Joseph Dow's History of Hampton: Witchcraft

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents


At the time when our History begins and for a long time afterward, a belief in WITCHCRAFT was prevalent in England and Scotland, and in most of the countries of Continental Europe. This belief was not confined to the unlettered and ignorant; but it pervaded all ranks and all conditions of society from the lowest to the highest. The people of New England, too, possessing as they did, in an eminent degree, some of the noblest traits of character, were still strongly tinctured with credulity; not more so, indeed--probably far less so--than the people of the mother country. They had broken loose from some of the shackles with which minds in the old world were still held in bondage; but it would be unreasonable to expect of them an immediate and full emancipation from all the superstitions that had been instilled into their minds in the nursery, and had been nourished and strengthened by the influences that surrounded them as they grew up to manhood. They had, as might have been expected, imbibed the opinions, and they participated in the feelings of the age, in regard to witchcraft. But few of them, probably, had ever heard the soundness of those opinions called in question.

Eminently good men--jurists, statesmen and divines--in this country, deemed it little short of heresy, to doubt the truth of the marvellous deeds, ascribed to the power of witchcraft; and men of the same classes in high standing, in England, sympathized with them. Dr Cotton Mather, of Boston, wrote and published an account of a person "arrested by a stupendous witchcraft" who was for some time an inmate of his own family, and concerning whom, he related many wonderful things, said to have been witnessed by himself and others. The ministers of Boston and of Charlestown afterward gave their testimony in support of the truth of the narrative. This work reprinted in London, with a Preface, written by Rev. Richard Baxter. In this Preface, he says: "This great instance comes with such convincing evidence, that he must be a very obdurate Sadducee, that will not believe it."

The fact that an individual in that age was acccused of witchcraft, is not, of itself, conclusive evidence of his being a person of immoral character; much less, of his being in league with Satan. In some instances, this charge was made against persons of the highest respectability. In general, however, it was otherwise; and there was usually in the character or conduct of those suspected, some fault, on which the suspicion was based.

In some cases, the immorality of their lives was notorious; in others, an injudicious act, or even a hasty remark, may have awakened suspicion. Having, it may be, received some slight affront, they became angry, and in the heat of passion, threathened the offender with some calamity to his person, or property. If the individual thus threatened soon afterward met with any loss, or other misfortune, the threat was called to mind, suspicions of witchcraft excited, and an accusation brought against the one who had uttered the threat. The charge readily gained credence, and people wondered they had been so slow in detecting the witch. Other persons, calling to mind some remarkable occurrences, for which they had been unable to account, traced them back in their imaginations to satanic agency, exerted through the same individual, now stigmatized as a witch.

The testimony of persons of respectable standing in society may be received as to facts that came under their own observation, although their opinions in relation to the causes of the events may be entirely erroneous, or even absurd, unless there is reason for believing that their opinions or their prejudices are such, as to lead them to view the occurrences through a false medium.

In this view of the case, it must be conceded that there were some wonderful occurrences in New England, in the seventeenth century. They were then almost universally attributed to witchcraft. That delusion has passed away, so that only here and there can a person be found, who believes in the existence of witches, possessed of such power as was formerly ascribed to them. It is, however, by no means certain, that an equally erroneous belief has not prevailed, and does not still prevail, in regard to some events that are really mysterious to us.

The good people of Hampton were not exempt from the credulity of the times. They were, in general, unfaltering in their belief in the existence of witchcraft, both in the abstract, and as found among themselves. To its influence, they were accustomed to ascribe the occurrence of any events, which appeared marvellous to them through their ignorance of the causes that produced them. It is a dark page in the history of the town, but it is the business of a historian to relate events as they occurred and not to suppress important facts through fear of marring the otherwise fair character of the people, whose history he undertakes to write. Fidelity, then, requires the statement, that more than one person among this people was suspected, and however innocent, made to bear the odium, of being in league with the devil. In several cases, prosecutions were commenced, and, in a few instances, punishment was inflicted by stripes and imprisonment. The people could tell "of manie marvellous trulie unaccountable things" which, they verily believed, proved that there was "an invisible hand at work" among them.

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents