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A Deep Stain

By James D. Sanderson



Of his Puritan ancestor’s “persecuting spirit” and involvement in the martyrdom of witches, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, “…their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled utterly to dust!” (Found in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ 1850, referring to John Hathorne (1641-1717), one of the judges of the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692). A man can do no more than live his own life and try to expiate the sins of his forefathers.

Two hundred and sixty years passed before playwright Arthur Miller was able to gain the proper perspective on the trials of witches in this country’s colonial period, (thereby attempting to expiate the country’s sins). In 1952 Miller’s friend, and director of his play ‘Death of A Salesman’, Elia Kazan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and threatened with blacklisting from Hollywood. Rather than face the loss of his livelihood, Kazan named eight black men as fellow members of the Communist Party. Because the activities of that committee were likened to a ‘witch hunt’, Miller traveled to Salem, Massachusetts to research a play ‘The Crucible’, which came out the following year.

Begun in 1934 as ‘Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities’, the committee concerned itself initially with questioning witnesses concerning propaganda activities in the United States and allegations called the ‘Business Plot’ that fascists intended to seize control of the White House. By 1947 the committee was holding hearings into possible communist influence in Hollywood’s motion picture industry. There was a definite witch-hunt spirit alive in America in those years. Following the release of ‘The Crucible’ Miller himself was questioned and his passport suspended for a time.

In the play a local preacher’s daughter has taken ill. It is discovered that she along with other local girls were dancing around a bonfire in the night forest with the slave woman Tituba. The Reverend John Hale is called in to investigate the possibility of witchcraft. John Proctor, a farmer, is revealed to have had an affair with seventeen year old Abigail Williams, who accuses John’s wife of witchcraft. The presiding judge, Judge Hathorne, refuses to listen to evidence that the girls might be lying. More accusations are made and more people arrested. John Proctor himself is accused by Mary Warren of being in league with the Devil and he, seeing the horror of what is happening, says that if such things can happen, God is dead. Proctor admits to being a wizard but then tears up his signed confession when he sees how it will be used to ruin him and other of his neighbors in Salem. In the end he is led away to be hanged.

To see these dramatic events acted out by talented actors is memorable indeed. To hear the fear and vengeance dripping from their lips—to hear their wails and screams—one may well lose sleep over the monstrous state of the world, then and now.

The real witchcraft trials can be said to have begun in 1689 with the publication of a bestselling book called, ‘Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions’ in which Cotton Mather, the minister of Old North Church in Boston, relates an incident of witchcraft he was personally familiar with. It was read by Samuel Parris, the minister who led the witch hunt in Salem three years later.

According to his account the eldest daughter of a certain Mason John Goodwin and his wife had reason to question their washerwoman—Goody Glover—concerning some missing linen. The girl felt there might be reason to suspect the linens had been used in secret rites of witchcraft. The girl then became ill and was visited by strange fits. Shortly one of her sisters and two brothers were also seized. ‘The variety of their tortures increased continually,’ it reads. The witch was arrested and brought to trial. The woman’s house was searched and poppets made of rags and stuffed with goat’s hair were found and brought into court. The woman admitted that she used these poppets to afflict the children by wetting her finger with spittle and streaking the little images. The children again fell into fits, before the whole assembly this time.

Goody Glover confessed everything. The court then appointed five or six physicians to ‘examine her very strictly, whether she were not craz’d in her Intellectuals…’ The sentence of death was passed upon her.

Cotton Mather visited her twice while she was under condemnation. He with his great round-domed head, hairless on the pate, with copious fronds of brown hair pillowing down along the sides of his black-frocked shoulders. He with his full nose and rounded brows, and with the white clerical collar stiff down the front of his frock. His was a clownish face, though it can be doubted that Goody Glover thought it so. Again and again Mather set before her the need to break her covenant with the Devil and to give herself to the Lord Jesus Christ. To no avail.

On her way to her execution Goody Glover blurted that the children would not be relieved of their afflictions by her death, for others were involved in this witchcraft as well. This against absolute innocents! One can sense how outrage and fear spread through the land.

Mather took the eldest daughter into his home and for a time she did well but then, on the 20th of November she cried out that they had found her and again fell into fits. At last, over time, the fits subsided and finally ceased and the child was made well.

