Precursors to Salem Part Two: The Goodwin Possessions

The events that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1690s are probably the most infamous and historically recognizable witch trials that took place. Resulting in the hangings of nine individuals, five who died in jail, and another who died under torture, the trials have become synonymous with the nature of magical persecution and fear of devilish intervention. However, the events at Salem are often seen in retrospective isolation, the result of colliding tensions within a small, religiously zealous community when they were in fact part of a wider trend of mysterious events that took place in the years leading up to Salem, right until its own decline. 

In the summer of 1688, the four “equally sensible” children of a Boston mason, John Goodwin, began to suffer from a disorder of hellish design. Again, like the Elizabeth Knapp case before it, the instance of the Goodwin children gained a notorious power in New England popular discourse. As with the Knapp case, it was Cotton Mather who described the events in his Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689). 

Martha “saw cause to examine their washerwomen upon their missing of some linen, which ‘twas feared she had stolen from them”. The laundress was the daughter of a notorious “ignorant and scandalous old woman in the neighbourhood, whose miserable husband, before he died, had sometimes complained of her that she was undoubtedly a witch”. This woman was named Mary Glover, or sometimes referred to as Goodwife or “Goody” Glover in the original sources. Glover was an Irish immigrant and spoke Gaelic. Upon hearing the accusation against her daughter, she erupted in angry shouting and swearing at the young accuser. 

Martha, like Knapp seventeen years previously, fell into a fit “beyond those that attend an epilepsy or a catalepsy or those that they call diseases of astonishment” and within weeks, all four of the Goodwin daughters were “tortured everywhere in a manner very grievous.” When a Doctor, Thomas Oakes, was first called to examine the sickening, he “found himself so affronted by the distemper of the children that he concluded nothing, but a hellish witchcraft could be the original of these maladies.” The children whined that they were wrapped in invisible chains, poked with sticks, and sliced with knives in a succession that no observer could keep up with. “Sometimes they would be deaf, sometimes dumb and sometimes blind, and often, all this at once,” Mather recorded. When confronted with religious exercise, any mentions of God or Christ could send them into “intolerable anguish”. Martha, most notably, was recorded fleeting about the home on her “aerial steed”, continuing even when she was removed from her family to live with Mather. These symptoms, once again, bear a striking similarity to both the Knapp case as well as that of the later Salem accusers and was in every way a confirmation to those involved that the sickness of witchcraft in Puritan Massachusetts was spreading. 

John Goodwin sought blame for the torture of his children at a demonic hand, first remarking that the cause was the result of his teenager’s thoughts “concerning her soul’s estate and that she had misspent her precious time”, but not before launching a vendetta of accusations against his Glover neighbours. Glover, due to her lack of cooperation, on account of her vernacular differences, was immediately taken to the jail.

During this time, a unique experiment was conducted on Glover. She was asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer, under the belief that owing her allegiance to the Devil prevented her from enacting the word of God, and “it was found that though clause after clause was most certainly repeated unto her, yet when she said it after them that prompted her, she could not avoid making nonsense of it, with some ridiculous depravations”. An analysis of these proceedings proves a complex and prejudicial understanding of the persecution of Goody Glover. She was linguistically isolated within the community and she required an interpreter throughout the trial. Furthermore, she was also a known Roman Catholic in the heart of Puritan life, which had traditionally scoured on any form of Christianity that peaked below its intense belief system of devotion. The language throughout Mather’s Memorable Providences is a key indicator of these prejudices, describing her as “ignorant”, “scandalous”, and “vile”, only capable of “very bad language” before her case was even proven in the narrative. 

Such an experiment would gain further use and notoriety at Salem, only a few years later, particularly at the gallows of the accused ex-Reverend of Salem, George Burroughs. Here, perfectly word-for-word, he repeated the Lord’s Prayer that he had once taught the village children in front of the crowd as well as Cotton Mather himself who urged successfully that the execution continue. 

On the 16 November 1677, Glover herself made the journey to the gallows, after a full confession in Gaelic when a number of small puppets made of rags and goat hair were found in her home. Upon her rise, “she said the children should not be relieved by her death, for others had a hand in it as well as she” to which she was proved right after her death. Martha’s symptoms slowly worsened before eventually reaching its peak. 

The case of the Goodwin children, like that of Knapp, was one that slowly gained traction in the lead up to Salem. Cotton Mather published his accounts in his Memorable Providences, just as tensions had begun to rise in Salem between the Parris family and the local village community over the purchase of firewood. As author Stacy Schiff notes, “the girls may have been aware of the Goodwin case. The adults certainly were”. Furthermore, not only did Cotton Mather once again play a role in creating a literary connection between the earlier possessions and Salem, but he was also able to attend as a verifiable witness of the connection between the two cases. Mather would have only been around eight or nine years old at the time of the Knapp possession. William Stoughton also formed a key connection between the prosecution of the two cases, adjudicating at the bench in both cases. 

Written by Melissa Kane

You can read Part One of the series here.


Bullock, Oliver. The Witch Craze in Britain, Europe and North America c.1580-c1750 2016.

Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana Or, the Ecclesiastical History of New England, from its First Planting in the Year 1620 unto the Year or Our Lord, 1698. 1702.

Mather, Cotton. “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689). In The Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe. Penguin Books: London, 2014.

Nash, Gary B. “Review.” William and Mary Quarterly 43, no. 1 (1986): 138-40.

Russell, Jefferey B.; Alexander, Brooks. A New History of Witchcraft.2007.

Schiff, Stacy. The Witches, Salem, 1692: A History.2015.

Skinner, Charles M. The Gloucester Leaguers of Massachusetts. 1896. Legends of America. 2020.

Willard, Samuel. “A brief account of a strange and unusual providence of God befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton by me, Samuel Willard (1671-2).” In The Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe. Penguin Books: London, 2014.

“Episode 01 | Unobscured’”. 2021. Historyunobscured.Com.

Historic Ipswich. “The Spectre Leaguers, July 1692”. 2021.

Image: Britannica

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