Tuesday, November 4, 2014

O, Brave New Blog!


I've been thinking (and talking) for awhile about carving out an online space for my academic, literary, historical, folkloric, and/or political interests, and have finally decided to take the plunge. I love my cooking blog, and will continue sharing recipes and culinary adventures there, but in recent months I've felt an increasing urge - dare I say need? - to have somewhere to explore more divergent topics. My hope is that this will be a forum where I can generate prose without the pressures attendant on "real" writing (i.e. conference papers, articles for potential publication, and the dissertation project with which I am increasingly in love), and maybe have some interesting conversations, too.

So welcome! And in the spirit of the current spare, spooky season, I'd like to kick off this enterprise with a paper I wrote a few years ago about witchcraft accusations in the old and "new" iterations of early modern England. (I should mention that unless otherwise specified, whatever I post here - although probably not something I'm planning to publish - is my own. So while I welcome feedback, any uncredited usage and/or quotations may result in unwanted gills, flippers, or worse. Forewarned is forearmed!)


The Devil Made Me Do It:
Accusation, Reception, and Retribution in Old and New England
     Separated by over three thousand miles and nearly a century, the witchcraft charges brought by Anne Gunter, a young woman in Jacobean England, and those of the girls afflicted in the Salem witch craze of 1692 make for a striking comparison of popular and official responses to such claims on either side of the Atlantic. In both instances, the episode began with the sudden, unexplained illness of a young female member of the community, proceeding to allegations of witchcraft against near neighbors, and ultimately leading to the formal arrest and trial of those accused. The reception of these afflictions, the ensuing charges, and their aftermaths illustrate some of the important differences—and the many similarities—between the old and new worlds’ attitudes towards the omnipresent danger of diabolical interference in everyday life.
     Anne Gunter’s story begins in 1604, in the Berkshire village of North Moreton. The youngest daughter of a prosperous yeoman farmer, still living at home with her parents, Anne was about twenty years old when she began to attract public notice. She had first fallen ill around midsummer of that year, but the ailment passed relatively quickly, and was initially attributed to “melancholy,” or “the mother,” a contemporary euphemism roughly equivalent to “female trouble.” It was only in October, when she suffered an apparent relapse (in the form of increasingly violent “fits,” followed by periods of insensibility), that her parents sought serious medical attention for their daughter. At first, it was thought that these seizures might be an indication of “falling sickness,” or epilepsy, a diagnosis later ruled out by physicians. As Anne’s condition worsened through the autumn, it was the opinion of several doctors that the girl was “not sick of any natural cause or infirmity.” As concerns about Anne’s mysterious ailment grew, the community began to fear that darker forces were at work, a fear that would lead to a dramatic externalization of village politics.[1]
     Neither Anne nor her parents had been born in North Moreton. Brian Gunter and his wife, also named Anne, had spent most of their married life in nearby Hungerford, where they enjoyed the status of well-connected minor gentry, leasing an estate called Charlton Manor. Sometime in the mid-1580s, however, they relocated to North Moreton, a move evidently precipitated by an inheritance. As the result of a complex sequence of tenancy disputes, Brian’s brother, Edward, had prevailed in a 1579 lawsuit to be named the rightful resident of North Moreton rectory. This ruling was an important coup in terms of local politics, since the position allowed the resident rights to the tithes associated with that property. This type of “impropriation”—wherein the living or monies formerly due to a religious establishment redounded to the layperson in physical possession of property associated with that institution—was a practice fraught with controversy in early modern English villages, many of which continued to struggle with the changes wrought on their local economies by the dissolution of religious houses during the Reformation.
     Upon his death, Edward Gunter bequeathed these rights to his younger brother, and Brian lost little time in moving his family to North Moreton to enjoy the profits of his new situation, a noteworthy bit of background information in light of the family’s vexed relations with many of their neighbors. Although tithe disputes were a common occurrence in the court rolls of the period, Brian Gunter’s legal history reveals a lifelong involvement with this particular type of quarrel. [2]  Like the Reverend Samuel Parris, who would play a central role in the Salem witchcraft hysteria more than eighty years later, Gunter was regarded in some quarters as a grasping arriviste with influential connections, taking advantage of those in a weaker position for his own personal and financial advancement. Parris, the son of a wealthy merchant and plantation owner, aroused the animosity of many Salem villagers through what they considered his arrogant and greedy demands; Gunter’s proclivity for litigation led to similar bad feeling, and it seems significant that the Gunters continued to be seen as “outsiders” within the community even after living there for nearly twenty years. In both instances, the ill feeling aroused by the family patriarch had a polarizing effect that ultimately forced many members of the community to adopt a position for or against him.
