Why were witches persecuted in 17th century New England? Research and
historical studies now show who were chosen to be persecuted as a witch in America.
Mass hysteria gripped the people of New England in 1692 and caused the largest mass witch
hunt in American history. This scary period exerts a continuing fascination to both
scholarly, professional and lay audiences. Before it ended, a yearlong pursuit of the devil
across New England culminated in 150 victims and 20 executions. It exceeded the death
count that had occurred in Hartford, Connecticut in the early 1660's. It created fear for
everyone, not just those who were different, may have dabbled in witchcraft or have been a
little different from the norm.
The church-going Puritans accused at least one hundred people of witchcraft in New England fifty years before the Salem witch trials. Fourteen of those people, and perhaps as many as sixteen, answered those charges with their lives. Fear of witches and belief in their magical powers was not an isolated episode in the colonial experience; it was deeply woven into early New England's culture.
Although the Salem witch-hunts have been the most studied witch cases, there were actually two episodes of witch accusations followed by the hanging of the accused during 17th century New England. One first was between 1647 and 1663, when 34 people were tried for witchcraft and 17 of them were hanged. Seven witchcraft suspects were tried and hung in Connecticut.
Previously skeptical of witchcraft charges, magistrates in Salem Village became witch-hunters themselves by early 1600. Magistrates joined together with local ministers who whipped up witch hysteria to accuse and punish a few suspected witches.
Then, a lull in witch accusations occurred in New England from 1663 to 1688, with the Connecticut populace actually becoming more tolerant of the beliefs of individuals. However, Massachusetts became a hotbed for witch hysteria in 1688, with the prosecution of Goody Glover, a poor laundress from Ireland.
The Famous Case of Goody Glover, Accused Witch
Born in Ireland, Goody was a Roman Catholic who was sold into slavery by the English during the period that Ireland was under the political control of England in the 1650s. She was sent to Barbados along with her husband, who was killed for not renouncing his Catholic faith. Ann and her daughter migrated to Boston, Massachusetts by 1680, where Goody took in washing to survive.
It was a hot summer in 1688. An argument broke out in the Goodwin home where Goody and her daughter Mary were house keepers. Martha, the oldest child in the Goodwin family accused Goody’s daughter, Mary, of stealing linen. Goody argued in defense of her daughter.
Martha claimed that Mary, the washerwoman’s daughter, had stolen linen from the house. As Goody Glover cursed the girl for accusing Goody’s daughter of stealing, she began having strange fits. Termed “the disease of astonishment,” these symptoms included neck and back pain, loud outbursts, flapping of the arms and losing bodily control.
After three more of the Goodwin’s children began having the same fits, a prominent local doctor diagnosed the affliction as being caused by the witchcraft practiced on them by Goody Glover. Goody was arrested and accused by Reverend Cotton Mather of casting a spell on 4 of the 6 Goodwin children who were having the fits.
After her arrest, prosecutor’s claimed a search of Goody’s house turned up “poppets,” small dolls made of cloth, herbs and goat hair in the likeness of the targets being cursed.
While in custody, Goody Glover was somehow compelled (thumb screws?) into confessing that she cursed the Goodwin girl for accusing her daughter of stealing. Being Irish and having experienced persecution while under British rule, Goody was also mistreated in America and considered an outcast for her Catholic Irish background.
At the trial, Goody was asked how she used the poppet. As she wetted her fingers with her own saliva, she stroked the small doll, one of the Goodwin children who was sitting in the audience went into a fit. Below are poppets like the ones believed to be used by accused witch Goody Glover to curse the Goodwin children. The poppet on the left is on display at the Salem Museum.
Prosecutors strengthened their case against Goody by asking her to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English to prove she was not a witch. Knowing little English, she recited the words in her mother tongue of Gaelic mixed with Latin. Unable to defend against the crazy accusations Goody Glover was condemned to death.
Just before she was to hang, Goody told the audience that the Goodwin children will not be relieved by her hanging, because there were other witches who had participated in the spell against them.
