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06 September 2005

notes, and historian's introduction to Thomas Brattle's 1692 witchcraft hysteria letter


From that April day when Mr. Lawson closed his account it was long before another eye-witness undertook a narrative. Yet great things were doing. At Salem accusation and hearing went on apace, and the jails grew crowded, awaiting the session of a court. On May 14 arrived from England President Increase Mather, bringing the new charter, and with him the new governor, Sir William Phips. What the governor thought of the emergency and how he dealt with it we shall presently learn from his own pen. But other pens were earlier busy. Perhaps the most notable was that of Thomas Brattle, who early in October addressed the following letter to some clerical correspondent. Who this divine may have been whose questions the letter answers is unknown: our document is not the original, but a copy without superscription, and from its contents we can infer no more than that he lived or had lived in the colony. But Thomas Brattle we know well. "He was," wrote President Leverett of Harvard at his death, "a gentleman by his birth and education of the first order in this country." Born at Boston, in 1658, of wealthy parentage, a graduate and a master of arts of Harvard, then a traveller and a student abroad, he won such distinction as a mathematician, and notably as an astronomer, as to be made a member of the Royal Society, and was in close touch with the world of scholars; but his career was that of an opulent and cultivated Boston merchant, and for twenty years, from 1693 to his death in 1713, he was treasurer of Harvard College. "In the Church," said of him the Boston News-Letter, "he was known and valued for his Catholick Charity to all of the reformed Religion, but more especially his great Veneration for the Church of England, although his general and more constant communion was with the Nonconformists." In other words, he was of the liberal party in religion and politics, an eminent opponent of the Puritan theocracy, and he did not escape the epithets "apostate" and "infidel."

The letter here printed did not see print in his own day; but that the present copy exists suggests that it may have been meant to circulate in manuscript,[43] and it is not impossible that it was even written for that purpose. Yet if so, we may be sure it was used with discretion. It was his grand-nephew, the then well-known Thomas Brattle, Esq., of Cambridge, who late in the eighteenth century communicated it to the Massachusetts Historical Society.[44] From that manuscript copy it is here reprinted.


Burr, George Lincoln, 1857-1938. "Letter of Thomas Brattle, F.R.S., 1692"; from Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

"Letter of Thomas Brattle, F. R. S., 1692"; from Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706
Burr, George Lincoln, 1857-1938
Creation of machine-readable version: Apex Data Services, Inc.

Conversion to TEI.2-conformant markup: Apex Data Services and the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center. ca. 65 kilobytes

This version available from the University of Virginia Library
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Publicly accessible


copyright 1998, by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

"Letter of Thomas Brattle, F. R. S., 1692"
Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706

Burr, George Lincoln, 1857-1938
Source copy consulted:

Prepared for the University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center.

Published: 1692

English nonfiction prose masculine LCSH Revisions to the electronic version
December 1998 corrector Stephen Ramsay, Electronic Text Center Commercial use prohibited; all usage governed by our Conditions of Use:



[45]. Bartholomew Gedney.

[46]. Captain John Alden, of Boston, son of the John Alden of the Mayflower and of Longfellow's poem. For Alden's own account of this episode see pp. 353-355, below.

[47]. I. e., Salem gentlemen -- and so hereafter.

[48]. Marvel, am surprised.

[49]. Nicholas Noyes.

[50]. He means, of course, the judges.

[51]. The names presently mentioned would seem to show that he has especially in mind the executions of August 19, and his words suggest that he was present on this occasion. Those then executed, besides John Proctor and John Willard, were the Rev. George Burroughs, George Jacobs, and Martha Carrier. For two other accounts of their death, both perhaps by eye-witnesses, see below, pp. 360-364. But there had been executions also on June 10, July 19, and September 22.

[52]. Emotion, earnestness.

[53]. Cotton Mather.

[54]. Mrs. Margaret Thacher (1625-1694), widow of the Rev. Thomas Thacher (d. 1678), first minister of the Old South Church. She was the only child of the wealthy Boston merchant Henry Webb, and had been left by a first marriage the widow of Jacob Sheafe, then the richest man in Boston.