     Both Parris and Gunter had benefited from associations outside of their villages, setting them further apart from their more provincial neighbors. In Gunter’s case these were with Oxford University, most immediately through his son-in-law, Thomas Holland. Holland was married to Anne’s elder sister, and was serving as Regius Professor of Divinity at Exeter College at the time of the younger girl’s affliction; it was due largely to this association that the Gunters were able to elicit the attention and services of prominent medical scholars for their daughter. Several of these learned men were summoned to Anne’s bedside, but no physical cause for her sufferings could be found, despite the liberal application of purgatives, repeated examinations of her urine, bleeding, and other conventional treatments. One particularly eminent physician, Richard Bracegirdle—a fellow of Brasenose College and longtime friend of the Gunter family—was the first to voice the suspicion that Anne’s condition might be diabolical in nature, declaring that even he possessed “no skill to redress it,” and going so far as to suggest that “some cunning men” might be better qualified to help the girl.[3]
     Four such people were eventually called upon. John Wendore of nearby Newbury was the first to visit Anne, but although he concurred that she was indeed “bewitched by some evil neighbour,” his remedies were apparently ineffective. A second man named only as Blackwall examined the girl on a later occasion, and a third, Palliser, was actually consulted about the case by the local vicar, Gilbert Bradshaw. By this time Anne’s neighbor, Alice Kirfoote, had also begun exhibiting symptoms, and through the good offices of yet another neighbor was given a small bag to wear around her neck, and a “little green glass vial” from which she was to drink a spoonful or two each day, courtesy of Goodwife Higgs, a cunning woman from Ashampstead. This liquid was tried on Anne as well, but apparently to no avail. Nevertheless, the relative casualness with which these “good witches” were recommended—and located—is striking, and indicates that they were considered a reasonable option when more conventional approaches failed. Although they operated on the fringes of the community, it seems clear that such “cunning folk” remained a viable resource in early modern England, providing a legitimate—if somewhat esoteric and potentially risky—service for ordinary citizens who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances.[4]
     This accepting attitude is in direct opposition to that found in the Massachusetts Bay Colony less than a century later, where Cotton Mather affirmed in 1689 that although witches were capable of performing “wonders” in the world, they could only do so by virtue of “the help of evil spirits.” Furthermore, the reader is admonished to keep in mind that such people “cannot indeed perform any proper miracles; those are things to be done only by the Favourites and Embassadours of the Lord.” [5] When no medical explanation was found for the afflictions of Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam, Jr., the next logical step was fasting and prayer before contacting clergymen with more expertise in cases of witchcraft; there was certainly no official talk of trying more unconventional means to relieve apparently supernatural symptoms. The Reverend Parris’ violent reaction to the girls’ childish attempts at divination—based on English folk customs, despite the blame placed on the Caribbean slave Tituba—is further proof of the “zero tolerance” policy towards such practices in the New World. While it is to be expected that an ordained Puritan minister would react with scandalized horror to the presence of such “goings to the devil” in his own house, it seems significant that there is no sign that ordinary adults in Salem Village employed such folk remedies after the debacle caused by Mary Sibley’s baking of a “witch cake” using the urine of the afflicted girls.[6] This provides an interesting contrast with the Reverend Gilbert Bradshaw of North Moreton, who went out of his way to discuss the Gunter case with a known “cunning man.” While it is doubtful that the cunning men and women of the English countryside were considered capable of working “miracles” by their contemporaries, it seems equally unlikely that those who sought their services saw the use of a few homemade charms or herbal infusions as a covenant with the forces of darkness.
     The continued acceptance of cunning men and women by everyday Englishmen is particularly intriguing in light of the increased official censure of witchcraft at the beginning of the seventeenth century. James I had come to the English throne only the year before Anne Gunter’s troubles began, bringing with him a well-established reputation for complete intolerance of witches or witchcraft. As king of Scotland, he had played an active role in the trials at Berwick on Tweed, beginning in 1590, which ended in the execution of a number of people, both men and women. During the examinations—often conducted under torture—James had actually questioned some of the accused himself, since among their alleged crimes were the making of wax images and the raising of tempests in order to harm or kill the king and queen. Furthermore, he had written a book on the subject, Daemonologie. First published in 1597, and reprinted twice in 1603, it was written largely in response to what he feared was the growing skepticism about the reality of diabolical possession, specifically as found in Reginald Scot’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft. To entertain any doubt that Satan’s snares were a clear and present danger was to risk being “given over in the handes of the Devill that enemie.”[7] James hoped to spare his subjects such a fate by means of tougher legislation. English law had declared witchcraft a felony in 1541, and from 1563 it was a capital offense to participate in “conjuration, witchcraft, enchantment or sorcery,” and one of James’ first acts as king was to have this law revised and extended. As of 1604, a person proven to have any supernatural dealings whatsoever, including communing with evil or familiar spirits, was to be put to death.[8]
     In Anne Gunter’s case, the interventions of physicians, clergy, and cunning men alike proved fruitless, and her condition grew steadily worse. By November 1604 her symptoms had become extreme, adding weight to the theory that her torments were sinister rather than “natural” in origin. The intensity of her fits, bizarre physical contortions, inability to eat and insensibility to pain, even when pricked with needles till she bled, attracted increasing amounts of scholarly and public attention. However, it was the voiding of foreign bodies (iron pins) that definitively tipped the scales in favor of a supernatural diagnosis, and contemporary descriptions of the many visitors who came to see the girl’s “strange agony of quivering and shaking,” make it clear that Anne Gunter had become not merely evidence of Satan’s malevolent presence in Berkshire, but a major local tourist attraction as well. The vomiting, sneezing ,and even “void[ing]…by her water” large quantities of pins provided sufficiently compelling evidence of witchcraft, and it wasn’t long before Anne began to supply the names of her tormentors: Elizabeth Gregory, “Mother Agnes” Pepwell, and her daughter Mary Pepwell.[9]
