Mofford Speaks on 1692 Witch Trials in Andover

Despite the fact that the town of Salem is most associated with the Witch hysteria of 1692, Andover actually contained the most accused witches of any New England town. On Tuesday evening, Director of Education and Research at the Andover Historical Society and renowned author Juliet Mofford spoke at the Peabody Museum about Andover’s involvement in the New England witch-hunts. Out of the 600 people in the town of Andover, 42 were charged with practicing witchcraft from 1692-193. The accused ranged from the ages of seven to 72 and included both females and males. The Salem tragedy occurred in a short burst of extreme violence – from January 1692 to January 1693 –within a limited geographical area. By the end of the trials, the courts had hanged 19 people for witchcraft. A number of factors incited the witch trials of 1692. Though trials had occurred prior to 1692, none had assumed such a large scale or had occurred simultaneously in so many districts. The New England clergy had noticed a “declining piety” since the Catholic King James II of England inherited the throne, and the trend continued even after the Protestant William of Orange had overthrown James II in 1688. Puritan society formed around religion, and the clergy worried what type of world would emerge without religious rules to govern it. The French and Indian Wars, fought by English colonists against the French and the Native Americans, were also a contributing factor to the trials. Most of the accused men had a direct connection to the war. Ms. Mofford said, “[The Americans] felt that even if they may not be winning in the French and Indian Wars, at least they were winning against the Devil.” Though Ms. Mofford acknowledged the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials, she argued that they “must be viewed in a cultural context.” The strict God-fearing Puritans who inhabited New England lived their lives according to the words of the Bible. Therefore, following the words of Exodus 22:18, “Though shalt not suffer a witch to live,” the Puritans believed that their mission was to exterminate all witches. According to Ms. Mofford, the accusations of witchcraft were unwarranted and the trials biased. The accused witches were usually either members of families in conflict, single women, women who refused to submit to men, or relatives of people previously accused of witchcraft. Often spurred by acquisitive family members, the victims’ accusers were young girls who claimed to have been visited by the spirits of alleged witches. During the defendants’ trials, the girls would fall into hysterical fits at the sight of the accused witches. Trials did not permit the defendant to have a lawyer, and courts accepted such “spectral evidence” as a basis for execution. If the “afflicted” girls ceased their fits after touching the accused, this spectral evidence was taken as proof of the defendant’s guilt. Thirty-nine of the 42 accused witches in Andover confessed to their guilt. Those who pled guilty and assisted the court in the search for other witches were not executed. Andover’s Reverend Francis Dane led the initial resistance against the witch hysteria. Dane’s movement intensified when an alleged witch accused the Governor of Massachusetts’s wife of practicing witchcraft. This challenge to colonial authority scared the upper class, and in January of 1693 the government terminated the trials. In the following months, the administration acknowledged their folly in not stopping the trials sooner, and Dane termed the government’s inaction “our sin of ignorance.” Ms. Mofford believes that the trials, along with their strong public support, are an “ongoing phenomena, not just some weird aberration of history, but [a time] when prejudice and fear triumph over reason.” Ms. Mofford has studied the Salem witch-hunts for 30 years. In 1995, she wrote Cry “Witch”—Salem 1692, and she recently received the Preservation Award for conserving the history of Andover.