“Lives of the Necromancers,” and the Salem Trials

In the late 1600s, Puritans saw Satan and his minions behind every tree; the world still abounded with spirits endless signs of Satan’s battle against God.

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The Salem trials were largely the result of a combination of personal animus, avarice, and cruelty within a deeply occultist culture. New England courts executed nineteen witches and subjected many repented convicts to purifying torture. One thing only ended the feverish trials: accusers gradually turned on the affluent and influential after using up the easier targets of marginalized and poor women.

Further Readings/References:

Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers series

Godwin’s chapter on Salem

Marshall, Peter. William Godwin: Philosopher, Novelist, Revolutionary. PM Press. 2017.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Boston: Beacon Press. 1954.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1969.

Anthony Comegna: In the 1680s, English history was a stream of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. The Restoration King, Charles II, died without a son in 1685, leaving the throne to his openly Catholic brother, the Duke of York. The new King, James II, was also the royally chartered proprietor of New York, and a dogged and determined enemy of all things Puritan. James followed Charles’ process [00:00:30] of imperial reform in New England. He wiped away the colonial assemblies, their charters, their borders, and even their land grants. The monarch reclaimed his special powers and privileges, reincorporating his ancestors’ creatures into his own royal body of rights. Protestant Englishmen across the Atlantic feared a Catholic plot to unite the Earth under anti-Christ’s banners. [00:01:00] This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
In place of the old colonies, James created the Dominion of New England, a militarized dictatorship ruled over by the king’s puppet, Sir Edmund Andros. Despite peace with the Indians, [00:01:30] the new government spent, taxed, and regulated with abandon. After the king’s son and heir was born in 1688, Protestants in parliament conspired to remove James from the throne. They feared a Catholic dynasty and secretly invited the Dutch Prince of Orange to the throne. Prince William’s wife was a Stuart, and the disarray in the army and navy easily allowed a military invasion of the English mainland. James fled the capital in November, and the Coup d’État was complete. [00:02:00] Anti-James rebellions erupted almost universally and spontaneously across the colonies, nowhere more vigorously so than in Boston, the seat of Dominion government. The so-called Glorious Revolution offered New Englanders an opportunity to unite together against a common, essentially foreign enemy without domestic affairs clouding the fight, but the battle was quickly concluded, Andros and his cronies easily captured and imprisoned, and old local antagonisms revived.
[00:02:30] By 1691, the new King William III restored the Massachusetts charter, complete with pre-Dominion land titles. Temporary setbacks aside, New English elites finally had their colony back, but the divines once again misused their power and their liberty. In 1692, witch fever struck Salem, and the Puritan state executed 18 women and one man for entirely imagined crimes. [00:03:00] A century and a half later, William Godwin saw the Salem Trials as the moment when Puritanism finally lost enough of its mind that some of its soul went with it and the world was better off for it. Godwin lived from 1756 to 1836. He was brilliant and highly influential, the first modern anarchist philosopher, an important voice for rationalism and skepticism, the first utilitarian, and a sort of founding father in the individualist and socialist pantheons.
[00:03:30] In his 1834 Lives of the Necromancers, Godwin determined to dispel the significant remaining social ignorance, myths, half-truths, and lies based in supernatural beliefs that enabled tragedies like the Salem Trials. In Godwin’s hands, quackery became sociological and political conspiracy. All human beings possess the capacity to investigate nature’s laws with reason. Throughout the ages though, there have been those [00:04:00] who seek to obfuscate and obscure this power from others. The charismatic, the cunning, and the immoral have nearly always and everywhere organized themselves into classes of conspirators against the liberties and wisdom of the common people. Godwin hoped to disarm these priests, magicians, fortune tellers, divine right monarch and lickspittle court devotionists. Behind them all, sadly and unfortunately, lay the average person’s boundless ambition [00:04:30] because practically everyone can be swept away with grandiose dreams and visions of the supernatural and the real blending together. Practically everyone fall prey to those who would lie, cheat, and worse, to dominate their fellow beings.
