Chapter 16 - From Diabolism to Hysteria
The Epidemics of 'Possessions'
In the foregoing chapter I have sketched the triumph of
science in destroying the idea that individual lunatics are
"possessed by devils," in establishing the truth that insanity is
physical disease, and in substituting for superstitious cruelties
toward the insane a treatment mild, kindly, and based upon
The Satan who had so long troubled individual men and women
thus became extinct; henceforth his fossil remains only were
preserved: they may still be found in the sculptures and storied
windows of medieval churches, in sundry liturgies, and in popular
forms of speech.
But another Satan still lived - a Satan who wrought on a
larger scale - who took possession of multitudes. For, after this
triumph of the scientific method, there still remained a class of
mental disorders which could not be treated in asylums, which
were not yet fully explained by science, and which therefore gave
arguments of much apparent strength to the supporters of the old
theological view: these were the epidemics of "diabolic possession"
which for so many centuries afflicted various parts of the world.
When obliged, then, to retreat from their old position in
regard to individual cases of insanity, the more conservative
theologians promptly referred to these epidemics as beyond the
domain of science - as clear evidences of the power of Satan;
and, as the basis of this view, they cited from the Old Testament
frequent references to witchcraft, and, from the New Testament,
St. Paul's question as to the possible bewitching of the Galatians,
and the bewitching of the people of Samaria by Simon the Magician.
Naturally, such leaders had very many adherents in that
class, so large in all times, who find that
"To follow foolish precedents and wink
With both our eyes, is easier than to think."
It must be owned that their case seemed strong. Though in all
human history, so far as it is closely known, these phenomena
had appeared, and though every classical scholar could recall the
wild orgies of the priests, priestesses, and devotees of Dionysus
and Cybele, and the epidemic of wild rage which took its name
from some of these, the great fathers and doctors of the Church
had left a complete answer to any scepticism based on these
facts; they simply pointed to St. Paul's declaration that the
gods of the heathen were devils: these examples, then, could be
transformed into a powerful argument for diabolic possession.
But it was more especially the epidemics of diabolism in
medieval and modern times which gave strength to the theological
view, and from these I shall present a chain of typical examples.
As early as the eleventh century we find clear accounts of
diabolical possession taking the form of epidemics of raving,
jumping, dancing, and convulsions, the greater number of the
sufferers being women and children. In a time so rude, accounts
of these manifestations would rarely receive permanent record;
but it is very significant that even at the beginning of the
eleventh century we hear of them at the extremes of Europe - in
northern Germany and in southern Italy. At various times during
that century we get additional glimpses of these exhibitions, but
it is not until the beginning of the thirteenth century that we
have a renewal of them on a large scale. In 1237, at Erfurt, a
jumping disease and dancing mania afflicted a hundred children,
many of whom died in consequence; it spread through the whole
region, and fifty years later we hear of it in Holland.
But it was the last quarter of the fourteenth century that
saw its greatest manifestations. There was abundant cause for
them. It was a time of oppression, famine, and pestilence: the
crusading spirit, having run its course, had been succeeded by a
wild, mystical fanaticism; the most frightful plague in human
history - the Black Death - was depopulating whole
regions - reducing cities to villages, and filling Europe with
that strange mixture of devotion and dissipation which we always
note during the prevalence of deadly epidemics on a large scale.
It was in this ferment of religious, moral, and social
disease that there broke out in 1374, in the lower Rhine region,
the greatest, perhaps, of all manifestations of "possession" - an
epidemic of dancing, jumping, and wild raving. The cures resorted
to seemed on the whole to intensify the disease: the afflicted
continued dancing for hours, until they fell in utter exhaustion.
Some declared that they felt as if bathed in blood, some saw
visions, some prophesied.
Into this mass of "possession" there was also clearly poured
a current of scoundrelism which increased the disorder.
The immediate source of these manifestations seems to have
been the wild revels of St. John's Day. In those revels sundry
old heathen ceremonies had been perpetuated, but under a
nominally Christian form: wild Bacchanalian dances had thus
become a semi-religious ceremonial. The religious and social
atmosphere was propitious to the development of the germs of
diabolic influence vitalized in these orgies, and they were
scattered far and wide through large tracts of the Netherlands
and Germany, and especially through the whole region of the
Rhine. At Cologne we hear of five hundred afflicted at once; at
Metz of eleven hundred dancers in the streets; at Strasburg of
yet more painful manifestations; and from these and other cities
they spread through the villages and rural districts.