     All three women were well known in the village, and the Pepwells were particularly obvious targets for this type of vilification. The elderly Agnes appears to have been mentally ill and essentially homeless, and had been previously suspected of witchcraft; she later gave a lurid and detailed “confession” of her supposed dealings with Satan and associated malefic escapades, complete with standard features like a familiar that “would do nothing for her unless he had a drop of her blood.” Although Mother Agnes was not tortured—torture being used very rarely in English cases of witchcraft—her age and apparent instability, combined with the unprecedented attention of her questioners, undoubtedly led her to give them what they wanted. Her daughter, Mary, had been born out of wedlock, the apparent by-blow of an encounter with a “lame vagrant” named only as Heywood, and the two were accorded no standing in the community.[10] Like Sarah Goode, one of the first women accused in Salem, they were women who existed on the fringes of their community, destitute and often reduced to begging for food, which they apparently received with less gratitude than their often grudging benefactors thought appropriate. By the early seventeenth century, the ragged, angry beggar woman muttering curses beneath her breath as she stomps away unsatisfied was already a stock character in suspected cases of witchcraft; these were precisely the sort of indigent, marginalized women against whom such charges were likely to be made. Such unsavory characters were considered more deserving of censure and suspicion than of Christian charity, to be despised rather than pitied, not least because they represented the worst fears of the prosperous: poverty, homelessness and exclusion from respectable society.[11]
     In Agnes and Mary Pepwell’s case, they were only the hapless supporting cast; it was the third woman, Elizabeth Gregory, who was the real target of the North Moreton witch-hunt. Another classic type, Goodwife Gregory was a “scold,” an opinionated, outspoken woman universally disliked, particularly by the women in her community. In fact, she was so unpopular that she was even excluded from such traditionally female-centered events as the childbirths and churchings of her neighbors. Labors and lyings-in played an important role in the social lives of early modern women, providing festive opportunities to get together, drink, gossip and enjoy one another’s company without the demands or intrusion of men. Popular literature of the time is filled with dryly rueful accounts of men coming home to cold hearths, no supper, and a house full of drunken neighbor women, all of whom he suspects are laughing at him. If contemporary representations of these occasions—in addition to the everyday interactions between women and their “gossips” in the marketplace, alehouse and church—as a sort of female subculture are any indication, the specific exclusion of one woman from such gatherings speaks volumes about the degree to which she was ostracized, making her in effect a social outcast among her own sex.[12]
      Elizabeth Gregory’s unpopularity clearly had its roots in her extremely aggressive dealings with others; indeed, she seems to have been incapable of holding her tongue, declaring even after being accused of witchcraft that the whole business was nonsense, and that she “cared not” whether Anne Gunter lived or died. As in the cases of Salem Goodwives Sarah Osborne and Bridget Bishop, outspoken assertiveness in a woman was viewed with great suspicion. Neither Osborne nor Bishop was shy about sharing her opinions, and each had been involved in various legal and property disputes with their neighbors, which inevitably incurred a certain amount of dislike. Furthermore, both women’s means of supporting themselves were viewed with disapproval. The former had manipulated her first husband’s estate—after a scandalous second marriage to her indentured servant—in order to disinherit her own sons, and the latter kept an unlicensed tavern on the outskirts of the village, to the displeasure of many who considered it an unwholesome influence on the community’s young people. That Bishop had been previously accused—although acquitted—of witchcraft, and Osborne, like Gregory, was involved in a longstanding quarrel with the family of at least one of her accusers, only made matters worse in the eyes of their judges.[13]
     In North Moreton, Elizabeth Gregory had worked diligently to earn her reputation as a difficult neighbor. She held a particular grudge against Nicholas and Alice Kirfoote; in fact the latter would become the second woman to accuse her of witchcraft. The two women often “railed at one another” if they chanced to meet in the village, and there are even references to them “falling to blows” on occasion. Gregory appeared only rarely in church, and was denounced by her own vicar as “a scold and an unquiet body amongst her neighbours and a great curser and swearer.”[14] In a society where any woman’s acceptance in her community was predicated on the good opinion of other women, such behavior could only lead to trouble. The many instances of women taking one another to court because their reputations had been sullied by the “slanders and curses” of their neighbors attest to the power of language in the early modern period. Pamela Allen Brown writes that in London alone, “ the number of female plaintiffs grew fivefold in the city between 1572 and 1640, making the principal ecclesiastical jurisdiction…a ‘woman’s court.’” Although this was seen as a frivolous trend in many quarters, widely lampooned in both general discourse and contemporary “books of jest,” it seems rather remarkable that Elizabeth Gregory hadn’t found herself before a magistrate long before she was accused of being a witch.[15]
    As it happened, she had a much more dangerous enemy than Alice Kirfoote in Brian Gunter. The bad blood between the Gregory and Gunter families stemmed from the disastrous outcome of a village football match some six years before Anne Gunter began suffering her fits. Football in this period was viewed as a distinctly dodgy form of entertainment, censured in publication and pulpit by such detractors as the Puritan Philip Stubbes, who decried it as “a bloody and murdering practice,” and King James himself, who deemed it an exercise too “rough and violent” for his own sons.[16] Joseph Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England gives the following description:
     "The ball, which is commonly made of a blown bladder and cased in leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved, the game is won," adding that “[w]hen the exercise becomes exceeding violent, the players kick each other's shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs.[17]
