On the morning of August 19, 1692, in the village of Boxford, Massachusetts, my collateral or putative ancestor Rebecca Eames was arrested and taken in chains to the town of Salem, fifteen miles away, to be interrogated in the presence of three young women purported in the indictment to have been afflicted, tortured, consumed, wasted and tormented in sundry acts of witchcraft performed by the spectral body of Rebecca Eames. She had also been observed consorting with the Devil, a short, dark-complected man wearing a black hat and carrying a book under his arm. Her response to the questions put to her that Friday afternoon was taken down in writing by a local tailor recruited more for his nimble fingers than for his ability to construe a sentence. Rebecca said that for two or three months she had been in the snare of the Devil—and the tailor, whose name was Ezekiel Cheever, wrote it down—the Devil, who appeared to her not as a man but as a small, ugly black horse; she knew not but that he might come once a day as a mouse or a rat; she knew not but that he persuaded her to follow his wicked ways and renounce God and Christ; she knew not but that she gave him soul and body, but she would not own that she had been baptized by him. She said, and the tailor wrote it down, that she had afflicted Mary Warrin and Timothy Swan by sticking of pins, but would not own that she had signed the Devil’s book when he would have had her do it, although when the magistrate asked, Did not the Devil threaten to tear you in pieces? she answered, Yes, he threatened to tear me in pieces.
The escort for the transportation of witches would often be a pair of constables cautioned by the sheriff to avoid eye contact with witchly prisoners, who might immobilize them with a glance; escorts were equipped with manacles and chain to prevent prisoners from causing tormenting effects at a distance by waving their hands; and they carried muskets with powder and ball to ward off Indian war parties. Rebecca Eames was fifty- one years old and the mother of six living children. We imagine her family fearful and thrown into despair by her arrest, but unsurprised; in mere months 160 women and children, forty men and two dogs had been accused as witches; from the 157 persons dragged into the court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem, forty- four confessions were extracted and thirty death sentences pronounced.
The first to die had been Goodwife Bridget Bishop, accused by twenty-three persons of causing illness and death, biting and choking at a distance and forcing people to sign the Devil’s book; as noted by the Reverend Cotton Mather of Boston in books written by himself and his colleagues, she refused to confess even in the face of such convincing evidence against her. I am no witch, she said, and the tailor Ezekiel Cheever wrote it down; I am innocent, I know nothing of it. She was taken in a cart to Gallows Hill and hanged with a bag over her head from the oak tree at the top of the bluff. Two days later, the Wabanaki with their French allies renewed their attacks in the north, confirming in the words of the Reverend Mather that an army of devils had been set upon the firstborn English settlement suffering the effects of “horrible witchcrafts.”
In July, six women convicted for consorting with the Devil (described variously as a dark man, a dark man in black, a man in a black hat), and signing his book, were hanged one at a time from branches of the same oak tree at Gallows Hill, each being led or carried up the ladder and then pushed off the rungs to swing in the air. When they had all stopped breathing, their bodies were taken down and thrown into pits improvised among the rocks. Today, the Friday of Rebecca’s arrest, five more witches were scheduled for hanging at noon in Salem: a woman and five men, one of whom had been a sheriff’s constable until he refused to arrest accused witches.
Salem lay three hours away from Boxford by horse and wagon. Did one of the constables in Rebecca’s escort try to hold back the horse or horses in order to spare the feelings of their prisoner? Or did the other one, perhaps wishing to see everything that would happen at Gallows Hill, apply the whip? In either case, the wagon rolled along the Andover Road with its heavy burden, quickly or slowly, through the bucolic landscape of field, farm, village and the distant dark edge of the forest within which lay the Devil and his dark Aboriginal minions. Rebecca Eames had lived all her life in this land, given to the Puritan English by God in a covenant, the terms of which remained obscure after three generations of war and the extermination of the Pequod people, the destruction of the Wampanoags, and the devastation of the Narragansetts; yet nothing had been secured to God’s people, and now a plague of witches threatened to devour their souls. Such were the forces sweeping Rebecca Eames, my collateral or putative ancestor, to her fate in Salem.
