Goody Wing, an American Foremother
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Our Colonial grandmothers were much brighter and cheerier than the myth of dour, stiff, black-and-white women who have been so eternalized by Pilgrim-era paintings. Certainly do not "color" Deborah Bachiler Wing as wan and morose.
Goody Wing, an American Foremother : Beverly Smith Vorpahl :
Like most foremothers, Deborah was resolved and resolute, determined to create a home out of a cabin in the midst of a primeval forest. Deborah braved crossing the Atlantic as a widow with four young sons and her father, the Reverend Stephen Bachiler, an irascible fellow who attracted misfortune as though he were a magnet. While their crusade to find religious freedom was thwarted in New England as it had been in England, their experiences helped form the persevering character of America.
Chapter As accusers and the recorders of accusations, the Massachusetts — and other New England — Puritans created records not as a means of integrating events into a preexisting legal and cultural system, as must those colonies that had adopted English law and practice, but rather as an individualized response that would continue into an individualized hearing and verdict.
This was intended to ensure careful community consideration of offenses, and complete justice in their punishment.
If we look closely at their texts, we can see colonists struggling with their consciences and memories to recollect evidence and represent their beliefs precisely. Their narrations, and the texts embodying them, are not smooth and finished but are still processing complex considerations as the deponents speak and recorders write. One finds frequent scribblingsout and insertions above lines and in the margins. An accusation of witchcraft was not made lightly, as has sometimes been assumed, and although the Bay colonists harassed and killed many of their neighbors as witches, RT He drafted and redrafted evidence, which he eventually presented to the Middlesex County Court in an uncorrected form, with several versions of the same story recorded alongside the names of those who could testify about them.
Other evidence from the slander case further demonstrates the care that Massachusetts people devoted to the evidence against the accused. Elizabeth Bowers came forward to offer a nonmagical explanation for some of the evidence that Gibson had presented against the Holmans. It had been alleged that Mary Holman had been pouring water from one vessel into another in a suspicious way, which coincided with an episode of violent weeping by her supposed victim. Many accusers could not write, or not confidently enough to record their stories. They could, however, give verbal evidence to a scribe — who might not be highly literate himself — and many such texts exist, with careful revisions as the story was told.
This story was deleted and did not get told, perhaps because it was inaccurate, or inopportunely disordered RT Some colonists were so keen to have their stories recorded so as to make the best possible case against the suspect that they wrote them, often with difficulty, themselves. But blanket condemnation of their all-too-successful efforts has been the frequent response, as we shall see.
More objectively, the New England colonists created a uniquely revelatory set of pretrial records, an approach that, while we might deplore its consequences, suggests anything but reckless malice. And this careful approach continued into the courtroom. Although American court systems were often in flux, especially in the early colonial period, and their members often acted without much regard for the letter of law, governors and their deputies, magistrates and their juries freely exercised a right that they must have considered superior to any legal formality: the power to make creative and idiosyncratic decisions.
These included split verdicts, postponements for further delib- RT Juries often defied convention to reach unique determinations. Sometimes this flexible approach was disastrous, as at Salem, where in contravention of all law and precedent those who confessed were kept alive to give further evidence, while those who pleaded not guilty were condemned almost automatically. But sometimes it distinctly advantaged the accused. To the next court, on 12 October, Harrison, who was a wealthy woman, brought an attorney and — in the first item minuted at the new session — she also agreed to pay the costs of witnesses who had traveled once again from her hometown of Wethersfield.
This time the jury found her guilty, but the magistrates had had time to reflect. Harrison was imprisoned, therefore, but not condemned. Meanwhile, the magistrates sought the opinion of local ministers. Armed with a response that could be construed as ambiguous, they obtained a special order in effect, from themselves to reconvene the Court of Assistants. Harrison left the state a free woman and, as we have seen, moved to New York.
In Massachusetts such a case would have been referred to the General Court, but we have no evidence that this was done with the Sanfords. The Particular Court determined the case itself, in a manner inconsistent with precedent: a similar verdict in the case of Nicholas and Margaret Jennings in the same court in had led to their release. She was probably executed. She was accused of witchcraft three times, and twice the Particular Court jury acquitted her.
On 26 June her latest accusation arrived at the new Court of Assistants. But again the jury were unsure, and found Seager guilty only of familiarity with the devil, stopping short of a proper conviction for witchcraft. They found that in evading the precise terms of the indictment, it did not meet legal requirements.
Again the process of recording uncertainty, delay, and review worked in favor of the accused, and Seager was released. One finds, RT The Court of Assistants repeatedly reprieved Mrs. But the deputies rebuked them, and the rebuke was recorded. Modes of writing about such cases were unfixed in America. As we have seen, cases from New York and Pennsylvania were treated in remarkably similar ways: recorded carefully, judged with Solomonic balance.
