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Massachusetts Courthouse Clerk Uncovers Witch Trial Books from Mid-1600's


Edited by Mrs. Paul H. Walker

A Suffolk County courthouse worker has made an astonishing historical find--two 300-year-old leather-bound volumes of Massachusets trial proceedings detailing the Puritan prosecutions of witches, adulterers and slaves.

An employee of the Supreme Judicial Court stumbled upon the rare books while cleaning out a file cabinet the first week in July (1996). The frayed, decaying volumes date back to the earliest days of the colonies (spanning 1673-1695) and provide a stunning peak into the legal and social mores of the day.

Today we think it is shocking that people would be executed for sorcery, witchcraft, adultery and blasphemy--though the same social blights are rampant in our present society. According to a Methodist monister who lives in Salem, there are active covens of both witches and warlocks in that very old city.

The books document the role of the Superior Court of Judicature, the direct antecedent of today's SJC, whose judges circulated around Massachusetts to hear a variety of civil and criminal cases.

After the witchcraft hysteria was in full swing in Salem, the court found the trials too burdensome to be handled by regular judges and created a new court--the Court of Oyer and Terminer--to sit in judgement of the accused in Salem. But these volumes predate the later court, and were cases handled by the Superior Court.

State archivists have said one of the volumes was actually uncovered in 1901 and transcribed into a bound volume used by historians and scholars researching the period. But the second volume, detailing dozens of cases brought against accuses witches, has never before been inventoried by state archivists, leading them to believe it has been discovered for the first time.

"We are going to be able to restore a piece of the court's history with this book. It is a lovely historical artifact, but for us its value is really its intellectual content," sais R. Bruce Shaw, the director of SJC's Archives and Records Preservation department. "They are priceless historical documents and it is impossible to assign any monetary vaule to something like this. This is history comming to us unchanged from the 17th century," added Shaw.

Because of the notoriety of the infamous Salem witchcraft trials that began in 1692, many forgeries have been attempted in an effort to cash in on the public's insatiable appetite for stories and witches, warlocks and pacts with the devil.

However, Both Shaw and Chris Mathias, head of conservation for the SJC Archives, said yesterday there is no doubtin their minds that these books are the real thing. "The nature of the paper, linen fiber, is common for the period as well as the vellum cover. The ink, which is iron gall, is very typical of the time--very durable," said Mathias.

Here are two samples of records of trials, in their exact wording.

Elisabeth Johnson wickedly, feloniously and maliciously a covenant with the Devill did make by which diabolical covenant she gave herself both soule and body to the Devill and signed the Devill's book and by him was baptized and under him renounced her Christian baptism and God and Christ and owned the Devill to be her God and promised to serve and obey him forever, by which wicked covenant thee the said Elisabeth Johnson is become a detestable witch.

Ruth Read being Comitted to prison & brought to the barr to Answer for that hauing binn aboue fowe yeares in England absent from hir husband and bringing with hir a chile of About two yeares old Affirming that she received it at Bradford in England that August in Lyndon who chandging his name to John Rogers & hirselfe by the name of Rebeckah Rogers as she also Affirmed betweene whom seuerall letters wickedly (as if man & wife) had passed between them which are on file, and that John Rogers told hir the childs name was John Rogers, and most impudently returning to these parts imposing the said child on hir husband Wm Read The Court senenct the sajd Ruth Read that named hirself Rebeckah Rogers if found in this Colony two month after this date that shee stand in the markett place on a stoole for one hower wth a paper on her breast wth y inscription THVS I STAND FOR MY ADVLTEROVS AND WHORISH CARRIAGE and on a lecture day nex after the lecture and then be seuerely whipt with thirty stripes.

In addition to such misbehavior as detailed above, anyone who was "different" was fingered as a witch, such as Sarah Osborn, who had resorted to begging to support her family. Or Rebecca Nursem who was old, partly deaf, and couldn't defend herself.

The Gerneal court was the forerunner of today's Massachusetts Legislature, with members who were landowners, elected in town meetings. They in turned elected 28 members to the Governor's Council, which acted like today's State Senate.

The witchcraft hysteria that swept through Essex County in 1691 to 1692 was set off by a combination of things, including the fear of witches brought over to the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the English settlers. John Koza of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem said it was touched off by a West Indian slave tamed Tituba who worked for the Rev. Samuel Parris who lived with his daughter in Salem Village, which is now Danvers.

His wife had died, and he imported the slave from the islands, who was familiar with Voodoo.

She entertained the Reverand's daughter, Elizabeth, age 9, and her friends with stories of witchcraft. Soon the girls were rolling on the ground and wailing like banshees, spellbound as if they were bewitched. English settlers were highly superstitous and soon the witch hunt in Salem Village was on.

Villagers who had something against neighbors, or wished to confiscate land adjacent to their own property, convinced the impressionable girls that something was wrong or strage about the intended victims. Elizabeth Parris, and her friends, now over their heads and feeling power because the grown-ups believed their accusations against others when they were throwing their fits, testified against the suspected followers of the devil. Tituba decided to get in on the act and figured the only way to save her neck was to get into the trance mode also, and she added her accusations against the alleged witches.

In all, 19 people, including five men, were hanged as witches, beginning on July 19, 1692. Another man, who refused to confess, Giles Corey, age 80, was crushed to death with heavy stones.

[From the Boston Herald of 9 July 1996 and several other sources.]



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