The great majority of the sufferers were women, but there
were many men, and especially men whose occupations were
sedentary. Remedies were tried upon a large scale-exorcisms
first, but especially pilgrimages to the shrine of St. Vitus. The
exorcisms accomplished so little that popular faith in them grew
small, and the main effect of the pilgrimages seemed to be to
increase the disorder by subjecting great crowds to the diabolic
contagion. Yet another curative means was seen in the flagellant
processions - vast crowds of men, women, and children who wandered
through the country, screaming, praying, beating themselves with
whips, imploring the Divine mercy and the intervention of St.
Vitus. Most fearful of all the main attempts at cure were the
persecutions of the Jews. A feeling had evidently spread among
the people at large that the Almighty was filled with wrath at
the toleration of his enemies, and might be propitiated by their
destruction: in the principal cities and villages of Germany,
then, the Jews were plundered, tortured, and murdered by tens of
thousands. No doubt that, in all this, greed was united with
fanaticism; but the argument of fanaticism was simple and cogent;
the dart which pierced the breast of Israel at that time was
winged and pointed from its own sacred books: the biblical
argument was the same used in various ages to promote
persecution; and this was, that the wrath of the Almighty was
stirred against those who tolerated his enemies, and that because
of this toleration the same curse had now come upon Europe which
the prophet Samuel had denounced against Saul for showing mercy
to the enemies of Jehovah.
It is but just to say that various popes and kings exerted
themselves to check these cruelties. Although the argument of
Samuel to Saul was used with frightful effect two hundred years
later by a most conscientious pope in spurring on the rulers of
France to extirpate the Huguenots, the papacy in the fourteenth
century stood for mercy to the Jews. But even this intervention
was long without effect; the tide of popular Superstition had
become too strong to be curbed even by the spiritual and temporal
Against this overwhelming current science for many
generations could do nothing. Throughout the whole of the
fifteenth century physicians appeared to shun the whole matter.
Occasionally some more thoughtful man ventured to ascribe some
phase of the disease to natural causes; but this was an unpopular
doctrine, and evidently dangerous to those who developed it.
Yet, in the beginning of the sixteenth century, cases of
"possession" on a large scale began to be brought within the scope
of medical research, and the man who led in this evolution of
medical science was Paracelsus. He it was who first bade modern
Europe think for a moment upon the idea that these diseases are
inflicted neither by saints nor demons, and that the "dancing
possession" is simply a form of disease, of which the cure may be
effected by proper remedies and regimen.
Paracelsus appears to have escaped any serious interference:
it took some time, perhaps, for the theological leaders to
understand that he had "let a new idea loose upon the planet,"
but they soon understood it, and their course was simple. For
about fifty years the new idea was well kept under; but in 1563
another physician, John Wier, of Cleves, revived it at much risk
to his position and reputation.
Although the new idea was thus resisted, it must have taken
some hold upon thoughtful men, for we find that in the second
half of the same century the St. Vitus's dance and forms of
demoniacal possession akin to it gradually diminished in
frequency and were sometimes treated as diseases. In the
seventeenth century, so far as the north of Europe is concerned,
these displays of "possession" on a great scale had almost
entirely ceased; here and there cases appeared, but there was no
longer the wild rage extending over great districts and
afflicting thousands of people. Yet it was, as we shall see, in
this same seventeenth century, in the last expiring throes of
this superstition, that it led to the worst acts of cruelty.
While this Satanic influence had been exerted on so great a
scale throughout northern Europe, a display strangely like it,
yet strangely unlike it, had been going on in Italy. There, too,
epidemics of dancing and jumping seized groups and communities;
but they were attributed to a physical cause - the theory being
that the bite of a tarantula in some way provoked a supernatural
intervention, of which dancing was the accompaniment and cure.
In the middle of the sixteenth century Fracastoro made an
evident impression on the leaders of Italian opinion by using
medical means in the cure of the possessed; though it is worthy
of note that the medicine which he applied successfully was such
as we now know could not by any direct effects of its own
accomplish any cure: whatever effect it exerted was wrought upon
the imagination of the sufferer. This form of "possession," then,
passed out of the supernatural domain, and became known as
"tarantism." Though it continued much longer than the corresponding
manifestations in northern Europe, by the beginning of the eighteenth
century it had nearly disappeared; and, though special manifestations
of it on a small scale still break out occasionally, its main
survival is the "tarantella," which the traveller sees danced
at Naples as a catchpenny assault upon his purse.
