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A Storm of Decay: Institutional Trust After the Salem Witch Trials

Hey everybody. I just finished up my first year of graduate school, which has taken up a lot of my time lately. But in the meantime, I have a treat for all of you: a post from the History Impossible Substack (which you should subscribe to if you haven't already).

While I’ve been putting out regular History Impossible episodes as well as bonuses for all of you (and if all goes as planned, we’ll have one more full episode before the end of the year), I figured I’d throw you all a bonus to read. This is my research paper (complete with citations and added images) that I did for my colonial American history course that looks at the effect of the Salem Witch Trials on institutional credibility. Due to its academic nature, it’ll read a bit drier than most of my work, but I still think what I found was fascinating and I think a lot of you will think so too. And speaking of which, here is a fair warning, by the way: this paper assumes a familiarity with the Salem Witch Trials’ outcome and its major figures (e.g. Cotton Mather). I might make this into a bonus episode, but I’ve been wanting to do a Salem Witch Trials MEGA-episode for a few years now, so I might wait to incorporate all this information into that episode with the appropriate context. Let me know in the comments.

In any event, here are the conclusions to my research into the question of how much did the Salem Witch Trials affect the institutional credibility in late 17th and early-to-mid-18th century New England.


“City Hall stood solid, stone upon stone, but the court that met inside its walls rested on a shaky foundation.”

—Jill Lepore

The Salem Witch Trials loom large in the American imagination over four centuries after their end. This is thanks to cultural invocations like those found within stage plays like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and to colloquial invocations of “witch hunts” in the realm of politics and the wider culture. They are known as prime examples: both of mass delusion and irrationality gone amok, and of why due process and other modern legal norms are vital for American democracy and society at large. They are likely the most famous and infamous event in colonial American history and without question they were significant even in their own time. But what did the Salem Witch Trials actually do to society? Apart from the needless and tragic loss of life, what did they cost the people of colonial New England? What effects, if any, were there that have not been previous appreciated by the multitudes of scholarship that surround the Salem witchcraft crisis of the late 17th century? This paper seeks to ask a fundamental question to this end: to what extent did the Salem witch trials affect the legitimacy of New England's legal and religious institutions from their immediate aftermath until the mid-18th century? Based on the evidence available to us, this paper posits that it is reasonable to claim that the Salem witchcraft crisis significantly affected the authority and legitimacy of these institutions both among members of the educated class as well as the general populace. This was, in part, thanks to the close-knit relationship between religious and legal matters in Puritan society, as well as the behavior of these institutions and their figureheads in the years that immediately followed the waning of the witchcraft crisis. This will be accomplished by examining the reactions to the Salem Witch Trials, first of the educated observers and critics, then of the general public, and finally of the institutional figures themselves. However, in order to properly set the stage for this claim and its evidence, we must begin nearly half a century after the witchcraft crisis came to an end.

In 1741, the island of Manhattan was gripped with fear. Fires had been breaking out across the city, with no plausible explanation initially available. However, as rumors spread of flippant slaves dancing at the sight of burning buildings and stories of hushed meetings being held between these slaves in warm taverns spread, it started to become obvious to many what was happening. As historian Jill Lepore described in her 2005 book covering this sordid tale, “across the city, panicked citizens fled their houses in confusion. […] From street to street New Yorkers began to cry, 'The Negroes are rising!'”1 Arrests and, later, executions (often by hanging and burning) followed, and by the end of that summer, over 150 blacks and almost two dozen whites had been arrested, with seventeen blacks being hung, and thirteen being burned at the stake for their supposed treason. It might have initially seemed like a plot for New York's slaves to rise up and kill their white masters and oppressors en masse had been foiled. But as time went on, it started to become clear that things were not as they initially seemed. In fact, doubt was being expressed on the streets, especially toward one of the key witnesses to the alleged plotted slave uprising, Mary Burton.

As Jill Lepore notes, “By the end of July, New Yorkers were insulting Mary Burton on the street and crying, 'There was no plot!'”2 This was thanks to Burton's status as a credible witness crumbling to pieces over the course of her questioning. The colony's Supreme Court justices, headed by city clerk Daniel Horsmanden, and their authority was being undermined, and they began scrambling to salvage the reputation of the proceedings. This included accusing their star witness of being deceived by the real conspirators, thus continuing to justify the need for their trial's continuation. However, it was clear to many observing—both near and far—that something horrible had indeed occurred in New York. This would be made all the clearer by a certain letter that contained a damning comparison.

