The Puritan founders of Massachusetts, like most of their Christian contemporaries, lived in a world of wonders. They believed that unicorns lived in the hills beyond the Hudson, that mermaids swam in waters off Cape Ann, and that tritons played in Casco Bay. “There are many stranger things in the world than are to be seen between London and Staines,” wrote John Josselyn of supernatural wonders in New England.1
In sharing these beliefs, the English Puritans were not very different from others of their generation.2 But they also carried to New England several forms of magical obsession which, though not unique, were very special in their intensity. One of these beliefs might be called providential magic, for it was closely linked to the Puritans’ faith in the all-powerful rule of God’s Providence. Even more than most people in their time, they searched constantly for clues to God’s purposes in the world. It was this impulse which led so many English Puritans to study nature with that extraordinary intensity which played a central part in the birth of modern science. It also expressed itself in a continuing obsession with any “wonder” that might possibly be a sign of what they called “God’s remarkable Providences in the world,” or “remarkables” for short.3
Many such wonders presented themselves to the people of New England. Their diaries tell us that heads without bodies would sometimes appear before them. Animals would appear to change their shapes; dishes would suddenly dance upon the table; doors and windows would mysteriously fly open and shut. They heard God and the Devil speak to them through the mouths of children. Dark warnings were detected in the whisper of the wind and the babbling of streams. Heavenly messages of high significance were thought to be written in clouds that scudded across the ever-changing New England sky.4
The founders of Massachusetts were not alone in these beliefs. In the seventeenth century, most people searched the world for supernatural signs. But there was a special intensity to Puritan searching. The leaders of the Bay Colony kept meticulous records of signs and portents. The diaries of leading magistrates John Winthrop and Samuel Sewall were much the same in this respect as those of the merchant John Hull, the minister Cotton Mather and the shoemaker John Dane. Elaborate instructions were given for providential record keeping, and hundreds of diaries were compiled in New England, as running records of God’s “remarkables.” The great scholars of New England gave close attention to these questions in treatises where history, religion, science and magic all became one.5
One example (among many) of this official concern was a church register kept by Roxbury’s minister John Eliot. He wrote:
1644 A strange providence of God fell out at Boston, where a piece of iron in a dung-cart was smote into the head and brains of the daughter of Jacob Eliot, deacon of the church, and brought forth some of the brains. And after more of the brains came forth. And yet the Lord cured the child, the brains lying next the skin in that place.
Soon after that one William Curtis of Roxbury was cast off from a cart of logs onto the ground with such violence that his head and one side of his face were bruised, blood gushed out of his ear, his brain was shaken he was senseless diverse days; yet by degrees through God’s mercy he recovered his senses, yet his cheek drawn awry and paralytic; but in a quarter of a year he was pretty well recovered to the wonder of all men.
1645 Toward the end of the first month, called March, there happened (by God’s providence) a very dreadful fire in Roxbury street. None knoweth how it was kindled, but being a fierce wind it suddenly prevailed … in this fire were many strange preservations of God’s providence to the neighbors and town; for the wind at first stood to carry the fire to other houses but suddenly turned.6
John Eliot had no conception of what we would call an accident. There were no random events in Puritan thinking. Everything was thought to happen for a purpose.
At the same time that the Puritans searched constantly for signs of God’s Providence, they also were deeply concerned about other forms of magic that threatened to usurp God’s powers. Black magic was sternly suppressed in Massachusetts. Even white magic was regarded as a form of blasphemy. In 1637, for example, Jane Hawkins was punished for selling oil of mandrakes in Boston as a magic potion. Many other magicians and sorcerers were treated in the same fashion.
Most of all, the practice of black magic was regarded with obsessive fear and hatred by Puritans. The biblical injunction weighed more heavily upon them than upon others of their age: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” A great many people were formally accused of witchcraft in New England—at least 344 individuals altogether. Of that number, 35 were actually executed, and another person who refused to testify was pressed to death with heavy stones. These terrible events happened much more frequently in New England than in other colonies. More than 95 percent of all formal accusations and more than 90 percent of executions for witchcraft in British America occurred in the Puritan colonies.7
In England, every quantitative study has found that recorded cases of witchcraft were most frequent in the eastern counties from which New England was settled. The American historian John Demos concludes, “ … interestingly, the figures look most nearly equivalent when New England is matched with the [old English] county of Essex alone. Essex was beyond doubt a center of witch-hunting within the mother country; and Essex supplied a disproportionately large complement of settlers for the new colonies across the sea. The linkage is suggestive, to say the least.” When weighted by population, the annual frequency of witchcraft indictments in Essex County, England (5.42 indictments per 100,000 population from 1560-1680), was very similar to that in New England (6.69 per 100,000 from 1630 to 1700).8
Spirit Stones were erected in New England by a people who lived in daily dread of the Devil’s work. To keep evil forces at bay, special signs were carved on boundary markers, thresholds and doorposts. Four spirit stones survive today. They were erected on a property later called Witchstone Farm, in Essex County, Massachusetts. The stone shown here is a little more than 50 inches high and bears a crude figure in a posture of defiance, surrounded by various magical signs and charms. These stones have been attributed to Richard Dummer (1598-1679), who led a group of West Country Puritans from Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire to the New England town called Newbury. But the oldest of them bears the date 1636, before he arrived in the colony. The original is now in the Smithsonian Museum.
Here again, we find a striking similarity between East Anglia and Massachusetts. Despite arguments to the contrary by loyal sons of the Puritans in the twentieth century, there is strong and compelling evidence that New England was indeed, in the words of Cotton Mather, “a country … extraordinarily alarum’d by the wrath of the Devil.” In the mother country, George Gifford described the country of Essex as “one of the worst in England” for witchcraft. Here again, the Puritan colonies resembled the English region from whence they sprang.9