The story of the prodigious war, made by the spirits of the invisible world upon the people of New-England, in the year 1692, hath entertain’d a great part of the English world with a just astonishment. And I have met with some strange things, not here to me mentioned, which have made me often think that this inexplicable war might have some of its original among the Indians, whose chief sagamores are well known unto some of our captives to have been horrid sorcerers, and hellish conjurers, and such as conversed with demons.
— Cotton Mather, New England Puritan leader
Recent scholarship ties the infamous 1692 Salem Witch Trials tightly to the anxieties of a Puritan community traumatized by the experience of King Philip’s War in 1675-76 and disturbed by the rolling back of the Maine frontier under pressure from the Wabanaki Confederacy, allied with the French in King William’s War (1689-97).
Well, obviously. Of course, I spot the influence of frontier conditions everywhere as readily as a Puritan minister might spot the Devil lurking in the woods, so…
As I plunge down the dark and winding path into the autumnal forest of the weird, I am on the lookout for witches — or, more accurately, the phenomenon of the witch hunt. I am firing up Black Barrel Media’s Infamous America podcast on the Salem Witch Trials for my travels this week. These are the same folks who produced an excellent series on Red Cloud’s War and The Texas Rangers on their Legends of the Old West Podcast. And last night I watched the BBC docudrama Witches: A Century of Murder, presented by the estimable Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb. It’s easy to get distracted by Dr. Lipscomb’s own bewitching self, but I managed to follow the development of witch hysteria in the British Isles.
Interestingly for the Outlander fans here, Dr. Lipscomb traces the explosion of witchcraft hysteria that convulsed Scotland for a century to an incident involving a servant girl working for one David Seaton in the late 1500s. Her name was Geillis Duncan, so it was. Seaton accused his young servant girl of witchcraft — why is unclear, but Lipscomb speculates that she may have resisted sexual advances — and Seaton tortured her brutally to gain her confession.
Duncan implicated others as part of a coven, which had whipped up storms in an attempt to kill King James VI (soon to be James I, King of England) as he fetched his queen across the sea in Denmark. The coven was tried, convicted and executed in the North Berwick Witch Trials.
James was so obsessed with witchcraft that he wrote a book about it entitled Daemonologie. During his reign, hundreds of women would be tortured, hanged, garroted and/or burned. Nasty business.
Witch hunting burnt out for a couple of decades as James died and his son Charles I suppressed the practice under law. But the chaos and dislocation of the English Civil War and the rise of Puritan power led to another bloody spasm — which would echo down the decades and play out one last time in the forested frontier of the New World.
The Puritan narrative is part of the warp and weft of the American narrative, and the equating of the wilderness and its indigenous inhabitants with terrifying satanic doings created a dark thread of paranoia and anxiety that runs through fabric of the American psyche to this day.
*Original artwork by Martin Pick.