But, long before this form of "possession" had begun to
disappear, there had arisen new manifestations, apparently more
inexplicable. As the first great epidemics of dancing and
jumping had their main origin in a religious ceremony, so
various new forms had their principal source in what were
supposed to be centres of religious life - in the convents, and
more especially in those for women.
Out of many examples we may take a few as typical.
In the fifteenth century the chroniclers assure us that, an
inmate of a German nunnery having been seized with a passion for
biting her companions, her mania spread until most, if not all,
of her fellow-nuns began to bite each other; and that this
passion for biting passed from convent to convent into other
parts of Germany, into Holland, and even across the Alps into Italy.
So, too, in a French convent, when a nun began to mew like a
cat, others began mewing; the disease spread, and was only
checked by severe measures.
In the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation gave new
force to witchcraft persecutions in Germany, the new Church
endeavouring to show that in zeal and power she exceeded the old.
But in France influential opinion seemed not so favourable to
these forms of diabolical influence, especially after the
publication of Montaigne's Essays, in 1580, had spread a
sceptical atmosphere over many leading minds.
In 1588 occurred in France a case which indicates the growth
of this sceptical tendency even in the higher regions of the
french Church, In that year Martha Brossier, a country girl, was,
it was claimed, possessed of the devil. The young woman was to
all appearance under direct Satanic influence. She roamed about,
begging that the demon might be cast out of her, and her
imprecations and blasphemies brought consternation wherever she
went. Myth-making began on a large scale; stories grew and sped.
The Capuchin monks thundered from the pulpit throughout France
regarding these proofs of the power of Satan: the alarm spread,
until at last even jovial, sceptical King Henry IV was
disquieted, and the reigning Pope was asked to take measures to
ward off the evil.
Fortunately, there then sat in the episcopal chair of Angers
a prelate who had apparently imbibed something of Montaigne's
scepticism - Miron; and, when the case was brought before him, he
submitted it to the most time-honoured of sacred tests. He first
brought into the girl's presence two bowls, one containing holy
water, the other ordinary spring water, but allowed her to draw a
false inference regarding the contents of each: the result was
that at the presentation of the holy water the devils were
perfectly calm, but when tried with the ordinary water they threw
Martha into convulsions.
The next experiment made by the shrewd bishop was to similar
purpose. He commanded loudly that a book of exorcisms be brought,
and under a previous arrangement, his attendants brought him a
copy of Virgil. No sooner had the bishop begun to read the first
line of the AEneid than the devils threw Martha into convulsions.
On another occasion a Latin dictionary, which she had reason to
believe was a book of exorcisms, produced a similar effect.
Although the bishop was thereby led to pronounce the whole
matter a mixture of insanity and imposture, the Capuchin monks
denounced this view as godless. They insisted that these tests
really proved the presence of Satan - showing his cunning in
covering up the proofs of his existence. The people at large
sided with their preachers, and Martha was taken to Paris, where
various exorcisms were tried, and the Parisian mob became as
devoted to her as they had been twenty years before to the
murderers of the Huguenots, as they became two centuries later to
Robespierre, and as they more recently were to General Boulanger.
But Bishop Miron was not the only sceptic. The Cardinal de
Gondi, Archbishop of Paris, charged the most eminent physicians
of the city, and among them Riolan, to report upon the case.
Various examinations were made, and the verdict was that Martha
was simply a hysterical impostor. Thanks, then, to medical
science, and to these two enlightened ecclesiastics who summoned
its aid, what fifty or a hundred years earlier would have been
the centre of a widespread epidemic of possession was isolated,
and hindered from producing a national calamity.
In the following year this healthful growth of scepticism
continued. Fourteen persons had been condemned to death for
sorcery, but public opinion was strong enough to secure a new
examination by a special commission, which reported that "the
prisoners stood more in need of medicine than of punishment," and
they were released.
But during the seventeenth century, the clergy generally
having exerted themselves heroically to remove this "evil heart
of unbelief" so largely due to Montaigne, a theological reaction
was brought on not only in France but in all parts of the
Christian world, and the belief in diabolic possession, though
certainly dying, flickered up hectic, hot, and malignant through
the whole century. In 1611 we have a typical case at Aix. An
epidemic of possession having occurred there, Gauffridi, a man of
note, was burned at the stake as the cause of the trouble.
Michaelis, one of the priestly exorcists, declared that he had
driven out sixty-five hundred devils from one of the possessed.
