An Irish-American Witch
It is often said that Irishmen succeed best out of Ireland; those qualities they possess, which fail to ripen and come to maturity in the lethargic atmosphere of the Green Isle, where nothing matters very much provided public opinion is not run counter to, become factors of history under the sunshine and storm of countries where more ample scope is given for the full development of pugnacity, industry, or state-craft. At any rate, from the days of Duns Scotus and St. Columbanus down to the present, Irishmen have filled, and still fill, positions of the highest importance in every part of the globe as friends of kings, leaders of armies, or preachers of the Truth—of such every Irishman, be his creed or politics what they may, is justly proud. To the lengthy and varied list of honours and offices may be added (in one instance at least) the item of witchcraft. Had the unhappy creature, whose tale is related below, remained in her native land, she would most probably have ended her days in happy oblivion as a poor old woman, in no way distinguishable from hundreds of others in like position; as it was, she attained unenviable notoriety as a powerful witch, and was almost certainly the means of starting the outbreak at Salem. Incidentally the story is of interest as showing that at this time there were some Irish-speaking people in Boston.
Shortly after the date of its colonisation the State of Massachusetts became remarkable for its cases of witchcraft; several persons were tried, and some were hanged, for this crime. But at the time about which we are writing there was in Boston a distinguished family of puritanical ministers named Mather. The father, Increase Mather, is to be identified with the person of that name who was Commonwealth “minister of the Gospel” at Magherafelt in Ireland in 1656; his more famous son, Cotton, was a most firm believer in all the possibilities of witchcraft, and it is to his pen that we owe the following. He first gave an account of it to the world in his Memorable Providences relating to Witchcraft, published at Boston in 1689, the year after its occurrence; and subsequently reproduced it, though in a more condensed form, in his better-known Magnalia Christi (London, 1702). It is from this latter source that we have taken it, and the principal passages which are omitted in it, but occur in the Memorable Providences, are here inserted either within square brackets in the text, or as footnotes. We may now let the reverend gentleman tell his tale in his own quaint and rotund phraseology.
“Four children of John Goodwin in Boston which had enjoyed a Religious Education, and answer’d it with a towardly Ingenuity; Children indeed of an exemplary Temper and Carriage, and an Example to all about them for Piety, Honesty, and Industry. These were in the year 1688 arrested by a stupendous Witchcraft. The Eldest of the children, a Daughter of about Thirteen years old, saw fit to examine their Laundress, the Daughter of a Scandalous Irish Woman in the Neighbourhood, whose name was Glover [whose miserable husband before he died had sometimes complained of her, that she was undoubtedly a witch, and that wherever his head was laid, she would quickly arrive unto the punishments due to such a one], about some Linnen that was missing, and the Woman bestowing very bad language on the Child, in the Daughter’s Defence, the Child was immediately taken with odd Fits, that carried in them something Diabolical. It was not long before one of her Sisters, with two of her Brothers, were horribly taken with the like Fits, which the most Experienc’d Physicians [particularly our worthy and prudent friend Dr. Thomas Oakes] pronounced Extraordinary and preternatural; and one thing the more confirmed them in this Opinion was, that all the Children were tormented still just the same part of their Bodies, at the same time, though their Pains flew like swift lightning from one part to another, and they were kept so far asunder that they neither saw nor heard each other’s Complaints. At nine or ten a-clock at Night they still had a Release from their miseries, and slept all Night pretty comfortably. But when the Day came they were most miserably handled. Sometimes they were Deaf, sometimes Dumb, and sometimes Blind, and often all this at once. Their tongues would be drawn down their throats, and then pull’d out upon their Chins, to a prodigious Length. Their Mouths were forc’d open to such a Wideness, that their Jaws were out of Joint; and anon clap together again, with a Force like a Spring-lock: and the like would happen to their Shoulder-blades, their Elbows and Hand-wrists, and several of their Joints…. Their Necks would be broken, so that their Neck-bone would seem dissolv’d unto them that felt after it, and yet on the sudden it would become again so stiff, that there was no stirring of their Heads; yea, their Heads would be twisted almost round. And if the main Force of their Friends at any time obstructed a dangerous Motion which they seemed upon, they would roar exceedingly.
“But the Magistrates being awakened by the Noise of these Grievous and Horrid Occurrences, examin’d the Person who was under the suspicion of having employ’d these Troublesome Dæmons, and she gave such a Wretched Account of herself that she was committed unto the Gaoler’s Custody. [Goodwin had no proof that could have done her any hurt; but the hag had not power to deny her interest in the enchantment of the children; and when she was asked, Whether she believed there was a God? her answer was too blasphemous and horrible for any pen of mine to mention. Upon the commitment of this extraordinary woman all the children had some present ease, until one related to her, accidentally meeting one or two of them, entertain’d them with her blessing, that is railing, upon which three of them fell ill again.]