The necromancers’ intrusions into the realm of death violated broadly accepted laws of ethics and religion. Only those individuals motivated by the most wicked and horrifying lusts would resort to such an unnatural [00:05:00] means of acquiring power. The alchemists promised unending wealth and immortality. The Rosicrucians practiced hallucinogenic communication with powerful elemental creatures. Leadership claimed the ability to control these fearsome beings and commanded the full loyalty of subordinate priests. In pre-Modern societies, scientific knowledge was reserved exclusively for the elite few and a very small number of specialists. Socio-mystical divisions were [00:05:30] so sharp that conquerors like Alexander even lived on after death, venerated as a god made flesh. The famous Simon Magus could reportedly fly through the air, pass through miles of matter at a time, make himself invisible. He could shape-shift, transfigure matter, bring statues to life, and bid defiance to all locks. He was, and I should stress the word apparently, fire-proof.
Early medieval Europe [00:06:00] was a world flush with supernatural entities and powerful individuals who could access this otherworldly realm with specialized occultic learning. Angels flittered around everywhere. Demons haunted the rocks and forests. Witches and sorcerers practiced their crafts for good and ill, while gods’ saints endlessly battled them, and alchemists and necromancers desperately searched for an existence beyond this life. In the Crusading Era, many Westerners wholeheartedly [00:06:30] embraced knowledge and technology from the East. Occult knowledge broadened beyond the tiny ruling class and its courtly elite. A seemingly endless array of friars, philosophers, scientists, alchemists, and educators joined the magical fray to advance their own power, influence, and visions. With Renaissance figures like Petrarch, the enlightened and educated no longer practiced witchcraft, but they would have defended to the death your right to do so. Europeans became more [00:07:00] and more keenly aware of the physical laws governing natural phenomenon.
Science demystified witchcraft and exposed as a sociological, not a supernatural, phenomenon but popular belief and political institutions lagged significantly behind the new learning. Marginalized and powerless individuals often made easy targets for both angry mobs and political or religious leaders in desperate need of a scapegoat. As magic lost its power in European courts, [00:07:30] it retained an important command over the average person’s worldview. For the uneducated, the world still abounded with spirits, strange energies, and endless signs of Satan’s battle against God. In the transitional early Modern period, monarchs like England’s James I exploited the marginality of witches for the purposes of modern statecraft. James wrote his own Daemonologie, and orchestrated show trials for accused witches like Agnes Sampson and John Fian, [00:08:00] whom he held responsible for delaying a trip to his betrothed in Norway. For their crimes, they suffered horrifying torture and execution.
James’ administration and scholarship inspired future bad actors like the witch hunter Matthew Hopkins. Hopkins’ bloody career flourished in the early days of the English Civil War. He traveled through England convincing localities that Satan was actively training witches in their village, staging for a full demonic invasion. [00:08:30] Hopkins convinced towns to hire his hunters, who murdered over 300 women accused of making satanic pacts. During his two year reign of terror, Hopkins killed more people than the previous two centuries of witch hunting in England. Having built a dandy career out of the horrible affair, Hopkins published his manual, The Discovery of Witches, in 1647. Within a few decades, witch fever spread across the Atlantic to yet another [00:09:00] Puritan society drunk on righteousness and mysticism.
Speaker 2: William Godwin, Witchcraft in New England from Lives of the Necromancers, 1834. As a story of witchcraft, without any poetry to it, without any thing to amuse the imagination or interest the fancy, but hard, prosy, and accompanied with all that is wretched, pitiful and withering, [00:09:30] perhaps the well-known story of the New England witchcraft surpasses everything else upon record. The New Englanders were at this time, towards the close of the seventeenth century, rigorous Calvinists with long sermons and tedious monotonous prayers, with hell before them forever on one side, and a tyrannical, sour and austere God on the other, jealous of an arbitrary sovereignty, who hath mercy on whom [00:10:00] he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. These men, with long and melancholy faces, with a drawling and sanctified tone, and a carriage that would at once make the most severely disposed merry, and the most cheerful spectators sad, constituted nearly the entire population of the province of Massachusetts Bay.