Similar epidemics occurred in various parts of the world.
Twenty years later a far more striking case occurred at Loudun,
in western France, where a convent of Ursuline nuns was
"afflicted by demons."
The convent was filled mainly with ladies of noble birth,
who, not having sufficient dower to secure husbands, had,
according to the common method of the time, been made nuns.
It is not difficult to understand that such an imprisonment
of a multitude of women of different ages would produce some
woful effects. Any reader of Manzoni's Promessi Sposi, with its
wonderful portrayal of the feelings and doings of a noble lady
kept in a convent against her will, may have some idea of the
rage and despair which must have inspired such assemblages in
which pride, pauperism, and the attempted suppression of the
instincts of humanity wrought a fearful work.
What this work was may be seen throughout the Middle Ages;
but it is especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
that we find it frequently taking shape in outbursts of diabolic
In this case at Loudun, the usual evidences of Satanic
influence appeared. One after another of the inmates fell into
convulsions: some showed physical strength apparently
supernatural; some a keenness of perception quite as surprising;
many howled forth blasphemies and obscenities.
Near the convent dwelt a priest - Urbain Grandier - noted for
his brilliancy as a writer and preacher, but careless in his way
of living. Several of the nuns had evidently conceived a passion
for him, and in their wild rage and despair dwelt upon his name.
In the same city, too, were sundry ecclesiastics and laymen with
whom Grandier had fallen into petty neighbourhood quarrels, and
some of these men held the main control of the convent.
Out of this mixture of "possession" within the convent and
malignity without it came a charge that Grandier had bewitched
the young women.
The Bishop of Poictiers took up the matter. A trial was
held, and it was noted that, whenever Grandier appeared, the
"possessed" screamed, shrieked, and showed every sign of diabolic
influence. Grandier fought desperately, and appealed to the
Archbishop of Bordeaux, De Sourdis. The archbishop ordered a more
careful examination, and, on separating the nuns from each other
and from certain monks who had been bitterly hostile to Grandier,
such glaring discrepancies were found in their testimony that the
whole accusation was brought to naught.
But the enemies of Satan and of Grandier did not rest.
Through their efforts Cardinal Richelieu, who appears to have had
an old grudge against Grandier, sent a representative, Laubardemont,
to make another investigation. Most frightful scenes were now
enacted: the whole convent resounded more loudly than ever with
shrieks, groans, howling, and cursing, until finally Grandier,
though even in the agony of torture he refused to confess the
crimes that his enemies suggested, was hanged and burned.
From this centre the epidemic spread: multitudes of women
and men were affected by it in various convents; several of the
great cities of the south and west of France came under the same
influence; the "possession" went on for several years longer and
then gradually died out, though scattered cases have occurred
from that day to this.
A few years later we have an even more striking example
among the French Protestants. The Huguenots, who had taken
refuge in the mountains of the Cevennes to escape persecution,
being pressed more and more by the cruelties of Louis XIV, began
to show signs of a high degree of religious exaltation. Assembled
as they were for worship in wild and desert places, an epidemic
broke out among them, ascribed by them to the Almighty, but by
their opponents to Satan. Men, women, and children preached and
prophesied. Large assemblies were seized with trembling. Some
underwent the most terrible tortures without showing any signs of
suffering. Marshal de Villiers, who was sent against them,
declared that he saw a town in which all the women and girls,
without exception, were possessed of the devil, and ran leaping
and screaming through the streets. Cases like this, inexplicable
to the science of the time, gave renewed strength to the
Toward the end of the same century similar manifestations
began to appear on a large scale in America.
The life of the early colonists in New England was such as to
give rapid growth to the germs of the doctrine of possession
brought from the mother country. Surrounded by the dark pine
forests; having as their neighbours indians, who were more than
suspected of being children of Satan; harassed by wild beasts
apparently sent by the powers of evil to torment the elect; with
no varied literature to while away the long winter evenings; with
few amusements save neighbourhood quarrels; dwelling intently on
every text of Scripture which supported their gloomy theology,
and adopting its most literal interpretation, it is not strange
that they rapidly developed ideas regarding the darker side of
This fear of witchcraft received a powerful stimulus from
the treatises of learned men. Such works, coming from Europe,
which was at that time filled with the superstition, acted
powerfully upon conscientious preachers, and were brought by them
to bear upon the people at large. Naturally, then, throughout the
latter half of the seventeenth century we find scattered cases of
diabolic possession. At Boston, Springfield, Hartford, Groton,
and other towns, cases occurred, and here and there we hear of
In the last quarter of the seventeenth century the fruit of
these ideas began to ripen. In the year 1684 Increase Mather
published his book, Remarkable Providences, laying stress upon
diabolic possession and witchcraft. This book, having been sent
over to England, exercised an influence there, and came back with
the approval of no less a man than Richard Baxter: by this its
power at home was increased.