Plymouth has left too few records to judge fairly, but New Haven certainly conformed to the conscientious New England RT And even in the colonies furthest from New England both culturally and geographically, the Anglican and Catholic mercantile ventures of Virginia and Maryland, where records do survive they do not suggest a radically different approach to trial and judgment. She was accused of witchcraft by Luke and Elizabeth Hill, although their precise charges are not specified, which is rather odd.
The court ordered her to be searched for witch marks by a jury of women and then dropped the matter for several sittings: they seemed to be hoping that it would go away.
Goody Wing, an American Foremother
Those who floated were strongly presumed guilty, those who sank innocent. It was a desperate step: ducking was highly controversial. Since she floated, the women stated that they had found unusual marks on her and evidence had been sworn against her by several witnesses, Sherwood was then committed to jail, although it was not stated what was to become of her, perhaps this time with deliberate taciturnity.
Apparently she survived to pay debts in , and to make a will that was proved in Half a dozen people accused Wright of witchcraft offenses at the court of 11 September making a family ill and killing a child, telling fortunes, impeding hunting, threatening people, and telling stories about witches, including one whom she had known in England. Instead the matter was revisited at the court of 28 September, where another two witnesses against Wright were heard, probably because they were able to confirm evidence offered only as hearsay by others on 11 September.
This suggests a concern for justice, although no reasons for the adjournment are given. On the night of the great Richmond fire, therefore, it was safe.
What it records is clear and full, if not complete or detailed, but it is not enough evidence to suggest real differences in approaches to witches in the southern courts. The Puritans of these colonies were much more likely than the people of the Dutch, Quaker, Independent, Anglican, and Catholic colonies to keep personal notes about suspected witchcraft, in addition to court records.
So from New England and especially Massachusetts we have, as well as court records, the notebooks and letters of magistrates, clergymen, and other literate people. There are accounts of other witchcraft accusations and apparent demonic possessions in Massachusetts and Connecticut by Joshua Moody, John Whiting, Nathaniel Mather, Samuel Willard, and many others. As far as we know, nothing comparable survives — indeed, may seldom have been created — in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, or the Tidewater states, even though the latter began to prosecute witchcraft over twenty years before the first records of prosecution appear in New England.
What we can say, then, about early modern texts on American witches is that where evidence is available it appears that colonists from Virginia to New Hampshire were careful to record stories about witches and careful to judge those accused. In New England, with its bible-based laws, creative RT But in the colonies bound by English laws, the same was — unexpectedly — true, although it is less well recorded.
Americans judged witchcraft differently from contemporary Englishmen, whether they were in Philadelphia, Hartford, New York, or Salem. New Englanders, especially ministers, often documented witchcraft cases as important providences of God and became involved in witchcraft prosecutions as a matter of course, creating a large body of writing on the crime and on unprosecuted cases as well. Meanwhile, Southern and non—New England colonists were not uninterested in witchcraft, but they seem to have created a bare minimum of purely official records about them, many of which were later destroyed.
Here, surely, is a real cultural difference, as well as a regrettable historical accident. But it is one that has had a disproportionate impact on the writing of American witchcraft history. The inhabitants of colonies other than Massachusetts and Connecticut may not have written demonologies and exchanged long letters about witches, and some of them refused to enact statutes forbidding witchcraft at all.
But their approach when confronted with a case that had to be tried in court because a complainant insisted upon it was quite similar to that of their Puritan neighbors. The cultural differences between the Puritan colonies and their Anglican, Catholic, Independent, and Quaker neighbors are in the number of cases brought and thus the number of texts surviving, rather than a distinction between an indifference to witchcraft and a fanatical pursuit of satanic conspirators. But in the Puritan areas of the north more pretrial documents are preserved, as well as more informal records of court proceedings and the private papers of ministers and magistrates.
Because of these, it became fashionable to accuse Massachusetts and Connecticut of feverish delusion and to contrast this with the supposed good sense of Quakers, Virginians, and other early Americans, who were thought either to have prosecuted no witches at all or to have contemptuously dismissed such nonsense from their courtrooms. In fact, the crime was almost universally portrayed as a debatable matter of conscience to be taken most seriously. It behooved each participant in a witch accusation to express his or her views fully and RT Experimental and consensual American justice as well as Puritan conscience demanded such an approach, and it is one that is still present in the unusual weight of moral significance attached to witchcraft in America ever since.
Democrats, Ministers, and Witch-Hunting: Accusatory Histories Discussing early modern Scotland, the sociologist Christina Larner argued that: it was not possible in the sixteenth and sevententh centuries and is, indeed, difficult now to put a barbed wire fence round newly acquired or consolidated borders and police them.
Instead, you built churches on your borders, sent priests and ministers to instruct your subjects and stamped out heresy and witchcraft — false belief and apostacy — with particular ferocity in those vulnerable border areas. The early American emphasis on accusation and relative uninterest in the viewpoint of the suspect, to the extent that RT And a look at the historiography of American witchcraft makes the point in even more interesting terms.
Witchcraft became a matter of selfdefinition for Americans in ways that have nothing to do with belief in the reality of magic, or a fear of Native Americans, Catholics, or Quakers.