Dr. Lisa Logan
Visions of the Daughters of Zion: Female Revelation and Agency in the Salem Witch Trials Testimony
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 are one of the most widely studied events in colonial American history, and this includes much concern with motives of the accusers – everything from malice to religious zealotry to mold-infested bread has been entered the popular imagination as an explanation (Godbeer 6-7). What all three of these arguments have in common, however, is that despite years of scholarship to the contrary, they still portray the accusers, especially the “possessed” or “afflicted” accusers, as simplistic individuals with simplistic motives – either they are blindly religious, or they are sociopathic, or they are simply drugged. A more thoughtful analysis, one that takes into account the considerable research on the trials and on the role of women in 17th-Century colonial Puritanism, shows that the motives of these accusers are more complex. Shut off by the Puritan community’s beliefs about women from the possibility of both social autonomy and direct revelation of the divine, the accusers were forced into the margins of society and could express themselves only by way of direct revelation of the demonic.
It is difficult, admittedly, to pull this motive directly from the accusers themselves. Although a number of jurors and magistrates publicly apologized in the years after the trials for their involvement in the persecution of the accused witches, only one such confession written (or dictated, as the case may be) by an accuser survives. This is the confession of Ann Putnam, one of the original accusers, and it is a remarkably uninformative document. Putnam refers to her actions as “that sad and humbling Providence that befell my father’s family in the year about 1692,” and thus not only pushes the blame for her actions onto Providence, but the actions themselves onto “her father’s family”. Elsewhere in the apology, Putnam refers to herself as “an instrument” through which other forces made accusations, forces which she credits alternately as “Providence” and as “a great delusion of Satan”. Although Putnam goes to great lengths to deny “any anger, malice, or ill-will to any person,” she also denies herself any real agency (Putnam 176). Her confession, in other words, offers no direct insight into the possible motives behind her accusations, or the ways in which she benefited or planned to benefit from them. There is no indication of jealousy, mental illness, hallucinogenic fungus consumption, or any other clear purpose beyond “that sad and humbling Providence.”
What Putnam’s apology does provide, however, is a sense of how the Puritans viewed the trials, and in fact viewed any and all evil in their midst. Putnam’s Puritanism is one in which human beings are constantly in the sway of divine or demonic forces, one which dovetails nicely with Richard Godbeer’s argument that “Puritans … believed that each and every occurrence in this world, however seemingly trivial, was willed by God,” and that “God was constantly at work in their (Puritans’) day-to-day lives, testing and tempting, rewarding and punishing, as each individual deserved” (Godbeer 8). At the same time, however, Putnam’s denial of her own agency does not follow from this -- if God must tempt, then surely temptation can be resisted. The public apology by the jurymen of the Salem Witch Trials offers an interesting contrast to Putnam’s confession in this regard; the jurors make no reference to Providence’s hand in their actions, and instead place the blame on the fact that they “were not capable to understand nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness and prince of the air” (Fiske et al. 175). Why, then, does Putnam remove all blame from herself in her apology, and why was this confession acceptable to her congregation (Godbeer 176)?
To answer this question, and the larger question of what motivated the accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, it is important to look at the cultural context of the trials themselves. In her landmark book The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Carol F. Karlsen describes Salem society as one in which women wielded very little power. Women were often slighted their inheritances, and shifting gender ratios in the colonies led to an explosion in the population of unmarried women, an explosion large enough that many women had to seek work as servants in other households because their families were unable or unwilling to support them. This was the case especially for those women who lived on the margins of society, a group to which the possessed accusers with which this paper is primarily concerned often belonged (228-230). This is an important demographic distinction. Karlsen sets the possessed (or “afflicted,” another term popular in the scholarship) accusers apart from the general population of accusers. The latter group was not distinct from the general population of Puritan Massachusetts, and in fact included more men than women, but the possessed accusers were mostly women, mostly young, and mostly unmarried, many of them orphaned or displaced by conflicts between English settlers, Native Americans, and the French (222-227). With their close relatives dead and their dowries gone, these women and girls had no prospects for financial independence, nor for escaping indentured servitude.
In Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich notes that marginalization was the norm for women in Puritan New England. “Men,” she states, “could be fence-viewers, deacons, constables, captains, hog reeves, slelectmen, clerks, magistrates, tithingmen, or sealers of leather. Women could be members of a gathered church” (loc.4225). Even in the context of the church, however, women’s authority was almost non-existent and their thinking seen as morally suspect. Lonna M. Malmsheimer notes in “Daughters of Zion: New England Roots of American Feminism” that women were forbidden from holding positions of authority in Puritan churches, although they could be deaconesses, and were in fact forbidden from speaking or even singing during meetings. Their spiritual lives were seen as subordinate to those of their husbands, and it was considered debatable whether or not women could go to heaven (486). While colonial Puritans, unlike their European counterparts, did not view women as merely “necessary evils” (485), they were seen as devoid of any spiritual authority – Cotton Mather’s preface to his conduct manual Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion responds to critiques who would “criminate an undertaking to write a little book for promoting the fear of God in the female sex (Mather i),” as if the simple act of teaching them religion or morals were controversial.
Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion allows women to operate as spiritual beings only in the very narrow realm of the household and childrearing. Mather argues that the female sex, despite being “the parent of all our misery,” is “dignified” through Mary’s role in the birth of Christ (Mather 3-4). His use of “parent” here holds a buried significance: regardless of what women do, their actions are defined by their roles in the home and family. Mather suggests that women “make their peace with God,” which to Mather means that they focus their spiritual efforts on the moral education of their children, like the redeemed Bathsheeba (sic) (Mather 6). For the displaced women who formed the bulk of the possessed accusers, who found themselves cleaning other women’s houses and whose own marriage prospects were limited by a lack of wealth, such ideals would have seemed very distant, a fact aggravated by the Puritan belief expressed by Mather that “for a woman to be praised, is for her to be married,” and more specifically to be married to a virtuous man, since “to be married unto a vain, wild, ungodly man is that which no discrete woman will desire” (30-31). As Karlsen notes, however, a woman with no dowry had few marriage options in a society with more women than men, and many of the accusers (among those who married at all; several remained single throughout their lives) were forced to settle for men far below their station (227-228).
This marginal, tightly constrained manifestation of feminine spirituality was mandated, in the eyes of Puritan thinkers and laypeople, by women’s perceived frailty and vulnerability to temptation. Elizabeth Reis notes in “The Devil, the Body, and the Feminine Soul in Puritan New England” that, while the Puritans saw the body as the part of a person most vulnerable to temptation and sin, this was especially the case for women, whose bodies were believed to be weaker and to allow the feminine soul, with all its carnal desires, to manifest more fully than a man’s. In addition, since Satan was believed to attack the soul through the body, Reis argues that women were seen as less able to resist temptation (24-25). This focus on the physicality of women carries over into the sins associated with them: in Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion, Mather focuses on sins associated with vanity, sloth and a lack of bodily discipline, such as “promiscuous dancing” (13), the wearing of cosmetics (16-19) or “superfluous accoutrements” (63). Mather also makes the claim that a pious woman will be blessed with ample food and protection from famine and disease, which implies that these are signs of irreligiosity and further ties together physical and spiritual deprivation (39). By nature of what Ulrich argues is women’s place in Puritan thinking on the “tension between youth and age, between the mystery of physical attraction and the demands of social order” (loc. 1694), women’s lives were placed under deep scrutiny and strict limitations, with a good marriage and a prosperous, or at least stable home a requirement for a good reputation. By virtue of their material poverty and lack of a dowry, the possessed accusers were thus cut off from not only good marriage prospects but from full membership in the spiritual community.