In 1688 a poor family in Boston was afflicted by demons:
four children, the eldest thirteen years of age, began leaping
and barking like dogs or purring like cats, and complaining of
being pricked, pinched, and cut; and, to help the matter, an old
Irishwoman was tried and executed.
All this belief might have passed away like a troubled dream
had it not become incarnate in a strong man. This man was Cotton
Mather, the son of Increase Mather. Deeply religious, possessed
of excellent abilities, a great scholar, anxious to promote the
welfare of his flock in this world and in the next, he was far in
advance of ecclesiastics generally on nearly all the main
questions between science and theology. He came out of his
earlier superstition regarding the divine origin of the Hebrew
punctuation; he opposed the old theologic idea regarding the
taking of interest for money; he favoured inoculation as a
preventive of smallpox when a multitude of clergymen and laymen
opposed it; he accepted the Newtonian astronomy despite the
outcries against its "atheistic tendency"; he took ground
against the time-honoured dogma that comets are "signs and
wonders." He had, indeed, some of the defects of his qualities,
and among them pedantic vanity, pride of opinion, and love of
power; but he was for his time remarkably liberal and
undoubtedly sincere. He had thrown off a large part of his
father's theology, but one part of it he could not throw off: he
was one of the best biblical scholars of his time, and he could
not break away from the fact that the sacred Scriptures
explicitly recognise witchcraft and demoniacal possession as
realities, and enjoin against witchcraft the penalty of death.
Therefore it was that in 1689 he published his Memorable
Providences relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. The book,
according to its title-page, was "recommended by the Ministers of
Boston and Charleston," and its stories soon became the familiar
reading of men, women, and children throughout New England.
Out of all these causes thus brought to bear upon public
opinion began in 1692 a new outbreak of possession, which is one
of the most instructive in history. The Rev. Samuel Parris was the
minister of the church in Salem, and no pope ever had higher ideas
of his own infallibility, no bishop a greater love of ceremony,
no inquisitor a greater passion for prying and spying.
Before long Mr. Parris had much upon his hands. Many of his
hardy, independent parishioners disliked his ways. Quarrels
arose. Some of the leading men of the congregation were pitted
against him. The previous minister, George Burroughs, had left
the germs of troubles and quarrels, and to these were now added
new complications arising from the assumptions of Parris. There
were innumerable wranglings and lawsuits; in fact, all the
essential causes for Satanic interference which we saw at work in
and about the monastery at Loudun, and especially the turmoil of
a petty village where there is no intellectual activity, and
where men and women find their chief substitute for it in
squabbles, religious, legal, political, social, and personal.
In the darkened atmosphere thus charged with the germs of
disease it was suddenly discovered that two young girls in the
family of Mr. Parris were possessed of devils: they complained of
being pinched, pricked, and cut, fell into strange spasms and
made strange speeches - showing the signs of diabolic possession
handed down in fireside legends or dwelt upon in popular witch
literature - and especially such as had lately been described by
Cotton Mather in his book on Memorable Providences. The two
girls, having been brought by Mr. Parris and others to tell who
had bewitched them, first charged an old Indian woman, and the
poor old Indian husband was led to join in the charge. This at
once afforded new scope for the activity of Mr. Parris.
Magnifying his office, he immediately began making a great stir
in Salem and in the country round about. Two magistrates were
summoned. With them came a crowd, and a court was held at the
meeting-house. The scenes which then took place would have been
the richest of farces had they not led to events so tragical. The
possessed went into spasms at the approach of those charged with
witchcraft, and when the poor old men and women attempted to
attest their innocence they were overwhelmed with outcries by the
possessed, quotations of Scripture by the ministers, and
denunciations by the mob. One especially - Ann Putnam, a child of
twelve years - showed great precocity and played a striking part
in the performances. The mania spread to other children; and two
or three married women also, seeing the great attention paid to
the afflicted, and influenced by that epidemic of morbid
imitation which science now recognises in all such cases, soon
became similarly afflicted, and in their turn made charges
against various persons. The Indian woman was flogged by her
master, Mr. Parris, until she confessed relations with Satan; and
others were forced or deluded into confession. These hysterical
confessions, the results of unbearable torture, or the
reminiscences of dreams, which had been prompted by the witch
legends and sermons of the period, embraced such facts as flying
through the air to witch gatherings, partaking of witch
sacraments, signing a book presented by the devil, and submitting
to Satanic baptism.