[55]. Jonathan Corwin, of Salem.

[56]. Hezekiah Usher (1639-1697), a prominent Boston merchant.

[57]. Doubtless Joseph Lynde (1637-1727), of Charlestown -- since June a member of the Council under the new Mather charter.

[58]. Mrs. Nathaniel Cary, of Charlestown. See pp. 349-352.

[59]. Philip English, of Salem. See p. 371 and note 1.

[60]. John Alden, of Boston. See p. 170, note 2.

[61]. I. e., to New York.

[62]. I. e., capital cases.

[63]. New England.

[64]. Mrs. Obinson was probably the wife of William Obinson, or Obbinson, a Boston tanner.

[65]. Increase Mather.

[66]. Mrs. Joseph Ballard. See below, pp. 371-372; and, for more as to this Andover episode, pp. 241-244, 418-420. The records of the Andover cases are printed by Woodward in his Records of Salem Witchcraft (Roxbury, 1864), and there are chapters on the episode in Abiel Abbot's History of Andover (Andover, 1829) and Sarah Loring Bailey's Historical Sketches of Andover (Boston, 1880).

[67]. Dudley Bradstreet. See p. 372.

[68]. Stevens? The conjecture is Mrs. Bailey's (Historical Sketches of Andover, 228).

[*] You may possibly think that my terms are too severe; but should I tell you what a kind of Blade was employed in bringing these women to their confession; what methods from damnation were taken; with what violence urged; how unseasonably they were kept up; what buzzings and chuckings of the hand were used, and the like, I am sure that you would call them, (as I do), rude and barbarous methods. [Marginal note in the original.]

[69]. What Brattle may mean by "methods from damnation" is a puzzle to the editor. Perhaps "damnation" is only a euphemism for "hell." Possibly he thinks of that clause in the Massachusetts laws (Body of Liberties of 1641, art. 45; Lawes and Libertyes, 1660, p. 67; 1672, p. 129) which permits a prisoner "in some capital case, when he is first fully convicted by clear and sufficient evidence to be guilty," to be tortured for the discovery of his accomplices, yet not with such tortures as are barbarous and inhuman. What he means by "buzzings and chuckings of the hand," i. e., whisperings and wheedlings, will grow clear if one turn to pp. 374-376, and read what these Andover women themselves tell of the methods used with them.

[70]. A mode of divination much in vogue in New England as in Old. Called also "sieve and shears" or "riddle and shears": the learned name is coscinomancy.

[71]. "The Groton woman" was Elizabeth Knapp, and the "account in print" probably that of Increase Mather reprinted above, pp. 21-23, though possibly Willard's sermon (see p. 21, note 4) is meant.

[72]. William Stoughton, the new lieutenant-governor. He had been educated for the ministry in the Harvard class of 1650, and went to England, where he preached for some ten years, receiving meanwhile at Oxford his mastership in arts and the honor of a fellowship; but, ejected at the Restoration, he returned to New England, and there, though counted an able preacher, declined a settlement and drifted into public life. He seems to have set store by his learning in theology, and to the end to have maintained the Devil's impotence to personate by a spectre any but a guilty witch. As to his career see the careful study by Sibley, in his Harvard Graduates (I. 194-208).

[73]. See p. 355. Richards, Sargent, Sewall, Winthrop, were of Boston; Stoughton of Dorchester, close by. Only Gedney was of Salem, till Corwin was called in to replace Saltonstall (who was of Haverhill).

[74]. As to all these see below, pp. 360-374.

[75]. The General Court. It convened on October 12. Its attitude as to the Salem trials is thus tersely intimated in Judge Sewall's diary: "Oct. 26, 1692. A Bill is sent in about calling a Fast and Convocation of Ministers, that [we] may be led in the right way as to the Witchcrafts. The season and manner of doing it, is such, that the Court of Oyer and Terminer count themselves thereby dismissed. 29 Nos and 33 yeas to the Bill." The bill itself has been printed (from the Mass. Archives, XI. 70) by G. H. Moore, in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (n. s., II. 172); and that those of Brattle's mind had not relied alone on prayer to influence the assembly may be seen by the petition printed in the N. E. Hist. and Gen. Register, XXVII. 55, and in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, n. s., V. 246 (see also Proceedings, n. s., II. 171).