At some point during the months of July and August of 1741, this letter was delivered to the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of New York, Cadwallader Colden, who received it on August 8th and it, as Jill Lepore notes, “made Cadwallader Colden's blood boil,” with him believing that it was some type of inflammatory forgery. The letter read, in part, as follows:

I observe in one of the Boston News letters dated July 13th that 5 Negros were executed in one day at the Gallows, a favour indeed, for one next day was burnt at the stake, where he impeached several others, & amongst them some whites. Which with the former horrible executions among you upon this occasion puts me in mind of our New England Witchcraft in the year 1692 Which if I dont mistake New York justly reproached us for, & mockt at our Credulity about; but it may now be justly retorted, mutato nomine de te fabula narratur [“Change the name and the joke's on you”]. What grounds you proceed upon I must acknowledge my self not sufficiently informed of; but finding that these 5 who were put to Death in July denied any Guilt, It makes me suspect that your present case, & ours heretofore are much the same, and that Negro & Spectre evidence will turn out alike.3

As Jill Lepore later notes, the letter was likely written by Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Judicial Court Benjamin Lynde, and that this reference to the Salem Witch Trials was unsurprising because “Most of the Massachusetts commissioners understood the law, knew their history, and several had Salem connections.”4

While the parallels made by the letter's writer between the moral panic of New York in 1741 and the moral panic of Salem in 1692 might be relatively obvious, it is less clear why the invocation of the witchcraft crisis from five decades earlier was so significant. Witchcraft accusations and especially prosecutions and executions had long-since ceased by 1741, with historian Emerson Baker noting that the last witchcraft trial taking place in 1706 demonstrated that “witchcraft prosecutions came to an abrupt halt in New England.”5 Witchcraft was no longer a tangible concern to legal institutions. It is obvious that the writer of this letter understood this, and yet invoked them anyway. The reason for this is reasonably obvious: it was what the witchcraft trials represented, both as a moral and, more importantly, as an institutional failure. In other words, the reference to the Salem Witch Trials by the unnamed author was assumed to loom large in the mind of the institutional authority punishing these innocent New Yorkers. As it turns out, this was, at least from the perspective of a New Englander like the letter's author, a reasonable assumption to make, because the Salem witchcraft crisis had created ripples across time in the interim between 1692 and 1741. The criticism of the Trials—of the specific conduct of the Trials themselves and eventually their very nature—began in the midst of the crisis itself and would, over a relatively short period of time, balloon to something far louder and more significant.

It is important to first note that even though the Salem witchcraft crisis serves as a significant event in the history of witchcraft accusations for their scale and violence, they were by no means outside of the norm for New England in the late 17th century. As Walter W. Woodward writes, “Had the Salem witch-hunt never happened, colonial New England would still have a long and complicated history of witchcraft allegations, trials, and executions.”6 Between 1647 and 1668, “as many as sixteen answered [charges of witchcraft] with their lives” in the colony of Connecticut, with many being accused, investigated, and convicted in very similar ways to the victims of the Salem witchcraft crisis.7 However, this time period resulted in “increasing skepticism regarding witchcraft accusation and elite reluctance to prosecute,” and was “a pivotal moment in the transition of witchcraft prosecution from aggressive magisterial assault on the accused to protective magisterial intercession on behalf of the convicted.”8 If anything, this serves as a precursor to what was to come with the aftermath of Salem's own witchcraft crisis a few decades later.

However, the aftermath of the Salem crisis would prove much more controversial, if only for that crisis' shorter time frame, its body count, and the sheer number of people accused of diabolic behavior. When it became clear, at least to some observers, that Salem's witch trials were resting on faulty procedures and outcomes, the written criticism began to make itself known in the later months of 1692. It began with two documents, the first known as Some Miscellany Observations on our Present Debates respecting Witchcrafts, in a Dialog Between S & B, written by a Boston minister named Samuel Willard, and the second known as “The Letter of Thomas Brattle, FRS,” by a Royal Society Fellow of the same name.

