Tag Archives: Louise Butler

What Makes a Witch?

Susan North stood, shaking, in the Common House of Salem Village.  She shook so hard her clothes quivered.  Her life was at stake, and if she were not careful it could also be the life of her husband and child.  So, Susan shook with cold even while sweat stained her unadorned, brown, wool dress. 

It was hot in the room. 

The packed Common House had two stories with a door and two windows centered on all four sides of the split board, saltbox building.  It was overly warm from the summer heat and press of bodies but that did not keep cold fear from centering in the very core of Susan and those accused with her.  She had already seen Bridget Bishop hung and her dear friend, Rev. George Burroughs, die as well, even while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. 

William Stoughton sat in the center of the panel of judges and looked down at Susan with the pinched, disapproving look of a man who sees all women as vessels of the unclean.  He addressed no questions to the accused; it was assumed that whatever she said would be a lie.  His questions were instead addressed to the cluster of teen-age girls sitting in the front row of the meetinghouse—a place usually reserved for the most important and respected members of the village. 

The girls appeared more bored than engaged.  They would stir themselves soon, one or the other would begin a histrionic vision and the rest would join to a greater or lesser degree.  But for now, Ann Putnam picked at a fingernail, Abigail Warren was braiding the hair of Bette Parris and Deliverance Hobbs appeared to be staring out the window, but could have been nodding off as the warm sun hit her full in the face.  Mercy Warren was the only one paying attention to the judicial row.  This was to be her morning for questions, providing evidence against one more woman from her unhappy past, and it was she, if she so chose, who would provide the pre-arranged cue to the other girls to begin thrashing in spectral anguish.  All Mercy needed to do was say the words, “None of us want to see the vision of that great, black dog ever again.” and her friends would fall into screams, moans, and contortions. 

It is so simple, Mercy thought, to convince these silly, stupid adults that a witch was in their midst.  Mercy and her friends, bored, ignored, given little education and less respect, now controlled the life and death of every person in the village.  Such power was intoxicating.  And no one loved the heady feel of it more than Mercy Lewis, the orphan.

“You say you were afflicted, girl.  By whom?  Under what circumstances?  Who tempted you and how?”  Magistrate Stoughton was always harsh when addressing her and Mercy knew why.  She was a servant girl, living only at the pleasure and command of her distant kinsman, Thomas Putnam.  It was not lost on Mercy that the tone of the judge was more moderate and respectful when questioning Ann Putnam, Betty Parris or Mary Walcott.  Those girls had fathers with position and power.  They were called “child” in a warm and encouraging voice, not the cold, abrupt “girl.”

“Speak up, girl!”  Mercy flinched to hide her anger.

“I was afflicted, sir.  I hesitate only because I fear to see the same demon again.”  She hesitated, looking warily at her hands, which were clearly trembling.  Then she raised her head, in perfectly timed defiance of her fears.  “But I say it now, Sir, frightened though I am.  I was afflicted, tormented, and tempted by the Devil himself, and those that serve him.”
A rustle of concern moved across the crowded common room. 

“What form did these tormentors take?”

“It was last Lord’s Day, sir.  I was walking to this very House, to worship.  I was late, as I sometimes am, because of my household duties.”  She paused, but did not look at her employer, Thomas Putnam.

“We do not care about the reasons for your tardiness, girl.  Continue.”

“I am sorry, sir.  As I hurried to my worship, I saw a sky filled with birds, but there were other animals as well, dogs and pigs, and cats that seemed to be ordering the other animals in their flight.  The beasts told me to come away with them.  They barred my way to the Common House, so I could scarcely move forward.”

More murmuring. 

“I tried to cry out, but a man appeared, waved his hand across my throat and I could make not a sound.  But I saw the man well, and I know his name.”

“Name him, then.”

“George Burroughs.”

“The same Burroughs who was executed last week?”

“Yes.”

“You are sure.”

“I know him well, sir.  I worked in his house in the months after my parents were killed in the Wabanaki attacks.”

The story of Mercy Lewis’s orphaned state was well known by the whole community.  Mercy, the daughter of Phillip Lewis was born in Falmouth, Maine in 1675, at a time of constant unrest and violent conflict between the colonialists and the Wabanaki nation.  At three years of age her parents, along with Rev. Burroughs and many of the people of Falmouth fled to the islands in Casco Bay as the Wabanaki slaughtered those left behind, including Mercy’s grandparents, cousins and neighbors. 

