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 1692, a uniquely strange occurrence began on the outskirts of Gloucester. Unlike the cases of Elizabeth Knapp or the Goodwin children, there were no direct individual victims of the strange occurrences. Instead, there was a bizarre, almost alien, siege of the entire town.
Late one evening, yeoman, Ebenezer Babson, returned to his home to see two strange men run from his front door to a neighbouring field. When asked, his family denied ever having such visitors and Ebenezer quickly ran in pursuit. He eventually found them when they sprang from behind a log, saying to one another “the master of the house is now come, else we might have taken the house”, before disappearing into a nearby swamp. These events took place against a backdrop of strange occurrences, with the march of invisible men heard in the main street as well as “an Indian bow and scalp …. seen on the face of the moon, whale the boom of cannon and roll of drums were heard at Malden and the windows of Plymouth rattled to the passage of unseen horsemen.” Ebenezer called the local guard, fearing yet another rendition of these occurrences as well as another rivalry of tension following King Philip’s War two decades earlier.
Running to the garrison, the sounds of many soldiering feet were heard, but again not seen and upon entering, only the two men Ebenezer had encountered were found before they once again fled. The following night, he was once again the victim of the strange invaders, chased by men in white breeches and waistcoats, carrying bright guns.
Over the next few days, the men were continuously seen throughout the town; with Babson on one occasion bringing three of them to the ground with a single shot, only to be responded to in kind. When they approached the victims, once again, they fled as if nothing had happened and when one was shot again, he simply “melted” into the air. Furthermore, a man named Richard Dolliver was said to have come across eleven of these men who spoke in an unknown language, said to be muttering incantations.
“They lurk about the cape until terror fell on all the people remaining for “the best part of a month together” so that it was deemed that “Satan had set ambushments against the good people of Gloucester, with demons in the shape of armed Indians and Frenchmen”
As the fear continued in the Gloucester community, further units from neighbouring towns were called in for support but to no avail and for weeks people feared the incursion and retribution of the devilish army. One night however, one of the captains was successful in shooting down one of the individuals, not with a bullet but a silver button from his doublet, again resulting in its sudden disappearance. Later that night, a cry was heard signalling that the Devil army were once again poised for attack and a prayer was uttered amongst the units for their protection, but as soon as the name of God was whispered, the sounds of marching were replaced with howls before they too faded away. The Leaguers were never seen again.
Unlike the cases of Elizabeth Knapp and the Goodwin Daughters, the appearance of the Gloucester spectres was not individualised and did not seem to follow the same pattern of fear and understanding as before. However, the sheer fact that they appeared at the height of the trials is representative of a wider culture of anxiety and horror at the preternatural in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Once again, a key connective tissue figure at the heart of the case was Cotton Mather who received the following letter from Reverend John Emerson in July 1692:
“I hope the substance of what is written will be enough to satisfy all rational persons that Gloucester was not alarmed last summer for above a fortnight together by real French and Indians, but that the Devil and his agents were the cause of all molestation which at this time befell the town; in the name of whose inhabitants I would tale upon me to entreat your earnest prayers to the father of mercies, that those apparitions may not prove the sad omens of some future and more horrible molestations to them”
Each of these cases, as with Salem itself, represents the increased pressure faced by these communities to live up to the standard of God’s “chosen” children, manifesting its issues and failures in the invasions, whether that be of the body, or the alien soldiers of hell. The events at Salem, although isolated in their scale and reign of terror that still haunts the Massachusetts and New England areas today, were not uniquely the result of a key few individuals fighting over who should procure firewood but can instead be seen as the crest of a wave of demonic anxiety. The sheer number of connections and similarities, particularly in the two possession cases exhibit a key list of symptoms that likely any community in the face of apocalyptic tension would be on the lookout for, both within themselves and with others. And, as the case of the Gloucester spectres exemplifies, they feared an oncoming war of invasion, within the physical tradition of war, the control of the body and of the mind with a demonic onslaught that sought to root out the sin in a community and enter the veins of the good and pious.
Each of these cases represent that fear that was endemic in New England in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Therefore, to examine the true nature and causes of these infamous trials, it is paramount to understand and investigate them within this wider context.
Written by Melissa Kane
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