Word Shadows of the Hysteria that Ruled Salem in its Witch Crusade

Nicholas Noyes, a Reverend at the heinous Salem witch trials, was brother to ancestor Timothy Noyes.

The author of this article and the date of it is unknown. Nancy Benton sent it along to me.

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Word Shadows of the Hysteria that Ruled Salem in its Witch Crusade

The Sufferings of the Unfortunate Victims of This Odd Mania Are Brought to Light in the Discoveries of Old Letters Written by Those Accused of Witchcraft to the Governor, Pleading for Life or for Time to “Repent.”

Some of the most human, most poignant, most fascinating documents that have ever appeared to capture the imaginations of autograph hunters have just come to light, unearthed from a family attic where they reposed for two and a half centuries. They are not love letters, not letters of state, not letters of any great historical or literary personage. But they are remarkable chapters in American history. They are the letters written by the famous “witches” of Salem in 1692, appeals to the governor of Massachusetts, revealing with all the power of words and handwriting the misery of the wretches caught in the vortex of that regretful affair.

The letters were discovered in the effects of an old New England family, whence they found their way into the hands of Thomas F. Madigan, noted collector, dealer and authority on the fascinating subject of autographs.


The original petitions to Governor Phipps of Massachusetts, written in 1692 by those unfortunate victims in Salem prison who were accused of witchcraft are remarkably well-preserved, although frayed at the edges and almost brown from age and the rust of the iron in the ancient ink.

The writing is clear and legible. One letter is dated, “From Salem Prison Decembr ye 3d, 1692,” and addressed, “The humble Petition of Abigail Falkner Unto His Excellencye, Sr. Wm. Phipps, Knight and Governor of Their Majestys Dominions in America: Humbly Showeth: That your poor and humble petitioner having been this four months in Salem prison and condemned to die, having had no other evidences against me but ye spectral evidences & ye Confessors which Confessors have lately since I was condemned, owned to myself and others, and do still own that they wronged me and what they had said against me was false; and that they (?) — Not that I should have been put to death for a thousand worlds, for they never should have enjoyed themselves in this world, which undoubtedly I should have been put to death had it not pleased ye Lord I had been with child…”

The thrill of merely touching this pathetic appeal with its stilted language of a dead century, is almost indescribable.

“You know,” Mr. Madigan said, “I sold one of these letters to a collector whose autograph possessions are worth a good many thousands of dollars. And he declared that if given the necessity of choosing, he would trade his entire collection for that single letter.”


Such sentiments are not difficult to understand. Here, in one’s hand was a relic–a “word shadow,” as Mr. Madigan calls it–of that hysterical mania for persecution which swept the Massachusetts colony in 1692, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of persons on the flimsiest accusations of witchcraft, and in the execution of at least twenty. Here was a piece of paper that had seen the grim interior of the ancient jail, had been poured on it in a frenzied stream the ink and tears of one of the identical “witches” whose mishaps made one of the most remarkable chapters in American history, and had, in the hands of the forthright Sir William Phipps, helped to persuade him to his decision to dismiss the charges.

“My husband,” says Abigail’s petition, “about five years ago was taken with fits wch did very much impair his memory and understanding, but with ye blessing of ye Lord, upon my endeavors did recover of them again, but now, through grief and sorrow, they are returned to him again as had as ever they were; I having six children and having little or nothing to subsist on, living in a manner without a hand to do anything for my selfe or them and I being closely confined can see no other ways but that we shall all perish…”

Abigail Falkner’s case was typical of the witchcraft persecutions. Little regard for humanity was shown in the whole episode. Engendered chiefly by superstition, and partly by a blind fear that we no longer understand, the mania spread over the colony like a plague. It started in the winter of the year 1691, when ten girls, ranging in age from 9 to 17 years, met at the home of Samuel Parris, pastor of the church at Salem Village, now part of Danvers, Mass. They were entertained by one Tituba, the pastor’s West Indian slave, with tricks of magic and palmistry. Tituba’s legerdemain was too much for their simple souls and they accused the slave and two old women who were given to wearing medieval costumes of bewitching them and selling them to the devil.


The whole community was aroused. Within four months hundreds were arrested and imprisoned. A special tribunal, numbering among its judges Samuel Sewall, a noted Boston jurist, and Jonathan Corwin, whose name also persists in history, was appointed by the bluff sea-captain governor, Sir William Phipps. Many of the accused were given what was then considered a fair trial. Nineteen, who confessed to the crime of witchcraft under pressure, were publicly hanged, and one, who refused to plead at all, was “pressed to death.” In May, 1693, Phipps ordered the release of all prisoners then held and the suspension of the court, but it was too late to undo the atrocities that had already been committed.

We, living today, find it hard to understand how anyone could believe, seriously, in the possibility of witchcraft. But the Salemites were quite serious about it, as one can see from the following petition; not for mercy but for a temporary delay in the execution.

