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WITCHCRAFT IN NEW ENGLAND.
WHEN the Pilgrims left their native land, the belief in witchcraft was universal. England, in much fear, busied herself with the slaughter of friendless old women who were suspected of an alliance with Satan. King James had published his book on Demonology a few years before, in which he maintained that to forbear from putting witches to death was an “odious treason against God.” England was no wiser than her king. During James's life, and long after his decease, the yearly average of executions for witchcraft was somewhere about five hundred.
There were times when the excitement concerning witches was so violent in England that almost any old woman whom disease or infirmities had rendered unsightly was liable to fall under the suspicion of witchcraft. Then, after a trial as senseless and as ridiculous as the charge, she was hustled off to suffer a most painful death.
The Evil One, according to an old English superstition, used to set his mark on all true witches, and that part of the body where the stigma was placed was insensible to pain. Hence a true witch might be discovered by pricking her with pins.
Pricking became a profession in Scotland during the earlier part of the seventeenth century, and a class of execrable fellows called prickers filled their slender purses by going from place to place, and sticking pins into helpless old The supposed witches often lost their fortitude under the torture, and confessed themselves guilty of whatever they were accused of. Being condemned by their own words, it only remained to put them to death.
A vile monster by the name of Hopkins, who became rich by going from town to town and pretending to detect witches, used to bind suspected persons hand and foot, and cast them into the river. He said that true witches renounced their baptism, and therefore water would reject them, and they would float. Hence, when the accused floated, as commonly was the case, she was adjudged guilty, and was taken from the water to be hung.
This wretch, after a notorious career, fell into disrepute, the people reasoning that he himself must be in the confidence of bad spirits, else he would not know so readily who were witches and who were not.
They resolved to measure him by his own standard, by casting him into the river in order to see if his body would sink or swim. The result was that he floated, and being found a wizard by his own test, his miserable end was made to verify the Scripture : “In such measure as ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."
The following trustworthy story, the outlines of which we gather from Sir Walter Scott, presents a fair picture of witchcraft in England, not long before the Commonwealth :
About the year 1634 a boy by the name of Edmund Robinson, the son of an ignorant and superstitious man living in Pendle Forest, began to make a great stir in the vicinity of the place where he lived, by relating some very remarkable occurrences which he claimed to have seen.
He said that he wandered forth into the woods one day to gather wild fruit, when he chanced to meet in a retired glade two greyhounds. Thinking to have a bit of sport, he started a hare from a thicket, and tried to induce the greyhounds
Witchcraft in New England.
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to give chase; but, contrary to the instincts of such animals, they allowed the hare to escape without any attempt to molest it.
He was very angry, and, seizing a stick, was about to beat one of the hounds, when suddenly the animal started up before him in the form of a woman, whom he presently recognized as a certain Dame Dickenson, the wife of a neighbor. The other hound as suddenly changed into a little boy. Dame Dickenson seemed much chagrined at the discov
Robinson that she would give him a sum of money if he would promise not to disclose what he had
He replied, “Nay, thou art a witch.”
The dame, without further parley, took a bridle from her pocket, and shaking it over the head of the little boy by her side, changed him into a horse. She seized young Robinson, and, mounting the steed, galloped away.
They came to an obscure building in the forest, and, on entering with the dame, Robinson beheld an assemblage of witches making frightful faces, and performing mysterious incantations. They would take hold of a halter, make hideous faces, and give a pull, when there would suddenly appear before them roast meat, porringers of milk, and other rustic dainties.
One would suppose that a story so ridiculous in itself would have passed for a myth, even though rendered somewhat remarkable by the youth and simplicity of the narrator. Not so; the superstitious took alarm, busybodies put the wonderful tale in rapid circulation, and the fever of excitement spread. The boy obtained great celebrity as a “witch finder," but at last acknowledged that his marvellous story was an imposture.
The Pilgrims carried with them across the Atlantic the universal delusion. Their way of life was fitted to strengthen it. They lived on the verge of vast and gloomy forests. The howl of the wolf and the scream of the panther sounded nightly around their cabins. Treacherous savages lurked in the woods, watching the time to plunder and to slay. Every circumstance was fitted to increase the susceptibility of the mind to gloomy and superstitious impressions. But for the first quarter of a century, while every ship brought news of witch-killing at home, no satanic outbreak disturbed the settlers. The sense of brotherhood was yet too strong among them. Men who have braved great dangers and endured great hardships together do not readily come to look upon each other as the allies and agents of the Evil One.
In the State of Massachusetts there was a little town, now a fine city, called Salem, sitting pleasantly between two rivers; and in this town there dwelt at that time a minister whose name was Parris. The daughter and niece of Mr. Parris became ill of a strange nervous disease. It was a dark time for Massachusetts; for the colony was at war with the French and Indians, and was suffering cruelly from their ravages. The doctors sat in solemn conclave on the afflicted girls, and pronounced them bewitched. Mr. Parris, not doubting that it was even so, bestirred himself to find the offenders. He fastened suspicion upon three old women, who were at once arrested. Then, with marvellous rapidity, the mania spread through the town. The rage and fear of the distracted community rose high. Every one suspected his neighbor. Children accused their parents. Parents accused their children. The prisons could scarcely contain the suspected. The town of Falmouth hanged its minister, a man of intelligence and worth. Some near relations of the Governor were denounced. Witches were believed to ride in the air at night. Even the beasts were not safe. A dog was solemnly put to death for the part he had taken in some satanic festivity.