Read CHAPTER XXXVIII of Dulcibel A Tale of Old Salem , free online book, by Henry Peterson, on

Conflicting Currents in Boston.

All this time the under-current of opposition to these criminal proceedings against the alleged witches, was growing stronger, at Boston. The Reverend Samuel Willard and Joshua Moody both ministers of undoubted orthodoxy from the Puritan stand-point, did not scruple to visit the accused in the keeping of jailer Arnold, and sympathize openly with them. Captain Alden and Master Philip English and his wife especially, were persons of too great wealth and reputation not to have many sympathizing friends.

On the other hand, the great majority of the Puritans, under the lead of the Reverend Cotton Mather, and the two Salem ministers, Parris and Noyes were determined that the prosecution should go on, until the witches, those children of the Evil One, were thoroughly cast out; even if half of their congregations should have to be hung by the other half.

At a recent trial in Salem, one of the “afflicted” had even gone so far as to cry out against the Rev. Master Willard. But the Court, it seemed, was not quite ready for that; for the girl was sent out of court, being told that she must have mistaken the person. When this was reported to Master Willard, it by no means tended to lessen his growing belief that the prosecutions were inspired by evil spirits.

Of course in this condition of things, the position of the Governor, Sir William Phips, became a matter of the first importance. As he owed his office mainly to the influence of the Rev. Increase Mather, and sat under the weekly ministrations of his learned son, Cotton Mather, the witch prosecutors had a very great hold upon him. With a good natural intellect, Sir William had received a very scanty education; and was therefore much impressed by the prodigious attainments of such men as the two Mathers. To differ with them on a theological matter seemed to him rather presumptuous. If they did not know what was sound in theology, and right in practise; why was there any use in having ministers at all, or who could be expected to be certain of anything?

Then if Sir William turned to the law, he was met by an almost unanimous array of lawyers and judges who endorsed the witchcraft prosecution. Chief-Justice Stoughton, honest and learned Judge Sewall and nearly all the rest of the judiciary were sure of the truth in this matter. Not one magistrate could be found in the whole province, to decide as a sensible English judge is reported by tradition to have done, in the case of an old woman who at last acknowledged in the feebleness of her confused intellect that she was a witch, and in the habit of riding about on a broomstick: “Well, as I know of no law that forbids old women riding about on broomsticks, if they fancy that mode of conveyance, you are discharged.” But there was not one magistrate at that time, wise or learned enough to make such a sensible decision in the whole of New England.

Thus with the almost unanimous bar, and the great preponderance of the clergy, advising him to pursue a certain course, Sir William undoubtedly would have followed it, had he not been a man whose sympathies naturally were with sea-captains, military officers, and other men-of-the-world; and, moreover, if he had not a wife, herself the daughter of a sea-captain, who was an utter disbeliever in her accused friends being witches, and who had moreover a very strong will of her own.

Of course if the Governor should come to Lady Mary’s opinion, the prosecution might as well be abandoned for, with a stroke of his pen, he could remit the sentences of all the convicted persons. Left to himself and Lady Mary, he doubtless would have done this; but he wished to continue in his office, and to be a successful Governor; and he knew that to array himself against the prosecution and punishment of the alleged witches was to displease the great majority of the people of the province; including, as I have shown, the most influential persons. In fact, it was simply to retire from his government in disgrace.

All this the Reverend Cotton Mather represented to Sir William, with much else of a less worldly, but no doubt still more effective character, based upon various passages of the old Testament rather than upon anything corresponding to them in the New.

And so the prosecutions and convictions went on; but the further executions waited upon the Governor’s decision.