Goody Glover was hung as a witch on November 16, 1688, while people in the audience yelled out derogatory remarks and the “disease of astonishment” became associated with witchcraft and witch accusations throughout New England for the next few decades.
To rectify the wrongs committed against Goody and 300 years after her hanging, the Boston City Council in 1988 proclaimed Goody Glover Day on November 16th.
Witchcraft in the 21st Century
Today, witch may refer to anyone from a practitioner of Wicca to an evil-tempered woman
or a rebellious teen. Who has not heard the contemporary comment, "She's a real witch?"
Who in twenty-first century America jumps to the conclusion that the subject has sold her
soul to the devil for earthly power?
In seventeenth-century Great Britain or Salem, Massachusetts, however, such an
accusation would be neither a metaphor nor an exaggeration but a literal accusation, one
that would be taken very seriously. Trial and hanging would be a common result.
The existence of a witch was an accepted fact of life in medieval and early modern Europe.
Books on conducting witch-hunts, discovering witch identity, and prosecuting and punishing
witches were quite common.
The general population and extremely educated people alike looked for the existence not only of witches but also of supernatural entities in general. "The Devil's in that child" was not a statement taken lightly since the colonists believed that the devil literally walked the earth
possessing and ensnaring unwary Christian souls. Several Puritan narratives deal with
preachers, most notably Cotton Mather, who ministered to children, who were identified
as a witch or possessed by the devil.
Since medieval Europe and the early modern era were intensely misogynistic as well as
profoundly religious, it is not surprising that the vast majority of people accused of
witchcraft were women. Women were, after all, directly responsible for mankind's hasty
and untimely exit from Paradise; they were considered deceitful, sinful, lustful, and natural
allies of Satan Himself.
The Puritan theocracy, closely tied to the Old Testament and the strongly patriarchal
writings of the Early Church Fathers, particularly stressed the necessity for man's dominion
over women both religiously and civically. Man's duty toward woman was to control and
make her submissive to his will.
One of the prerogatives of power is control of knowledge. It follows, therefore, that the
Puritan theocracy would not only wish to control knowledge in the interests of wielding
power but would also be very threatened by anyone who exercised knowledge that they did
not control. A learned woman who disagreed on matters of theology with the reigning power
structure, is automatically associated with witchcraft, not because she carried out witch-like
behavior (spells, charms, etc.) but because she was educated and outspoken.
Conservative estimates state that 75 to 80 per cent of those accused and executed as
a witch were women, an educated and outspoken woman ran a substantial risk of being
treated as a witch. Educated women who had more knowledge than was permissible or
acceptable were considered a witch and were believed to be enemies of God and the State.
In colonial America, Salem in particular, other women who were called witches happened to
be disruptive women who did not play by the rules. They were women who challenged
patriarchal assumptions. Puritans argued that any woman who used disruptive knowledge
to challenge the theocracy was a witch; the accusation demarcated and demonized the
woman, who were then accused and often executed.
Such action not only demonized the woman but also sends out a message that reinforces the
risk of possessing or using disruptive knowledge.
The behavioral norms of Puritan society were very exacting; no religious dissent was
tolerated and no presumption of women's equality with men was tolerated because the
Puritan theocracy depended on a rigidly structured social order. Anyone who threatened
established authority was perceived as engaged in witchcraft.
Foulds, D.E. Death in Salem: The Private Lives behind the 1692 Witch Hunt, 2013.
Flanders, A.B. There Will Always Be a Goody Glover, 1974.
Norton, M.B. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, 2003.
Witches: Who Were They?
A witch in seventeenth-century
British and European culture
could have been a rebellious
teenage girl, or a practitioner of
charms and spells and at worst a
creature who practices harmful
magic or witchcraft.
In early America and England
the witch may have been
thought to be allied with the
Witches in Early England
Joining organized witch groups
was a way to reject society's
rules in the 18th and 19th
century just as it is today.
However, the punishment
could be as severe as hanging.
The biggest targets were women
who were considered "cunning
women," i.e., healers (midwives
in particular) or fortune-tellers,
and who could compete in wit and
education with men were often at
risk of being labeled a witch.