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History Time: Cotton Mather’s invisible tragedy

Posted by Amanda Stonely  August 17, 2011 10:00 AM

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Cotton Mather (1663-1728)

By Ben Railton, Globe Correspondent

There is perhaps no greater tragedy than when a person of character, strength, and morality stands by and allows evil to take place when he knows it should be stopped.

As the witch trials unfolded in the summer and early fall of 1692, Cotton Mather (1663-1728), one of the colony’s most prominent young Puritan ministers, struggled with just such a dilemma when faced with what was taking place in Salem.

Mather had done extensive research a few years earlier into the supposed “possession” of Boston’s Goodwin family at the hand of a local witch named Goody Glover, going so far as to bring the family’s 13 year-old daughter Martha into his home for further investigations. His resulting book, "Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions" (1689) has been identified as one of the inspirations for some of the subsequent charges in Salem.

On the other hand, Mather possessed a rigorous and scientific mind (as his late-life controversial but important efforts to develop a smallpox inoculation demonstrate), and he could not help but recognize that the charges and evidence at the heart of the Salem trials did not meet such standards. He wrote a private letter to one of the presiding magistrates, John Richards, expressing those worries, and subsequently sent the court a full report, “Return of the Several Ministers” (co-signed by his father, the influential Increase Mather) critiquing the trials’ heavy reliance on spectral evidence and trumped-up witchcraft tests.

It’s fair to say, then, that if Mather was a source of inspiration for the witch trials, he was also far from a zealous advocate of their specific practices and results. Yet it is precisely that hesitancy on Mather’s part that makes his final and most public statement on the trials as tragic and terrible as it is.

In "The Wonders of the Invisible World" (1692), published in October shortly after the final executions, Mather defends the trials vigorously: saying of one accused witch, Bridget Bishop, that there was “little occasion to prove witchcraft, it being evident and notorious to all beholders”; calling another, Susanna Martin, “one of the most impudent, scurrilous, wicked creatures in the world”; and throughout arguing for the same spectral evidence and tests toward which he had been negatively inclined in the earlier pieces.

Mather was not yet 30 at this time, and it’s certainly possible that he felt it necessary after the fact to defend his fellow and in most cases elder ministers and community leaders. As we will see in next week’s piece, he continued to serve his community and colony, and the young America to which they belonged, for more than three decades after the trials.

Cotton Mather's invisible tragedy? The age-old struggle of a good man who stands by while evil is done, and then, perhaps to justify his own inaction, defends that evil publicly with none of the hesitancy he confesses in private.  


Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He is the author of "Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama," (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and "Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1876-1893" (University of Alabama, 2007). He maintains a daily American Studies blog at http://americanstudier.blogspot.com.

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