The prosecutions for witchcraft continued with little intermission principally at Salem, [00:10:30] during the greater part of the year 1692. The accusations were of the most vulgar and contemptible sort, invisible pinchings and blows, fits, with the blastings and morality of cattle, and wains stuck fast in the ground or losing their wheels. A conspicuous feature in nearly the whole of these stories was what they named the spectral sight. In other words, that the profligate accusers first feigned for [00:11:00] the most part the injuries they received, and next saw the figures and action of the persons who inflicted them, when they were invisible to everyone else. Hence the miserable prosecutors gained the power of gratifying the wantonness of their malice, by pretending that they suffered by the hand of any one whose name first presented itself, or against whom they bore an ill will. The persons so charged, though unseen by any but the accuser, [00:11:30] and who in their corporal presence were at a distance of miles, and were doubtless wholly unconscious of the mischief that was hatching against them, were immediately taken up, and cast into prison.
And what was more monstrous and incredible, there stood at the bar the prisoner on trial for his life, while the witnesses were permitted to swear that his specter had haunted them, and afflicted them with all manner of injuries. That the poor prosecuted wretch stood [00:12:00] astonished at what was alleged against him, was utterly overwhelmed with the charges and knew not what to answer, was all of it interpreted as so many presumptions of his guilt. Ignorant as they were, they were unhappy and unskillful in their defense, and, if they spoke of the devil as was but natural, it was instantly caught at as a proof how familiar they were with the fiend that had seduced them to their damnation.
Anthony Comegna: [00:12:30] Godwin’s theory of the Salem Trials is representative of scholarly thought for quite some time. They were largely the result of a combination of personal animus, avarice and cruelty within a deeply occultus culture. True believer Puritans saw Satan and his minions behind every tree and in the eyes of every person not elect. In fact, witch hunting was a matter of public policy, and many copies of Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches rested on the saint’s bookshelves, [00:13:00] no doubt with very well-worn pages. Once the first baseless accusations flew, the flood was unstoppable.
Speaker 2: The first specimen of this sort of accusation in the present instance was given by one Paris, minister of a church at Salem, in the end of the year 1691, who had two daughters, one nine years old, the other eleven, that were afflicted with fits and convulsions. [00:13:30] The first person fixed on as the mysterious author of what was seen was Tituba, a female slave in the family, and she was harassed by her master into a confession of unlawful practices and spells. The girls then fixed on Sarah Good, a female known to be the victim of a morbid melancholy, and Osborne, a poor man that had for a considerable time been bed-rid, as persons whose specters had perpetually haunted and tormented [00:14:00] them, and Good was twelve months after hanged on this accusation.
A person, who was one of the first to fall under the imputation, was one George Burroughs, also a minister of Salem. He had, it seems, buried two wives, both of whom the busy gossips said he had used ill in their life-time, and consequently, it was whispered, had murdered them. This man was accustomed foolishly to [00:14:30] vaunt that he knew what people said of him in his absence and this was brought as a proof that he dealt with the devil. Two women, who were witnesses against him, interrupted their testimony with exclaiming that they saw the ghosts of the murdered wives present (who had promised them they would come), though no one else in the court saw them, and this was taken in evidence. Burroughs conducted himself in a very injudicious way on his trial, [00:15:00] but when he came to be hanged, made so impressive a speech on the ladder, with fervent protestations of innocence, as melted many of the spectators into tears.
The nature of accusations of this sort is ever found to operate like an epidemic. Fits and convulsions are communicated from one subject to another. The spectral sight, as it was called, is obviously a theme for the vanity of ignorance. [00:15:30] When too such things are talked of, when the devil and spirits of hell are made familiar conversation, when stories of this sort are among the daily news, and one person and another, who had a little before nothing extraordinary about them, become subjects of wonder, these topics enter into the thoughts of many, sleeping and waking. Their young men see visions, and their old men dream dreams.
