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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

The Trial of George Burroughs

By Cotton Mather (1663–1728)

[From The Wonders of the Invisible World. 1693.]

GLAD should I have been if I had never known the name of this man; or never had this occasion to mention so much as the first letters of his name. But the government requiring some account of his trial to be inserted in this book, it becomes me with all obedience to submit unto the order.

This G. B. was indicted for witch-craft, and in the prosecution of the charge against him he was accused by five or six of the bewitched, as the author of their miseries; he was accused by eight of the confessing witches, as being an head actor at some of their hellish randezvouzes, and one who had the promise of being a king in Satan’s kingdom, now going to be erected. He was accused by nine persons for extraordinary lifting, and such feats of strength as could not be done without a diabolical assistance. And for other such things he was accused, until about thirty testimonies were brought in against him; nor were these judg’d the half of what might have been considered for his conviction. However they were enough to fix the character of a witch upon him according to the rules of reasoning, by the judicious Gaule, in that case directed.

The Court being sensible that the testimonies of the parties bewitched use to have a room among the suspicions or presumptions brought in against one indicted for witch-craft, there were now heard the testimonies of several persons, who were most notoriously bewitched, and every day tortured by invisible hands, and these now all charged the spectres of G. B. to have a share in their torments. At the examination of this G. B. the bewitched people were grievously harassed with preternatural mischiefs, which could not possibly be dissembled; and they still ascribed it unto the endeavours of G. B. to kill them. And now upon the tryal one of the bewitched persons testified that in her agonies, a little black hair’d man came to her, saying his name was B. and bidding her set her hand to a book which he shewed unto her; and bragging that he was a conjurer above the ordinary rank of witches; that he often persecuted her with the offer of that book, saying, “She should be well, and need fear nobody, if she would but sign it.” But he inflicted cruel pains and hurts upon her because of her denying so to do. The testimonies of the other sufferers concurred with these; and it was remarkable that, whereas biting was one of the ways which the witches used for the vexing of the sufferers, when they cry’d out of G. B. biting them, the print of the teeth would be seen on the flesh of the complainers, and just such a set of teeth as G. B.’s would then appear upon them, which could be distinguished from those of some other men’s. Others of them testified that in their torments G. B. tempted them to go unto a sacrament, unto which they perceived him with a sound of trumpet summoning of other witches, who quickly after the sound would come from all quarters unto the rendezvous. One of them falling into a kind of trance affirmed that G. B. had carried her away into a very high mountain, where he shewed her mighty and glorious kingdoms, and said, “He would give them all to her, if she would write in his book”; but she told him, “They were none of his to give”; and refused the motions; enduring of much misery for that refusal.

It cost the Court a wonderful deal of trouble, to hear the testimonies of the sufferers; for when they were going to give in their depositions, they would for a long time be taken with fits that made them uncapable of saying any thing. The chief judge asked the prisoner, who he thought hindered these witnesses from giving their testimonies? And he answered, “He supposed it was the devil.” That honourable person replied, “How comes the devil then to be so loath to have any testimony borne against you?” Which cast him into very great confusion.

It has been a frequent thing for the bewitched people to be entertained with apparitions of ghosts of murdered people, at the same time that the spectres of the witches trouble them. These ghosts do always affright the beholders more than all the other spectral representations; and when they exhibit themselves, they cry out of being murthered by the witchcrafts or other violences of the persons who are then in spectre present. It is further considered that once or twice these apparitions have been seen by others, at the very same time they have shewn themselves to be bewitched; and seldom have there been these apparitions, but when something unusual or suspected have attended the death of the party thus appearing. Some that have been accused by these apparitions accosting of the bewitched people, who had never heard a word of any such persons ever being in the world, have upon a fair examination freely and fully confessed the murthers of those very persons, although these also did not know how the apparitions had complained of them. Accordingly several of the bewitched had given in their testimony, that they had been troubled with the apparitions of two women, who said that they were G. B.’s two wives, and that he had been the death of them; and that the magistrates must be told of it, before whom if B. upon his tryal denied it, they did not know but that they should appear again in Court. Now, G. B. had been infamous for the barbarous usage of his two late wives, all the country over. Moreover, it was testified, the spectre of G. B. threatning of the sufferers told them he had killed (besides others) Mrs. Lawson and her daughter Ann. And it was noted, that these were the vertuous wife and daughter of one at whom this G. B. might have a prejudice for his being serviceable at Salem Village, from whence himself had in ill terms removed some years before; and that when they dy’d, which was long since, there were some odd circumstances about them, which made some of the attendents there suspect something of witch-craft, though none imagined from what quarter it should come.

Well, G. B. being now upon his tryal, one of the bewitched persons was cast into horror at the ghost of B.’s two deceased wives then appearing before him, and crying for vengeance against him. Hereupon several of the bewitched persons were succesively called in, who all, not knowing what the former had seen and said, concurred in their horror of the apparition, which they affirmed that he had before him. But he, though much appalled, utterly deny’d that he discern’d any thing of it; nor was it any part of his conviction.

Judicious writers have assigned it a great place in the conviction of witches, when persons are impeached by other notorious witches to be as ill as themselves; especially, if the persons have been much noted for neglecting the worship of God. Now, as there might have been testimonies enough of G. B.’s antipathy to prayer, and the other ordinances of God, though by his profession singularly obliged thereunto; so there now came in against the prisoner the testimonies of several persons, who confessed their own having been horrible witches, and ever since their confessions had been themselves terribly tortured by the devils and other witches, even like the other sufferers; and therein undergone the pains of many deaths for their confessions.