The possessed had begun with charging their possession upon
poor and vagrant old women, but ere long, emboldened by their
success, they attacked higher game, struck at some of the
foremost people of the region, and did not cease until several of
these were condemned to death, and every man, woman, and child
brought under a reign of terror. Many fled outright, and one of
the foremost citizens of Salem went constantly armed, and kept
one of his horses saddled in the stable to flee if brought under
The hysterical ingenuity of the possessed women grew with
their success. They insisted that they saw devils prompting the
accused to defend themselves in court. Did one of the accused
clasp her hands in despair, the possessed clasped theirs; did the
accused, in appealing to Heaven, make any gesture, the possessed
simultaneously imitated it; did the accused in weariness drop her
head, the possessed dropped theirs, and declared that the witch
was trying to break their necks. The court-room resounded with
groans, shrieks, prayers, and curses; judges, jury, and people
were aghast, and even the accused were sometimes thus led to
believe in their own guilt.
Very striking in all these cases was the alloy of frenzy
with trickery. In most of the madness there was method. Sundry
witches charged by the possessed had been engaged in controversy
with the Salem church people. Others of the accused had
quarrelled with Mr. Parris. Still others had been engaged in old
lawsuits against persons more or less connected with the girls.
One of the most fearful charges, which cost the life of a noble
and lovely woman, arose undoubtedly from her better style of
dress and living. Old slumbering neighbourhood or personal
quarrels bore in this way a strange fruitage of revenge; for the
cardinal doctrine of a fanatic's creed is that his enemies are
the enemies of God.
Any person daring to hint the slightest distrust of the
proceedings was in danger of being immediately brought under
accusation of a league with Satan. Husbands and children were
thus brought to the gallows for daring to disbelieve these
charges against their wives and mothers. Some of the clergy were
accused for endeavouring to save members of their churches.
One poor woman was charged with "giving a look toward the
great meeting-house of Salem, and immediately a demon entered the
house and tore down a part of it." This cause for the falling of
a bit of poorly nailed wainscoting seemed perfectly satisfactory
to Dr. Cotton Mather, as well as to the judge and jury, and she
was hanged, protesting her innocence. Still another lady,
belonging to one of the most respected families of the region,
was charged with the crime of witchcraft. The children were
fearfully afflicted whenever she appeared near them. It seemed
never to occur to any one that a bitter old feud between the Rev.
Mr. Parris and the family of the accused might have prejudiced
the children and directed their attention toward the woman. No
account was made of the fact that her life had been entirely
blameless; and yet, in view of the wretched insufficiency of
proof, the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty. As they
brought in this verdict, all the children began to shriek and
scream, until the court committed the monstrous wrong of causing
her to be indicted anew. In order to warrant this, the judge
referred to one perfectly natural and harmless expression made by
the woman when under examination. The jury at last brought her in
guilty. She was condemned; and, having been brought into the
church heavily ironed, was solemnly excommunicated and delivered
over to Satan by the minister. Some good sense still prevailed,
and the Governor reprieved her; but ecclesiastical pressure and
popular clamour were too powerful. The Governor was induced to
recall his reprieve, and she was executed, protesting her
innocence and praying for her enemies.
Another typical case was presented. The Rev. Mr. Burroughs,
against whom considerable ill will had been expressed, and whose
petty parish quarrel with the powerful Putnam family had led to
his dismissal from his ministry, was named by the possessed as
one of those who plagued them, one of the most influential among
the afflicted being Ann Putnam. Mr. Burroughs had led a blameless
life, the main thing charged against him by the Putnams being
that he insisted strenuously that his wife should not go about
the parish talking of her own family matters. He was charged with
afflicting the children, convicted, and executed. At the last
moment he repeated the Lord's Prayer solemnly and fully, which it
was supposed that no sorcerer could do, and this, together with
his straightforward Christian utterances at the execution, shook
the faith of many in the reality of diabolic possession.
Ere long it was known that one of the girls had acknowledged
that she had belied some persons who had been executed, and
especially Mr. Burroughs, and that she had begged forgiveness;
but this for a time availed nothing. Persons who would not
confess were tied up and put to a sort of torture which was
effective in securing new revelations.