     Whether late 16th century matches followed similar rules is unclear, but it is apparent from contemporary references to injuries and even deaths resulting from football that it had earned its reputation as a dangerous pastime. In this particular instance, the repercussions of the game’s violence were serious and far-reaching. In the spring of 1598, Brian Gunter was involved in breaking up an altercation that had begun during a match, before erupting into general chaos. While trying to separate his own son, William, and two male members of the Gregory family, the elder Gunter struck the latter two in the head with the pommel of his dagger. Although Gunter insisted that he had not struck them very hard, or even drawn much blood, John and Richard Gregory later died of their injuries. Following an inquest, at which it was ruled that at least one of the two—Richard—had died as a result of “divine visitation” as opposed to any specific injury, the bereaved family attempted to formally indict and try Brian Gunter for murder. The Gregory family, although long established inhabitants of North Moreton, had considerably less money and influence than Brian Gunter, and in the event their suit received an unfavorable response from the Summer Assizes of Berkshire. Thus the matter was officially dismissed, but the ill feeling between the two families persisted, and resentment towards the “newcomer” residents of the North Moreton rectory may have figured into their ongoing enmity as well. In any case, it is difficult to believe that anyone in the village could have been unaware of the situation, or missed the significance of Anne Gunter’s choice of tormentor, regardless of the accused witch’s reputation as a shrew.[18]
     After she began naming those responsible for her ordeal, news of Anne’s condition continued to spread, prompting various members of the community to come forth and recount instances in which the accused women had spoken and behaved strangely, or—particularly in the case of the irascible Elizabeth Gregory—issued threats. The afflicted girl became even more forthcoming with information, relating how the witches’ spirits would torment her, sending their various familiars to further abuse her. The fact that much of the language and imagery used by Anne to describe her torments was familiar from widely disseminated accounts of witchcraft does not appear to have raised any suspicions among her audience, although the presence of such publications in the Gunter home seems oddly convenient to the modern reader. At the time, however, nothing seemed amiss; narratives of possession and witchcraft, related in lavish detail and often illustrated with lurid woodcut images, were of understandable interest to the general population, and the Gunters were no exception. Like most of their contemporaries, they were familiar with the details of the 1579 witchcraft trials at Windsor (also in Berkshire), which resulted in the condemnation of four women, an episode circulated in the form of a printed pamphlet. Even more widely reported was the sensational “Witches of Warboys” case, which had taken place in Huntingdonshire about ten years earlier and ended in the executions of three people convicted of bewitching an entire family of children.[19]
     In the beginning, the very familiarity of Anne’s symptoms seems to have bolstered her father’s claim that she was bewitched, via the gloss of these pre-existing “authorities.” A similar parallel can be observed in Salem, where previous publications enumerating the signs and symptoms of demonic possession served to reinforce the conviction that witchcraft lay at the root of their troubles. Among these was the English translation of Elaus Skragge’s eyewitness account of the Swedish witch panic of 1668-76, which related the suffering of hundreds of children—mostly young boys—at the hands of witches.[20] Additionally, there were recent occurrences in New England with which the girls themselves must have been familiar, including that of sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Knapp of Groton, and the children of a Boston family named Goodwin, whose torments ceased with the 1688 execution of “the hag” Mary Glover, an elderly, illiterate Irish woman. Both episodes were recounted in great detail in Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, published just three years prior to the outbreak of hysteria in Salem Village, and well known to Samuel Parris and the other clergymen who examined the afflicted girls.[21]
     Anne Gunter’s symptoms shared particular similarities with the Witches of Warboys episode mentioned earlier, in which six children of the Huntingdonshire Throckmorton family were so grievously tortured by diabolical forces that nothing could ease their affliction but the execution of three members of the neighboring Samuel family, including an elderly, infirm woman. The Gunter family possessed a printed account of the case, which not only included elaborate descriptions of the children’s suffering, but the means by which the source of their distress was discovered. These included “scratching” the alleged witch, on the theory that by drawing her blood the victim’s sufferings would cease, confirming the guilt of the accused. This proved an effective expedient for the Throckmortons (the accused were later tried, convicted and hanged on this and similar “evidence”), and Brian Gunter is known to have employed this method on Elizabeth Gregory at least once, after which the neck pain he had attributed to her apparently disappeared. It was also believed that the presence of the witch would throw her victim into fits, and that burning some thatch from the roof of the accused, or a bit of her hair, would temporarily alleviate the effects of the witchcraft; in Anne Gunter’s case, as in that of the Throckmorton children, all of these techniques were employed to “prove” the truth of the girl’s allegations.[22]
     In fact, the girls in the Gunter, Throckmorton and Salem cases all exhibited the classic early modern signs of being bewitched. These included, but were not limited to: violent seizures, long spells of unconsciousness, insensibility to stimulation (sometimes in the form of intentionally inflicted pain, as in pricking with pins), “nonsensical” speech, and occasional bouts of unnatural physical strength. They cried out against their tormentors, and claimed to see them—or their familiars—when no one else could. They could also sense when the witches were in the vicinity, and might be “pinched” or otherwise hurt, although no one appeared to be actually touching them; sometimes there would be bruises or scratches in evidence afterwards. The fact that these phenomena obligingly occurred whenever there was an audience present wasn’t deemed particularly remarkable; by the time a girl was accusing her neighbors of witchcraft, her room would be filled with curious visitors at most hours of the day or night, in the hope and/or dread of seeing proof of Satan’s presence in their own community.