This meant, by extension, that the accusers were cut off from divine revelation. Reis notes in “Revelation, Witchcraft & the Danger of Knowing God’s Secrets” that the Puritans were distrustful of revelation in general, preferring to focus on Earthly signs of divine favor or disfavor (4). Puritan men, especially clergymen, were permitted to engage in acts of divination not permitted to women or commoners, including “alchemy, numerology, and natural astrology” (22). These same acts, however, were seen as transgressive when performed by women, and some witches, such as Katherine Harrison, found their divinatory practices used as evidence against them (21). The exception to this was the direct knowledge of supernatural events that the possessed claimed, and Karlsen goes to great lengths in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman to point out that possession was not seen by Puritans as a deviant act or a form of mental illness but as an important and legitimate act, one that formed a part of their faith community (235). It also gave women a rare direct connection to Providence: in Karlsen’s words, “If the clergy had God on their side, the possessed had a formidable ally in the Devil” (246).
Looking at the testimony of the Salem witch trials, it is clear that the accusations are gendered, with the possessed or afflicted being overwhelmingly female. Karlsen’s demographic research supports this, and adds in that they were overwhelmingly young and unmarried (224). The accusations of the two tend to take very different tones: Henry Herrick and Jonathan Batchelor’s claims against Sarah Good, for instance, simply state that Good made threats against their cattle and that “since that several of their cattle have been set loose in a strange manner” (79). John Bly Sr. and William Bly testified to finding “poppets,” or enchanted dolls, in the cellar walls of Bridget Bishop’s former home (110). The accusations from the unafflicted go on in this way, mostly relating unfortunate but ordinary incidents or, at best, unusual bits of circumstantial evidence, such as the poppets. A few report seeing the accused during incidents of sleep paralysis, and while these incidents have an erotic charge to them (Richard Corman testified that Bridget Bishop “came and lay upon my breast” and made particular mention of her “red paragon bodice” ), they still give the impression of being the work of someone who otherwise led a normal life not dominated for any real length of time by the kinds of violence that the afflicted accusers reported.
This violence was summarized in the early days of the Salem witch trials by former Salem minister Deodat Lawson. In his unambiguously, if cumbersomely titled A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft at Salem Village Which Happened from the Nineteenth of March to the Fifth of April 1692, Lawson describes the symptoms of the afflicted in visceral terms, noting both the peculiar strength and the “strange” positions into which they could “screw their body,” but also demonstrates a peculiar unity to their fits: the afflicted can reliably predict one another’s fits by announcing them, and can “cure each other, even with a touch of their hand, when strangled and otherwise tortured” (59). Moreover, Lawson notes that when Mary Walcott, one of the afflicted, experienced relief, the other afflicted accused her of having “signed the book” and become a witch (60). The suggestion of community is matched only by the suggestion of unique abilities: the afflicted were “utterly pressed against any person praying with them (59),” and thus resistant to more orthodox methods of faith healing. They also had access to information not available to Lawson, Mather and other Puritan divines: the knowledge of witches and the Devil.
Lawson fails, however, to capture the sometimes absurd brutality of the afflicted accusers’ testimony. In accusing George Burroughs, Anne Putnam claims that after she refused to sign the Devil’s book, Burroughs “tore me al to peaces (sic) (Putnam),” and also accuses him of other offences, saying that he “choaked her” and adding that he took credit for the deaths or temptations of several local women and children (Putnam). Choking is a common theme: Putnam also accuses Dorcas Hoar of “choaking” her, adding in “biting” and “pinching” (Putnam). The physicality of the female body, formerly an obstacle to these women, is an important part of their identity as afflicted girls, and also forms an important distinguishing feature of their accusations, compared to the more impersonal claims of the unafflicted. Having incorporated Mather’s fixation with the female form into their own sense of self, the afflicted then incorporated it into their accusations. Their frail bodies, so susceptible to sin, became the most visible battlegrounds of the Puritan struggle between good and evil.