The petition of ye subscribers humbly showeth that it hath pleased ye Lord we hope in mercy to ye soul of Dorcas Hoar of Beverly to open her heart out of distress of conscience, as she professeth, to confess herself guilty of the heynous crime of witchcraft for which she is condemned & how & when she was taken in ye power of ye devil & that she signed his book with ye forefinger of her right hand &c. Also she gives account of some other persons that she hath known to be guilty of the same crime.

And being in great distress, of conscience earnestly craves a little longer time of life to realize & perfect her repentance for ye salvation of ye soul.

These are therefore humbly to petition in her behalf that there may be granted her one month’s time or more to prepare for death & eternity, unless by her relapse or afflicting others, there shall give grounds to hasten execution. & this we conceive if ye Lord signify, it may tend to save a soul & to give opportunity for her making some discovery of those mysteries of iniquity & be providential to ye encouraging others, to confess & give glory to God.
& ye petitioners shall pray &c.
Ye humble servants

Evidently the powers that were ruling considered the reasons set forth as being important enough to receive serious consideration, for under the signatures is scrawled in another handwriting, “Having heard & taken the confession of Dorcas Hoar, doe consent her execution be respited until further order. Barth. Gedney.”

These letters, some of them already sold to various collectors but most of them already sold to possession of Mr. Madigan, were discovered among the file of papers on the Salem witchcraft cases, probably put away carefully by Governor Phipps and forgotten. Someone was interested enough to keep them as curiosities, and probably they were handed down either in Phipps’s own family or in that of someone who was, officially or otherwise, intimately connected with the affair. When the discovery became known to one of Mr. Madigan’s correspondents, it was not long before they passed into his possession. They are valued at from $500 to $1000 apiece, depending upon their interest or seeming importance.


The official facts concerning these trials have long been well known, but there has been surprisingly little information available about the human details of the affair: who the “witches” were, how they had gotten into this fatal suspicion, what they thought about it, their hopes and fears, all those intimate, picturesque, glimpses that the modern historian and the autograph hunter value more than all the dates and names in history. Whatever was known before the latest discovery came from the prejudiced pages of Samuel Sewall or Cotton Mather. Here, for the first time, is the argument for the other side, the living record of unfortunate human beings caught in the vortex of a human frenzy.

It has always been known that the evidence on which these people were persecuted was of the flimsiest, but one of the letters in Mr. Madigan’s collection shows that these accusations were more threadbare than any modern could hope to imagine. The letter, written obviously by someone who was unused to the pen, bears the marginal note: “Jurat in Curia by Mr. Keyser. Sworn also by Eliz. Woodcroft as to ye last night.” And in another clerk’s handwriting: “Mr. Elizer Keyzer declared to ye jury of inquest that ye evidence in this paper is ye truth upon oath. August 3rd 1692, Mercy Lewis also s. that Mr. Burroughs told here that he made lights in Mr. Keyzer’s Chimny.”

Here is the accusing letter itself:

Elizar Keyser aged about fourty five years sayth that on Thursday last past being the fifth day of this Instain month of May I was at ye house of Thomas Beadles in Salem and Cap. Daniel King asked mee whether I would not goe up and see Mr. Burrows and discourse with him, he being then in one of the Chambers in ye House. I told him it did not belong to mee, and I was not willing to medle or make with itt, then C. King sayd are you not a Christian if you are a Christian goe see him and discourse with him, but I told him I did believe it did not belong to such as I was to discourse him he being a Learned man. Then C. King and I believe he is a Child of god, a Choice child of god, and that God would clear-up his Inocency: soe I told him my opinion or feare was, that he was the Cheife of all the persons accused for witchcraft or the King Leader of them all, and told King also ye I believed if he was such an one his Matter, meaning ye Devil, had . . . him before now, what I said of him. And so King seemingly to mee to be in a passion, I did afterward forheare. The same afternoone I had occasion to be at the The Beadles house and being in this Chamber whre Mr. George Buroughs keept I observed yt Burrough did stedfastly fix the eyes upon mee, the same Eveneing being in my own house ina Rooms without any Light I did see very strange things appeare in ye Chimney I suppose a dozen of them, wch seemed to mee to be something like Jellye yet ussed to be in ye water, and quivered with a strange motion, and then quickly disappeared and after which I did see a light up in ye chimney aboute ye bigness of my hand, something above the bar wch quivered & shaked and seemed to have a motion upward, upon which I called the Mayd, and she looking up into the Chimney saw the same, and my wife looking up did not see anything, soe I did and do…it was some diabolicall apparition.

The maid, of course, would see the same as her master. But the wife, even like her sister of today, was inclined to be skeptical of her husband his his visions. Still, this letter, as it stands alone, may have been enough to send poor Mr. Burroughs to the hangman’s rope, or to the diabolical machine which pressed man to death. It is no wonder, then, that the collector is aflame with eagerness when a document thus steeped in the passions of the past comes within reach of his hand.

Here is the original article. Right click “view image” to see full size.

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