Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  Of the Discovery of Witches

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Of the Discovery of Witches

By Increase Mather (1639–1723)

[From Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits. 1693.]

IF the things which have been mentioned are not infallible proofs of guilt in the accused party, it is then queried, Whether there are any discoveries of this crime, which jurors and judges may with a safe conscience proceed upon to the conviction and condemnation of the persons under suspicion?

Let me here premise two things,

1. The evidence in this crime ought to be as clear as in any other crimes of a capital nature. The Word of God does nowhere intimate, that a less clear evidence, or that fewer or other witnesses may be taken as sufficient to convict a man of sorcery, which would not be enough to convict him were he charged with another evil worthy of death; if we may not take the oath of a distracted person, or of a possessed person in a case of murder, theft, felony of any sort, then neither may we do it in the case of witchcraft.

2. Let me premise this also, that there have been ways of trying witches long used in many nations, especially in the dark times of Paganism and Popery, which the righteous God never approved of. But which (as judicious Mr. Perkins expresseth it in plain English) were invented by the devil, that so innocent persons might be condemned, and some notorious witches escape. Yea, many superstitious and magical experiments have been used to try witches by. Of this sort is that of scratching the witch,… yea, and that way of discovering witches by tying their hands and feet, and casting them on the water, to try whether they will sink or swim. I did publickly bear my testimony against this superstition in a book printed at Boston eight years past.

I hear that of late some in a neighbour colony have been playing with this diabolical invention. It is to be lamented that, in such a land of uprightness as New-England once was, a practice which Protestant writers generally condemn as sinful, and which the more sober and learned men amongst Papists themselves have not only judged unlawful, but (to express it in their own terms) to be no less than a mortal sin, should ever be heard of. Were it not that the coming of Christ to judge the earth draweth near, I should think that such practices are an unhappy omen that the devil and Pagans will get these dark territories into their possession again. But that I may not be thought to have no reason for my calling the impleaded experiment into question, I have these things further to allege against it.

1. It has been rejected long agone by Christian nations as a thing superstitious and diabolical. In Italy and Spain it is wholly disused; and in the Low-Countries, and in France, where the judges are men of learning. In some parts of Germany old paganism customs are observed more than in other countries, nevertheless all the academies throughout Germany have disapproved of this way of purgation.

2. The devil is in it, all superstition is from him; and when secret things or latent crimes are discovered by superstitious practices, some compact and communion with the devil is the cause of it, as Austin has truly intimated; and so it is here; for if a witch cannot be drowned, this must proceed either from some natural cause, which it doth not, for it is against nature for human bodies, when hands and feet are tied, not to sink under the water. Besides, they that plead for this superstition say that if witches happen to be condemned for some other crime and not for witchcraft, they will not swim like a cork above water, which cause sheweth that the cause of this natation is not physical. And if not, then either it must proceed from a divine miracle to save a witch from drowning; or lastly, it must be a diabolical wonder. This superstitious experiment is commonly known by the name of “The Vulgar Probation,” because it was never appointed by any lawful authority, but from the suggestion of the devil taken up by the rude rabble. And some learned men are of opinion, that the first explorator (being a white witch) did explicitely covenant with the devil, that he should discover latent crimes in this way. And that it is by virtue of that first contract that the devil goeth to work to keep his servants from sinking, when this ceremony of his ordaining is used. Moreover, we know that Diabolus est Dei simia, the devil seeks to imitate divine miracles. We read in ecclesiastical story that some of the martyrs, when they were by persecutors ordered to be drowned, prov’d to be immersible. This miracle would the devil imitate in causing witches, who are his martyrs, not to sink when they are cast into the waters.

