Wow. ‘Tis the season. Witches abound, and so do authors that write about them (Full disclosure: I am one of those authors). This year, there has been a bumper crop of books written by professors, biographers, and attorneys. What is the attraction?
Because the witch is a character of interest beyond just one period of time, one place, and one culture, she shows up in literature, psychology, history, and world events. In Salem in 1692, working in what was called the “preternatural” even then was considered dicey. Clergy and physicians were not suspect when they worked within that unusual area that they believed existed between the natural and the supernatural. But witches were.
For one thing, the preternatural was believed to be the space between life and death, where healing or release from sin could take place or not and where supernatural beings could communicate with earthly beings. Witches, they believed, would take their instructions from the devil there and bring them back to harm others here. In that space, also, the concept of “spectral evidence” took root, with townspeople as well as clergy believing that the devil could take on the shape of any of them and go about harming others in disguise.
In a time when regional wars, epidemics, largely unsettled territory just outside the door, and rigid community expectations were part of everyday life, a perfect storm of ingredients helped breed the witch trials. But that is not the entire story.
Witch hunts had gone on—with burning at the stake instead of mere public hangings– during the Middle Ages, and there was an ancestral as well as a practical memory of those who knew how to argue their cases. The right idea, the clergy believed, was to thwart Satan, who wanted to establish his own kingdom here.
But there were lesser-known facts about the witch trials that, if they had been known at the time or admitted in courts, could have knocked the witch trials out of the ball park. Just one, for example: Sir Isaac Newton, a mathematician, had published his laws of gravity years before the Salem witch trials. If his theories had been offered as evidence, they could have demonstrated that witches—ordinary women who sometimes knew about herbal remedies, sometimes owned a familiar animal, sometimes weren’t married, and sometimes assisted as midwives—couldn’t fly on broomsticks.
Newton was already a member of the Royal Society, a membership-only group of scientists at that time. The Reverend Cotton Mather, one of the main proponents of spectral evidence—at least until suspicion hit the governor’s house and letters were sought to get his wife out of the line of fire—was interested in the natural world but wasn’t elected to the Royal Society until decades after the witch trials ended. Interestingly, he and his father, Increase Mather, who was then the president of Harvard College, were proud of their correspondence with other educated men in other countries, and given Cotton Mather’s interest in science, they would have been aware of Newton’s discovery of gravity.
But no one ever asked, and no one ever offered to refute the idea of witches zooming through the skies on their nefarious errands. And that is only one of the lesser-known facts. The society was so closed that when dissenters sent their work to England for publication, Increase Mather said in so many words that it should be burned in the college yard.