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When the North End was bewitched

Many of us have heard about the witchcraft craze in Salem of 1692. Less well known is a witchcraft incident in 1688, a crucial part of which took place in the North End, and involved Cotton Mather (1663-1728), leader of Boston’s 2nd Church in North Square.

Mather recounts the incident in his work “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions,” published in 1689. Both this book and Mather would become crucial players in the events at Salem in 1692.

800px-Witchcraft_at_Salem_VillageThe North End case began in the summer of 1688 at the home of the Goodwin family, John, Martha, and their six children.

There is some disagreement as to where the Goodwins lived.

Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), who wrote of the event in his “History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay,” stated that the family lived in the “north part of Boston.” However, Mather, in “Memorable Providences,” said that they lived in the “south part of Boston.”

In any case, both Hutchinson and Mather agree that the spark that ignited the fire was an accusation by the eldest Goodwin child, Martha Jr., that their laundress had stolen some of the family linen.

The mother of the laundress was Goody Ann Glover. Hutchinson describes Glover as “one of the wild Irish” and “of bad character,” while Mather says that she was “an ignorant and a scandalous old Woman in the Neighborhood.”

She was certainly spirited, for in response to the charge against her daughter, Ann Glover went over to the Goodwin’s house and cursed young Martha, “immediately upon which,” Mather says, “the poor child became variously indisposed in her health, and visited with strange Fits, beyond those that attend an Epilepsy or a Catalepsy.” And the strange behavior spread to one of her sisters and her two brothers. Hutchinson describes it as follows:

[They] were tormented in the same part of their bodies at the same time, although kept in separate apartments and ignorant of one another’s complaints … Sometimes dumb, then blind; and sometimes all these disorders together would come upon them. Their tongues would be drawn down their throats, then pulled out upon their chins. Their jaws, necks, shoulders, elbows, and all their joints would appear to be dislocated, and they would make the most piteous outcries of burnings, of being cut with knives, beat, etc., and the marks of wounds were afterwards to be seen.

Examination of a Witch, by T.H. Matteson 1853. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

Examination of a Witch, by T.H. Matteson 1853.
Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

Since the doctors could find no medical cause for their affliction, Glover was arrested and accused of bewitching them.

Upon questioning, she admitted to being a witch.

A search conducted in her home turned up several rag puppets stuffed with goat hair. Glover told the judges that she used them to torment the children. She then demonstrated this by licking a finger and running it over one of the puppets, upon which one of the Goodwin children fell into a fit.

Glover also said that she had an invisible companion, a “prince,” whom she communed with regularly.

A woman named Hughes was brought in the court room. She said that Glover had bewitched a woman named Howen many years earlier, causing her death. Hughes also stated that she had seen Glover coming down the chimney of her own home.

While this was going on, it was reported that one of Hughes’ children was having fits similar to those of the Goodwin children. Glover admitted that she was bewitching the child, in punishment for the mother’s testimony, and said they would stop if the child was brought into the court room. When they brought the child in the fits ceased.

Mather says that he twice visited Glover in prison, where she continued to admit her guilt.

She also told Mather that her own execution would not stop the torments of the Goodwin children because there were four others in Boston who would continue to bewitch them. Although she told Mather who the four were, he never revealed their names for fear that their reputations might be ruined on what might be a false accusation.

On November 15, 1688, Glover was hanged on the Boston Common. There is a plaque dedicated to her at the corner of Cross and Salem Streets, and one on the Irish Heritage Trail at 21 Isabella Street.

The City of Boston marks November 15 as “Goody Glover Day.”

True to her prediction, the Goodwin children continued to be tormented.

Cotton Mather resorted to taking Martha Jr., the first and still the most extreme of the afflicted children, into his home on Hanover Street (in the block between North Bennet and Tileston Streets) where she remained for about five weeks.

What he, his wife, and others witnessed in their North End home is something almost out of The Exorcist, and described in detail in his Memorable Providences. (You can read it all here – if you are brave enough: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/asa_math.htm.)

Martha Goodwin’s fits eventually subsided, as did those of her sister and brothers. But Mather’s Memorable Providences circulated widely and apparently made its way into the home of Samuel Paris, minister of Salem Village, in 1692.

His daughter Betty Paris, along with her cousin Abigail Williams, would soon begin to have fits very similar to those of the Goodwin children, accusing first their slave Tituba and then their neighbor Sarah Good of bewitching them, and setting off a chain reaction that would result in the arrest of hundreds of people and the execution of 20 for the crime of witchcraft.

Mather, as an “expert” on the matter, was consulted at the outset. He requested that some of the children be sent to him and to other ministers for observation, but his request was refused.

He would later write a letter to the judges at Salem urging that they proceed with caution, but also encouraging them to pursue the witches. This letter has earned him lasting ignominy as one of the enablers of the Salem incident.

One wonders, however, if Salem’s history might have been different – if things might not have gotten so out of control – if they had followed Mather’s advice and separated the girls at the outset.

I have never heard any reports of strange happenings in the area where Mather’s house once stood — except for the sighting of an old and odd looking black cat near Tileston Street every November 15.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.