3. This way of purgation is of the same nature with the old ordeals of the Pagans. If men were accused with any crime, to clear their innocency, they were to take an hot iron into their hands, or to suffer scalding water to be poured down their throats, and if they received no hurt thereby they were acquitted. This was the devil’s invention, and many times (as the devil would have it) they that submitted to these tryals suffered no inconvenience. Nevertheless, it is astonishing to think what innocent blood has been shed in the world by means of this satanical device. Witches have often (as Sprenger observes) desired that they might stand or fall by this tryal by hot iron, and sometimes come off well. Indeed, this ordeal was used in other cases, and not in cases of witchcraft only. And so was “The Vulgar Probation” by casting into the water practiced upon persons accused with other crimes as well as that of witchcraft. How it came to be restrained to that of witchcraft I cannot tell; it is as supernatural for a body whose hands and feet are tied to swim above the water, as it is for their hands not to feel a red hot iron. If the one of these ordeals is lawful to be used, then so is the other too. But as for the fiery ordeal it is rejected and exploded out of the world; for the same reason then the tryal by water should be so.

4. It is a tempting of God when men put the innocency of their fellow-creatures upon such tryals; to desire the Almighty to shew a miracle to clear the innocent or to convict the guilty, is a most presumptuous tempting of him. Was it not a miracle when Peter was kept from sinking under the water by the omnipotency of Christ? As for Satan, we know that his ambition is to make his servants believe that his power is equal to God’s, and that therefore he can preserve whom he pleaseth. I have read of certain magicians, who were seen walking on the water. If then guilty persons shall float on the waters, either it is the devil that causes them to do so (as no doubt it is), and what have men to do to set the devil on work; or else it is a divine miracle, like that of Peter’s not sinking, or that of the iron that swam at the word of Elisha. And shall men try whether God will work a miracle to make a discovery? If a crime cannot be found out but by miracle, it is not for any judge on earth to usurp that judgment which is reserved for the divine throne.

5. This pretended gift of immersibility attending witches is a most fallible deceitful thing; for many a witch has sunk under the water. Godelmannus giveth an account of six notorious and clearly convicted witches, that when they were brought to their vulgar probation, sunk down under the water like other persons; Althusius affirms the like concerning others; in the Bohemian history it is related that Uratslaus, the King of Bohemia, extirpated witches out of his kingdom, some of which he delivered to the ax, others of them to the fire, and others of them he caused to be drowned. If witches are immersible, how came they to die by drowning in Bohemia? Besides, it has sometimes been known that persons who have floated on the water when the hangman has made the experiment on them, have sunk down like a stone, when others have made the tryal.

6. The reasons commonly alleged for this superstition are of no moment. It is said they hate the water; whereas they have many times desired that they might be cast on the water in order to their purgation. It is alleged, that water is used in baptism, therefore witches swim. A weak phansie; all the water in the world is not consecrated water. Cannot witches eat bread or drink wine, notwithstanding those elements are made use of in the Blessed Sacrament? But (say some) the devils by sucking of them make them so light that the water bears them; whereas some witches are twice as heavy as many an innocent person. Well, but then they are possessed with the devil. Suppose so; is the devil afraid if they should sink, that he should be drowned with them? But why then were the Gadaren’s hogs drowned when the devil was in them?

These things being premised, I answer the question affirmatively: There are proofs for the conviction of witches which jurors may with a safe conscience proceed upon, so as to bring them in guilty. The Scripture which saith, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” clearly implies, that some in the world may be known and proved to be witches. For until they be so, they may and must be suffered to live. Moreover we find in Scripture, that some have been convicted and executed for witches. “For Saul cut off those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards out of the land,” I. Sam. xxviii. 9….

But then the enquiry is, What is sufficient proof?

This case has been with great judgment answered by several divines of our own, particularly by Mr. Perkins and Mr. Bernard: also Mr. John Gaul, a worthy minister at Staughton, in the county of Huntington, has published a very judicious discourse, called, “Select Cases of Conscience touching Witches and Witchcrafts,” Printed at London A.D. 1646, wherein he does with great prudence and evidence of Scripture light handle this and other cases. Such jurors as can obtain those books, I would advise them to read, and seriously as in the fear of God to consider them, and so far as they keep to the law and to the testimony, and speak according to that word, receive the light which is in them. But the books being now rare to be had, let me express my concurrence with them in these two particulars.

