Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER XIII.

CREDULITY RUN MAD.

The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about;
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.

--SHAKESPEARE.

CHARLES STEVENS was detained in New York until early in 1692. First he became involved in trouble through his sympathy with the unfortunate Leisler family and was thrown into prison; but a few days later he was released on bond. Then he lingered awaiting his trial; but the case was finally dismissed, and then he joined an expedition against the Indians on the frontier. He wrote home regularly and never failed to mention Cora in his letter. All the while, Charles was at a loss to decide whether it was Cora or Adelpha who had won his affections. Adelpha's great misfortune and grief only seemed to endear her to him, for the noblest hearts grow more tender with sorrow.

Early in 1692, he returned to Salem after an

[ocr errors]

absence of ten months. Great changes were soon to come about.

Salem was about to enter upon that career of madness known in history as Salem Witchcraft. There are few portions of ancient or modern history which exhibit stranger or more tragical and affecting scenes than that known as Salem Witchcraft, and few matters of authentic history remain so deeply shrouded in mystery at the present day. The delusion has never been satisfactorily explained, and time seems to obscure rather than throw light upon the subject.

At this period, the belief in witchcraft was general throughout Christendom, as is evinced by the existence of laws for the punishment of witches and sorcerers in almost every kingdom, state, province and colony. Persons suspected of being witches, or wizards, were tried, condemned and put to death by the authority of the most enlightened tribunals in Europe. Only a few years before the occurrences in New England, Sir Matthew Hale, a judge highly and justly renowned for the strength of his understanding, the variety of his knowledge and the eminent Christian graces which adorned his character, had, after a long and anxious investigation, adjudged a number of men and women to die for this offence.

Only a few rare minds, such as Charles Stevens, living far in advance of the age, were skeptical on

the subject of witchcraft. These bold spirits placed themselves in great danger of being “cried out upon” as witches themselves.

This delusion had its fountain-head in Salem; but it was by no means confined to this locality. It spread all over the American colonies and, like most superstitions, hovered along the frontier, where it was fostered in the shadow of ignorance and grew in the dark halls of superstition. The author will not deny that there are many, to this day, who attribute what they do not in the light of reason understand, to supernatural agencies. In Virginia, in Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri there existed, in their early days, strange stories of witchcraft.

If the butter did not form from the milk, some witch was in the churn. If the cattle died of an epidemic, or a disease unknown to the poor science of the day, it was the result of witchcraft. If a child or grown person was afflicted with some strange disease, such as epilepsy, the "jerks,” “St. Vitus' dance," "rickets" or other strange nervous complaints, which they could not understand, they as once attributed it to witchcraft.

There sprang up a class of people called “witch-doctors” who, it was claimed, had power to dispel the charm and bring the witch to grief. The only way a witch could' relieve herself and re

establish her power was to go to the house of the person bewitched and borrow something. As, in those early days, all articles of domestic use were scarce, and neighbors depended on borrowing, many an old lady was amazed to find herself refused, and was wholly unable to account for the sudden coolness of persons, whom she had always loved.

Mr. Parris, the fanatic, fraud and schemer, perhaps did more to augment witchcraft, than any other person in the colonies. Parris was ambitious. The circle of young girls, as the reader will remember, first held their seances at his home. Their young nervous systems were so wrought upon, that, at their age in life, they were thrown into spasms resembling epileptic fits. Instead of treating their disease scientifically, as such cases would be treated at present, the parson foolishly declared that they were bewitched. Those children could not have been wholly impostors. They were deceived by the preachers and the zealous, bloodthirsty bigots into actually believing some of the statements they uttered. Their nerves were shattered, their imaginations wrought upon, until they took almost any shape capricious fancy or the evilminded Parris would dictate.

When Charles Stevens arrived in Salem, instead of finding the dread superstition a thing of the past, to be forgotten or remembered only with a sense

of shuddering shame, he found that the flame had been fanned to a conflagration. Mr. Parris and Mr. Noyes contrived to preach from their pulpits sermons on protean devils and monsters of the air, until the more credulous of their congregations were almost driven to insanity. One evening, as Parris was passing the home of Goody Vance, she met him at the door, and, with a face blanched with fear and annoyance, said:

“Mr. Parris, I am grievously annoyed with a witch in my churn."

“ What does she do?” he asked.

“She prevents the butter from forming, and I have churned until my arms seem as if they would drop off.”

The parson's face grew grave, and, going to a certain tree, he broke some switches from it and entered the house.

“Take the milk from the churn," he said. “Pour it into a skillet and place the skillet on the coals before the fire."

This was done, and the astounded housewife, with her numerous children, stood gazing at the pastor, who, with his white, cadaverous face, thin lips and hooked nose, looked as if he might have power over the spirits of darkness. He drew a chair up before the fire and, seating himself, began whipping the milk, saying:

« PreviousContinue »