| American History Stories, Volume I|
|by Mara L. Pratt|
|Stories of early exploration and founding of American colonies, conflicts over religion, and troubles with the Indians, culminating in the French and Indian War. Ages 8-12 |
 No one knows when the belief in witches first sprang up in
Europe. There was a time, when James the First was king,
that England was wild with excitement over witchcraft. The
people believed there were witches in the forests, in the
rivers, in the air, and I don't know where else. They stood
in mortal fear of them, and believed every strange old
woman they saw might be a witch and about to work some
evil charm on them.
It is no wonder that, from time to time, witch
excitements sprang up in the colonies.
 They died out soon, however, without much harm being
But in the year 1692, there sprang up such a fire of
excitement over the witch belief, that no power seemed
able to quell it. It seems strange to us, in these days,
that grown up men and women could be so foolish. These
people believed that the cause of witchcraft was the
devil; when a person was bewitched, that meant that the
devil had taken possession of that person, and was making
him do the most terrible things. The devil, they believed,
was an enormous creature, with a long tail, a pair of horns,
and terrible hoofs. He could take all sorts of shapes, and
was often known to take the form of a goose or a black cat.
The excitement over witchcraft in Salem seems to have
started in a minister's family.
One day his little girl began to behave
 very strangely. The minister, being a strong believer in
witchcraft, declared at once that the child was bewitched.
He begged the child to tell him who had bewitched her; and
the child, frightened half out of her wits by her father's
terrible stories, cried out that it was a certain old woman
who lived near by.
The poor old woman was brought into the presence of the
child. The child, excited as she was now, probably, believed
that the old woman had, indeed, afflicted her; and,
frightened still more when she was brought before her, the
child fell into convulsions. This, the minister thought,
was sure proof; and the poor old woman was loaded with chains
and thrown into prison.
Soon others in Salem began to declare themselves bewitched.
If the butter would not come, the housewives declared there
 witches in their churns; if the animals on the farms
died, it was said to be the work of witches. Every possible
disaster was laid at the door of witchcraft.
Although the excitement over witchcraft was highest and
hottest in Salem, there was no small amount of it in all
the other towns. In the town of Boston it took such a firm
hold upon the people that an educated woman, the sister of
one of the governors, one who had, therefore, hosts of
friends who used their power and influence to save her, was
hanged, as a witch, on Boston Common.
This woman, Mrs. Anne Hibbins, was the wife of a wealthy
merchant in Boston. Mrs. Hibbins had, we fear, a very
proud, selfish disposition, which caused her neighbors to
dislike her most heartily. Being the wife of a wealthy
merchant, she rather looked down upon her
 more humble friends, and was not at all careful to hide
her feelings from them. When she and her husband were
quite old, there came a long line of business troubles,
which swept away their money, leaving them as poor as the
poorest of their neighbors.
Mrs. Hibbins' crabbed disposition did not grow any sweeter
under this misfortune, you may be sure. She grew to be so
ugly and so cruel to the little children that they would run
screaming to their mothers if she came towards them. She had
very sharp eyes and ears, and seemed to see and hear all
that happened in the town. She was, also, very keen, and
was sure to ferret out the very boy who stole her
apples, or stoned her cat, or broke her windows. At last,
the mothers began whispering that they believed she was a
"The Devil himself tells her these things,"
 said they, "else how does she know everything that
As they grew to fear her more and more, they began really to
believe she was a witch. Many a mother would run into her
house and hide her baby if the cross old woman was seen
coming. Soon her neighbors became so sure that she was a
witch that they went to the town officers about it; and in
a very, very short time, all Boston was filled with fear of
this unhappy old woman, whose selfish, proud heart had made
her such a disagreeable object.
This fear of her having broken out, it was not long before
the people began to clamor for her death. Every accident in
the town was laid to her; every sickness in the homes was
laid to her; every trouble in the church was laid to her.
At last she was publicly accused and thrown
 into prison. Her brother, who stood high in the colony, made
no effort to save her; her three sons, whom she loved with
all the tenderness of which she was capable, were all
away and knew nothing of her arrest. And so the poor old
woman, who had once held her head so high, was dragged
forth from her prison, tried, and sentenced to be hanged.
After she was hanged, the people went back to their homes
satisfied that in hanging a witch they had done a good
deed, one which the Heavenly Father would reward them
It doesn't seem possible that only two hundred years ago
people could have been so cruel and so foolish.
By and by not only poor old women were accused, but young
people, some of them from the leading families in the
Every-  body had accepted this wicked belief, doubting not, so long
as no one but poor, friendless old women had been accused.
But when, at last, the young people and the wealthy people,
who had friends to defend them, began to suffer, then the
people began to come to their senses.
"How do we know that this man saw Goody Glover flying on a
broomstick? How do we know that he saw Martha Corey turn
into a black cat? How do we know that he saw the children
ride up the stairs on a white horse?" they began to ask
when people came forth at a witch's trial to testify to
these wonderful sights.
"We do not know," the judges at last honestly declared;
and from that time the witchcraft excitement began to die
One of the chief believers in this cruel
 nonsense was a prominent minister, named Cotton Mather.
It is said, however, that when he became old he deeply
regretted the part he had taken in it and frankly
confessed that he would give years to undo the harm he had
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