At age 16 the Wabanaki mounted yet another offensive and killed both of Mercy’s parents.  It was then that she took temporary refuge with Rev. Burroughs, himself having lived and ministered briefly in Salem.  As soon as arrangements could be made, Mercy moved to the home of her married sister, who lived in Salem Village.  An orphan with no family or fortune behind her, the future she faced was outlined in full when she became a servant in the home of Thomas Putnam.  She would spend her youth, middle years and old age as a menial servant, bowing to all, and regarded by none.

“We already know of the evil works of Burroughs.  Were there any with him that still walk unknown in the Village?”

“There were, sir, they grabbed at my clothes and scratched my arms and snatched at my hair and bonnet as I ran into the Common for services.”
Stoughton briefly conferred with those present and they did indeed affirm that Mercy was present, though late and disheveled at worship the past week, though one of the men did comment dourly that she frequently appeared under similar circumstances.

“Name these apparitions.”

“One was Captain Alden, the man who sold guns to the Wabanaki and slept with their squaws, making babies with heathens, though certainly that did not bother him in any way.” 

Captain Alden had been named by Mercy before and had, in fact, been jailed and well on his way to the gallows until he had mysteriously escaped the jail and run to New York.  Mercy resented his escape, since it had obviously been abetted by people who did not believe this gunrunner from Maine to be a wizard.  Mercy had had Alden in her sights from the beginning.  It was well known that he had sold arms to the Indians he loved so much.  These same Indians had then used those arms to destroy Mercy’s family and her hope for a life that did not include emptying the chamber pots of kin who should treat her like family instead of the hired help. 
“The other was a most fearful witch, standing in a circle inside a five-pointed star, all made of fire.  She stood there and directed the birds to attack me, pecking at me and screaming in my face.  She laughed at my misery and then turned to Alden and used a soft voice to tell him I would be turned to the Devil or suffer horribly for naming the Captain before this council.”

“Give us her name, girl!”

“Susan North—is was Susan North.”

A rumbled moved through the assembly.  Goody North was well-known.   A healer.  A midwife.  A friend and a devout worshiper.  Her husband was a respected miller and their baby a bouncing, pink, bundle of health.  Susan doted on the child.  Certainly, Goody North was smarter than a woman should be.  She could read and write and vowed that her children, even the girls, would know those arts as well.  But there were times when her knowledge had saved the life of a good man, a deserving woman, or an innocent child. 

You could almost hear the thoughts of the women in Common House.  Was knowing how to heal a gift from God?  Or a bargain with the Devil?  Surely Goody North had saved the life of the unworthy as easily as the worthy.  There was even talk that Susan had helped more than one unwed young girl who might come to her with child to leave without one.  The loss of a child in the womb was neither here nor there, it happened all the time, but the thought that the punishment so richly due any harlot should be skirted by eliminating the proof of her sin was repugnant.  Sin was supposed to be punished.  Fornication was a sin. 

And here was Mercy Lewis, a supposed strumpet, pointing her finger at Susan North, naming her as a witch and agent of the Devil. 

“She comes to me almost every night.  Tormenting me in my bed.”

It was at this moment, cold and frightened, shaking and almost deaf from the pain in her head that Susan North turned from the judges’ bench to Mercy Lewis.  A small flicker of anger had managed to warm Susan’s core.  It did not balance the fear, but it gave her enough strength to do something she was not allowed to do. 

Susan North spoke.

“Mercy…” it was almost a whisper, but those close to her heard it and stopped talking.

“Mercy” louder this time.  “It is not me that torments you in your bed.”

“The accused will stand silent!” Stoughton shouted.

Mercy Lewis, shocked into silence for the first time in these proceedings looked about, almost as if searching for a place of escape.  Then she saw the faces of the other girls, attentive now, frightened, looking to her for the leadership she had offered from the moment this game of blame, theater, life and death had begun.  It gave her a moment and she seized it.

Mercy’s finger jabbed fiercely toward Goody North. 

“She torments me even now, even here.”

“Mercy,” Susan’s voice carried across the hall, “I stand here as the woman who helped you in your time of need.  You begged me to assist you, putting on a face of fear and sadness and betrayal.  You have many faces Mercy.  I think it is that which torments you.”

“She has faces!  She has faces!”  Mercy screamed, starting to thrash about, biting at her own arms, drawing blood and tearing with her fingernails at her own face and hair.

“The accused will not speak…” 

Spit from Stoughton’s mouth sprayed Susan and those around him on the bench.  “Order!” he screamed, not sure at whom he was directing the imperative.  Then louder, “There will be silence!”