The Dialog was released in Philadelphia in October of 1692, and is noteworthy because Willard took the stance that supernatural explanations were irrelevant to the Salem Witch Trials and clearly implied that their admission in the court that convicted the so-called witches of Salem was central to the judicial miscarriage that had occurred. It was framed as a dialog between Salem and Boston (hence the “S” and “B” in the title), but was designed as what historian Marc Callis calls a “point-by-point refutation of the procedures and standards of evidence used in the 1692 trials.”9 The Dialog spoke of this as follows:

B. ....Do you think that a less clear Evidence is sufficient for conviction in the Case of Witchcraft, than is necessary in other Capital Cases, suppose Murder, &c.S. We suppose it necessary to take up with less, how else shall Witches be detected and punished according to Gods Command?.... for who saw or heard them [witches] covenanting?B. This is a dangerous Principle, and contrary to the mind of God, who hath appointed that there shall be good and clear proof against the criminal...S. You seem to be very nice and critical in this point.B. And why not? There is Life in the case, besides a perpetual infamy on the person, and a ruinous reproach upon his Family. 10

It is clear from this section of the Dialog that an argument is being made against the legal and religious institutions of Salem. The legal standards themselves are being questioned, with Willard demonstrating that they are “contrary to the mind of God” and pointing out that the legal standards for a witchcraft conviction are lower than that of capital crimes like murder, despite both implying the need for a death sentence. By invoking God, Willard was circumventing the legal and religious authority held by the Salem judges who made these judgments and thus suggesting that they did not deserve the supremacy they enjoyed. While Marc Callis interprets the Dialog more charitably as one that does not directly call the motives of the judges into question, he does point out that Willard clearly saw “that those trials were a complete travesty of the laws of God and man.”11

“The Letter of Thomas Brattle, FRS.,” is more inclined toward questioning the intelligence of the legal and religious authorities and the accusers, but the overall message Thomas Brattle was trying to convey was much the same as Samuel Willard's: that a profound mistake had been made and that the authorities were themselves to blame for being taken in by the claims of “these blind, nonsensical girls.”12 His harsh judgments of the accusers' moral character aside, Brattle also presciently claimed that “the reasonable part of the World, when acquainted herewith, will laugh at the demonstration and conclude that the said [Salem Gentlemen] are actually possessed, at least with ignorance and folly.”13

By openly questioning the intelligence and even the sanity of the judges in this way, Brattle was clearly calling their legitimate authority into question. Similar to Willard, Brattle later questions their religious authority by invoking God, writing that “This indeed seemeth to me to be a grosse taking of God’s name in vain.”14 Brattle offers no worldly solutions to his diagnosis of institutional failure, and instead invokes god again in his conclusion, writing that “I pray God pity us, Humble us, Forgive us, and appear mercifully for us in this our mount of distress,” further suggesting a loss of faith in the worldly institutions that had so obviously failed.15 Brattle's letter and Willard's Dialog both made an impact on the discourse surrounding the Witch Trials, but it would not be until 1700 that a full-length denunciation of the Trials would be released to the public, both in New England and abroad.

The clothier Robert Calef's 1700 work, More Wonders of the Invisible World was designed from its very inception to depict the Witch Trials as complete and utter pretense for material gain on the part of the accusers and that by extension, the authorities were complicit. He points out that the many people thrown in the Salem prison were good, pious Christians, as well as pointing out that none of the people executed during the Witch Trials confessed to being witches and. In Calef's own words, “And though the confessing Witches were many; yet not one of them that confessed their own guilt, and abode by their Confession were put to Death.”16 However, the crux of Calef's systemic argument is a materialistic one. According to Calef, as Marc Callis explains, “the witchcraft trials of 1692 were a deliberate fraud, caused not by Satan but by illogical and unscrupulous individuals overcome by the baser aspects of human nature.”17 This assessment by Calef largely rests on how the authorities redistributed the property of the accused. At one point in the work, Calef claims that the sheriff of Essex County quickly seized the property of Samuel Bishop, writing that, “Mr. Cowin the Sheriff, came and Seiz’d his Goods, and Cattle, and had it not been for his second Son (who borrowed Ten Pound and gave it him) they had been wholly lost, the Receipt follows; but it seems they must be content with such a Receipt as he would give them.”18

While Calef's materialistic approach and disparagement of the notion that there even was witchcraft in the first place are significant enough on their own, it is his focus on the complicity of the authorities—namely the sheriff, but also the judges—that supports the idea that institutional legitimacy was being called into question. Emerson Baker describes the tract as going so far as to portray the trials “as a conspiracy of the ministers and the government,” and notes that Calef's ire was directed toward Cotton Mather in particular, by pointing out Mather's hypocrisy in defending the use of spectral evidence in his own 1693 book, Wonders of the Invisible World.19

Mather's own role and writings will be covered later in this paper, but it is worth noting that he essentially became the scapegoat for the Witch Trials' critics like Robert Calef, representing the institutions that had so clearly lost their legitimacy.