     In Salem, as in Huntingdonshire, the accusations ended in the arrest, trial and execution of at least some of the accused; this was certainly the aim of the Gunters’ campaign against the Gregory and Pepwell families. By the end of 1604, Alice Kirfoote was displaying symptoms identical to Anne Gunter’s, and had named the same three women as having bewitched her. With the opinions of a number of respected men, including several Oxford dons, to buttress their claims, the time had come to take legal action, and warrants were duly obtained from the local justice of the peace for the arrest and examination of the accused. Elizabeth Gregory and Mary Pepwell were taken, but “Mother Agnes” Pepwell evaded capture by taking shelter at a house in nearby Abingdon before disappearing. The owner, Margaret Orpewood, later said that she had allowed the old woman a hiding place for fear that her children might be bewitched if she refused. Due to this quick thinking, Agnes Pepwell managed to avoid spending the winter of 1604-05 awaiting trial in Reading Gaol; nor was she in court with her daughter and Gregory when they faced their accusers in March 1605.[23]
     For the most part, the North Moreton case had met with little skepticism up to this point. Demonic possession and witchcraft were considered a serious threat, and most early modern English people were predisposed to believe in such phenomena. The symptoms of the afflicted fit the model of previous victims proven to have been bewitched, and it seemed clear to most who saw them that something supernatural must be causing the strange behavior of Anne Gunter and Alice Kirfoote. This was not a universal attitude, however, and there was some uncertainty afoot in this period, particularly in England, despite King James’ paranoia about the continual threat of demonic forces. Throughout the early modern period, the overall numbers for witch trials and executions in England were much lower than those on the Continent, and one of the first important English books to address the topic of witchcraft was written by an avowed skeptic. In The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published some twenty years earlier, Reginald Scot had categorically denied the existence of witches or witchcraft, arguing that belief in such nonsense was based on the irrational superstitions of the Catholic Church, and fit only for “children, fools, melancholic persons and papists.”[24] Although Scot allowed that strange things did occasionally occur, he insisted that everything had an explanation in nature, and that to give credence to the idea that Satan or his minions could simply roam about doing mischief was to denigrate the power of the Almighty. King James was certainly not the only person to disagree with Scot’s assertions—albeit his refutation may have been among the more widely published—but it is important to realize that neither did everyone share his unwavering faith in the existence of witches. Even among those who did believe, there were many who felt that more evidence than the word of a few hysterical children was needed to convict an accused witch, especially in light of the severity of the penalty.
     There was little if any doubt in North Moreton about Anne Gunter’s bewitchment, as the girl continued to be afflicted even after the accused witches had been taken to prison. During the months leading up to their trial, her sufferings intensified, and had the effect of moving witnesses—even distinguished Oxford academics—to tears. In the midst of all this the Gunters received a visit from a distant relative, Thomas Hinton. Although Hinton lived in Wiltshire, he had heard Anne’s story from friends in Oxford, a detail that illustrates how quickly and far such news could spread. Upon learning that the victim was a kinswoman, he decided to make the trip and see for himself, arriving in February 1605. Hinton was initially persuaded that Anne’s symptoms were genuine, and agreed to help her father in bringing the matter to trial as swiftly as possible, since Brian Gunter was adamant that only the execution of the witches would end his daughter’s ordeal. However, it was not long before Hinton began to suspect that the girl was counterfeiting, and after several days of close observation, he felt certain. To the modern reader of his account, it seems impossible that of all the visiting physicians, scholars and neighbors who had observed Anne’s fits in the previous months, Hinton was the only one to recognize various “proofs” of supernatural influence as mere sleight of hand. In the cold light of day, Anne’s secreting of iron pins in her cheeks in order to “vomit” them forth at the right moment, hiding in dark corners to emerge with her garters cut and her stockings “mysteriously” full of knots, and habit of screwing her eyes up to appear closed while she was in fact squinting (which explained her remarkable ability to describe what everyone in the room had been wearing during her apparent insensibility) are rather crude parlor tricks, and yet many witnesses accepted them as incontrovertible evidence of witchcraft. This is a remarkable illustration of how deeply entrenched these beliefs were: people quite literally saw what they expected to, and conveniently ignored what didn’t fit.
     Hinton only mentioned his doubts to Anne’s father and several other family members a few days before Elizabeth Gregory and Mary Pepwell went to trial. At this time the family was staying at Oxford, and Brian Gunter called upon scholars associated with the case to persuade his kinsman that he was in error, but Hinton remained unconvinced. His primary concern was that the accused were facing a large number of witnesses, most of them “men of credit” in Oxford. Hinton was loath to see the women wrongly executed, but he also wished to spare their accusers “the guilt of innocent blood;” after some consideration, he decided to attend the trial and speak for the women. This willingness to go against public opinion is interesting when considering the diverse ways such matters were handled in England compared to Massachusetts. The majority of North Moreton—and a significant faction at Oxford—accepted that Anne Gunter was bewitched, since no physical cause had been discovered for her suffering. By asserting his belief that the girl was playacting, Hinton knowingly placed himself in opposition to his own relations while running the risk of being seen as a champion of witches should they be found guilty; nonetheless, he opted to follow his conscience.[25]
     In Salem Village, members of the community quickly learned that to express skepticism about the afflicted girls’ symptoms was to place themselves and their families in jeopardy. Those who spoke up against the mounting number of accusations often found the finger of suspicion pointed in their own direction. In the early stages of the panic, both Deodat Lawson and Samuel Parris preached sermons emphasizing the devil’s constant and threatening presence, a fact the congregation imperiled their very souls by questioning. While this is in line with James I’s thinking on the subject nearly a century earlier, the fact remains that a Jacobean citizen like Thomas Hinton was not afraid to voice his suspicions, whereas John Proctor’s skepticism and anger at his maidservant’s involvement in the Salem trials was instrumental in his own conviction and execution. Nor were influential connections necessarily of any help. Friends and relatives of the elderly Rebecca Nurse—initially found “not guilty” before the jury foreman reversed the decision—presented the court with a petition signed by thirty-nine respected people, including many church members and one of her accusers, but this was insufficient to save her from the gallows. It seems that the New England courts of law and of public opinion took a harder line in matters of suspected witchcraft than those of the Old, and allowed far less room for doubt or speculation.[26]
     Thomas Hinton consulted with a local justice of the peace, Alexander Chocke, about his suspicion that Anne Gunter “did but counterfeit.” He was sensible of the fact that he was acting contrary to the interests of a family member, and confessed that he would not have willingly “been a source of disgrace to his kinsman” if any other means could be found to protect the accused women. With Chocke’s assistance, he went on to make a statement to the judges in the case, enumerating the tricks he had seen Anne employ during her fits. He went so far as suggesting that they go and question the girl at her lodgings, where they found her surrounded by supporters. When questioned, Anne gave inconsistent, evasive answers, and an apparently poor performance, and the judges went away unimpressed, with serious doubts about the truth of her allegations. By arranging this—admittedly unethical—pre-trial encounter, Hinton played an important role in its outcome, and was instrumental in saving the lives of two innocent women.[27] In examining Thomas Hinton’s apparent confidence in airing his doubts, as opposed to the general atmosphere of paranoia found at Salem, it seems significant that Anne had focused her accusations on the same few women; there was never any suggestion that others might be implicated. There was no general panic in North Moreton. Brian Gunter had a particular agenda and he stuck to it; given his “outsider” status in North Moreton, it is interesting to speculate on how far the matter would have proceeded had his targets not been extremely unpopular members of the community whom no one was likely to defend.
     On March 1, 1605, Elizabeth Gregory and Mary Pepwell  appeared at the Court of the Assizes at Abingdon for trial. In England, witchcraft’s status as a felony meant that such cases were tried in the secular courts, and presided over by experienced, senior judges. Expert witnesses for both sides were called from the College of Physicians in London, and a great many medical opinions were heard during the daylong proceedings. Brian Gunter found himself out of his depth, particularly in light of the judges’ prior knowledge of Hinton’s observations. He insisted that Anne be brought into court, where he duly put her through her paces for the benefit of the assembly. The judges were again unimpressed by her performance, and—perhaps sensing that he was losing ground—Gunter overplayed his hand. Drawing upon the Throckmorton case one more time, he demanded that Elizabeth Gregory read a “certain charm” aloud. This was clearly a reference to the Warboys trial, in which an accused witch, “Mother Samuel,” was compelled to read what was essentially a confession that she had bewitched one of the Throckmorton daughters, whereupon the afflicted girl’s torments immediately ceased. This had been considered damning evidence in 1593, and was instrumental in sending the old woman to her execution. Unfortunately for Brian Gunter’s purposes, he caused a commotion, objecting that Gregory “saith it not right” and that it must be read again; at the court’s refusal, he became incensed that “he had not the justice Mr. Throckmorton had.” This proved a prophetic statement, since after eight hours the judges ruled that Gregory and Pepwell were innocent, and they were duly acquitted of all charges. [28]
     This should have put an end to the matter, but Anne Gunter’s symptoms persisted. In Salem, the ongoing affliction of the girls even after the witches had been convicted and hanged led to more accusations and executions. In England, without any new allegations, the ecclesiastical authorities became involved. Henry Cotton, bishop of Salisbury, had heard of the case and went to examine the girl, after which Anne was taken to stay at his residence, where she was kept under close observation. Away from home, Anne’s fits were apparently less convincing, and several members of the bishop’s household believed she was counterfeiting. Two female servants observed her hiding pins so that she might “by some sleight or other with her finger” manage to vomit or sneeze them out for witnesses, and when directly confronted she broke down and confessed that she had been acting all along. Anne told the women that her father coerced her into claiming that Elizabeth Gregory had bewitched her, because of the “variances and great trouble” between their families. When urged to take her story to the bishop, however, Anne demurred, fearing that by doing so she would cause her father to lose his lands and reputation and “so be undone.”
     In the event, Brian Gunter proved his own worst enemy. In the summer of 1605, King James stopped at Oxford on a royal progress, and Gunter arranged an interview for his “afflicted” daughter. Presumably he meant to elicit sympathy from the witch-hunting sovereign, possibly in the hope of receiving compensation, or even reopening the case against Pepwell and Gregory. Additionally, a royal audience might go some way towards rehabilitating his standing in a community where he had been made to look rather foolish. Whatever Brian Gunter’s motivation, presenting Anne at court was a serious misstep, especially when she had aroused so many suspicions and even—although unbeknownst to her father—admitted her deception to at least two people. While James I was a firm believer in witchcraft, he had no patience for false accusations or trickery in these matters, feeling that such trickery distracted attention from the real dangers. At the time of his visit to Oxford he was in a skeptical mood, having recently dealt with a fraudulent cleric who claimed to be able to preach divinely inspired sermons in his sleep, despite being pinched by demons all the while. [29]
     The details of Anne’s first meeting with James are not recorded, but soon afterwards she was placed in the care of the archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft, and his chaplain, Samuel Harsnett, who were instructed to investigate further. Both were known to be skeptical of such claims, and under questioning Anne reiterated her earlier confession, adding lurid details of threats and even violence used against her during her ordeal, including the administration of “sack and sallet oil” to make her vomit, and doses of “green water” (probably the same green glass vial given to Alice Kirfoote by the local cunning woman) which provoked “great rages” followed by a loss of consciousness.[30] She insisted that she had wished to stop the pretence, but that her father would by no means allow it, and claimed that she had been deeply depressed and even suicidal by the time she left for Salisbury. Upon these reports, the king sent for her in the autumn of 1605, at which point she revealed the whole business, but only when assured of his “making up what damages should accrue from this discovery.” It is impressive that a young woman in Anne’s position would negotiate with her sovereign in such a way, and illustrates her deeply ingrained sense of duty to her father, despite terrible abuse at his hands. Admittedly, filial respect was often mingled with fear in this period, but one would imagine that fear of her king would be rather greater, especially in the circumstances.[31]
     By the time the Salem witch trials came to an end, twenty people had been executed and over one hundred and fifty arrested, a number of whom—including the outspoken and quick-tempered Sarah Osborne—died during their imprisonment. Even after the general pardon of May 1693, many remained behind bars due to the inability to pay their prison fees. Some of those falsely accused made supplications to the court, for the rehabilitation of their reputations in the community as often as for financial reimbursement, which was extremely long in coming. For the most part, the judges who had sent those convicted to their deaths issued only regretful excuses: they had suffered “mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness,” which caused them to “ignorantly and unwittingly…bring upon [themselves]…the guilt of innocent blood.” A fast was declared on January 14, 1697, as an official show of penitence for the sins of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, including “the late tragedy raised among us by Satan and his instruments.” On the same day, one of the trial judges, Samuel Sewall, issued a formal apology, which appeared to be motivated at least in part by the fear of divine retribution by having his sin “visit[ed]…upon himself or any of his.” [32]
     As for the girls who had brought the accusations, they incurred no official penalties. Whatever qualms of conscience they suffered privately, once the furor had died down the majority of them resumed their ordinary lives. Many for whom records survive eventually married and moved away from Salem. The only one of the accusers to offer an actual apology was Anne Putnam, Jr., one of the few who lived her whole life in Salem Village. Upon being officially received into the church in 1706, Putnam asked Joseph Green, the minister who had replaced Samuel Parris, to read a statement in which she confessed to being “instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood.” This recurring theme of the unwitting shedding of “innocent blood” is a compelling bit of moral buck-passing. Even when fatally mistaken, Puritan New Englanders seem to have been incapable of admitting personal responsibility for simple wrongdoing; in a similar vein, Putnam makes the point that the whole misunderstanding was due to “a great delusion of Satan.”[33]
     This evasion of personal responsibility—to say nothing of the absence of legal ramifications—is fascinating, especially when contrasted with the repercussions for Brian Gunter in the wake of Anne’s confession. False witchcraft accusations were not taken lightly in Jacobean England, and the king had taken a particular interest in this case. In February 1606, Brian Gunter found himself before the Star Chamber at Westminster, with his daughter as the crown’s prime witness against him. Despite Anne’s by now numerous confessions, Gunter clung to his story that Elizabeth Gregory had bewitched the girl, and over sixty witnesses—including prominent physicians who had examined her—testified on his behalf. Rather surprisingly, many of the hitherto unpopular man’s supporters were from North Moreton. It would appear that either the village had taken a sudden liking to Brian Gunter or—alas, more likely—Goodwife Gregory’s temperament was unimproved by a winter in prison, and given a choice between one unpleasant neighbor and another, Gunter was the lesser of two evils.[34]
