for witchcraft before cooler minds prevailed and the proceedings were put to a halt.
The accused came from all over Massachusetts, but the bulk of the trials had taken place in the Court of Oyer and Terminer (a type of court set up for a specific purpose), in Salem. The Court used several “experts” to facilitate the trials, and one of them was no less than Cotton Mather. You probably don’t recognize the name, but at the time of the Witch Trials he was kind of a big thing. His father, Increase Mather was President of Harvard University and Cotton seemed in line for that position himself. He was very scientifically minded. He was a promoter of inoculation, the precursor to vaccinations, and did experiments in hybridization. He was also socially influential and politically active, along with his duties as a Puritan minister.
Cotton Mather’s influence in the witch trials at Salem was undeniable. Not only did he help preside over many of the trials, but his book “Memorable Providences”, published three years earlier, is considered to be the spark of the hysteria that swept through the Puritan colonies. That book allegedly presented the cases of supernatural afflictions of several children in Boston.
After the Salem Witch Trials were concluded, people wanted answers. How could it have gotten that far? TO serve as his own defence, Cotton Mather wrote the book featured in this article, “The Wonders of the Invisible World“. In this book, Mather describes the testimony offered at several of the trials, and why he made some of the decisions he did as a special counsel to the Court.
Cotton Mather, and his father, Increase Mather, maintained and promoted a theory that Satan was busy at work in the Puritan colonies. Or rather, that the Puritans were inhabiting Satan’s land. The distinction makes little difference as they believed that Satan was trying to bring about the extinction of the Puritans. To confirm their theories, they found “evidence” for this everywhere they looked. That is what spurred Cotton to write “Memorable Providence”, and what set him up as an “expert” on the business of the occult during the resulting witch trials.
The first edition was met with much scorn, disbelief and criticism. It was followed quickly with a second edition that added a further account by Increase Mather, who was still President of Harvard at the time. Increase rebuked the critics and supported his son. Increase would lose his Harvard Presidency for it, and Cotton would never be considered for the position he was once all but guaranteed.
The most concise deconstruction of the events in Salem and the Mathers’ defence of it came from Robert Calef, who accompanied Cotton on some of the “testimony-gathering” visits, and had concerns about things then. After the release of Mather’s book, he corresponded with both of the Mathers and included some of that correspondence in his own book on the matter, titled, “More Wonders of the Invisible World“. With Increase’s position in Harvard, the Mathers held considerable influence over the printing presses in Boston, and Calef had to send his manuscript to the UK for publication. Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Calef’s book in his personal library. …but I digress.
There is so much that I could write about with this book. The claims are shockingly fantastical. For example, one farmer levelled a charge of witchcraft against a woman when he claimed to have discovered his cows leaping into the air a good four feet, dancing, speaking (SPEAKING!) before falling over dead. He went to cut one of the cow’s ears off for an unknown reason and his knife-hand was allegedly struck numb and remained useless to him for several days. The accused witch, Elizabeth How (or Howe), was executed by hanging in a matter of days after her guilty verdict. The farmer who had accused her was John Howe, her brother-in-law.
The language in the book is 17th century English, so it is not an easy read. The grammar and punctuation follow slightly different rules than we are used to, and the vocabulary is challenging in the way that some words are spelled differently, and words are randomly capitalized, like so:
It was testifi’d, That at the Examination of the Prisoner before the Magistrates, the Bewitched were extreamly tortured.
The book also contains numerous religious references and it would be helpful (but not necessary) for the reader to be reasonably knowledgeable of some of the familiar scriptures. Other than that, it’s a truly and frighteningly mind-boggling experience to see what was being believed as fact and how it was being justified.
There were wild stories of the accused attending witch meetings which essentially amounted to ritualized orgies with Satan himself. Endless accounts of bewitchment, vexations, and spiritual botherances.
You can find Wonders of the Ancient World available for free in various formats. You can find it read aloud by several readers at Librivox.org, you can also download free electronic versions of the books at the Project Gutenberg site or at the Internet Archive (interestingly, the copy that was kept in the Harvard University Library).