This loss of legitimacy was also expressed in the far subtler but no less damning book, A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, written by the Reverend John Hale in 1697, but not published until two years after his death in 1702. Hale was at first sympathetic to the Trials, but changed his tune once Mary Herrick accused Hale's wife Sarah Noyes Hale of witchcraft. According to Emerson Baker, after Sarah died in 1695, Hale began to “reflect upon the trials” in a more meaningful way, and in so doing produced his work.20 As Baker describes it, Hale contrasted with Calef by never denying the existence of witches and instead claiming that “the officials and judges had been so very afraid of the all-too-real threat of witchcraft that they had panicked,” and that “serious errors resulted in the loss of innocent lives.”21

Likely thanks to his own faith, he attempts to take some semblance of responsibility for these errors, writing that “I have a deep sense of the sad consequence of mistakes in matters capital,” and that “I hope a zeal to prevent for future sufferings is pardonable.”22 Hale's personal stake in the Trials—both as a supporter and as a victim by proxy—colors the picture a bit differently from the Trials' other critics, but he nonetheless revisits the theme that the legal and religious institutions had lost credibility. He may have read the event as a tragedy resulting from the best of intentions, but he nonetheless recognized the need for a better alternative, as his call to action in preventing more suffering suggests.

It did not take long for a historical perspective to be added to the increasingly negative discourse surrounding the Salem Witch Trials. Nine years after the General Court of Massachusetts agreed to providing financial compensation to the victims of the Trials, a book titled History of New England by Daniel Neal was released. In the book, Neal primarily used Robert Calef's version of the events and, despite treating Cotton Mather's own account with respect, supports the idea that the reason things spun so wildly out of control in 1692 was because of institutional failure. As Neal writes, “the Inhabitants were hanging one another for suspected Witchcrafts and Sorceries. Strange were the mistakes of the wisest and best Men on this Occasion, which must have been fatal to the whole Province, if God by his Providence had not mercifully interposed.”23

This kind of condemnation no doubt reinforced the narrative that Salem's legal and religious institutions had effectively committed credibility suicide and was, in fact, repeating similar points made overseas by other critics, like the Anglican minister Francis Hutchinson. By 1716, the writings of Cotton Mather, Increase Mather, and Robert Calef had been republished in England and had caused a number of debates between different British writers. A doctor named Richard Boulton had written a defense of the Trials called A Compleat History of Magick, Sorcery and Witchcraft in 1716 and two years later, Hutchinson wrote a more critical response. In addition to proclaiming that supernatural explanations were insufficient as evidence, Hutchinson attacked Boulton's credulity and repeated Calef's claim that there were material gains being sought by a corrupt establishment. As Hutchinson writes:

I feel the author of The Compleat History of Witchcraft, &c. hath printed the first facts and depositions that deceived these good people in New England, and hath stopped there, without giving any manner of notice of the mischief that followed and sorrow for what they had done: and who can be able to give a rational answer to such a case, where the fact is laid before him so partially? How certainly must our people fall into the same follies, if their minds are poisoned with such false history, and no one troubles himself to answer them, and let the truth be seen.24

It is clear that Hutchinson, while paying earlier lip service to the possibility of “diabolical illusion, either within or without the brain,” recognized the failure and, in noting the “mischief” of the authorities, fallibility of Salem's institutions.25 This did not put the debate to bed, but it does demonstrate that the loss of institutional credibility weighed heavily on the minds of at least some commentators. However, in order to suggest that institutional credibility had eroded as a whole thanks to the disaster that was the Salem witchcraft crisis, we must look beyond what the commentariat of the time had to say about them. We must consider what the people of New England—namely, of Salem itself—thought in the wake of the Trials.

It is relatively difficult to determine what the general public felt about anything in the late 17th and early 18th century. Commentary was largely restricted to educated and generally well-to-do classes of men, and little mind was paid to the opinions or thoughts of the common people. However, it is not impossible to discern and we can at least infer what was going through the minds of many people in and around Salem in the years that followed the crisis. This can be done by looking at some of the more significant behavior of the Salem residents who had themselves been accused or who were related to those who were. The first significant change was the number of Salem families who left Salem altogether in the years that followed the crisis.

As Emerson Baker explains, “many chose to escape Salem Village, part of a diaspora of those victims of the tragedy who decided to start anew elsewhere.”26 This included the Bishops, the Cloyces, the Putnams, and the Raymonds. While the evidence that these departures had to do with a loss of faith in the Salem community—which included the institutions of that community—is circumstantial, it is also compelling. As Baker notes, “the fact that so many victims and their families left in the years immediately following the trials […] suggests something special about the exodus.”27 This “something special” is difficult to exaggerate: these people had been betrayed both by their community and by the authorities of that community, and it was likely better for them to simply leave that betrayal behind them and move on.

