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The Salem Witch Trials and the Creepy George Burroughs
The trial of George Burroughs in Salem during 1692 was unique in that Burroughs was the only minister accused, tried and convicted of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. Though speculation exists as to Burroughs' actual relationship to the practice of witchcraft, he was most likely innocent in this regard. But innocent or not, there were an abundance of accusations leveled at the minister, ranging from accounts of his almost supernatural feats of strength to implications that he murdered his first two wives. Burroughs' unenthusiastic approach to his faith didn't help him in establishing his innocence either, as he had failed in baptizing all but one of his children, and could not recall the last time he had received the sacrament of communion. These factors, along with the hysterical fits of those tormented by his specter, led to George Burroughs' execution on Gallows Hill, on August 19th, 1692.
George Burroughs was born in 1652, in Suffolk, England. Twenty years later, around 1670, he graduated from Harvard College with the intention of pursuing a life devoted to ministry, and soon after accepted a position leading a church congregation in Casco, Maine. Devastating raids on Casco by local Indian tribes led to the relocation of the populace to Scarborough, which in turn led to Burroughs' eventual relocation to Salem, accepting a ministerial position there with the local church. It was during this period, long before the hysteria of the witch trials struck Salem, that the seed for Burroughs' eventual conviction was planted.
Burroughs' time spent at the parsonage of Salem village was marked by strife and discord. Rival factions within the church were split over its leadership: some were content with Burroughs, others were not, and those members of the congregation unhappy with Burroughs' position were able to express their discontent quite easily: they simply withheld their tithes, the same exact problem faced by Burroughs' predecessor, James Bayley. Faced with a dwindling income that had already been negligible, a divisive congregation, and the death of his wife in 1682, George Burroughs had unsurprisingly decided to return to his congregation in Casco, Maine. Financial matters however, were to complicate this seemingly simple action.
Although Burroughs was owed back pay by his parish, he was forced to borrow money from John Putnam in order to afford funeral costs for his deceased wife. (Interestingly, and perhaps, suspiciously, John Putnam was the uncle of Ann Putnam Jr., the initial accuser and one of the most persistent) It seems that Burroughs made arrangements with the Deacon Nathaniel Ingersoll to use the arrears to pay off Burroughs' debt to Putnam whenever possible, but upon leaving Salem, Burroughs was promptly arrested for debt owed to Putnam. The matter was resolved with little controversy, but one must wonder how much this incident strained the relationship between the two men. Putnam would surely never forget that Burroughs had at one time refused to preach until paid his full salary. The next time Burroughs would see previous members of his congregation, it would be under charges of witchcraft.
In 1688, Burroughs accepted an offer to minister a church in Wells, Maine. Attacks from Indians made this a fairly dangerous place to live, and it is one of history's ironies that no harm befell Burroughs here, but rather in the seemingly peaceful village of Salem. By the time of the first accusation brought against George Burroughs, he was leader of a congregation, husband to his third wife, and father to seven children. Such was the state of things for Burroughs prior to his arrest for witchcraft.
Ann Putnam Jr. was the first to level an accusation against Burroughs. On April 20th of 1692, Ann, "saw the Apperishtion of a Minister at which she was greviously affrighted and cried out oh dreadfull: dreadfull here is a minister com:what are Ministers wicthes to." Ann went on to accuse Burroughs that his specter had pinched and choked her as a means of persuading her to write in his book (or rather, the Devil's book, a sort of contract binding the signer's soul to Satan), had confessed to the bewitching of his first two wives resulting in their deaths, had turned Abigail Williams into a witch, had bewitched soldiers serving under Sir Edmond Andros, and had boasted that he was above a witch, rather a conjurer, thus implicating Burroughs as the ringleader of all satanic activity within the vicinity, and possibly beyond. Not much later, on the 5th of May, the specter of Burroughs again appeared to Ann Putnam. Though only two years old at the time of Burroughs' departure from Salem, Ann successfully recognized a minister, and the exact name of that minister, in her visions. This is probably due to her contact with Mercy Lewis, a servant of the Putnam family who had contact with Burroughs as a child when she lived with the Burroughs family in Maine. Another possibility, as previously alluded to, was Burroughs' connection with Ann's uncle, John Putnam. Is it possible John's dislike for Burroughs was verbalized within earshot of a young, impressionable Ann? Whatever the exact cause for Ann's damning accusations, they nevertheless made an impression upon the townspeople. These disturbing visions coincided very well with what else was known about George Burroughs.
Two very compelling arguments for causes of the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. Excellent!
It made perfect sense that a man living in such close proximity to savage, Indian tribes, who remained unscathed throughout every attack, could be in concert with them, and their master, the Devil. Certainly a man who had bewitched troops sent against the Indians would be unharmed. Also, the many accounts of Burroughs' bizarre level of strength began to be viewed in a whole new light. What were once uncanny feats worthy of praise, were now beginning to look like occult powers in practice. And the stories of Burroughs' mistreatment and control of his previous wives coincided all too well with the possibility that he had murdered them. In light of the what was known of Burroughs, and the frightening visions of the young Ann Putnam Jr., not to mention the possibility of discovering the source behind the witchcraft epidemic, a warrant for the arrest of George Burroughs was issued, to be carried out by Marshall John Partridge. On May 4th, a fearful and superstitious Marshall, John Partridge, accompanied by a group of deputies, traveled to Wells, Maine and arrested Burroughs during a meal in his home.
DVD's to watch with the lights on
Burroughs was first examined. This initial examination revealed facts about Burroughs that were Due to the high number of suspected witches in Salem, it was not until May 9th that anything but helpful in proving his innocence. For one, Burroughs could not recall the last time he had partaken of the sacrament. For a minister this was an especially damaging fact. Also, only one out of his seven children had Burroughs baptized. The rumor of Burroughs' home in Wells being occupied by toads was affirmed, although Burroughs could not agree to the rumor that it was haunted. If the examination was harmful in establishing Burroughs' innocence, the trial was damning.
The accusers were many for George Burroughs, and the accusations varied and damaging. Much was made of the strength of Burroughs, a strength that many considered possible only through the assistance of supernatural forces. Samuel Weber, Thomas Greenslit, Simon Willard and William Wormall all attested to Burroughs' ability to lift a barrel of molasses over his head by merely inserting two fingers into it. It was also said that Burroughs was able to, "lift and hold Out a gunn of Six foot barrell or thereabouts putting the forefinger of his right hand into the Muzle of s'd gunn and So held it Out at Armes End Only with that finger."
Mary Weber, Burroughs' neighbor and friend to his wife while he lived in Casco Bay, testified to Burroughs' controlling and verbally abusive demeanor towards his wife. Through his wife, Weber heard frightful stories concerning strange creatures entering their home at night, particularly a white calf. Accusations of Burroughs' abuse towards his wives must have been extremely damaging when coupled with the testimonies of his specter's admission of murder. Ann Putnam not only accused him of the murder of his first two wives, but proposed an explanation as to why the murders were undetected:
"then immediately appeared to me the forme of Two women in winding sheats and napkins about their heads...the Two women turned their faces towards me and looked as pail as a white wall: and tould me that they ware mr Burroughs Two first wives and that he had murthered them: and one tould me that she was his first wife and he stabed hir under the left Arme and put a peace of sealing wax on the wound and she pulled aside the winding sheat and shewed me the place."
In addition to Ann Putnam, several young women attested to Burroughs' specter threatening and torturing them, as well as tempting them to write in his book. Mercy Lewis, obviously inspired by the New Testament account of Satan tempting Jesus, testified to the ultimate temptation:
"Mr Burroughs caried me up to an exceeding high mountain and shewed me all the kingdoms of the earth and tould me that he would give them all to me if I would writ in his book and if I would not he would thro me down and brake my neck: but I tould him they ware non of his to give and I would not writ if he throde me down on 100 pichforks."
Mercy Lewis's testimony, though based merely on spectral evidence, was especially convincing as she had been taken into the Burroughs' home as a child after her parents were killed in an Indian attack. Although the testimony of Mercy Lewis did not include any eye-witness accounts of odd behavior during her stay with the Burroughs, the mere fact that she had lived there must have lent credence to her account.
Perhaps the oddest testimony though, came from Elizur Keysar, a resident of Salem who had uneasily conversed with Burroughs during his confinement. According to Keysar, later that day, soon after his encounter with Burroughs, he began to be afflicted by his own visions. Far from the apparitions testified to by the afflicted girls, Keysar saw:
"Very strange things appeare in the Chimney. I suppose a dozen of them. w'ch seemed to mee to be something like Jelly that used to be in the water and quaver with a strainge Motion, and then quickly diappeared soone after which I did see a light up in the chimney aboute the bigness of my hand something above the bar w'ch quivered & shaked. and seemed to have a Motion upward upon Which I called the Mayd, and she looking up into the Chimney saw the same..."
According to Keysar, he had been afflicted by the Evil Eye, as Burroughs had affixed his eye upon him earlier in the day. Keysar was convinced that Burroughs was the "Ringleader of them all," and this strange affliction was evidence of the powers Burroughs possessed.
The quantity of accusations was but one of Burroughs' problems, another being his inability to sufficiently dispel them. During his trial Burroughs read a statement that he, himself supposedly prepared. Intended as part of his defense, Burroughs' statement essentially said that those in covenant with the Devil do not possess the power to send out a devil to torment others. Unfortunately for Burroughs this statement was instantly recognized by Cotton Mather as an excerpt from A Candle in the Dark by English author Thomas Ady. Whether or not this statement was true was quickly overshadowed by Burroughs' falsity, an all too common trait for those in league with darkness. Evidently the afflicted girls had come prepared as well, as they were covered in teeth marks from a visit from Burroughs' specter the night prior. A comparison of Burroughs' teeth with the bite marks strangely found them to be a match, and at this point, the fate of George Burroughs was sealed.