This motif of being personally wronged is also important in light of the afflicted accusers’ position in society. Orphaned, impoverished, forced into servitude and into the margins of society, the afflicted were harmed by society, and that harm took on a concrete form in their possession. That harm, of course, was also invisible to society, and so it makes sense that it should take the form of spectral evidence. Putnam reports that Burroughs appears to her as “the Apperishtion (sic) of a Minister” (Putnam) and Mary Walcott, using the same wording as Putnam, accuses Dorcas Good’s spectre of “biting pinching and almost choaking (sic) me” (Walcott) after Good’s trial. Lawson notes that this behavior is “ordinary” among the afflicted, and that they commonly saw spectres “when the accused person was present” (59). In fact, this occurred frequently in the trials. Samuel Parris’s examination of Dorcas Hoar mentions that “The afflicted were much distressed during her examination” (Parris), and more specifically mentions one incident:
Oh said some of the afflicted there is one whispering in her ears
There is some body will rub your ears shortly, said the examinant
Immediately they were afflicted, and among others Mercy Lewes. (Parris Salem Archive 2, line breaks added for clarity)
Besides its usefulness in demonstrating the Parris’s credulity, this portion of Hoar’s examination reveals the ways in which the visions empowered the afflicted and gave them a certain authority. Unable to marry, inherit or attain any real measure of social or spiritual authority, the witnesses formed a united front of accusations, and thus gained power not only over Samuel Parris and the credulous Court of Oyer and Terminer, but over the accused as well. The fits during Hoar’s examination continued until the end of the trial, as Hoar continued to deny the accusations made against her (Parris). In other cases, however, the behavior of the afflicted was enough to extract a confession, and stopped as soon as the accused confessed. When Deliverance Hobbs (herself a former accuser) denied the accusations against her, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam claimed that “there is Goody Hobbs upon the Beam, she is not at the Bar, they cannot see her there: tho (sic) there she stood” and several of the accusers “fell into fits.” John Hathorne, who transcribed the court records, noted however that “All the sufferers (were) free from affliction during her examination after once she began to confesse (sic)” (Hathorne). By controlling the judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, the afflicted were able to manipulate the accused, whether by causing their execution, their confession or, in Hobbs’s case, their return to the fold.
The behavior of the afflicted allowed them to transgress not just the boundaries of power but those of appropriate behavior, as well. The behaviors which Lawson describes in A Brief and True Narrative sound like a laundry list of ways to shock Cotton Mather. The afflicted girls spoke out loudly during services, disrupting lawson’s prayer with their fits. During his sermon, an afflicted woman interrupted him, saying “Now that’s enough of that,” and interruptions continued throughout the service, with Ann Putnam needing to be restrained to keep from “speaking too loud about” a spectral bird on Lawson’s hat (Lawson 55). As Malmsheimer noted, speaking in church was forbidden to women in any context, and speech so loud and insistent that physical restraint only lowers it to a tolerable volume would have been utterly unacceptable under any other context.
The fits of the afflicted also violated the norms articulated by Mather on female conduct outside the church. Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion clearly forbids much of the activities which comprised the fits, notably the contortions, which John Hale described as extreme, with “their arms, necks and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again” (Hale 52). The language is grotesque, recalling Lawson’s aforementioned claim that the afflicted “screwed their bodies” into strange shapes, and that their visions often took on romantic undertones; Lawson notes that Mercy Lewis once experienced a fit in which she was taken to “a glorious place, which had no candles or sun, yet was full of light and brightness” where she was accompanied by “a white man” and asked him “How long shall I stay here? Let me be alone with you” (Lawson 58). The eroticism of the fits represented a striking counterpoint to the desexualized femininity idolized by Cotton Mather.
This is not to say, of course, that the afflicted girls faked their fits and visions. There are countless psychological and physiological reasons for such fits, and as Godbeer notes, “even if the girls’ fits were partly or wholly feigned, the responses of those around them could very easily have ended up scaring them into believing that they really were afflicted” (22). Nonetheless, the afflicted girls exerted a kind of power over their community that would have otherwise been impossible, and that transgressed the bounds of their social status, their gender roles and their faith community to briefly become central figures in a major episode in Providence.
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----. “Richard Comean against Bridget Bishop.” The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Richard Godbeer Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
Fiske, Thomas, et al. “Public Apology by Jurymen.” The Salem Witch Hunt: A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Richard Godbeer Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
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Walcott, Mary. “Mary Walcott v. Dorcas Good.” The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Volume 2. University of Virginia Library. n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2011.