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The Circle in the Minister’s House.

It would, perhaps be unfair to hold the Reverend Master Parris responsible for the wild doings that went on in the parsonage house during the winter evenings of 1691-2, in the face of his solemn assertion, made several years afterwards, that he was ignorant of them. And yet, how could such things have been without the knowledge either of himself or his wife? Mistress Parris has come down to us with the reputation of a kindly and discreet woman nothing having been said to her discredit, so far as I am aware, even by those who had a bitter controversy with her husband. And yet she certainly must have known of the doings of the famous “circle,” even if she refrained from speaking of them to her husband.

At the very bottom of the whole thing, perhaps, were the West Indian slaves “John Indias” and his wife Tituba, whom Master Parris had brought with him from Barbados. There were two children in the house, a little daughter of nine, named Elizabeth; and Abigail Williams, three years older. These very probably, Tituba often had sought to impress, as is the manner of negro servants, with tales of witchcraft, the “evil-eye” and “evil hand” spirits, powwowing, etc. Ann Putnam, another precocious child of twelve, the daughter of a near neighbor, Sergeant Putnam, the parish clerk, also was soon drawn into the knowledge of the savage mysteries. And, before very long, a regular “circle” of these and older girls was formed for the purpose of amusing and startling themselves with the investigation and performance of forbidden things.

At the present day this would not be so reprehensible. We are comparatively an unbelieving generation; and what are called “spiritual circles” are common, though not always unattended with mischievous results. But at that time when it was considered a deadly sin to seek intercourse with those who claimed to have “a familiar spirit,” that such practices should be allowed to go on for a whole winter, in the house of a Puritan minister, seems unaccountable. But the fact itself is undoubted, and the consequences are written in mingled tears and blood upon the saddest pages of the history of New England.

Among the members of this “circle” were Mary Walcott, aged seventeen, the daughter of Captain Walcott; Elizabeth Hubbard and Mercy Lewis, also seventeen; Elizabeth Booth and Susannah Sheldon, aged eighteen; and Mary Warren, Sarah Churchhill and Leah Herrick, aged twenty; these latter being the oldest of the party. They were all the daughters of respectable and even leading men, with the exception of Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren, Leah Herrick and Sarah Churchhill, who were living out as domestics, but who seem to have visited as friends and equals the other girls in the village. In fact, it was not considered at that time degrading in country neighborhoods perhaps it is not so now in many places for the sons and daughters of men of respectability, and even of property, to occupy the position of “help” or servant, eating at the same table with, and being considered members of the family. In the case before us, Mercy Lewis, Mary Warren and Sarah Churchhill seem to have been among the most active and influential members of the party. Though Abigail Williams, the minister’s niece, and Ann Putnam, only eleven and twelve years of age respectively, proved themselves capable of an immense deal of mischief.

What the proceedings of these young women actually were, neither tradition nor any records that I have met with, informs us; but the result was even worse than could have been expected. By the close of the winter they had managed to get their nervous systems, their imaginations, and their minds and hearts, into a most dreadful condition. If they had regularly sold themselves to be the servants of the Evil One, as was then universally believed to be possible and which may really be possible, for anything I know to the contrary their condition could hardly have been worse than it was. They were liable to sudden faintings of an unnatural character, to spasmodic movements and jerkings of the head and limbs, to trances, to the seeing of witches and devils, to deafness, to dumbness, to alarming outcries, to impudent and lying speeches and statements, and to almost everything else that was false, irregular and unnatural.

Some of these things were doubtless involuntary but the voluntary and involuntary seemed to be so mingled in their behavior, that it was difficult sometimes to determine which was one and which the other. The moral sense seemed to have become confused, if not utterly lost for the time.

They were full of tricks. They stuck concealed pins into their bodies, and accused others of doing it their contortions and trances were to a great extent mere shams they lied without scruple they bore false witness, and what in many, if not most, cases they knew was false witness, against not only those to whom they bore ill will but against the most virtuous and kindly women of the neighborhood; and if the religious delusion had taken another shape, and we see no reason why it should not have done so, and put the whole of them on trial as seekers after “familiar spirits” and condemned the older girls to death, there would at least have been some show of justice in the proceedings; while, as it is, there is not a single ray of light to illuminate the judicial gloom.

When at last Mr. Parris and Thomas Putnam became aware of the condition of their children, they called in the village physician, Dr. Griggs. The latter, finding he could do nothing with his medicines, gave it as his opinion that they were “under an evil hand” the polite medical phrase of that day, for being bewitched.

That important point being settled, the next followed of course, “Who has bewitched them?” The children being asked said, “Tituba.”