On August 19th, Burroughs was taken in a horse-drawn cart to Gallows Hill for execution. But for this it appears Burroughs had come sufficiently prepared. Prior to his hanging, Burroughs loudly proclaimed his innocence, and then proceeded to recite the Lord's Prayer flawlessly, not a simple feat when faced with one's own mortality. This was Burroughs' most important sermon ever, and he certainly realized the controversy it would immediately incite among the spectators. According to common belief, wizards and witches were physically unable to recite this prayer, and yet here was a minister doing just that. Out of all the executions in Salem so far, this one came the nearest to being stopped, but Cotton Mather, astride his horse, rode up and reminded all present that the Devil too, could masquerade as an angel of light. Burroughs had been tried, and was found to be guilty. Justice was being served.
Many questions reverberate through one's mind when contemplating the life of George Burroughs. Some authors seem to be convinced of his involvement with the occult, while others raise the possibility of his sexually molesting Mercy Lewis. Two very villainous allegations, and yet two very real possibilities. But in light of the evidence at hand, these allegations remain just that, possibilities. While Burroughs was hardly an ideal minister or husband, any implication of occult involvement or molestation stands upon extremely flimsy evidence. Though Burroughs did indeed have numerous accusers, accused witches included, the fact that he was allegedly the ringleader of the whole, terrible affair raises the possibility that George Burroughs had become somewhat of a scapegoat for the Salem witch trials. In this regard Burroughs fit the bill perfectly, but the fervor hardly decreased. As pointed out by historian Benjamin C. Ray:
"From mid-April forward, accusers and confessors reported seeing hundreds of witches under Burroughs's command gathering in Salem village and nearby Andover. It may have been Burroughs's relationship with the Maine frontier, where Indians attacked colonial settlements, that gave new impetus to the accusers' fears, as Mary Beth Norton has recently argued. Burroughs, though, was an easy target. Although a minister, his lapses in receiving communion were notable, and he had failed to baptize all but one of his children. Just as Burroughs sightings multiplied, so did the number of accusations, which spread beyond the immediate environs of Salem village to twenty-two other towns and villages."
In all likelihood, George Burroughs was an average man swept up in something larger than he could have ever imagined. His uncanny strength, once a source of pride, would now be part of his undoing. This, along with a somewhat uninspired approach to his spiritual life, an unhealthy relationship with his wives, and a seemingly charmed life in face of deadly Indian attacks all added up to the execution of one of Salem's most notorious victims.
"Ann Putnam, Jr. v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977), Vol.I http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=111&division=div2.
"Warrant for Arrest of George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977),Vol. I: 153. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=96&division=div2.
"Samuel Weber v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977). Vol. I. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=105&division=div2.
"Thomas Greenslit v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977),Vol. I:161. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=106&division=div2.
"Simon Willard and William Wormall v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers (New York, 1977), Vol. I:162. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=107&division=div2.
"Mary Weber v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers(New York, 1977), Vol. I: 163. new2? http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=109&division=div2.
"Ann Putnam, Jr. v. George Burroughs." In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers(New York, 1977),Vol. I: 167. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=114&division=div2.
" Mercy Lewis v. George Burroughs," In Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers(New York, 1977),Vol. I: 169. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=117&division=div2.
"Elizar Keyser v. George Burroughs," in Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, The Salem Witchcraft Papers( New York, 1977), Vol. I: 177. http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=BoySal1.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/oldsalem&tag=public&part=128&division=div2.
Bonfanti, Leo The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692, Volume II (Wakefield, Mass: Pride Publications Inc., 1977).
Hansen, Chadwick Witchcraft at Salem, (New York: George Braziller, 1969).
Hoffer, Peter Charles The Devil's Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witchcraft Trials, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996).
Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts, (New York: Bernhard M. Auer, 1963).
Nichols, Amy and Whelan, Elizabeth, "Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature" Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, (2002). http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu:8090/saxon/servlet/SaxonServlet?source=salem/texts/bios.xml&style=salem/xsl/dynaxml.xsl&chunk.id=b3&clear-stylesheet-cache=yes. Internet. Accessed April 22, 2008.
Norton, Mary Beth, "The Refugee's Revenge," Common Place, Volume 2, no. 3 (April 2002). http://www.common-place.org/vol-02/no-03/norton/. Internet. Accessed April 21, 2008.
Ray, Benjamin C., "Satan's War Against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692," New England Quarterly, Volume 80, no. 1 (March, 2007). http://www.mitpressjournals.org.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1162/tneq.2007.80.1.69.