In the case of Giles Corey the horrors of the persecution
culminated. Seeing that his doom was certain, and wishing to
preserve his family from attainder and their property from
confiscation, he refused to plead. Though eighty years of age, he
was therefore pressed to death, and when, in his last agonies,
his tongue was pressed out of his mouth, the sheriff with his
walking-stick thrust it back again.
Everything was made to contribute to the orthodox view of
possession. On one occasion, when a cart conveying eight
condemned persons to the place of execution stuck fast in the
mire, some of the possessed declared that they saw the devil
trying to prevent the punishment of his associates. Confessions
of witchcraft abounded; but the way in which these confessions
were obtained is touchingly exhibited in a statement afterward
made by several women. In explaining the reasons why, when
charged with afflicting sick persons, they made a false
confession, they said:
"... By reason of that suddain surprizal, we knowing
ourselves altogether Innocent of that Crime, we were all
exceedingly astonished and amazed, and consternated and
affrighted even out of our Reason; and our nearest and dearest
Relations, seeing us in that dreadful condition, and knowing our
great danger, apprehending that there was no other way to save
our lives,... out of tender... pitty perswaded us to confess what
we did confess. And indeed that Confession, that it is said we
made, was no other than what was suggested to us by some
Gentlemen; they telling us, that we were Witches, and they knew
it, and we knew it, and they knew that we knew it, which made us
think that it was so; and our understanding, our reason, and our
faculties almost gone, we were not capable of judging our
condition; as also the hard measures they used with us, rendred
us uncapable of making our Defence, but said anything and
everything which they desired, and most of what we said, was in
effect a consenting to what they said...."
Case after case, in which hysteria, fanaticism, cruelty,
injustice, and trickery played their part, was followed up to the
scaffold. In a short time twenty persons had been put to a cruel
death, and the number of the accused grew larger and larger. The
highest position and the noblest character formed no barrier.
Daily the possessed became more bold, more tricky, and more wild.
No plea availed anything. In behalf of several women, whose lives
had been of the purest and gentlest, petitions were presented,
but to no effect. A scriptural text was always ready to aid in
the repression of mercy: it was remembered that "Satan himself is
transformed into an angel of light," and above all resounded the
Old Testament injunction, which had sent such multitudes in
Europe to the torture-chamber and the stake, "Thou shalt not
suffer a witch to live."
Such clergymen as Noyes, Parris, and Mather, aided by such
judges as Stoughton and Hathorn, left nothing undone to stimulate
these proceedings. The great Cotton Mather based upon this
outbreak of disease thus treated his famous book, Wonders of the
Invisible World, thanking God for the triumphs over Satan thus
gained at Salem; and his book received the approbation of the
Governor of the Province, the President of Harvard College, and
various eminent theologians in Europe as well as in America.
But, despite such efforts as these, observation, and thought
upon observation, which form the beginning of all true science,
brought in a new order of things. The people began to fall away.
Justice Bradstreet, having committed thirty or forty persons,
became aroused to the absurdity of the whole matter; the minister
of Andover had the good sense to resist the theological view;
even so high a personage as Lady Phips, the wife of the Governor,
began to show lenity.
Each of these was, in consequence of this disbelief, charged
with collusion with Satan; but such charges seemed now to lose
In the midst of all this delusion and terrorism stood Cotton
Mather firm as ever. His efforts to uphold the declining
superstition were heroic. But he at last went one step too far.
Being himself possessed of a mania for myth-making and
wonder-mongering, and having described a case of witchcraft with
possibly greater exaggeration than usual, he was confronted by
Robert Calef. Calef was a Boston merchant, who appears to have
united the good sense of a man of business to considerable
shrewdness in observation, power in thought, and love for truth;
and he began writing to Mather and others, to show the weak
points in the system. Mather, indignant that a person so much his
inferior dared dissent from his opinion, at first affected to
despise Calef; but, as Calef pressed him more and more closely,
Mather denounced him, calling him among other things "A Coal from
Hell." All to no purpose: Calef fastened still more firmly upon
the flanks of the great theologian. Thought and reason now began
to resume their sway.
The possessed having accused certain men held in very high
respect, doubts began to dawn upon the community at large. Here
was the repetition of that which had set men thinking in the
German bishoprics when those under trial for witchcraft there had
at last, in their desperation or madness, charged the very
bishops and the judges upon the bench with sorcery. The party of
reason grew stronger. The Rev. Mr. Parris was soon put upon the
defensive: for some of the possessed began to confess that they
had accused people wrongfully. Herculean efforts were made by
certain of the clergy and devout laity to support the declining
belief, but the more thoughtful turned more and more against it;
jurymen prominent in convictions solemnly retracted their
verdicts and publicly craved pardon of God and man. Most striking
of all was the case of Justice Sewall. A man of the highest
character, he had in view of authority deduced from Scripture and
the principles laid down by the great English judges,
unhesitatingly condemned the accused; but reason now dawned upon
him. He looked back and saw the baselessness of the wliole
proceedings, and made a public statement of his errors. His
diary contains many passages showing deep contrition, and ever
afterward, to the end of his life, he was wont, on one day in the
year, to enter into solitude, and there remain all the day long
in fasting, prayer, and penitence.
Chief-Justice Stoughton never yielded. To the last he
lamented the "evil spirit of unbelief" which was thwarting the
glorious work of freeing New England from demons.
The church of Salem solemnly revoked the excommunications of
the condemned and drove Mr. Parris from the pastorate. Cotton
Mather passed his last years in groaning over the decline of the
faith and the ingratitude of a people for whom he had done so
much. Very significant is one of his complaints, since it shows
the evolution of a more scientific mode of thought abroad as well
as at home: he laments in his diary that English publishers
gladly printed Calef's book, but would no longer publish his
own, and he declares this "an attack upon the glory of the Lord."
About forty years after the New England epidemic of "possession"
occurred another typical series of pheniomena in France. In
1727 there died at the French capital a simple and kindly
ecclesiastic, the Archdeacon Paris. He had lived a pious,
Christian life, and was endeared to multitudes by his charity;
unfortunately, he had espoused the doctrine of Jansen on grace
and free will, and, though he remained in the Gallican Church, he
and those who thought like him were opposed by the Jesuits, and
finally condemned by a papal bull.
His remains having been buried in the cemetery of St. Medard,
the Jansenists flocked to say their prayers at his grave,
and soon miracles began to be wrought there. Ere long they were
multiplied. The sick being brought and laid upon the tombstone,
many were cured. Wonderful stories were attested by
eye-witnesses. The myth-making tendency - the passion for
developing, enlarging, and spreading tales of wonder - came into
full play and was given free course.
Many thoughtful men satisfied themselves of the truth of
these representations. One of the foremost English scholars came
over, examined into them, and declared that there could be no
doubt as to the reality of the cures.
This state of things continued for about four years, when,
in 1731, more violent effects showed themselves. Sundry persons
approaching the tomb were thrown into convulsions, hysterics, and
catalepsy; these diseases spread, became epidemic, and soon
multitudes were similarly afflicted. Both religious parties made
the most of these cases. In vain did such great authorities in
medical science as Hecquet and Lorry attribute the whole to
natural causes: the theologians on both sides declared them
Supernatural - the Jansenists attributing them to God, the Jesuits
Of late years such cases have been treated in France with
much shrewdness. When, about the middle of the present century,
the Arab priests in Algiers tried to arouse fanaticism against
the French Christians by performing miracles, the French
Government, instead of persecuting the priests, sent
Robert-Houdin, the most renowned juggler of his time, to the scene
of action, and for every Arab miracle Houdin performed two: did
an Arab marabout turn a rod into a serpent, Houdin turned his rod
into two serpents; and afterward showed the people how he did it.
So, too, at the last International Exposition, the French
Government, observing the evil effects produced by the mania for
table turning and tipping, took occasion, when a great number of
French schoolmasters and teachers were visiting the exposition,
to have public lectures given in which all the business of dark
closets, hand-tying, materialization of spirits, presenting the
faces of the departed, and ghostly portraiture was fully performed
by professional mountebanks, and afterward as fully explained.
So in this case. The Government simply ordered the gate of the
cemetery to be locked, and when the crowd could no longer approach
the tomb the miracles ceased. A little Parisian ridicule helped
to end the matter. A wag wrote up over the gate of the cemetery.
"De par le Roi, defense a Dieu
De faire des miracles dans ce lieu" -
which, being translated from doggerel French into doggerel
English, is -
"By order of the king, the Lord must forbear
To work any more of his miracles here."
But the theological spirit remained powerful. The French
Revolution had not then intervened to bring it under healthy
limits. The agitation was maintained, and, though the m