When a killer cat came flying in your window—taking hold of your throat and crushing your chest as you lay defenseless in your bed—you scared it away by invoking the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
You also concluded that your irascible neighbor had paid a call, in feline form. Human frailty was understood to account for inclement weather: teeth chattering, toes numb, the Massachusetts Puritan had every reason to believe that he sinned flamboyantly. He did so especially during the arctic winter of , when bread froze on Communion plates, ink in pens, sap in the fireplace. In tiny Salem village, the Reverend Samuel Parris preached to a chorus of rattling coughs and sniffles, to the shuffling of cruelly frostbitten feet.
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It was too cold to go on. Weeks later, word got out that something was grievously wrong in the Parris household. They went limp or spasmodically rigid. They interrupted sermons and fell into trances. Neither appeared to have time for prayer, though until January both had been perfectly well behaved and well mannered. At night they slept like babies. In , when the colonists established a legal code, the first capital crime was idolatry. The second was witchcraft. Blasphemy came next, followed by murder, poisoning, and bestiality.
In the years since, New England had indicted more than a hundred witches, about a quarter of them men. The first person to confess to having entered into a pact with Satan, a Connecticut servant, had prayed for his help with her chores. An assistant materialized to clear the ashes from the hearth and the hogs from the fields.
In , four exemplary Boston children, the sons and daughters of a devout Boston stonelayer named John Goodwin, suffered from a baffling disorder.
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The Goodwin children flew like geese, on one occasion for twenty feet. They recoiled from blows of invisible sticks, shrieked that they were sliced by knives or wrapped in chains. Jaws, wrists, necks flew out of joint. Parental reproof sent the children into agonies. Chores defied them. To observe her symptoms more closely, Mather that summer took Martha Goodwin into his home. She read and reread his pages on her case, lampooning their author. The sauciness astonished him. The witch was the mother of a neighborhood laundress. She was hanged in November, , on Boston Common.
The girls cried that they were being stabbed with fine needles. Their skin burned. One disappeared halfway down a well. Their shrieks could be heard from a distance. Through February, Parris fasted and prayed. He consulted with fellow-clergymen. With cider and cakes, he and his wife entertained the well-wishers who crowded their home.
They prayed ardently, gooseflesh rising on their arms. They sang Psalms. In plasters or powders, snails figured in many remedies. Salem village had one practicing physician that winter.
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He owned nine medical texts; he could likely read but not write. His surgical arsenal consisted of lances, razors, and saws. The doctor who had examined a seizing Groton girl a generation earlier initially diagnosed a stomach disorder. On a second visit, he refused to administer to her further. The distemper was diabolical in origin. Whoever examined Abigail and Betty arrived at the same conclusion. The diagnosis likely terrified the girls, whose symptoms deteriorated. It may have gratified Reverend Parris.
Witchcraft was portentous, a Puritan favorite. Never before had it broken out in a parsonage. A creature had followed her home from an errand, through the snow; she now realized that it had not been a wolf at all.
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The girls named names. They could see the culprits clearly. Not one but three witches were loose in Salem. What exactly was a witch? Any seventeenth-century New Englander could have told you. As workers of magic, witches and wizards extend as far back as recorded history.
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The witch as Salem conceived her materialized in the thirteenth century, when sorcery and heresy moved closer together. She came into her own with the Inquisition, as a popular myth yielded to a popular madness. The western Alps introduced her to lurid orgies. Germany launched her into the air. As the magician molted into the witch, she also became predominately female, inherently more wicked and more susceptible to satanic overtures.
Though weak willed, women could emerge as dangerously, insatiably commanding. The English witch made the trip to North America largely intact. She signed her agreement with the Devil in blood, bore a mark on her body for her compact, and enchanted by way of charms, ointments, and poppets, doll-like effigies. Continental witches had more fun. They walked on their hands.
They made pregnancies last for three years.
They rode hyenas to bacchanals deep in the forest. They stole babies and penises.
The Witches of Salem
The Massachusetts witch disordered the barn and the kitchen. She seldom flew to illicit meetings, more common in Scandinavia and Scotland. Instead, she divined the contents of an unopened letter, spun suspiciously fine linen, survived falls down stairs, tipped hay from wagons, enchanted beer, or caused cattle to leap four feet off the ground.
Witches could be muttering, contentious malcontents or inexplicably strong and unaccountably smart. They could commit the capital offense of having more wit than their neighbors, as a minister said of the third Massachusetts woman hanged for witchcraft, in Matters were murkier when it came to the wily figure with six thousand years of experience, the master of disguise who could cause things to appear and disappear, who knew your secrets and could make you believe things of yourself that were not true.
He turned up in New England as a hybrid monkey, man, and rooster, or as a fast-moving turtle. Even Cotton Mather was unsure what language he spoke. He was a pervasive presence, however: the air pulsed with his minions. Typically in Massachusetts, he wore a high-crowned hat, as he had in an earlier Swedish invasion, which Mather documented in his book. Mather did not mention the brightly colored scarf that the Devil wound around his hat.