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OLD WITCH HOUSE, SALEM, MASS.
ONE of the most interesting of the phenomena to be noted by the student of historical houses is the tenacity of tradition. People may be told again and again that a story attributed to a certain site has been proven untrue, but they still look with veneration on a place which has been hallowed many years, and refuse to give up any alluring name by which they have known it. A notable example of this is offered by what is universally called the Old Witch House, situated at the corner of Essex and North Streets, Salem. A dark, scowling building, set far enough back from the street for a modern drugstore to stand in front of it, the house itself is certainly sufficiently sinister in appearance to warrant its name, even though one is assured by authorities that no witch was ever known to have lived there. Its sole connection with witchcraft, history tells us, is that some of the preliminary examinations of witches took place here, the house being at the time the residence of Justice Jonathan Corwin. Yet it is this house that has absorbed the interest of historical pilgrims to Salem through many years, just because it looks like a witch-house, and somebody once made a muddled statement by which it came to be so regarded.
This house is the oldest standing in Salem or its vicinity, having been built before 1635. And it really has a claim to fame as the Roger Williams house, for it was here that the great "Teacher" lived during his troubled settlement in Salem. The people of Salem, it will be remembered, persistently sought Williams as their spiritual pastor and master until the General Court at Boston unseated the Salem deputies for the acts of their constituents in retaining a man of whom they disapproved, and the magistrates sent a vessel to Salem to remove Mr. Williams to England. The minister eluded his persecutors by fleeing through the wintry snows into the wilderness, to become the founder of the State of Rhode Island.
Mr. Williams was a close friend and confidential adviser of Governor Endicott, and those who were alarmed at the governor's impetuosity in cutting the cross from the king's colours, attributed the act to his [Williams's] influence. In taking his departure from the old house of the picture to make his way to freedom, Williams had no guide save a pocket compass, which his descendants still exhibit, and no reliance but the friendly disposition of the Indians toward him.
But it is of the witchcraft delusion with which the house of our picture is connected rather than with Williams and his story, that I wish now to speak. Jonathan Corwin, or Curwin, who was the house's link to witchcraft, was made a councillor under the new charter granted Massachusetts by King william in 1692, and was, as has been said, one of the justices before whom the preliminary witch examinations were held. He it was who officiated at the trial of Rebecca Nourse, of Danvers, hanged as a witch July 19, 1692, as well as at many other less remarkable and less revolting cases.
Rebecca Nourse, aged and infirm and universally beloved by her neighbours, was accused of being a witch – why, one is unable to find out. The jury was convinced of her innocence, and brought in a verdict of "not guilty," but the court sent them out again with instructions to find her guilty. This they did, and she was executed. The tradition is that her sons disinterred her body by stealth from the foot of the gallows where it had been thrown, and brought it to the old homestead, now still standing in Danvers, laying it reverently, and with many tears, in the little family burying ground near by.
The majority of the persons condemned in Salem were either old or weak-witted, victims who in their testimony condemned themselves, or seemed to the jury to do so. Tituba, the Indian slave, is an example of this. She was tried in March, 1692, by the Justice Corwin of the big, dark house. She confessed that under threats from Satan, who had most often appeared to her as a man in black, accompanied by a yellow bird, she had tortured the girls who appeared against her. She named accomplices, and was condemned to imprisonment. After a few months she was sold to pay the expenses of her lodging in jail, and is lost to history. But this was by no means the end of the matter. The "afflicted children" in Salem who had made trouble before now began to accuse men and women of unimpeachable character. Within a few months several hundred people were arrested and thrown into jails. As Governor Hutchinson, the historian of the time, points out, the only way to prevent an accusation was to become an accuser oneself. The state of affairs was indeed analogous to that which obtained in France a century, later, when, during the Reign of Terror, men of property and position lived in the hourly fear of being regarded as "a suspect," and frequently threw suspicion on their neighbours the better to retain their own heads.
We of to-day cannot understand the madness that inspired such cruelty. But in the light of Michelet's theory, – that in the oppression and dearth of every kind of ideal interest in rural populations some safety-valve had to be found, and that there were real organised secret meetings, witches' Sabbaths, to supply this need of sensation, – the thing is less difficult to comprehend. The religious hysteria that resulted in the banishment of Mrs. Hutchinson was but another phase of the same thing. And the degeneration to be noted to-day in the remote hill-towns of New England is likewise attributable to Michelet's "dearth of ideal interest."
The thing once started, it grew, of course, by what it fed upon. Professor William James, Harvard's distinguished psychologist, has traced to torture the socalled "confessions" on which the evil principally throve. A person, he says, was suddenly found to be suffering from what we to-day should call hysteria, perhaps, but what in those days was called a witch disease. A witch then had to be found to account for the disease; a scapegoat must of necessity be brought forward. Some poor old woman was thereupon picked out and subjected to atrocious torture. If she "confessed," the torture ceased. Naturally she very often "confessed," thus implicating others and damning herself. Negative suggestion this modern psychologist likewise offers as light upon witchcraft. The witches seldom cried, no matter what their anguish of mind might be. The inquisitors used to say to them then, "If you're not a witch, cry, let us see your tears. There, there! you can't cry! That proves you're a witch!"