     As so often with the stories of “ordinary” people in this period, the Gunters’ adventures ended with a question mark: the verdict in Brian Gunter’s case is either lost or undiscovered. In light of his daughter’s influential supporters and detailed confession, it seems likely that a guilty verdict was returned, in which case he would likely have been given some financial penalty. Since records show that he returned to North Moreton, where he remained until his death—continuing to pursue occasional minor litigation—we can assume that any punishment he may have received was not especially severe. His daughter’s fortunes are uncertain. While in the custody of the archbishop, Anne had met and fallen in love with one of his servants, named only as Asheley, whom she apparently hoped to marry, and there are references to the king approving the match and providing a dowry. Whether this happened is never confirmed; Anne Gunter had her brief hour upon the stage and then was heard no more. The great irony of this case is that one man’s concerted effort to use the beliefs of his time to pursue a personal vendetta was subverted by the very legal system he sought to manipulate for his purposes. Furthermore, that system not only prevented the original injustice (the executions of the accused witches), but went on to hold the would-be perpetrator accountable after the fact. Although Anne Gunter was—at least at first—a willing accomplice to this plan, she escaped official censure by admitting her part in the deception. Contrast this with Salem Village’s habit of sparing the lives of those confessing to crimes they had not committed while convicting those who maintained their innocence, and it is clear that there were very different views about what constituted “justice” or even “truth” on either side of the Atlantic.
     To what factors can we attribute these perceptible differences in procedure in the old England versus the new? Especially striking is the relative “modernity” of the English proceedings weighed against those in Salem, despite the fact that they occurred almost a century earlier. To be sure, Jacobean England had the benefit of a strong, centralized government and well-established legal structure, whereas late seventeenth-century Massachusetts was dealing with the far-reaching administrative repercussions of the “Glorious Revolution,” including the deposition of their governor, revocation of their charter, and suspension of many normal legislative functions until the arrival of the new governor.[35] But something more elemental than issues of government seems at play here. The religious convictions of many New England settlers were so rigid as to make them unwilling or unable to coexist peacefully alongside those with differing beliefs. Those early colonists who left England for Holland—where they couldn’t get along with Anabaptists and the like—before turning to America did so in response to what they considered the excessively permissive attitude towards religion in their native country. These feelings of disapproval must have carried over to the treatment of supernatural matters, attitudes that were surely strengthened by the immense geographical distance between Massachusetts and England. Seen in this light, what appears a reasonably rational spirit of inquiry and doubt in the prosecution of suspected witches to a modern reader would have seemed dangerously lenient to a second or even third generation resident of Puritan New England. Whereas the majority of early modern English people seem to have accepted the existence of Satan and the associated risks to the Christian soul as part of the human experience, the Puritans of Salem Village placed him at the center of it, with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.







[1] James Sharpe, The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Deception, Witchcraft, Murder and the King of England (Routledge: New York, NY, 2001) 44.
[2] Sharpe 34-5.
[3] Sharpe 46.
[4] Witchcraft and Magic in Medieval Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, ed. (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2002) 102.
[5] Cotton Mather, “A Discourse on Witches,” Witchcraft in Europe 1400-1700: A Documentary History, ed. Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2001) 368.
[6] Frances Hill, A Delusion of Satan (New York: Doubleday, 1995) 25.
[7] James VI, Daemonologie, in “King James VI and I: Selected Writings,” Neil Rhodes, Jennifer Richards, Joseph Marshall ed.(Aldershot, England: Ashgate 2003) 159.
[8] Sharpe 116.
[9] Sharpe 45.
[10] Sharpe 87.
[11] Joseph Klaits, Servants of Satan: The Age of the Witch Hunts (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1985) 90.
[12] Pamela Allen Brown, Better A Shrew Than a Sheep: Women, Drama, and the Culture of Jest in Early Modern England (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 2003) 60.
[13] Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed: the Social Origins of Witchcraft (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England), 192-4.
[14] Sharpe 53.
[15] Brown 40.
[16] Sharpe 16.
[17] Joseph Stutt, Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 2nd Edition (London: Methuen & Co.1903) 94
[18] Sharpe 18.
[19] Sharpe 78.
[20] Ankarloo and Clark, 94.
[21] Hill 19-20.
[22] Sharpe 60.
[23] Sharpe 127.
[24] Ankarloo and Clark 126.
[25] Sharpe 113-14.
[26] Hill 100.
[27] Sharpe 113-14.
[28] Sharpe 135.
[29] Sharpe 173.
[30] Sharpe 9.
[31] Sharpe 185.
[32] Hill 207.
[33] Hill 215.
[34] Sharpe 192.
[35] Boyer and Nissenbaum 61.

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