October 30, 2010

Salem Witches: Cotton Mather on How to Identify a Witch

In 1692 and 1693, witches were considered to be a very real and scary danger in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. It was thought that witches were the cause of many sicknesses, ills and misfortunes in a time when many illnesses were misunderstood.

Fear of witches, witchcraft and being possessed by demons was very real and eventually created mass hysteria in Massachusetts towns like Salem.   

Witches in the 1600s were scarier than "pointy hat witches" are depicted today; witches typically looked normal--so it was hard to know who was a witch which led to people mistrusting their friends and neighbors. Anyone slightly abnormal, including foreigners was a candidate for witchcraft. During the Salem Witch Trials, devout Christians of high social standings were being accused of being possessed by demons which was unprecedented.

Prior to the trials it was believed that the demons could not possess those who were devoted to Christianity. This lead to a belief that the devil was getting more powerful and that no one was safe.There was a general belief that witches flew, naked on broomsticks to "witches' assemblies" or "Devil Sabbats" which were held deep in the forest and many people at the time thought they saw their neighbors flying away to them. 

Cotton Mather was a reverend and trusted writer on witchcraft and it is thought that his sermons and writings on witches helped ignite the witch hysteria during the late 1600s. Although after the trials he claimed that people could not be convicted of "spectral evidence" alone, many people were convicted one solely the claims of others.   

Cotton Mather Approved These Ways of Identifying Witches:

  • "If the Party suspected be found to have the Devil's mark ; for it is commonly thought, when the Devil makes his Covenant with them, he alwaies leaves his mark behind them, whereby he knows them for his own:a mark whereof no evident Reason in Nature can be given." 
    • Birthmarks, moles, and other skin abnormalities were considered proof of a witch. A confession and a mole were sufficient evidence to condemn a person to death. People believed that these unexplainable marks were made when the devil touched his followers in order to be able to recognize them. These marks were sometimes referred to as "witches’ teats" and it was thought that witches fed evil creatures with them. (How many people have a skin abnormality?)   
  • "If it can be proved, that the party hath entertained a Familiar Spirit, and had Conference with it, in the likeness of some visible Creatures ; here is Evidence of witchcraft."
    • Some black cats, toads, humanoid figures, spirits, certain dogs were thought to be "familiar friends" of witches. These familiars were thought to help witches carry out their curses and spell casting. Some people even thought that witches could even turn into a cat 9 times during their lifetime, creating the folklore that "cats have 9 lives." Witches were expected to feed their familiars, this could be done through their "devil's mark," or not. (How many people feed stray cats?)  
  • “By the Witches Words As when they have been heard calling on speaking to or Talking of their Familiars or when they have been heard Telling of Hurt they have done to man or beast Or when they have been heard Threatning of such Hurt Or if they have been heard Relating their Transportations.”
    • (How many people talk to their animals?)
  • “By the Witches Deeds. As when they have been seen with their Spirits, or seen secretly Feeding any of their Imps. Or, when there can be found their Pictures, Poppets, and other Hellish Compositions.”
    • (How many people own a scary doll?)
  • “By one or more Fellow- Witches, Confessing their own Witchcraft, and bearing Witness against others; if they can make good the Truth of their Witness, and give sufficient proof of it.”
    • Sufficient proof could be as simple as having a respected church member claim that they had seen the witch in question do something witch-like. (How many people have angered another human being enough that they would pretend that you are evil?)
  • “By the Witches own Confession, of Giving their Souls to ' the Devil. It is no Rare thing, for Witches to Confess.”
    • It was thought that the devil walked the forests with a book where he would collect the names of people who would sign their souls over to him. Many people did confess to being witches. It is thought that many people admitted to being witches in a hope to end their ordeal.
Cotton Mather, Wonders of the Invisible World (London: John Russell Smith, 1862), 30-32.

So how many of you would have been Puritan Witch Candidates? It seems silly now but when you read the writings during the time about witches, you can truly sense the fear that there was. I honestly admit that it scares me to read the Wonders of the Invisible World at night. :D  There are passages that allude that those who killed all of those "witches" did their duty and if they had been witches themselves they would expect their neighbors to kill them for the sake of their colony. Hysteria is fascinating as is how powerful fear can be.

I always wonder about the Puritan naming system, I thought "Cotton" was a strange name but then his father was named "Increase,"and  a 5 year old "witch" was named "Dorcas Good,"  (she claimed that a little snake would suckle blood from her finger."


  1. In your first point you said that a confession could condemn a person to death. Actually, in the 1692 Salem Witch trials, a confession would save your life. Those folks who confessed lingered in prison until they were finally pardoned, but only those who professed innocence were hung.

  2. Very interesting. I love reading about the Salem Witch Trials. Have you heard the theory that they believe the Puritans girls were just acting out because they were bored of their strict lifestyle? Though it got out of hand. It was easy for people to believe in witch craft back then. Ann Rinaldi talks about it a little bit at the end of her fiction book: 'A break with charity'

  3. The Heretic's Daughter by, Kathleen Kent is also a pretty good fiction book about the witch trials.

  4. Heather, I'm sorry I was not clear, thanks for pointing that out. That was according to Cotton Mather, not necessarily what actually happened at Salem. Cotton Mather made a real effort in that book to say that you need both "evidence" and a "confession," in an effort to make witch trials "scientific."

    You are correct in saying a confession would actually save you in Salem, although according to the literature at the time, they should have been punished. Thanks for clarifying that.

  5. Sarah Lynn, I am very curious about what would make children act out like that. I've heard a lot of theories. Witch trials in general are just such a fascinating topic. It really gives a strange insight into the human psyche.

  6. A very surprisingly accurate movie on the Salem Witch Trials is "The Three Sovereigns for Sarah" starring Lynn Redgrave. Much of the dialogue was taken directly from the original books and it was filmed in the original buildings in which it all took place.

  7. oops! I meant Vanessa Redgrave was the star, not Lynn! Sorry!

  8. Ken, That sounds really cool. I like original dialogue, It's neat to heard it spoken rather than just reading it.

  9. A house was built on the grounds of the Rebecca Nurse homestead in what is now Danvers, Massachusetts (then called Salem Village) for the filming of "Three Sovereigns for Sarah". Rebecca was one of three Towne sisters accused of witchcraft. Two were hung, and Sarah escaped hanging because the Governor halted the trials. You can still visit the site. None of the other buildings survive except for Judge Corwin's home in downtown Salem. The meeting house in Danvers disappeared a long time ago, but there is a new, modern style memorial nearby. In downtown Salem none of the other buildings or the "gaol" survive, even though thousands visit every year. Even the location of Gallows Hill is uncertain.

  10. Cool Heather! Now I'm really going to have to rent that one. I am really interested in how things like that get "lost" but it happens all of the time.

  11. halllo. this is great help for mai hwrk. i am writing an guide to witch hunting a sort of for dummies thing. do u have any more advice?
    my email is rosie@chaple.co.uk

  12. I live in Salem now and am actually related to Nathaniel Hawthorne whose ancestor was a judge at the witch trials here. He was "Judge Hathorn" then and Nathaniel wanted to distance himself from this relative and so added the "e" to his last name as an adult.

    October is called "Haunted Happenings" here in Salem, MA, and that month is fast approaching now. You don't want to have to go anywhere near the downtown area in October if you can help it. This town if full to brimming over with tourists and locals alike all here to celebrate our famous witch history.


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