Knickerbocker's History of New York/Book V/Chapter VIII

Chapter VIIIEdit

Having thus provided for the temporary security of New Amsterdam, and guarded it against any sudden surprise, the gallant Peter took a hearty pinch of snuff, and snapping his fingers, set the great council of Amphictyons and their champion, the redoubtable Alicxsander Partridg, at defiance. In the meantime the moss-troopers of Connecticut, the warriors of New Haven and Hartford, and Pyquag--otherwise called Weathersfield, famous for its onions and its witches--and of all the other border towns, were in a prodigious turmoil, furbishing up their rusty weapons, shouting aloud for war, and anticipating easy conquests and glorious rummaging of the fat little Dutch villages.

In the midst of these warlike preparations, however, they received the chilling news that the colony of Massachusetts refused to back them in this righteous war. It seems that the gallant conduct of Peter Stuyvesant, the generous warmth of his vindication, and the chivalrous spirit of his defiance, though lost upon the grand council of the league, had carried conviction to the general court of Massachusetts, which nobly refused to believe him guilty of the villainous plot laid at his door.[43]

The defection of so important a colony paralysed the councils of the league. Some such dissension arose among its members as prevailed of yore in the camp of the brawling warriors of Greece, and in the end the crusade against the Manhattoes was abandoned.

It is said that the moss-troopers of Connecticut were sorely disappointed; well for them that their belligerent cravings were not gratified, for, by my faith, whatever might have been the ultimate result of a conflict with all the powers of the east, in the interim the stomachful heroes of Pyquag would have been choked with their own onions, and all the border towns of Connecticut would have had such a scouring from the lion-hearted Peter and his robustious myrmidons, that I warrant me they would not have had the stomach to squat on the land, or invade the hen-roost of a Nederlander for a century to come.

But it was not merely the refusal of Massachusetts to join in their unholy crusade that confounded the councils of the league; for about this time broke out in the New England provinces the awful plague of witchcraft, which spread like pestilence through the land. Such a howling abomination could not be suffered to remain long unnoticed; it soon excited the fiery indignation of those guardians of the commonwealth, who whilom had evinced such active benevolence in the conversion of Quakers and Anabaptists. The grand council of the league publicly set their faces against the crime, and bloody laws were enacted against all "solem conversing or compacting with the devil by the way of conjuracion or the like."[44] Strict search, too, was made after witches, who were easily detected by devil's pinches; by being able to weep but three tears, and those out of the left eye; and by having a most suspicious predilection for black cats and broomsticks! What is particularly worthy of admiration is, that this terrible art, which has baffled the studies and researches of philosophers, astrologers, theurgists, and other sages, was chiefly confined to the most ignorant, decrepid, and ugly old women in the community, with scarce more brains than the broomsticks they rode upon.

When once an alarm is sounded, the public, who dearly love to be in a panic, are always ready to keep it up. Raise but the cry of yellow fever, and immediately every headache, indigestion, and overflowing of the bile is pronounced the terrible epidemic; cry out mad dog, and every unlucky cur in the street is in jeopardy; so in the present instance, whoever was troubled with colic or lumbago was sure to be bewitched; and woe to any unlucky old woman living in the neighborhood.

It is incredible the number of offences that were detected, "for every one of which," says the Reverend Cotton Mather, in that excellent work, the History of New England, "we have such a sufficient evidence, that no reasonable man in this whole country ever did question them; and it will be unreasonable to do it in any other."[45]

Indeed, that authentic and judicious historian, John Josselyn, gent., furnishes us with unquestionable facts on this subject. "There are none," observes he, "that beg in this country, but there be witches too many--bottle-bellied witches and others, that produce many strange apparitions, if you will believe report, of a shallop at sea manned with women--and of a ship and great red horse standing by the mainmast; the ship being in a small cove to the eastward vanished of a sudden," etc.

The number of delinquents, however, and their magical devices, were not more remarkable than their diabolical obstinacy. Though exhorted in the most solemn, persuasive and affectionate manner, to confess themselves guilty, and be burnt for the good of religion, and the entertainment of the public, yet did they most pertinaciously persist in asserting their innocence. Such incredible obstinacy was in itself deserving of immediate punishment, and was sufficient proof, if proof were necessary, that they were in league with the devil, who is perverseness itself. But their judges were just and merciful, and were determined to punish none that were not convicted on the best of testimony; not that they needed any evidence to satisfy their own minds, for, like true and experienced judges, their minds were perfectly made up, and they were thoroughly satisfied of the guilt of the prisoners before they proceeded to try them; but still something was necessary to convince the community at large, to quiet those praying quidnuncs who should come after them--in short, the world must be satisfied. Oh, the world! the world! all the world knows the world of trouble the world is eternally occasioning! The worthy judges, therefore, were driven to the necessity of sifting, detecting and making evident as noonday, matters which were at the commencement all clearly understood and firmly decided upon in their own pericraniums; so that it may truly be said that the witches were burnt to gratify the populace of the day, but were tried for the satisfaction of the whole world that should come after them.

Finding, therefore, that neither exhortation, sound reason, nor friendly entreaty had any avail on these hardened offenders, they resorted to the more urgent arguments of torture; and having thus absolutely wrung the truth from their stubborn lips, they condemned them to undergo the roasting due unto the heinous crimes they had confessed. Some even carried their perverseness so far as to expire under the torture, protesting their innocence to the last; but these were looked upon as thoroughly and absolutely possessed by the devil, and the pious bystanders only lamented that they had not lived a little longer to have perished in the flames.

In the city of Ephesus, we are told that the plague was expelled by stoning a ragged old beggar to death, whom Apollonius pointed out as being the evil spirit that caused it, and who actually showed himself to be a demon by changing into a shagged dog. In like manner, and by measures equally sagacious, a salutary check was given to this growing evil. The witches were all burnt, banished, or panic-stuck, and in a little while there was not an ugly old woman to be found throughout New England; which is doubtless one reason why all the young women there are so handsome. Those honest folk who had suffered from their incantations gradually recovered, excepting such as had been afflicted with twitches and aches, which, however, assumed the less alarming aspects of rheumatism, ciatics, and lumbagos; and the good people of New England, abandoning the study of the occult sciences, turned their attention to the more profitable hocus pocus of trade, and soon became expert in the legerdemain art of turning a penny. Still, however, a tinge of the old leaven is discernible, even unto this day, in their characters; witches occasionally start up among them in different disguises, as physicians, civilians and divines. The people at large show a keenness, a cleverness and a profundity of wisdom, that savors strongly of witchcraft; and it has been remarked, that whenever any stones fall from the moon, the greater part of them is sure to tumble into New England.


   [43] Hazard's State Papers.

   [44] New Plymouth Record.

   [45] Mather's Hist. New Eng. b. vi. ch. 7.