Perhaps the most significant departure, however, was the Reverend Samuel Parris, both because of his role in fanning the flames of the crisis and because of the circumstances of his departure. As historian Mary Beth Norton notes, “Parris was forced to leave Salem Village in the summer of 1697 by a campaign led by the Nurse family and other relatives of the executed.”28 The anger directed at Parris can be, and has been by historians Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, persuasively argued to be more related to preexisting political and personal squabbles in Salem and its surrounding environs inflamed by Samuel Parris.29

However, the fact that the Nurses made a petition at all is significant to the question of how much institutional trust had decayed by 1697. It certainly suggests that the Nurse family was lashing out at an institutional figure—a religious leader—who they held responsible for the tragedy that had befallen them, and by extension, their community as a whole. Parris was not, as Boyer and Nissenbaum correctly explain, responsible for “deliberately provok[ing] the Salem witchcraft episode,” but he did play “a crucial role,” thanks to his weekly sermons that “took the nagging fears and conflicting impulses of his hearers and wove them into a pattern overwhelming in its scope, a universal drama in which Christ and Satan […] struggled for supremacy.”30 At some level, it is reasonable to infer, the Nurses and the rest of the anti-Parris faction in Salem Village understood this. Despite the fact that there had already existed a pro-Parris and anti-Parris faction before the witchcraft crisis of 1692, the crisis itself and its consequences clearly loomed large in the minds of the people who wanted Parris gone. The fact that there was already an anti-institutional faction—however attached to a single personality it was—shows that a significant number of people in Salem were already primed to lose their faith in institutions themselves. However, the ouster of Samuel Parris by petition was not the only evidence of a decay in institutional trust. This is because the Nurse's petition to oust Samuel Parris was only one of many petitions to come out against representations of institutional authority in the years that followed the witch trials.

Beginning in 1696, we start to see petitions from the accused and the families of the accused appear in the court records. In 1704, the Puritan minister and physician Michael Wigglesworth wrote a letter to Increase Mather, describing these petitions as requesting “to restore ye reputations to ye posterity of ye sufferers and remunerate them as to what they have been damnified in their estates.”31 There were several of these petitions in the nearly two decades that followed the witch trials. Another one was filed in 1696 by Elizabeth Proctor as part of legal battle with her stepchildren in inheriting her late husband John's estate. Because her stepchildren had proclaimed her to be “'dead in the law,'” thanks to the events of the witchcraft crisis, “she petitioned the general court 'to put her into a capacity to make use of the law to recover that which of right by law I ought to have.'”32 This request was “a reversal of attainder,” which was, according to Emerson Baker, an effort to “restore the legal and civil rights that had been lost upon her conviction as well as to remove any stain or corruption associated with it.”33

Despite the General Court ignoring Proctor's petition, this did not stop others from coming forward with similar petitions, starting in 1700 with Abigail Faulkner, whose petition was also rejected. She tried again in 1703 along with her husband and this time, on behalf of several more of the accused, including Elizabeth Proctor, as well as some of the deceased, like John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse. As Emerson Baker summarizes, “They expressed the innocency of the victims, complained that the 'invalidity of the evidence' had led to 'errors and mistakes in those trials,' and asserted that it now 'plainly appeared' that a 'great wrong' had occurred.”34

This time, the General Court did reverse the attainder on Faulkner, Proctor, and Elizabeth Wardwell, essentially clearing their names. In addition, the court made spectral evidence inadmissible as evidence for any future trials, demonstrating a modicum of self-awareness at their institution's credulity. However, by not offering the same kind of name-clearing to the deceased, the General Court was demonstrating an unwillingness to admit the true scope of their mistake in 1692, and this likely did not escape the notice of the people who remained alive and whose spouses did not, including Elizabeth Proctor. By 1709, according to Emerson Baker, “twenty-two people who had either lost family or suffered themselves in the witchcraft crisis petitioned the General Court” to restore their own reputations.35 This is not insignificant as far as institutional trust goes.