[76]. The ministers, now practically the only "elders."

[77]. It has been generally assumed, and with reason, that this "Rev'd person" was the Rev. Samuel Willard. Three of the judges (Sargent, Sewall, and Winthrop) were members of his church (the Old South), and, unless one suspect Brattle of intent to mislead, "spiritual relation" must here mean a pastor's. The phrase "good affection to the country" suggests, too, one who, like Willard, shared Brattle's political views. We have seen already (p. 23) what caution in 1671 he used in the case of Elizabeth Knapp; and, if the "notions and proposals" meant by Brattle are now lost, we have from his pen what puts his position in 1692 beyond all question -- a little dialogue, published anonymously while the troubles were at their height, which with fairness and courtesy, but with striking clearness and boldness, argues against the iniquity of the procedure. Its title runs: Some Miscellany Observations on our Present Debates respecting Witchcrafts, in a Dialogue between S. and B. By P. E. and J. A. Philadelphia, Printed by William Bradford, for Hezekiah Usher. 1692. "S." and "B." undoubtedly mean Salem and Boston. Philadelphia and Bradford probably had as little to do with the book (the type is not Bradford's) as did Hezekiah Usher, P. E. (Philip English), or J. A. (John Alden), three notable fugitives from Salem justice. All alike were merely remote enough to bear in safety the imputation of such a book. John Alden and Hezekiah Usher were members of Willard's church; and Philip English and his wife he visited while in custody at Boston, and probably was a party to their escape. At least the Rev. William Bentley, of Salem, recording in his diary, May 21, 1793, what their great-granddaughter Susanna Hathorne had told him, relates that Willard and Moodey "visited them and invited them to the public worship on the day before they were to return to Salem for trial. Their text was that they that are persecuted in one city, let them flee to another. After Meeting the Ministers visited them at the Gaol, and asked them whether they took notice of the discourse, and told them their danger and urged them to escape since so many had suffered. Mr. English replied, `God will not permit them to touch me.' Mrs. English said: `Do you not think the sufferers innocent?' He (Moody) said `Yes.' She then added, `Why may we not suffer also?' The Ministers then told him if he would not carry his wife away they would." (Quoted by R. D. Paine, in his Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, from Bentley's privately printed diary, which seems to give the tale in a more primitive form than his letter to Alden, in the Mass. Hist. Soc., Collections, X.) "It ought never to be forgotten," said Willard's colleague, Ebenezer Pemberton, preaching in 1707 his funeral sermon, "with what Prudence, Courage and Zeal he appeared for the Good of this People in that Dark and Mysterious Season when we were assaulted from the Invisible World. And how singularly Instrumental he was in discovering the Cheats and Delusions of Satan, which did threaten to stain our Land with Blood and to deluge it with all manner of Woes." True, Judge Sewall, mentioning in 1696 (Diary, I. 433) Willard's sermon at the day of public prayer, says that he spake smartly "at last" about the Salem witchcraft; but "at last" here means "at the end," "as the peroration of his sermon." It is clearly Willard whom Cotton Mather has especially in mind when in his life of Phips and again in his Magnalia (bk. II., p. 62) he sets forth the views of those "who from the beginning were very much dissatisfied with these proceedings," having "already known of one at the Town of Groton" who had falsely accused a neighbor. The strange suggestion of W. F. Poole that Brattle here means Cotton Mather himself, is adequately answered by Upham, in his Salem Witchcraft and Cotton Mather.

[78]. The paper meant is doubtless that printed at pp. 374-375, below.

[79]. The attempt of Louis XIV to force his Protestant subjects to abandon their faith by turning loose his dragoons upon them had already furnished the English language with this new word.


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