1. That a free and voluntary confession of the crime made by the person suspected and accused after examination, is a sufficient ground of conviction.

Indeed, if persons are distracted, or under the power of phrenetick melancholy, that alters the case; but the jurors that examine them, and their neighbours that know them, may easily determine that case; or if confession be extorted, the evidence is not so clear and convictive; but if any persons out of remorse of conscience, or from a touch of God in their spirits, confess and shew their deeds, as the converted magicians in Ephesus did, nothing can be more clear. Suppose a man to be suspected for murder, or for committing a rape, or the like nefandous wickedness, if he does freely confess the accusation, that’s ground enough to condemn him. The Scripture approveth of judging the wicked servant out of his own mouth. It is by some objected, that persons in discontent may falsely accuse themselves. I say, if they do so, and it cannot be proved that they are false accusers of themselves, they ought to die for their wickedness, and their blood will be upon their own heads; the jury, the judges, and the land is clear. I have read a very sad and amazing, and yet a true story to this purpose.

There was in the year 1649, in a town called Lauder in Scotland, a certain woman accused and imprisoned on suspicion of witchcraft, when others in the same prison with her were convicted, and their execution ordered to be on the Monday following, she desired to speak with a minister, to whom she declared freely that she was guilty of witchcraft, acknowledging also many other crimes committed by her, desiring that she might die with the rest. She said particularly that she had covenanted with the devil, and was become his servant about twenty years before, and that he kissed her and gave her a name, but that since he had never owned her. Several ministers who were jealous that she accused herself untruly, charged it on her conscience, telling her that they doubted she was under a temptation of the devil to destroy her own body and soul, and adjuring her in the name of God to declare the truth. Notwithstanding all this, she stifly adhered to what she had said, and was on Monday morning condemned, and ordered to be executed that day. When she came to the place of execution, she was silent until the prayers were ended, then going to the stake where she was to be burnt, she thus expressed herself: “All you that see me this day! Know ye that I am to die as a witch, by my own confession! and I free all men, especially the ministers and magistrates, from the guilt of my blood, I take it wholly on myself, and as I must make answer to the God of heaven, I declare I am as free from witchcraft as any child, but being accused by a malicious woman, and imprisoned under the name of a witch, my husband and friends disowned me, and seeing no hope of ever being in credit again, through the temptation of the devil, I made that confession to destroy my own life, being weary of it, and choosing rather to die than to live.” This her lamentable speech did astonish all the spectators, few of whom could restrain from tears. The truth of this relation (saith my author) is certainly attested by a worthy divine now living, who was an eye- and an ear-witness of the whole matter; but thus did that miserable creature suffer death, and this was a just execution. When the Amalekite confessed that he killed Saul, whom he had no legal authority to meddle with, although ’tis probable that he belyed himself, David gave order for his execution, and said to him, “Thy blood be upon thy head, for thy mouth hath testified against thee.” But as for the testimony of confessing witches against others, the case is not so clear as against themselves, they are not such credible witnesses, as in a case of life and death is to be desired. It is beyond dispute, that the devil makes his witches to dream strange things of themselves and others which are not so. There was (as authors beyond exception relate) in appearance a sumptuous feast prepared, the wine and meat set forth in vessels of gold; a certain person whom an amorous young man had fallen in love with, was represented and supposed to be really there; but Apollonius Tyanæus discovered the witchery of the business, and in an instant all vanished, and nothing but dirty coals were to be seen….