The petitions were indeed significant as far as demonstrating a loss of faith in the institutions that had condemned so many in 1692. However, the evidence is admittedly circumstantial. It is tempting to do so, but these appeals to legal authorities should not be confused with a profound faith in the authority of these institutions. On the contrary, the desire to restore one's reputation is the motive that should be considered; a loss of faith in the institutions themselves is self-evident, thanks to the institutions being responsible for placing the petitioners in the position in which they found themselves. However, it is reasonable to assume that the petitions reflected a more negative attitude by the people toward the institutions that had harmed them. In addition, the General Court did not necessarily represent the same authority that had wronged the accused in the first place; in a sense, it represented a higher authority that held true legitimacy, rather than the system that had harmed so many. In addition, from a practical standpoint, there was also very little recourse for the petitioners apart from moving away from Salem, as many already had by 1709. It is also significant that the General Court, while reversing the attainder on the surviving accused, did not do the same for the victims their institution had condemned to death over a decade earlier. This was consistent (and as we shall see in one significant case, inconsistent) with the preemptive reaction that institutional figures had taken in the immediate aftermath of the Salem witchcraft crisis.

In 1693, the famous minister Increase Mather published Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, in which he “link[ed] himself to the Englishman John Gaule, who had urged caution in witchcraft prosecutions,” and took a seemingly nuanced and cautious approach toward the Trials.36 Mather's commentary is noteworthy because even though he proclaimed that “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned,” he was careful to explain how it was not impossible to identify and convict a witch.37 He writes that “a free and Voluntary Confession of the Crime made by the Person Suspected and Accused after Examination, is sufficient ground of Conviction,” and that this required “two credible Persons shall affirm upon Oath that they have seen the Party accused speaking such words, or doing things which none but such as have Familiarity with the Devil ever did or can do.”38 However, Increase Mather praised the judges in his work and made it abundantly clear that even with the misuse of spectral evidence that no real wrong had been committed. Increase's son Cotton Mather, however, became far more noteworthy as “an advocate and an apologist” for the Trials and it is worth examining his role as an institutional representative in greater detail.39

Cotton Mather wrote and released his own account of the Salem Witch Trials around the same time as his father, called Wonders of the Invisible World. According to Mather's biographer Kenneth Silverman, “[Mather] made no secret of having written the book under wrenching stress,” starting the book “with a nervously self-justifying 'Author's Defence' that gives an agonized explanation of his motives.”40 Silverman explains that the book is “a jumble of sermons and parts of sermons, snippets from English works, letters, attestations, 'Matchless Curiosities,' heaped without beginning, middle, or end around a digest of five of the Salem trials,” reflecting Mather's harried tone.41 More to the point, however, Mather's Wonders can be seen as a preemptive defense of the character of the Trials themselves, however jumbled and strained the prose and structure may have been. He presents himself as an unbiased observer, with this distance allowing him to defend the spirit of the Trials without seeming biased. Therefore, it is also reasonable to read Cotton Mather’s defensiveness as less related to himself, and more to the institution that he represented. He makes it clear in his “Author's Defence” that, “I have indeed set myself to countermine the whole plot of the Devil, against New-England, in every branch of it, as far as one of my darkness, can comprehend such a Work of Darkness.”42 This shows his unwillingness to admit that there had been a profound mistake made by the institution in question; the “plot of the Devil” was undeniably real and needed to be confronted, as he was ostensibly doing here.

Several scholars have pointed out that Wonders of the Invisible World is, by design, a preemptive defense of institutional integrity. Kenneth Silverman writes that “[Mather] prints prominent English legal opinions on detecting and convicting witches, and summarizes important English witchcraft trials,” in order “[t]o reassure readers in London that the court followed established precedent[.]”43 Emerson Baker writes that Wonders was the only text that “defended the actions of the government,” and that “the book was written quickly and rushed into print to try and buttress the government by endorsing the actions of the judges.”44 Stacy Schiff elaborates on this point further by pointing out that the government of Massachusetts Bay Colony under Governor William Stoughton was under tremendous pressure by authorities in London to “prove not only [Stoughton's] constancy but a new government’s legitimacy,” with Cotton Mather's Wonders being “aimed” at being read by those very authorities.45 It is clear from this scholarly consensus and from a close reading of Mather's own words that Salem was facing an existential crisis, recalling his words that he intended to fight against a plot by Satan himself with all of New England being at stake.