These now testified that G. B. had been at witch-meetings with them, and that he was the person who had seduc’d and compell’d them into the snares of witchcraft; that he promised them fine cloaths for doing it; that he brought poppets to them, and thorns to stick into those poppets, for the afflicting of other people; and that he exhorted them with the rest of the crew to bewitch all Salem Village, but be sure to do it gradually, if they would prevail in what they did.

When the Lancashire witches were condemn’d, I don’t remember that there was any considerable further evidence than that of the bewitched, and than that of some that confessed. We see so much already against G. B. But this being indeed not enough, there were other things to render what had been already produced credible.

A famous divine recites this among the convictions of a witch: “The testimony of the party bewitched, whether pining or dying; together with the joint oaths of sufficient persons that have seen certain prodigious pranks or feats wrought by the party accused.” Now, God had been pleased so to leave this G. B. that he had ensnared himself by several instances, which he had formerly given of a preternatural strength, and which were now produced against him. He was a very puny man, yet he had often done things beyond the strength of a giant. A gun of about seven foot barrel, and so heavy that strong men could not steadily hold it out with both hands; there were several testimonies, given in by persons of credit and honor, that he made nothing of taking up such a gun behind the lock with but one hand, and holding it out like a pistol at arms-end. G. B. in his vindication was so foolish as to say, “That an Indian was there, and held it out at the same time.” Whereas none of the spectators ever saw any such Indian; but they supposed, the “Black Man” (as the witches call the devil; and they generally say he resembles an Indian) might give him that assistance. There was evidence likewise brought in, that he made nothing of taking up whole barrels fill’d with molasses or cider in very disadvantageous postures and carrying of them through the difficultest places out of a canoe to the shore.

Yea, there were two testimonies, that G. B. with only putting the forefinger of his right hand into the muzzle of an heavy gun, a fowling-piece of about six or seven foot barrel, did lift up the gun, and hold it out at arms-end; a gun which the deponents thought strong men could not with both hands lift up and hold out at the butt-end, as is usual. Indeed, one of these witnesses was over-perswaded by some persons to be out of the way upon G. B.’s tryal; but he came afterwards with sorrow for his withdraw, and gave in his testimony. Nor were either of these witnesses made use of as evidences in the trial.

There came in several testimonies relating to the domestick affairs of G. B. which had a very hard aspect upon him; and not only prov’d him a very ill man; but also confirmed the belief of the character which had been already fastened on him.

’Twas testified that, keeping his two successive wives in a strange kind of slavery, he would when he came home from abroad pretend to tell the talk which any had with them; that he has brought them to the point of death, by his harsh dealings with his wives, and then made the people about him to promise that in case death should happen, they would say nothing of it: that he used all means to make his wives write, sign, seal, and swear a covenant never to reveal any of his secrets; that his wives had privately complained unto the neighbours about frightful apparitions of evil spirits with which their house was sometimes infested; and that many such things have been whispered among the neighbourhood. There were also some other testimonies relating to the death of people whereby the consciences of an impartial jury were convinced that G. B. had bewitched the persons mentioned in the complaints. But I am forced to omit several passages, in this, as well as in all the succeeding tryals, because the scribes who took notice of them have not supplyed me.

One Mr. Ruck, brother-in-law to this G. B., testified that G. B. and himself, and his sister, who was G. B.’s wife, going out for two or three miles to gather straw-berries, Ruck with his sister, the wife of G. B., rode home very softly, with G. B. on foot in their company, G. B. stept aside a little into the bushes; whereupon they halted and halloo’d for him. He not answering, they went away homewards with a quickened pace, without expectation of seeing him in a considerable while; and yet when they were got near home, to their astonishment, they found him on foot with them, having a basket of straw-berries. G. B. immediately then fell to chiding his wife, on the account of what she had been speaking to her brother, of him, on the road. Which when they wondered at, he said, “He knew their thoughts.” Ruck being startled at that, made some reply, intimating that the devil himself did not know so far; but G. B. answered, “My God makes known your thoughts unto me.” The prisoner now at the bar had nothing to answer, unto what was thus witnessed against him, that was worth considering. Only he said, “Ruck, and his wife left a man with him, when they left him.” Which Ruck now affirm’d to be false; and when the Court asked G. B. “What the man’s name was?” his countenance was much altered; nor could he say, who ’twas. But the Court began to think that he then step’d aside only that, by the assistance of the black man, he might put on his invisibility, and in that fascinating mist gratifie his own jealous humour to hear what they said of him. Which trick of rendering themselves invisible, our witches do in their confessions pretend, that they sometimes are masters of; and it is the more credible, because there is demonstration that they often render many other things utterly invisible.

Faltering, faulty, unconstant, and contrary answers upon judicial and deliberate examination, are counted some unlucky symptoms of guilt, in all crimes, especially in witchcrafts. Now there never was a prisoner more eminent for them than G. B. both at his examination and on his trial. His tergiversations, contradictions, and falsehoods were very sensible. He had little to say, but that he had heard some things that he could not prove, reflecting upon the reputation of some of the witnesses.

Only he gave in a paper to the jury; wherein, although he had many times before granted, not only that there are witches, but also that the present sufferings of the country are the effects of horrible witchcrafts, yet he now goes to evince it, “That there neither are, nor ever were witches, that having made a compact with the devil can send a devil to torment other people at a distance.” This paper was transcribed out of Ady; which the Court presently knew, as soon as they heard it. But he said, he had taken none of it out of any book; for which his evasion afterwards was, that a gentleman gave him the discourse in a manuscript, from whence he transcribed it.

The jury brought him in guilty. But when he came to die, he utterly deni’d the fact whereof he had been thus convicted.