|A classic theme in America was the threat that witches might pose to children. Whilst
this was a well-developed European obsession long before America was colonized, the
early settlers made it their own.
Parents became worried that witches would kidnap their children of the many cases
collected by the Mathers of children accusing old women of harming them or
tempting them into danger: Accused witches Elizabeth Knapp, Katherine Branch, and
perhaps most evidently the Goodwin children, who accused their laundress of
bewitching them in 1688.
In the area surrounding Salem, Massachusetts, nineteen people were hanged for
witchcraft, and at least 156 imprisoned, one of whom was pressed to death for
refusing to plead. The Salem witchcraft trials were not America’s first, and they
would not be the last: accusations began in about 1640 and continued to initiate legal
process until at least 1697. But their scale and the cultural soul-searching that they
provoked was unique.
Cotton Mather described the two sides in the dispute, lamenting that he must record
division between two groups at all:
On the one side; [Alas, my Pen, must thou write the word, Side in the
Business?] There are very worthy Men, who having been call’d by God, when
and where this Witchcraft first appeared upon the Stage to encounter it, are
earnestly desirous to have it sifted unto the bottom of it . . . On the other side [if
I must again use the word Side, which yet I hope to live to blot out] there are
very worthy Men, who are not a little dissatisfied at the Proceedings in the
Prosecution of this Witchcraft.
Mather’s feeling was that the devil was at work in the very divisions between
colonists: ‘we are not aware of the Devil, if we do not think, that he aims at inflaming
us one against another’. He regarded the enthusiastic posturing of parties as
Historians have concluded that Mather’s focus on the ills of factionalism was
probably justified by his knowledge of the political situation in early modern
Massachusetts. Some have explored anxieties caused by the abrogation of the colony’
s Charter in
1684 and the overthrow of Governor Edmund Andros in 1689, which threw into
doubt colonial standing and legal processes. There was angst and disputes at every
level of Salem life, raging over property,
taxes, community obligations and representation between the families of accusers
The radicalism of John Winthrop’s city on a hill had given way to the grasping
commercialism of expanding towns such as Salem and Springfield. From the earliest
times, therefore, American witchcraft had political implications.
Ironically, both Cotton and (to a lesser extent) his father, Increase later found
themselves victims of this politicization, pilloried among a witch-hunting ‘gallery of