My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Friday, May 4, 2012

There be Witches Too Many

Witches in 1493
I recently had a book signing for my novel, Rebel Puritan, and I was asked whether my historical fiction is based in Salem during the witchcraft frenzy.  Though my novel takes place in 17th-century New England, it occurs mostly in Rhode Island several decades before the Salem tragedy.  However, I get many such questions.

I am now writing the sequel to Rebel Puritan, and my real-life protagonist, Herodias Long, apparently lived until 1705.  I admit that I searched through Rhode Island’s records for a case of witchcraft to use in Herodias’ story.  After all, fine Salem witchcraft tales, such as Kathleen Kent’s The Heretics Daughter and The Afflicted Girls by Suzi Witten, have attracted many readers.  Why not borrow some for my sequel? 

Rhode Island let me down.  Though there was a 1647 death penalty for witchcraft in Rhode Island, there were no executions.  There was not a single trial.  Not even an accusation!

Bringing a witch to justice
Witchcraft is as old as humanity, but I confine this account to colonial New England.  The Pilgrims brought Europe’s beliefs with them, and when they wrote a code of laws in 1636, one of the five crimes for which a person would be put to death was “forming a solemn compact with the devil by way of witchcraft.”

Puritans arrived ten years after the Pilgrims, and they also had stern witchcraft laws.  In spring 1647 John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts, wrote in his journal, “One ___ of Windsor [CT] was arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch.”  One year later, three Massachusetts women were convicted and executed.  As John Palfrey wrote, “These cases appear to have excited no more attention than … any other felony, and no judicial record of them survives.”

A Puritan witch
Margaret Jones was one of the executed women, and Governor Winthrop described some of the deathly evidence against her.  She had a “malignant touch” and persons whom she “stroked or touched with any affection or displeasure … were taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains or sickness.”  She used herbal remedies such as aniseed, which should have been harmless, yet had “extraordinary violent effects.”  And thirdly, Margaret told people that if they did not use her remedies, they would never be healed, and her predictions often came true.  Considering that doctors of the day used such dubious ingredients as mercury and snails, and relied on bloodletting, it’s amazing that anyone survived.

John Josselyn’s book, New England’s Rarities Discovered, was published in 1672.  He comments that in the region there be witches too many … that produce many strange apparitions if you will believe report.”  Notice the date: Josselyn’s book appeared two decades before the Salem witchcraft accusations.

Bridget Bishop's 1692 hanging
Witchcraft accusations, trials, and hangings occurred in the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Hampshire on a near-yearly basis.  The accusations came to a horrific climax in 1692 when 160 persons were charged with witchcraft.  Nineteen were hanged, and one was crushed to death in a futile attempt to make him plead guilty.

It didn’t take much to be suspected.  In 1656 Ann Hibbins was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts as a witch (contrary to popular belief, witches were not burned in America).  She met a pair of neighbors, and accurately guessed that they were talking about her.  Incredibly, that was enough to get her tried and executed.

Ann Hibbins’ husband died a year before she was tried.  That alone imperiled Goodwife Hibbins.  A goodly proportion of accused witches were middle aged women or elderly widows.  Festering ill-will often broke to the surface after a quarrelsome woman’s husband died.

Accusers and accused: witchcraft was a peculiarly female provenance.  Out of 116 persons on a list of accused witches, 37 were male.  79 of them were women, most of them elderly or middle-aged. Witchcraft accusations gave women a public voice they rarely possessed.  They accused and gave depositions, and acted out their possessions in court.  Ministers, governors, and judges treated them with respect, sometimes with deadly results.

A Monstrous Birth
Puritans were superstitious folk, and they examined every unusual event for its divine meaning.  An earthquake, bad storm, or a deformed newborn was a sign that God was very displeased.  It was up to them to figure out why.  If a witch was the reason for God's wrath, she would be dispatched, and quickly.

In contrast, look at Rhode Island, which was not Puritan.  Though over 300 persons were accused of witchcraft in17th century New England, only 3 of them were Rhode Island residents!!  Those three accusations weren’t even made in Rhode Island.

The 1640 accusation against Anne Hutchinson and two men of “Aquiday Island” widely cited online is merely a slanderous suspicion. John Winthrop, Massachusetts’ Puritan governor, wrote in his then-private journal that a Mr. Hales was so taken with Mrs. Hutchinson’s heresies that “it gave suspicion of witchcraft.”  If Rhode Island’s government was aware of Winthrop’s notion it took no notice.

So, why was Rhode Island immune to the witchcraft hysteria?  The people who lived there in the first 70 years were the same Englishmen who lived in Puritan Massachusetts and Connecticut.  They grew up with the same belief system and superstition brought over from England.  Where were Rhode Island’s accusations?

Anne Hutchinson's heresy trial
I suspect that the reason lies in Rhode Island’s origins.  Providence was first settled in 1636 by Roger Williams and a handful of followers who were ejected from Massachusetts as heretics and troublemakers.  In 1638-9 an influx of refugees arrived after Anne Hutchinson was convicted of heresy in Boston.  She was excommunicated and banished.  Several of her followers were also ejected, and many opted to escape Puritan persecution.  Nearly all went to Rhode Island, where they founded the towns of Portsmouth and Newport.

Rhode Islanders knew what it was like to experience baseless accusations and discrimination.  Tolerance was not just a notion – it was a way of life.  Quakers, Jews, Catholics, and Hugenots were welcomed in Rhode Island.  There certainly were disputes between neighbors in that tiny colony.  Thankfully they did not erupt into deadly accusations of witchcraft and Satan-worship.

Here is an incomplete list of witchcraft investigations from 1651 well into the 20th century:

History of New England  John Palfrey 1878
The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut  John M. Taylor
Entertaining Satan  John Putnam Demos 1982

Images from:


  1. In superficial research on Edward Hutchinson (Anne's eldest son), I learned that his second wife, Abigail Vermaies Hutchinson, testified against Eunice Cole at her 1656 witch trial in New Hampshire. Eunice spent years in jail, having her estate drained dry for "room and board" and fines. Once she was destitute, out came the rope.

    Middle-aged and elderly women who were widowed with property, or who had successful cottage industries, were accused of witchcraft. It was more about seizing their assets for being "uppity" and competitive than about religious beliefs.

    There was a wealthy woman who left England for Virginia, but she never arrived, having been accused as a witch while at sea, strip-searched for the 3rd nipple (that nursed a demon), and dying from torture before being tossed overboard. Her possessions were kept by the ship captain and the accuser.

    I suspect Anne Hutchinson was not charged with witchcraft because of her husband's wealth and importance; but once he died in 1642, she got the hell outta Dodge and moved to Pelham Bay because Winthrop and others were attempting annexation of Rhode Island to reassert power over the heretics and their financial resources. And then the Siwanoy massacred Anne and her younger children in 1643...

  2. When I started work on this post, I knew there weren't many witchcraft accusations in Rhode Island, but I did not expect to find none!

    Now that I have sunk my teeth into the topic, I want to look further into the gender difference in accused & accusers. Financial status also was a huge factor - poor women like Sarah Good were also in greater peril of being accused. Anne Hutchinson was fortunate that she wasn't charged for bewitching and bemadding her Boston supporters in 1637, but I agree that her husband's status must have protected her.


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