Despite the “spin control,” that lay at the heart of Cotton Mather's Wonders, it is important for us to take his stated views on what was at stake for New England seriously.46 It may be tempting to be cynical in ascribing particular motives to Mather, but this is an unconvincing claim. As Jack P. Greene puts it, “the New England colonies had a much more deeply religious orientation than other English colonies,” and this characterization by no means excludes Cotton Mather.47 Greene notes that there was diversity among the colonists’ beliefs, but the point remained the same: god and the devil were real forces to be maintained and faced, and Cotton Mather saw institutional authority as crucial in this effort. This also demonstrates that, at least in Mather's view, both legal—that is, worldly—authority and religious authority were closely intertwined and that ultimately, the ends justified the means. This can be seen when Mather writes, “’tis Agreed, That the Devil has made a dreadful Knot of Witches in the Country. [...] Rooting out the Christian religion from this Country, and setting up instead of it, perhaps a more gross Diabolism, than ever the World saw before.”48 In sum, despite any pressure he might have been experiencing, it is clear that Mather's approach to discussing the Trials was to defend their character and nature in the interest of protecting the legitimacy of the legal and religious institutions of Salem in particular, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in general. However sincere his belief in Satan's influence over New England was, a preemptive institutional defense such as this suggests an insecurity on the part of that institution. That insecurity rarely exists without reason and it is therefore reasonable to assume that the authorities themselves felt their own legitimacy was at risk, and thus tasked Cotton Mather with maintaining their image to the best of his ability.

There is one final element to the question of institutional legitimacy from the perspective of a figure from these institutions. That is the perspective and eventual apology of one of the Witch Trials' judges, Samuel Sewall. According to historian Richard Francis, “[Sewall] would confront the Salem tragedy in a quite unique way, dealing with his sorrow and guilt and then finding a way to reassert the millennial destiny of America.”49 This makes him a unique figure in this story of institutional legitimacy as a member of the institution in question who helped lead the charge in questioning the institution's legitimacy in the first place. On January 1st, 1697, Sewall reflected in his diary the heartbreak he had been enduring for the past year: he had buried his baby daughter Sarah only days earlier and it called to mind losing his son to stillbirth in May of the previous year.50 It also called to mind his alienation from “the Owners of the family,” which were, according to Richard Francis, “[Sewall's] pastor and fellow congregants at the South Church, who had a service at the Willards’ house that New Year’s Day from which the Sewalls were excluded, old friends and loyal parishioners though they were.”51 Francis explains that Sewall's issue with the pastor Samuel Willard had to do with Sewall's stillborn son not being considered spiritually whole by Willard, thanks to “the spiritual status of the newly born was a thorny issue for the Puritans.”52 This conflict tied to such profound personal tragedy is what likely led to Sewall's self-reflection, which made it easier for him to reflect on his own role in the Witch Trials only five years earlier. As Richard Francis writes, “[Sewall] was deeply implicated in the tragedy and had come to feel singled out by God and man as a cause of the troubles that had descended on his community,” and realized that there was “an opportunity for confronting the sins of the past.”53

This led Sewall to make a decision for which he would become even more famousthan his role in the Trials. In his diary entry for January 15th, 1697, he recorded the apology he had written for Samuel Willard to read to his congregation while Sewall stood in front of them all in an act of submissive contrition. Sewall's recorded apology read as follows:

Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family; and being sensible, that as to the Guilt con- tracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order for this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other his sins; personal and Relative: And according to his infinite Benignity, and Sovereignty, Not Visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the Land: But that He would powerfully defend him against all Temptations to Sin, for the future; and vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving Conduct of his Word and Spirit.54

Sewall's apology is significant because it demonstrates more than self-awareness or personal contrition; it represents a figure of an institution admitting fault as a representative of that institution. Singular though Sewall's impressive seizure of responsibility may be, it is reasonable to read it as among the most profound recognition of the fallibility of the legal and religious institutions of the time. By using one of the town's religious institutions as his platform, he was, however unconsciously, attempting to rehabilitate the image of that institution by attempting to rehabilitate his own. It certainly represents the most dramatic and poignant example of institutional legitimacy being questioned in the entire aftermath of the Salem witchcraft crisis.