Anthony Comegna: New England courts [00:16:00] executed 19 witches and subjected many repentant convicts to purifying torture. One thing only ended the feverish trials. Accusers gradually turned on the affluent and influential after using up the easier targets of marginalized and poor women.
Speaker 2: In such a town as Salem, the second in point of importance in the colony, such accusations spread with wonderful rapidity. Many were seized with fits, [00:16:30] exhibited frightful contortions of their limbs and features, and became a fearful spectacle to the bystander. They were asked to assign the cause of all this and they supposed, or pretended to suppose, some neighbor, already solitary and afflicted, and on that account in ill odor with the townspeople, scowling upon, threatening, and tormenting them. Presently persons, specially gifted with the spectral [00:17:00] sight, formed a class by themselves, and were sent about at the public expense from place to place, that they might see what no one else could see. The prisons were filled with the persons accused. The utmost horror was entertained, as of a calamity which in such a degree had never visited that part of the world. It happened, most unfortunately, that Baxter’s Certainty of the World of Spirits had been published but the year before, [00:17:30] and a number of copies had been sent out to New England.
There seemed a strange coincidence and sympathy between vital Christianity in its most honorable sense, and the fear of the devil, who appeared to be come down unto them, with great wrath. Mr. Increase Mather, and Mr. Cotton Mather, his son, two clergymen of highest reputation in the neighborhood, by the solemnity and awe with which they treated [00:18:00] the subject, and the earnestness and zeal which they displayed, gave a sanction to the lowest superstition and virulence of the ignorant. All the forms of justice were brought forward on this occasion. There was no lack of judges, and grand juries, and petty juries, and executioners, and still less of prosecutors and witnesses. The first person that was hanged was on the 10th of June, five more on the 19th of July, [00:18:30] five on the 19th of August, and eight on the 22nd of September. Multitudes confessed that they were witches, for this appeared the only way for the accused to save their lives.
Husbands and children fell down on their knees, and implored their wives and mothers to own their guilt. Many were tortured by being tied neck and heels together till they confessed whatever was suggested to them. It is remarkable however that not one persisted in her confession [00:19:00] at the place of execution. The whole of this dreadful tragedy was kept together by a thread. The specter-seers for a considerable time prudently restricted their accusations to persons of ill repute, or otherwise of no consequence in the community. By and by, however, they lost sight of this caution, and pretended they saw the figures of some persons well connected, and of unquestioned honor and reputation, engaged in acts of witchcraft. [00:19:30] Immediately the whole fell through in a moment. The leading inhabitants presently saw how unsafe it would be to trust their reputations and their lives to the mercy of these profligate accusers.
Of 56 bills of indictment that were offered to the grand-jury on the 3rd of January, 1693, 26 only were found true bills, and 30 thrown out. On the 26 bills that were found, three persons only were pronounced [00:20:00] guilty by the petty jury, and these three received their pardon from the government. The prisons were thrown open. 50 confessed witches, together with 200 persons imprisoned on suspicion, were set at liberty, and no more accusations were heard of. The afflicted, as they were technically termed, recovered their health. The spectral sight was universally scouted, and men began to wonder how they could ever have been the victims of so horrible [00:20:30] a delusion.
Anthony Comegna: Once the Massachusetts Bay elite felt their interests were also seriously threatened by the outbreak, they reasserted control over the courts and ended the trials. For the next century and more, rationalists philosophers condemning the excesses of church and state had an especially horrifying and ridiculous example [00:21:00] from Salem. The trials quickly became the stuff of ridicule and while folk beliefs in the supernatural persisted, the regime recognized its follies. Over the next generation, preachers of the Jeremiah sought to recover the founding generation’s missionary zeal. The founders’ children and grandchildren failed the original religious mission, but they had effectively terrorized or marginalized dissenters. Thomas Morton’s rainbow coalition [00:21:30] was almost entirely displaced with shades of Puritan gray. Though Puritanism was now stripped of much mysticism, demonology, and expansionary vigor, new generations maintained the basic mission and the conviction that violence was an acceptable means to establish god’s earthly kingdom.
Liberty Chronicles is [00:22:00] a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.