“It was not long before this Woman was brought upon her Trial; but then [thro’ the efficacy of a charm, I suppose, used upon her by one or some of her crue] the Court could have no Answers from her but in the Irish, which was her Native Language, although she understood English very well, and had accustom’d her whole Family to none but English in her former Conversation. [It was long before she could with any direct answers plead unto her Indictment, and when she did plead] it was with owning and bragging rather than denial of her Guilt. And the Interpreters, by whom the Communication between the Bench and the Barr was managed, were made sensible that a Spell had been laid by another Witch on this, to prevent her telling Tales, by confining her to a language which ’twas hoped nobody would understand. The Woman’s House being searched, several Images, or Poppets, or Babies, made of Raggs and stuffed with Goat’s Hair, were found; when these were produced the vile Woman confess’d, that her way to torment the Objects of her Malice was by wetting of her Finger with her Spittle, and stroaking of these little Images. The abus’d Children were then produced in Court, and the Woman still kept stooping and shrinking, as one that was almost prest to death with a mighty Weight upon her. But one of the Images being brought to her, she odly and swiftly started up, and snatch’d it into her Hand. But she had no sooner snatch’d it than one of the Children fell into sad Fits before the whole Assembly. The Judges had their just Apprehensions at this, and carefully causing a repetition of the Experiment, they still found the same Event of it, tho’ the Children saw not when the Hand of the Witch was laid upon the Images. They ask’d her, Whether she had any to stand by her? She reply’d, She had; and looking very fixtly into the air, she added, No, he’s gone! and then acknowledged she had One, who was her Prince, with whom she mention’d I know not what Communion. For which cause the Night after she was heard expostulating with a Devil for his thus deserting her, telling him, that because he had served her so basely and falsely she had confessed all.
“However to make all clear the Court appointed five or six Physicians to examine her very strictly, whether she were no way craz’d in her Intellectuals. Divers Hours did they spend with her, and in all that while no Discourse came from her but what was agreeable; particularly when they ask’d her what she thought would become of her Soul, she reply’d, You ask me a very solemn Question, and I cannot tell what to say to it. She profest herself a Roman Catholick, and could recite her Paternoster in Latin very readily, but there was one Clause or two always too hard for her, whereof she said, She could not repeat it, if she might have all the world. In the Upshot the Doctors returned her Compos Mentis, and Sentence of Death was past upon her.
“Divers Days past between her being arraign’d and condemn’d; and in this time one Hughes testify’d, that her Neighbour (called Howen), who was cruelly bewitch’d unto Death about six years before, laid her Death to the charge of this Woman [she had seen Glover sometimes come down her chimney], and bid her, the said Hughes, to remember this; for within six years there would be occasion to mention it. [This Hughes now preparing her testimony, immediately one of her children, a fine boy well grown towards youth] was presently taken ill in the same woful manner that Goodwin’s were; and particularly the Boy in the Night cry’d out, that a Black Person with a Blue Cap in the Room tortur’d him, and that they try’d with their Hand in the Bed for to pull out his Bowels. The Mother of the Boy went unto Glover on the day following, and asked her, Why she tortured her poor Lad at such a rate? Glover answered, Because of the Wrong she had receiv’d from her; and boasted That she had come at him as a Black Person with a Blue Cap, and with her Hand in the Bed would have pulled his Bowels out, but could not. Hughes denied that she had wronged her; and Glover then desiring to see the Boy, wished him well; upon which he had no more of his Indisposition.
“After the Condemnation of the Woman, I did my self give divers Visits to her, wherein she told me, that she did use to be at Meetings, where her Prince with Four more were present. She told me who the Four were, and plainly said, That her Prince was the Devil. [She entertained me with nothing but Irish, which language I had not learning enough to understand without an interpreter.] When I told her that, and how her Prince had deserted her, she reply’d [I think in English, and with passion too], If it be so, I am sorry for that. And when she declined answering some things that I ask’d her, she told me, She could give me a full answer, but her Spirits would not give her leave: nor could she consent, she said, without this leave that I should pray for her. [However against her will I pray’d with her, which if it were a fault it was in excess of pity. When I had done she thanked me with many good words, but I was no sooner out of her sight than she took a stone, a long and slender stone, and with her finger and spittle fell to tormenting it; though whom or what she meant I had the mercy never to understand.] At her Execution she said the afflicted Children should not be relieved by her Death, for others besides she had a hand in their Affliction.”
Mrs. Glover was hanged, but in accordance with her dying words the young Goodwins experienced no relief from their torments, or, as Cotton Mather characteristically puts it, “the Three Children continued in their Furnace, as before; and it grew rather seven times hotter than before,” and as this was brought about by our Irish witch it may not be out of place to give some extracts relative to the extraordinary adventures that befel them. “In their Fits they cried out of They and Them as the Authors of all their Miseries; but who that They and Them were, they were not able to declare. Yet at last one of the Children was able to discern their Shapes, and utter their names. A Blow at the Place where they saw the Spectre was always felt by the Boy himself in that part of his Body that answer’d what might be stricken at. And this tho’ his Back were turned, and the thing so done, that there could be no Collusion in it. But a Blow at the Spectre always helped him too, for he would have a respite from his Ails a considerable while, and the Spectre would be gone. Yea, ’twas very credibly affirmed, that a dangerous Woman or two in the Town received Wounds by the Blows thus given to their spectres…. Sometimes they would be very mad, and then they would climb over high Fences, yea, they would fly like Geese, and be carry’d with an incredible Swiftness through the Air, having but just their Toes now and then upon the Ground (sometimes not once in Twenty Foot), and their Arms wav’d like the Wings of a Bird…. If they were bidden to do a needless thing (as to rub a clean Table) they were able to do it unmolested; but if to do any useful thing (as to rub a dirty Table), they would presently, with many Torments, be made incapable.”