Moreover, that was an age when everybody read the Bible, and believed in its verbal inspiration. And there in Exodus (22:18), is the plain command, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Cotton Mather, the distinguished young divine, had published a work affirming his belief in witchcraft, and detailing his study of some bewitched children in Charlestown, one of wham he had taken into his own family, the better to observe the case. The king believed in it, and Queen Anne, to whose name we usually prefix the adjective "good," wrote to Governor Phips a letter which shows that she admitted witchcraft as a thing unquestioned.
It is in connection with the witchcraft delusion in Salem that we get the one instance in New England of the old English penalty for contumacy, that of a victim's being pressed to death. Giles Corey, who believed in witchcraft and was instrumental in the conviction of his wife, so suffered, partly to atone for his early cowardice and partly to save his property for his children. This latter thing he could not have done if he had been convicted of witchcraft, so after pleading "not guilty," he remained mute, refusing to add the necessary technical words that he would be tried "by God and his country." The arrest of Mrs. Corey, we learn, followed closely on the heels of that of Tituba and her companions. The accused was a woman of sixty, and the third wife of Corey. She seems to have been a person of unusual strength of character, and from the first denounced the witchcraft excitement, trying to persuade her husband, who believed all the monstrous stories then current, not to attend the hearings or in any way countenance the proceedings. Perhaps it was this well-known attitude of hers that directed suspicion to her.
At her trial the usual performance was enacted. The "afflicted girls" fell on the floor, uttered piercing shrieks, and cried out upon their victim. "There is a man whispering in her ear!" one of them suddenly exclaimed. "What does he say to you?" the judge demanded of Martha Corey, accepting at once the "spectral evidence." "We must not believe all these distracted children say," was her sensible answer. But good sense was not much regarded at witch trials, and she was convicted and not long afterward executed. Her husband's evidence, which went strongly against her, is here given as a good example of much of the testimony by which the nineteen Salem victims of the delusion were sent to Gallows Hill.
"One evening I was sitting by the fire when my wife asked me to go to bed. I told her that I would go to prayer, and when I went to prayer I could not utter my desires with any sense, nor open my mouth to speak. After a little space I did according to my measure attend the duty. Some time last week I fetched an ox well out of the woods about noon, and he laying down in the yard, I went to raise him to yoke him, but he could not rise, but dragged his hinder parts as if he had been hip shot, but after did rise. I had a cat some time last week strongly taken on the sudden, and did make me think she would have died presently. My wife bid me knock her in the head, but I did not, and since she is well. My wife hath been wont to sit up after I went to bed, and I have perceived her to kneel down as if she were at prayer, but heard nothing."
Incredible as it seems to-day, this was accepted as "evidence" of Mrs. Corey's bewitchment. Then, as so often happened, Giles Corey, the accuser, was soon himself accused. He was arrested, taken from his mill, and brought before the judges of the special court appointed by Governor Phips to hear the witch trials in Salem.
Again the girls went through their performance, again there was an endeavour to extort a confession. But this time Corey acted the part of a man. He had had leisure for reflection since he had testified against his wife, and he was now as sure that she was guiltless as that he himself was. Bitter, indeed, must have been the realisation that he had helped convict her. But he atoned, as has been said, to her and to his children by subjecting himself to veritable martyrdom. Though an old man whose hair was whitened with the snows of eighty winters, he "was laid on his back, a board placed on his body with as great a weight upon it as he could endure, while his sole diet consisted of a few morsels of bread one day, and a draught of water the alternate day until death put an end to his sufferings." Rightly must this mode of torture have been named peine forte et dure. On Gallows Hill three days later occurred the execution of eight persons, the last so to suffer in the Colony. Nineteen people in all were hanged, and one was pressed to death in Salem, but there is absolutely no foundation for the statement that some were burned.
The revulsion that followed the cessation. of the delusion was as marked as was the precipitation that characterised the proceedings. Many of the clergy concerned in the trials offered abject apologies, and Judge Sewall, noblest of all the civil and ecclesiastical authorities implicated in the madness, stood up on Fast Day before a great congregation in the South Church, Boston, acknowledged his grievous error in accepting "spectral evidence," and to the end of his life did penance yearly in the same meeting-house for his part in the transactions.
Not inappropriately the gloomy old house in which the fanatical Corwin had his home is to-day given over to a dealer in antique furniture. Visitors are freely admitted upon application, and very many in the course of the year go inside to feast their eyes on the ancient wainscoting and timbers. The front door and the overhanging roof are just as in the time of the witches, and from a recessed area at the back, narrow casements and excrescent stairways are still to be seen. The original house had, however, peaked gables, with pineapples carved in wood surmounting its latticed windows and colossal chimneys that placed it unmistakably in the age of ruffs, Spanish cloaks, and long rapiers.
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