W E have all read stories about witches, but we do not really believe in them. They are exciting enough to read about, but we know they are merely bad-fairy sort of folk who are only to be met with in books, and not in real life. We should be very much astonished, and rather frightened perhaps, if we thought that witches were real, and that we might some day meet one.
But in those far-off days more than two hundred years ago very many people believed in witches. Although not always so, it was generally very old people, people who had grown ugly and witless with age who were accused of being witches. In almost any village might be seen poor old creatures, toothless, hollow cheeked, wrinkled, with nose and chin almost meeting. Bent almost double, they walked about with a crutch, shaking and mumbling as they went. If any one had an ache or a pain it was easily accounted for. For why, they were bewitched! The poor old crone was the witch who had "cast the evil eye" upon them. And sometimes these poor creatures were put to death for their so-called deeds of witchcraft.
People believed that these witches sold themselves to the Evil One, and that he gave them power to harm other people. And what made them more dangerous was the fact that they did not need to go near people to harm them, but could do evil at a distance by thinking wicked thoughts, or saying wicked words. Some even of the most saintly and most learned people, believed in witches and witchcraft. So there is nothing surprising in the fact that suddenly, in 1692, whole towns and villages of New England were thrown into a ferment of terror by stories of witchcraft.
It came about quite simply. Two little girls of nine and eleven, the niece and daughter of a minister named Samuel Parris, who lived in Salem village, began suddenly to behave in a most curious manner. They would creep into holes, hide under chairs and benches, twist themselves into queer positions, make curious gestures and weird noises, and talk arrant nonsense. Their parents knew not what to make of it, and so they called in the doctors. Nowadays a clever doctor would have found out pretty soon that the children were merely pretending and playing a foolish trick upon their elders. But in those days doctors were not very wise, and they knew not what to make of this new and strange disease. One of them, however, said he thought that the children must be bewitched.
That was a terrible thought, and at once the minister called in all the other ministers from round about and they spent a day fasting and praying that the children might be released from the evil enchantment. All the neighbours, too, came crowding to the house, eager to hear about the dreadful happenings. And the children, finding themselves all at once people of the first importance, and no doubt enjoying the fuss which was being made, went on more than ever with their mad antics.
It was quite plain to every one that the children were bewitched. But who had done it? Every day the children were asked this question, and at length they accused a poor old Indian woman, who was a servant in the family. And the poor old creature was beaten and terrified until she actually confessed that she was a witch, and in league with the Evil One.
Perhaps the children had a spite against the old woman, perhaps they did not realise at first how wicked and cruel they were. Certainly when they found what excitement they caused, and how interesting they had become to every one they forgot all else. They became bolder now and accused other old women. Soon more and older girls joined them, and many innocent people, both men and women, were accused by them of witchcraft.
They did all sorts of things to make people believe in these accusations. As soon as an old woman was brought in they would fall down on the ground screaming. If she moved they would cry out that she was crushing them to death; if she bit her lip they would declare that she was biting them and so on. They told strange tales, too, of how they had been made to write in a long, thick, red book,—the book of the Evil One. They talked a jumble of nonsense about a Black Man, a black dog and a yellow bird. They would seem to fall down in fits or to be struck dumb. And they so worked upon the superstitious fears of those present that at length both judges and jury, carried away by mysterious terror, would condemn the old woman to death.
Soon a kind of madness took possession of the people. Person after person was accused; wrongs and misfortunes ten or even twenty years old were remembered, and charged to this person or that. No man or woman was safe. Neither age nor youth, beauty, learning nor goodness were any safeguard. Not only the good name, but the very life of every man was at the mercy of every other man. Terror and mistrust stalked abroad, and entered every home. Parents accused their children, children their parents, husbands and wives turned against each other until the prisons were filled to overflowing.
It was quite useless for the prisoners to declare that they were innocent. Few believed them. If any did they hardly dare say so, lest they should find themselves accused in their turn and lodged in prison. Yet at length some were brave enough to stand by their loved ones.
One determined young man with great difficulty succeeded in rescuing his mother from prison. In getting out the poor woman broke her leg, but her son lifted her on to his horse and carried her away to a swamp near by. Here he built her a hut and brought her food and kept her safe until all danger was passed.
One or two other men escaped with their wives and fled beyond the borders of the colony. Twenty, however, were put to death by hanging, among them a minister. All these twenty to the last declared their innocence. Many others, strange to say, confessed to being witches. They confessed because they were terrified into it. Many confessed because they saw that by so doing they might save their lives. But some, having confessed, were so distressed at having lied that they took back their confession. Then they were hanged without mercy.
For a year this terrible madness lasted. Then it passed as suddenly as it had come. The people awoke again to their right senses. The prison doors were opened and the poor innocent people were set free. The wicked children who had accused them were never punished unless their own hearts punished them. One of them at least repented bitterly, and years later openly acknowledged her sorrow for her share in the sad business.
The minister in whose house the persecution began was punished. For the people were so angry with him and the part he had taken that they would have no more to do with him, and he was obliged to leave Salem village.
Some others who had taken as great a part as he in hounding guiltless people to death remained impenitent and unpunished. But the jury and some of the judges made some amends. They did a hard thing, for they publicly acknowledged that they had been wrong. The jury wrote and signed a paper in which they said, "We do hereby declare that we justly fear that we were sadly deluded and mistaken, for which we are much disquieted and distressed in our minds. And do therefore humbly beg forgiveness."
One of the judges, Judge Sewall, was bitterly grieved at the part he had played. And on a day of general intercession he stood up before the whole congregation, acknowledging his guilt and praying God to forgive him. And throughout all his life he kept one day a year upon which he prayed and fasted in repentance.
Perhaps you may think that there is nothing in this story to make you proud of your ancestors. But think again. Think of the courage of those men and women who cheerfully went to death rather than save their lives by lying and making false confessions. Truth to those brave men and women was worth more than life. And is there nothing to be proud of in the fact that the judge and jury, when they found themselves in the wrong, had the manliness to own it publicly and without reserve?
To some of us nothing in all the world seems so hard as to own ourselves in the wrong.