Finally Cotton Mather took the eldest of the three children, a girl, to his own house, partly out of compassion for her parents, but chiefly, as he tells us, “that I might be a critical Eye-witness of things that would enable me to confute the Sadducism of this Debauched Age”—and certainly her antics should have provided him with a quiverful of arguments against the “Sadducees.” “In her Fits she would cough up a Ball as big as a small Egg into the side of her Windpipe that would near choak her, till by Stroaking and by Drinking it was again carry’d down. When I pray’d in the Room her Hands were with a strong, though not even, Force clapt upon her Ears. And when her Hands were by our Force pull’d away, she cry’d out, They make such a noise, I cannot hear a word. She complained that Glover’s chain was upon her Leg; and assaying to go, her Gate was exactly such as the chain’d Witch had before she dy’d. [Sometimes she imagined she was mounted on horseback], and setting herself in a riding Posture, she would in her Chair be agitated, as one sometimes Ambling, sometimes Trotting, and sometimes Galloping very furiously. In these Motions we could not perceive that she was mov’d by the Stress of her Feet upon the Ground, for often she touched it not. When she had rode a Minute or two, she would seem to be at a Rendezvous with Them that were her Company, and there she would maintain a Discourse with them, asking them many Questions concerning her self. At length she pretended that her Horse could ride up the Stairs; and unto admiration she rode (that is, was toss’d as one that rode) up the Stair.”
Subsequently, when the clergy of Boston and Charleston had kept a day of prayer with fasting, the children improved until they became perfectly well. But in an unlucky moment Mr. Mather determined to entertain his congregation with a sermon on these Memorable Providences, and the study of this again affected the girl. Formerly, in the worst of her attacks, she had been most dutiful and respectful to Cotton Mather, “but now her whole Carriage to me was with a Sauciness which I am not us’d anywhere to be treated withal. She would knock at my Study door, affirming that some one below would be glad to see me, tho’ there was none that ask’d for me. And when I chid her for telling what was false, her Answer was that Mrs. Mather is always glad to see you! Once when lying in a fit, as he that was praying was alluding to the Words of the Canaanitess, and saying, Lord, have mercy on a Daughter vext with a Devil, there came a big, but low, voice from her, in which the Spectators did not see her Mouth to move, There’s two or three of us.”
Finally after three days of fasting and prayer the children were completely cured, but the storm thus raised was not easily allayed. The old woman seems, like many another of her years and sex, to have been of a choleric and crotchety disposition, while it is also quite within the bounds of possibility that she had become so infected with the popular superstition (and who could blame her!) that she actually believed herself to be capable of harming people by merely stroking dolls or stones with her finger. That not uncommon form of mental torture employed, namely, the making her repeat the Lord’s Prayer, all the time watching carefully for lapsus linguæ, and thence drawing deductions as to her being in league with the Devil, was particularly absurd in the case of such a person as Mrs. Glover, whose memory was confused by age. At any rate there are probably very few of us at the present day who would care to be forced to say in public either that Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed if we knew that our lives depended on absolute verbal accuracy, and that the slightest slip might mean death. It is possible, too, that some of the fits of Goodwin’s children were due to conscious imposture; and certain it is, from a study of the whole case, that the deep-rooted belief of the self-opinionated Cotton Mather in the truth of such things, as well as the flattering his vanity received, contributed very largely to the success of the whole incident. Cotton Mather’s account of the case was very highly praised by Mr. Baxter in his Certainty of the World of Spirits, and this so delighted Mr. Mather that he distributed the latter work throughout New England as being one that should convince the most obdurate “Sadducee.” The result of this was speedily seen. Three years after the Boston incident a similar outbreak occurred amongst some young persons in the house of the Rev. Samuel Parris at Salem, then a small village about nineteen miles north-east of Boston. The contagion spread with appalling rapidity; numerous persons were brought to trial, of whom, in the space of sixteen months, nineteen (twenty-five according to Ashton) were hanged, one of them being a clergyman, the Rev. George Burroughs, about one hundred and fifty were put in prison, and more than two hundred accused of witchcraft. Finally the Government put a stop to the trials, and released the accused in April 1693; Mr. Parris, in whose house the affair commenced, was dismissed from his cure, as being the “Beginner and Procurer of the sorest Afflictions,” but, directly and indirectly, Mrs. Glover may be considered the first cause, for if the case of Goodwin’s children had not occurred at Boston it is more than probable the village of Salem would never have been plagued as it was.