The room was broiling with activity.  In all this Susan North was the only one who now stood silent.  In the instant when all attention had turned to the girls she had panicked and wondered if she could run—making good an escape as Alden had.  She had moved away from the thrashing girls and turned toward the door, but too many angry, screaming faces stood between her and freedom.  At almost that same moment two men charged as bailiffs grasped both her arms and she gave in to them.  Her death sentence was sealed by the histrionics of the girls.  But she knew the truth and she knew she would avow her innocence to the end.  No one would accuse her without her protesting the claim.  But, oh, the fear of it.  The pain, the panic, and her child…

Susan North slumped to the floor, not in a feint, but powerless to hold the weight of what she saw ahead of her.  The hands still held her fast but let her collapse between them.  She could not think of her daughter, Hannah.  That would be a pain that would break her.  Instead she concentrated on the hate she suddenly felt toward Mercy Lewis and the spoiled, selfish girls who casually stole life and reputation from so many good people in Salem Village and beyond. 

Rough hands brought her back to her feet.  Her head lolled but was drawn to the one face that could give her strength.  Her husband, John, stood against the back wall.  She had begged him not to come, but he had and in his drawn face she saw a mirror of the impotent rage she herself felt.  The injustice of it all!  The futility of argument!  The rejection of reason.  Their eyes met and she mouthed one simple word. “Go.” 

Susan and John had discussed the worst that could happen, and their plan, to be acted on only in that extremity, was now to be executed.  There would be no more affirmations of love, whispered hopes for the best and prayers to a merciful God.  Now there was only action.

John left the Common House and sped to his house, stopping only to get Hannah from the aged neighbor who was watching the child.  He bundled his daughter in the wagon which was already packed with most of the sparse furnishings from their home.  All of Susan’s things were left behind, by choice.  There would never—must never—be a way to use her possessions to accuse him of witchcraft. 

The father and daughter left Salem Village immediately and were in Boston by nightfall.   

John had sought refuge in his brother’s house when he heard the worst of the news.  Magistrate Stoughton, sure that the obstinate North woman must be an extraordinary witch, and therefore worthy of extraordinary punishment, decreed that Susan should burn instead of being hanged as her predecessors had been.  Execution was only a night and a day away. 
 The night before her death Susan North received a whispered message through the low window of her cellar jail.  Four words only: it will be quick.  Dumb with fear she did not ask for more, or who the speaker was, but she held the words in her mind and repeated them silently over and over.  The words became her mantra and they did not fail her.  The wood, piled higher than the magistrates had remembered from the day before, was extremely dry.  When the torch was put to the brush it flashed instead of smoldering, sucking oxygen from the air. 

Susan seemed to take one huge, sobbing breath, but there was no oxygen left to be breathed.  Her head snapped back, seeking air, and then collapsed on her chin, unconscious of the almost immediate explosion.  A small keg of gunpowder exploded under her feet.  The messenger was true to his word.  It was quick.

Outraged beyond grief at the loss of his wife, John North filed a civil suit against Mercy Lewis, and her fellow accusers. It would be the first of dozen of such suits filed against the Salem Village accusers—and it would help bring the dreaded Court of Oyer and Terminor to an end.   

A decade after John fled to Boston with his child; a decade after he watched his wife die horribly but swiftly in the blast of gun powder that he had placed under her scaffold; a decade after he had vowed eternal retribution against Mercy Lewis and the rest of the “afflicted” girls, John North faced his moment of truth.  He saw Mercy walking down the streets of Boston. 
He knew Mercy had given birth to a child the year before and had then fled to Boston to marry a teamster from her hometown of Falmouth, Maine.  The ne’r-do-well and drunkard, Samuel Alder, now led Mercy down the middle of the street.  As they passed each other, North realized that Mercy Lewis Alder had neither noticed nor recognized him.  She was dirty and ragged, shuffling along behind her much older and clearly intoxicated husband.  Her child was held carelessly on her hip and she was muttering to herself.  North thought of calling out to her, castigating her as the slattern she was, but was stayed by his daughter’s tug on his arm. 

“They are a sad family, aren’t they, Father?” 

John North looked at his daughter.  Hannah was growing in every way her mother would have wanted, and now she was showing a charitable concern toward the woman who was the instrument of Susan’s death. 

“They are.”  He started to add, “God bless them” but the words stuck in his throat.  To all his other faults and failings, John was not going to add hypocrisy.  Instead he moved his daughter along the street and whispered, “God bless us.” 

Mercy Lewis, absorbed in her own unhappiness, never heard the benediction. 

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Louise Butler is a writer of science, economics, and historical fiction.  She was examining ergot fungi as a cause for the “afflictions” of children thought to be possessed by demons or victims of witchcraft when she recognized the name of an accused witch that also appeared in her own ancestry.  The following is an excerpt from her third book: That Blaisdell Blood: a Novel.  Ms. Butler currently lives in the deep Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She enjoys good books, good friends, and good scotch. 

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