What credit can be given to those that say they can turn men into horses? If so, they can as well turn horses into men; but all the witches on earth in conjunction with all the devils in hell, can never make or unmake a rational soul, and then they cannot transform a brute into a man, nor a man into a brute; so that this transmutation is fantastical. The devil may and often does impose on the imagination of his witches and vassals, that they believe themselves to be converted into beasts, and reverted into men again; as Nebuchadnezzar whilst under the power of a dæmon really imagined himself to be an ox, and would lye out of doors and eat grass. The devil has inflicted on many a man the disease called lycanthropia, from whence they have made lamentable complaints of their being wolves. In a word, there is no more reality in what many witches confess of strange things seen or done by them, whilst Satan had them in his full power, than there is in Lucian’s ridiculous fable of his being bewitched into an asse, and what strange feats he then played; so that what such persons relate concerning persons and things at witch-meetings, ought not to be received with too much credulity.

I could mention dismal instances of innocent blood which has been shed by means of the lies of some confessing witches; there is a very sad story mentioned in the preface to the relation of the witchcrafts in Sweedland, how that in the year 1676, at Stockholm, a young woman accused her own mother (who had indeed been a very bad woman, but not guilty of witchcraft), and swore that she had carried her to the nocturnal meetings of witches, upon which the mother was burnt to death. Soon after the daughter came crying and howling before the judges in open court, declaring, that to be revenged on her mother for an offence received, she had falsely accused her with a crime which she was not guilty of; for which she also was justly executed. A most wicked man in France freely confessed himself to be a magician, and accused many others, whose lives were thereupon taken from them; and a whole province had like to have been ruined thereby, but the impostor was discovered. The confessing pretended wizard was burnt at Paris in the year 1668. I shall only take notice further of an awful example mentioned by A. B. Spotswood in his History of Scotland, p. 449. His words are these: “This summer (viz. Anno 1597), there was a great business for the tryal of witches, amongst others, one Margaret Atkin being apprehended on suspicion, and threatened with torture, did confess herself guilty; being examined touching her associates in that trade, she named a few, and perceiving her delations find credit, made offer to detect all of that sort, and to purge the country of them; so she might have her life granted. For the reason of her knowledge, she said, ‘That they had a secret mark all of that sort in their eyes, whereby she could surely tell, how soon she looked upon any, whether they were witches or not’; and in this she was so readily believed, that for the space of 3 or 4 months she was carried from town to town to make discoveries in that kind; many were brought in question by her delations, especially at Glasgow, where divers innocent women, through the credulity of the minister Mr. John Cowper, were condemned and put to death; in the end she was found to be a mere deceiver, and sent back to Fife, where she was first apprehended. At her tryal she affirmed all to be false that she had confessed of herself or others, and persisted in this to her death, which made many fore-think their too great forwardness that way, and moved the king to recall his commission given out against such persons, discharging all proceedings against them, except in case of a voluntary confession, till a solid order should be taken by the estates touching the form that should be kept in their tryal.” Thus that famous historian.

2. If two credible persons shall affirm upon oath that they have seen the party accused speaking such words, or doing things which none but such as have familiarity with the devil ever did or can do, that’s a sufficient ground for conviction.

Some are ready to say, that wizards are not so unwise as to do such things in the sight or hearing of others, but it is certain that they have very often been known to do so. How often have they been seen by others using inchantments? Conjuring to raise storms? And have been heard calling upon their familiar spirits? And have been known to use spells and charms? And to shew in a glass or in a shew-stone persons absent? And to reveal secrets which could not be discovered but by the devil? And have not men been seen to do things which are above human strength, that no man living could do without diabolical assistances? Claudia was seen by witnesses enough to draw a ship which no human strength could move. Tuccia a vestal virgin was seen to carry water in a sieve. The devil never assists men to do supernatural things undesired. When therefore such like things shall be testified against the accused party, not by spectres which are devils in the shape of persons either living or dead, but by real men or women who may be credited, it is proof enough that such an one has that conversation and correspondence with the devil, as that he or she, whoever they be, ought to be exterminated from amongst men. This notwithstanding I will add: It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned.