Various explanations for the witch-hunt mania which gripped Western Europe have been put forward, with increasing religious hysteria and intense paranoia in the aftermath of the religious Reformation being one of the most convincing. It was not until the logic and rational thinking of the Enlightenment that witch mania began to subside. Before that time, however, this mass hysteria would expand from Western Europe to the English colonies in the New World. The most well-known of all the cases in the colonies being the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Yet, this was by no means the only case worthy of note.
Goody Glover and the Goodwin family
In 1688 in Boston there lived a family by the name of Goodwin. At its head was John, a “sober and pious man”, a Mason by trade and a father to six children. It was the eldest of these children, a daughter called Martha, who noticed that the family’s washerwoman had been stealing some of the household’s linen. She accused the woman of theft. However, little did the child know that this was no ordinary laundress: for she was the “daughter of an ignorant and scandalous old woman” called Goody Glover, a woman who was said to be a witch.
Soon after the accusation, the eldest Goodwin child fell seriously ill. Before too long, three of Martha’s siblings – a sister and two brothers – were seized by the same illness. Fits, beyond those of epilepsy, tortured the four children. Not only that, “Sometimes they would be Deaf, sometimes Dumb, and sometimes Blind, and often, all this at once. […] They would have their Mouths opened unto such a Wideness, that their Jaws went out of joint […] The same would happen to their Shoulder-Blades, and their Elbows, and Hand-wrists, and several of their joints.” Onlookers described how the children would at times lie in such bizarre positions that their bodies would be “stretched out, […] drawn Backwards, to such a degree that it was fear’d the very skin of their Bellies would have crack’d.” They would cry out, writhing in agony, screaming that they were being “cut with Knives, and struck with Blows that they could not bear.”
Naturally, John Goodwin and his wife were terrified for their children. Respected physicians were consulted for help. However, nothing could be done for their afflictions. According to the doctors, the cause of the inexplicable illnesses was the witchcraft of Goody Glover.
A religious family as they were, the Goodwins prayed for an end to the children’s sufferings. It was said that, after a day-long prayer vigil, the youngest of the children was delivered – their pain gone.
At this point, news of the calamities which had befallen the Goodwin family reached the ears of the local Magistrates. The elderly mother of the washerwoman, Goody Glover, was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft.
Glover stands trial for witchcraft
During the subsequent trial, an order was given to search the woman’s house. Suspicious items were recovered and brought into the court. These included “Several small Images, or Puppets, or Babies, made of Raggs, and stuff’t with Goat’s hair, and other such Ingredients.” When one of these objects was presented to the woman, no sooner had she taken it in her hand than one of the Goodwin children fell into a fit, before the whole assembly. By the end of the trial, the old woman confessed to being in league with the Devil. Although the court appointed five or six physicians to assess her mental state, they concluded that she was sane. She had not, through “folly and madness”, accidentally acquired herself the reputation of a witch. No – this woman was found to be the real thing – a Satanic witch. As such, a sentence of death was passed upon her.
Further accusations of witchcraft
In the days before her execution, another came forward to testify against the witch. The accuser, a woman by the name of Hughes, said that Glover, six years earlier, had caused the death of her neighbor. However, upon preparing her testimony, Hughes’ own son was taken seriously ill – much like the Goodwin children. Even from the confines of a prison cell, it seemed as though the witch’s deadly curse was spreading. Hughes’ son, “a fine” and healthy boy, said that he was visited by Glover in the night. He described how he had seen “a Black thing with a Blue Cap in the Room, Tormenting” him. The dark entity, he said, had even tried to rip his bowels from his body.
The next day the mother of the boy went to Glover in the prison and asked her why she tortured her son. The witch replied that she did it “because of wrong done to herself and her daughter”. She freely admitted that she had visited the boy the night before “As a black thing with a blue Cap” and with her hand had tried “to pull out the boys Bowels” but failed.
During her time in prison, the old woman was visited by the Puritan minister, Cotton Mather. He stated that she never once denied the guilt of her witchcraft. Rather, she appeared to revel in it. She is said to have detailed her night-time trysts with the Devil in which she prayed to a host of spirits. For this, on November 16th 1688, Goody Glover was hanged as a witch.
Whether or not Goody Glover was truly a witch will never be known. Was she punished for inflicting harm upon defenseless children? Or, was she targeted for a different reason? Indeed, in an account of her trial, it is stated that the woman refused to provide answers in anything but Irish – her native language – although it was said that she understood English “very well”. Not only that, but Glover was a Roman Catholic in a staunchly Puritan Protestant environment. The host of spirits which Glover said she prayed to could very well have been saints. Similarly, the dolls found in her home, believed to have been used for witchcraft by the court, might actually have been crude representations of Catholic saints. So, was this woman killed because she was a witch? Or, was she killed because the evil-doings of a heretical foreigner was the only way to explain the otherwise unexplainable illnesses of the Goodwin children? These, after all, were suspicious times. Prejudice of the Puritan mass against the Catholic minority was common. Arguably, it was all too easy to explain one’s problems away as the fault of a suspicious outsider. As such, many now consider Goody Glover a Catholic martyr.
The involvement and legacy of Cotton Mather
That we know so much about the case of the Goody Glover and the Goodwin children is largely thanks to Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister who visited Glover twice during her time in prison. He even took one of the Goodwin children home with him in order to observe and record their affliction.
Although Mather was a Fellow of the Royal Society, having studied at Harvard University, it is clear that his religious biases affected his judgement in this case. Regardless, his book on the subject was a bestseller, and was as such widely read and discussed throughout Puritan New England. In fact, the book was so widespread that it eventually made its way into the library of another Harvard educated Puritan minister. His name was Samuel Parris; a man who would soon enough find his hands soaked in the blood of those convicted of witchcraft in the village of Salem.