Americans are slow to acknowledge or accept the stain of darkness within. Thus, in trying to ignore or suppress darkness, it emerges in unexpected and horrible ways. The Europeans recognized and accepted their sordidness. They openly told their fierce tales of the supernatural and the horror of the deep woods. Of wandering monks and gruesome phantoms. Of banshees wailing in the mist—sounding solitary and forlorn. They whispered of children snatched away from their parents by malevolent shadows. Of dog-shaped demons. Of cold spots in the forest causing a shiver on a warm night. Of witches. Of ghosts and iron cook pots and haunted houses and other tales of terror.

Americans did not yet have their own tales of ‘Sleepy Hollow’ or of ‘Murders In The Rue Morgue,’ but they had not been able to divorce themselves from the fairytales and superstitions of their European background, either. The fear of witches and demons was still embedded in their deep psyche.

The Salem witch trials, so called, were actually a number of trials conducted in three counties of colonial Massachusetts from early 1692 through May of the following year. Well over one hundred and fifty people were accused, arrested and imprisoned. Twenty nine were convicted and of these nineteen—fourteen women and five men—were hanged. Giles Cory, when he refused to enter a plea at his trial was crushed under heavy stones in an attempt to force him to make his plea. He died in the attempt. Two words were spoken by him; “More weight!” Five other accused persons died while in prison.

In Salem Village eleven year-old Abigail Williams, (not 17 as portrayed in ‘The Crucible’), and her cousin nine year-old Betty Parris, began to experience fits much like those described three years earlier by Cotton Mather. Their contortions and screams frightened everyone. Others in town began to experience similar symptoms. It did not take long before accusations of witchcraft were being made—first against Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good, and the slave woman Tituba. After they were jailed others were accused and arrested: sixty two in all. Sarah Osborne and Roger Toothaker (one of those subsequently arrested), died while in jail.

Bridget Bishop was convicted and hanged on June 10th, 1692. Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wildes, and Rebecca Nurse were tried, found guilty and hanged on July 19th. On August 19th George Jacobs, Sr., John Willard, Martha Carrier, John Procter and George Burroughs were hanged. George Burroughs prayed the Lord’s Prayer perfectly, something a witch was not supposed to be able to do, but Cotton Mather was on hand to remind the crowd that Burroughs had already been convicted at trial. The execution went forward.

Eight more were executed on August 22nd: Ann Pudeator, Mary Eastey, Martha Corey, Wilmot Redd, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Margaret Scott, and Samuel Wardwell.

Asked to write an account of the trials Cotton Mather wrote his sermon, ‘The Wonders of the Invisible World’ with the subtitle, ‘Observations as well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devils.’ There is a whole world of frightening and unseen malevolence, he contends. “But such is the Descent of the Devil at this day upon ourselves, that I may truly tell you, The Walls of the whole World are broken down! The usual Walls of Defence about mankind have such a Gap made in them, that the very Devils are broke in upon us, to Seduce the Souls, Torment the Bodies…”

The idea that Devils are at large in the world, ready to sink their angry claws into unsuspecting scalps, has been eclipsed by the concepts of the modern age—of Arthur Miller—which contends that the devils running around in each human heart are quite enough to cause horror in the world. The madness of religious conviction can be equally evil, we now know. “… the Devil, is Come down unto us with great Wrath…” Mather wrote.

Nathaniel Hawthorne struggled to make sense of his own heritage. The beginning of his ‘Scarlet Letter’ finds bearded men “in sad-colored garments” assembled at the door of the jail with the narrator’s observation that the building of jails and graveyards had been the first order of business in the establishment of this utopia. Mistress Prynne, emerging with her baby, has ignored the “dismal severity of the Puritan’s code of law” and has become known as a “hussy” and a “malefactress” by the other “Goodwives” of the colony. She should have been branded on the forehead, the good women think; not only given a mark to wear on the bodice of her gown. “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.”

Why the A? Why the baby? Whose baby is it? Such are the questions that form in the first passages of ‘The Scarlet Letter’.

Brought out in shame! The narrator comments on the “Severity of the Puritan character. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders at the scaffold.”

In an odd twist of history, however, it was Cotton Mather’s book concerning the Christian’s obligation to take action in the world: ‘Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good’, published years later, in 1710, that was to influence a boy who would one day become a founder of the American nation. That boy’s name was Benjamin Franklin.


This article is adapted from a forthcoming book American Masters, a popular history about American literature and authors. James D. Sanderson is the author of two novels, The Angelic Mysteries (1994) and Mirabilia (1995). He lives in southern Colorado with his wife Nancy and two granddaughters. He is currently working on a third novel, The Struggle. He also blogs All Things Literary at

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