IN olden times nearly everybody believed in witches. These witches were supposed to have sold their souls to the devil, and to have received from him power to ride through the air on broom-sticks. With "the evil eye," they could make people ill, they could destroy cattle by mysterious diseases, they could blight the crops, and do other impossible and dreadful things. They were supposed to have meetings at night, when the devil came and they received the witches' sacrament. Consequently, everybody was afraid of a witch, and nobody wanted to be called one.
The witches were blamed for everything that went wrong. If children fell suddenly ill, if a horse became lame, if a house burned clown, if the butter would not churn, if the cart stuck in the mud, the explanation always was, "A witch did it.
Generally, women, or old men, or ugly, deformed persons were accused of being witches; but sometimes suspicion fastened upon younger persons, and even upon those in high authority. To test whether a person was a witch or not, pins were stuck into the body to find a place where it did not hurt. These were spots where the devil's hands had touched the witch. Another test was by water. The supposed witch was thrown into the water; if she sank and was drowned, she was innocent; if she floated, she was assuredly a witch and must be burned.
The belief in witchcraft and in the punishing of witches was nowhere stronger than in Salem, Massachusetts. The least suspicious circumstance was sufficient for an accusation. A young girl, thirteen years of age, accused a laundress of having stolen linen from the family. The mother of the laundress rebuked the girl severely for this false charge. The girl became immediately bewitched, or said she was, which amounted to the same thing. Others in her family began to act strangely. Some grew deaf, then dumb, then blind. They barked like dogs and purred like cats if anybody came near.
The town went wild with excitement over the bewitched family. The poor mother of the laundress, who was nothing but a harmless and illiterate old woman, and who had tried to defend her daughter from the charge of stealing linen, was accused of being a witch. She was tried, convicted, and executed.
Shortly afterwards, the child of the minister, nine years old, and his niece, twelve years old, began to act queerly and to suffer great pains. There was nothing the matter with them that a little medicine would not have cured, but they chose to think themselves bewitched. A half-breed Indian woman, a servant in the house, was also accused, and, being whipped, she tried to secure her release by confessing that she was really a witch. Of course she was not, but the poor creature would say anything to save herself from torture. The two children were the two most conspicuous figures in the village; they had "fits" and everybody came to the house to see them. They were generally accommodating to all beholders!
An epidemic of witches now broke out in the village. Any one who desired notoriety, or who wished to wreak vengeance upon another, would fall down in a fit and cry out, "Witch! Witch!" The excited town folk would set upon the poor accused one, throw him in prison, and often string him up on the gallows.
An old farmer, who did not believe in witches, cured his Indian servant by a good beating. "I'll flog the witch out of you," he cried; and before long the Indian was perfectly well. But this brought down the people's wrath upon the old farmer. They said, "He is a witch himself, for he rebukes the disease in others." And forthwith the farmer and his wife found themselves in the common jail.
So it went, until nineteen persons were put to death on the accusation of being witches. One poor old man, who stoutly maintained that nobody was a witch, was pressed to death between two doors!
One hundred and fifty people were thrown into prison; so many indeed that the jail was full to overflowing. Two hundred and more were accused and left outside the jail for lack of room. It seemed as though everybody in Salem, sooner or later, would have to stand trial for being a witch.
At last, when they began to accuse persons of high rank, such as one of the Judges, the wife of the Governor, and the wife of the minister himself, it brought the people to their senses. Suddenly it occurred to them what fools they had been. Then the jails were opened, and the poor people inside were set free, and allowed to go about their business. The children who pretended they were under a spell were punished; and soon there was nobody under accusation.
Since then, no one has really believed in witches. There never was, nor ever can be, such evil beings, and the people in Salem would have been spared much folly and misery if they had known it. In Salem, there stands to this day one of the old houses, and it is pointed out as "The Witch House."