This paper has attempted to argue that it is reasonable to say that the Salem Witch Trials negatively affected the legitimacy of New England's legal and religious institutions from their immediate aftermath until the mid-18th century. Given the evidence presented, it is difficult to claim that there was no negative effect or that the effect was not significant. While coming up with an exact “measure” of the negative effect legal and religious institutional credibility experienced after the witchcraft crisis, it is indeed not impossible to note the change in general. To summarize, a significant number of the subsequent writings—both nationally and internationally—were largely critical of the Trials' conduct and even very character themselves, with several observers and later authors calling the credibility of the legal and religious institutions themselves into question. Sometimes they even overrode the authority of the earthly institutions by invoking the authority of god to make their case. In addition, many regular people affected by the Trials’ outcome either left the community (and thus institutions) behind them or remained and petitioned the General Court to recognize the Trials’ (and thus ruling institutions’) illegitimacy. Institutional figures like Cotton Mather, at the behest of the Massachusetts Bay Colony government and his own existential fears, wrote preemptive defenses of the Trials' character and even methodology, expecting (and perhaps ironically inviting, such as it was in the case of Robert Calef's More Wonders) the backlash that was about to befall them and desiring to circumvent it ahead of time. Finally, we have seen that the Trials remained in the public imagination for years to come, and were seen and referenced even 50 years later as examples of institutional failure to be compared with a completely different moral panic that was gripping New York City. This last example also demonstrates this perception going well beyond the confines of Salem itself.

It cannot be underestimated just how significant the Salem Witch Trials were to the people who experienced and witnessed them first hand, and how it colored their perceptions of the very institutions in which they both implicitly and explicitly placed their trust. This paper not only hopes to give voice to these people's grievances, but also to serve as a reminder that grave mistakes are a constant in the human experience and can have downstream effects for many years to come, sometimes in ways that none of us would ever expect. If there is a novel lesson to be gleaned from this discussion, this author hopes that it is that.


1. Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 50.

2. Ibid., 202.

3. Lepore, New York Burning, 2005, 203-204, quoting anonymous letter from 1741.

4. Ibid., 208.

5. Emerson W. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 209.

6. Walter W. Woodward, “New England's Other Witch-Hunt: The Hartford Witch-Hunt of the 1660s and Changing Patterns in Witchcraft Prosecution,” OAH Magazine of History 17, no. 4 (Jul., 2003), 16.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 19.

9. Marc Callis, “The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 33, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 189.

10. Ibid., citing Dialog Between S & B (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1692, Microfilm [Evans, 631]), 3-5.

11. Ibid., 192.

12. Thomas Brattle, “Letter of Thomas Brattle, FRS,” 1692, 188, University of Virginia Library,

13. Ibid., 172.

14. Ibid., 175.

15. Ibid., 190.

16. Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World, Display'd in Five Parts, Printed for Nath. Hillar, at the Princess-Arms, in Leaden-Hall-Street, over against St. Mary-Ax, and Joseph Collier, at the Golden Bible, on London Bridge, 1700, 110, https://

17. Callis, “The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America,” 202.

18. Calef, More Wonders, 108.

19. Emerson Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 226.

20. Ibid., 224.

21. Ibid.

22. John Hale, A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft (Boston: Printed by B. Green, and J. Allen, for Benjamin Eliot under the Town House), 1702, 11,

23. Callis, “The Aftermath of the Salem Witch Trials in Colonial America,” 205, quoting from Daniel Neal, History of New England (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society), 1720, 124.

24. Francis Hutchinson, An Historical Essay Concerning Witchcraft. Printed for R. Knaplock, at the Bishop's Head, and D. Midwinter, at the Three Crowns in St. Paul's Church Yard, 1718, 94,

25. Ibid., 91, 93.

26. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft, 238.

27. Ibid., 241.

28. Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 (New York: Vintage Random House, 2002), 309.

29. Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), 172-177.

30. Ibid., 177.

31. Michael Wigglesworth, “Michael Wigglesworth to Increase Mather, July 22, 1704,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 4th sermon, 8:646.

32. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft, 245.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid., 246.

35. Ibid., 248.

36. Norton, In the Devil's Snare, 280.

37. Increase Mather, Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, Boston: London Coffee-House, 1693, 66,;cc=evans;rgn=main;view=text;idno=N00531.0001.001.

38. Ibid., 59, 65.

39. John M. Murrin, “Coming to Terms with the Salem Witch Trials,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 110 no. 2 (2000), 325.

40. Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 1984), 119.

41. Ibid., 120.

42. Cotton Mather, Preface to Wonders of the Invisible World ( London: J.R. Smith, 1693), iv.

43. Silverman, The Life and Times, 121.

44. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft, 199.

45. Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2016), 403, 404.

46. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft, 200.

47. Jack P. Greene, “Recent Developments in the Historiography of Colonial New England,” Acadiensis 17, no. 2 (Spring 1988), 145.

48. Mather, Preface to Wonders, xiii-xiv.

49. Richard Francis, Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 178.

50. Samuel Sewall, The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973), 80.

51. Francis, Judge Sewall's Apology, 179-180.

52. Ibid., 180.

53. Ibid., 181.

54. Sewall, The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 80-81.


Primary Sources

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