August 15 (August 5, o.s.)

Massachusetts: The Court of Oyer and Terminer meets in Salem Town for the trial of George Burroughs, the clergyman who has in many ways been at the heart of the witchcraft crisis.  Burroughs was minister in Salem Village from 1680 through 1683, when he left to return to his former congregation in Maine.  He was first accused of witchcraft by Ann Putnam on April 20, formally charged on April 30, brought to Salem on May 4, and questioned on May 9.  He was then held in jail until being indicted by the grand jury on August 3.  Given his prominence, the courtroom is packed with spectators for his trial.  Among the attendees are Governor William Phips; the prominent Boston ministers Increase Mather and his son Cotton; the former Salem Village minister Deodat Lawson; and John Hale, minister in Beverley.  Cotton Mather in particular has come prepared to pay close attention to the proceedings, as Governor Phips has asked him to include an account of Burroughs’s trial in his forthcoming book on the witchcraft crisis.

Unlike most of the defendants tried by the court so far, Burroughs is intent on mounting a vigorous defense, and he shows his attitude before the trial even begins, during the selection of the jury.  He exercises his right to reject jurors extensively, and it is some time before a jury that satisfies him is sworn in.

Once the matter of the jury is out of the way, the trial itself begins.  Prosecutor Anthony Checkley follows the standard procedure in trials before the court in the order in which he presents his evidence, beginning with the testimony of the afflicted girls.  As has been typical in other trials, these witnesses are unable to testify without also being stricken with fits and visions giving further evidence of the guilt of the accused; among other accusations, they claim Burroughs is biting them spectrally and show bite marks on their bodies as proof.  They also claim to see the ghosts of people accusing Burroughs of murdering them, including his two deceased wives and the wife and daughter of Deodat Lawson.  The girls have mentioned these spectral accusations before, but they now present them in a particularly spectacular fashion, so much so that the judges decide to test them by removing them from the room after some of their fits and asking them separately what they saw.  Their stories match, and the judges are satisfied, though Burroughs is appalled and insists that he sees nothing.

Checkley next calls the confessors to the stand.  They give extensive details of Burroughs’s leadership of the witches at secret meetings in Salem Village, where he administered diabolic sacraments to the others and exhorted them to overturn God’s kingdom in New England and replace it with Satan’s.  The martial imagery, including drums and trumpets, of these gatherings in the confessors’ accounts is striking.

The next witnesses Checkley calls are people who knew Burroughs in Maine and tell stories of his prodigious, even superhuman physical strength.  He is a small man, but there are many stories of his physical feats, including holding a seven-foot gun out with one hand like a pistol and carrying around a full barrel of molasses by the bunghole with his fingers.  Although some of these stories are attributed to conversations with Burroughs in which he boasted of his strength, none involves an actual eyewitness account of one of the feats in question.

Checkley finishes by calling people who attest to Burroughs’s personal character and treatment of his wives, which is widely reputed to be very bad.  Several people testify about his mistreatment of his first wife, Hannah, in Salem Village and his second wife, Sarah, there and in Maine, including reports that he tried to force Hannah to sign a document swearing that she wouldn’t reveal any of his secrets and that he frightened Sarah so much that she was afraid to write to her father telling him how he was treating her.  Sarah’s brother testifies that after she complained about George to him on the way back from picking strawberries one time, George somehow knew what she had said and, after criticizing her for it, said to her “My god makes known your thoughts unto me.”  These suggestions of occult knowledge that must be kept secret are at least as damning as the reports of Burroughs’s mistreatment of his wives, and they tie in with other testimony about strange happenings around his house in Maine.

When presented with all this testimony against him, Burroughs is frequently caught off guard.  When Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, chief justice of the court, asks him to explain who he thinks is causing the fits that prevent the afflicted girls from giving testimony against him, he replies that it could be the Devil, giving Stoughton the opening to ask “How comes the Devil so loath to have any testimony borne against you?”  Burroughs, clearly not expecting this follow-up, has no coherent answer.  When asked about the stories of him holding out a long gun with one hand he says that there was an Indian there too holding up the other end, which contradicts all the other witnesses’ accounts but reminds the judges, jury and spectators of the confessors’ frequent descriptions of the Devil as appearing in a form very like an Indian.  Again, when asked to explain the testimony of his brother-in-law about his apparent diabolical eavesdropping he has nothing to say to exonerate himself.

When Checkley finishes his case and Burroughs’s turn to present his prepared defense comes, he hands a paper to the jury.  In it he makes the startling argument that he can’t be a witch because witches don’t even exist.  Burroughs has in the past agreed that witches exist and are the cause of the current troubles in Essex County, but he now seems to be changing his mind.  When the paper is read aloud the judges immediately recognize the argument as taken straight from a book by the English theologian Thomas Ady arguing that belief in witches has no basis in scripture and is therefore wrong.  They ask Burroughs about this and he says that he didn’t take any of the statement from books but rather cites “a gentleman” who gave him “a manuscript” from which he transcribed some of it.  The judges find this excuse flimsy and decide that Burroughs is just lying about where he got his arguments, another example of his unscrupulous nature.

After the mounds of evidence produced by Checkley and the feeble defense offered by Burroughs, the jury quickly comes up with a verdict: guilty.  With this important trial complete, the court adjourns, ending its third session.

Published in: on August 15, 2008 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

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