As they entered Salem by the Town Bridge, Rebecca and her escort were met by a crowd or a mob of men and women on foot and horseback that surged noisily up the road; in their midst was the death cart carrying the newly condemned: four men and a woman all standing upright with their hands fastened behind their backs. Many in the crowd or mob were shouting and offering verbal torment. The Reverend Cotton Mather in his black coat and hat rode among them on horseback; he had travelled from Boston to witness the death of George Burroughs, a pastor and convener of the Hellish Rendezvous—in the words of the Reverend Mather—whose spectre had promised Martha Carrier, the single woman in the cart, described by the Reverend Mather as the Rampant Hag, that she should be the queen of hell.
Rebecca Eames’s escorts were in one mind about what course to take: they lifted her down from the wagon and installed her in her chains in the rear of Goody MacCarter’s house at the bottom of the hill. Then they ran out to observe the gruesome scene. After the hanging, when all five bodies were swinging from the arms of the oak tree, the Reverend Mather harangued the crowd from his position high on horseback, and Goody MacCarter felt a needle run into her foot. She was standing a short distance away from Rebecca Eames. In the interrogation that followed in the afternoon, the magistrate asked Rebecca Eames if she had seen the executions, and the tailor wrote down that she said she had seen a few folk, and the woman of the house had a pin stuck in her foot, the tailor wrote, but she said that she did not do it. (A look through the Salem Witchcraft Papers held online by the University of Virgina Library reveals that the tailor Ezekiel Cheever had been the accuser of two people who were hanged that day: George Burroughs and Martha Carrier.) The magistrates ordered Rebecca Eames into the dungeon of Salem Prison, a dank, lightless pit where she was chained to the wall alongside the other accused witches, one of whom, Dorcas Good, was four years old; she had been imprisoned in March after her accusers fell into seizures under her gaze.
Rebecca Eames passed eleven days in Salem Prison, where, as she claimed in a petition later made to the governor, she was harried out of her senses by her accusers “mocking of me and spitting in my face saying they knew me to be a witch and if I would not confess I would be very speedily hanged,” before she was able to provide an improved version of her confession. On August 31 she acknowledged and declared in words written down by the tailor Ezekiel Cheever that she had been baptized three years earlier by the Devil at Five Mile Pond, and her son Daniel, who had been a wizard for thirteen years, was also then baptized, and she had been a witch these twenty-six years. She named Toothaker Widow and Abigail Faulkner, both of whom had already been charged, as sister witches. And the Devil, she confirmed now, had appeared to her as the magistrate had originally suggested: in black, as he had appeared to the other witches, and the Devil required that she sign a paper, which she did by making a black mark. She signed the confession written down in her name by Ezekiel Cheever by placing her mark on the paper:
No record exists of the trial of Rebecca Eames at the Court of Oyer and Terminer on September 17, at which she was sentenced to death; nor do records exist for the trials of the other fourteen people condemned in that month. The indictments and the interrogations recorded by Ezekiel Cheever and other clerks are the only documents that survive.
Rebecca Eames lay in prison for many months awaiting execution, while eight more people were hanged as witches and one man was pressed to death (over a period of three days) under heavy stones. Her readiness to make a proper confession probably saved her life, as confessed witches were often kept alive in the expectation that they might help secure new convictions. She was also spared the further tortures suffered by many who insisted on their innocence (such has having one’s ankles fastened to the back of the neck until “the blood runs from the nose”).
In January the governor put an end to the trials after his wife began to appear in the dreams of some of the bewitched. Those who could pay their lodging charges went home; those who couldn’t remained in jail. Seventeen years later, refunds were paid to some of the victims, and Rebecca Eames sent one of her sons to Boston to take back the ten pounds that she had paid for her imprisonment. Some of the accusers blamed the Devil for having set them on a false path. One of the judges made a public apology. No one was reprimanded. In 1957 the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill clearing the names of the convicted, with the condition that the state be absolved of obligation to their descendants. Sometime during the twentieth century, Salem, Massachusetts named itself the Halloween Capital of America.
In the book he wrote about events in Salem, the Reverend Cotton Mather— rather like George W. Bush pondering the weapons of mass destruction— doubts that anything could “be more Unaccountable, than the Trick which the Witches have, to render themselves and their Tools Invisible.” One would wonder, he wrote, how the Evil Spirits themselves can do some things: especially the “Invisibilizing of the Grossest Bodies.”