Demonic Possession of children in Boston, exorcized by the Puritan minister Cotton Mather. The possessions were blamed on a woman accused of Witchcraft. Mather wrote about this case in his 1689 book Memorable Providences, which was widely read and circulated through Puritan New England and probably influenced public opinions in the SALEM Witchcraft HYSTERIA of 1692–93.
The possessions began in the home of John Goodwin, a mason who lived in South Boston. Affected were four children ranging in age from three to 13. In the summer of 1688, the oldest child, Martha, went to fetch the family’s laundry from their washerwoman, an Irish woman named Goodwife Glover. The woman was not well liked; her husband had even accused her of being a witch on his deathbed. Martha thought some of the laundry was missing and complained to Glover, who took offense at the insinuation of theft. Immediately, Martha began suffering fits and seizures. Within a few weeks, all four children were afflicted with physical tortures. Doctors were summoned but were baffled about the cause.
The severity of the tortures increased, but always the children would be able to rest in their beds at night. Other times, they were stricken deaf and dumb and had their limbs, tongues, and mouths pulled about and their skin stretched. They made pitiful, animalistic noises and moans.
Their father, John Goodwin, worried that he had committed some grievous sin that turned his pious “little Bethel” house into a “den for devils.” Four ministers were asked to conduct a day of prayer, after which the youngest was permanently relieved of symptoms. Cotton Mather visited the family and prayed for DELIVERANCE and even took Martha into his own home for observation. One of the boys saw a dark shape wearing a blue cap in the house; the shape tormented him and an invisible hand tried to pull out his bowels. The children said blows of invisible clubs rained down upon them. Voices in their heads urged them to do violent acts, such as strike friends or throw themselves down stairs or strangle themselves. They broke objects and laughed hysterically. Glover was arraigned and put on trial, charged with witchcraft. Testimony was given that she allegedly had bewitched a person to death six years earlier. She acknowledged that she had been the black shape with the blue cap and invisible hand. Mather visited her twice in prison. He called her a “horrible old woman.” Glover did not deny the charges of witchcraft but said little about her activities as a witch. She acknowledged working with “the Prince,” or the Devil, and four of his Demons. Mather urged her to break her Pact with Hell, but she said she could not do it unless her Angels allowed her to do so. She did not want Mather to pray for her, but he did anyway. When he finished, she took out a stone, spit on it, and worried it.
Glover was judged guilty and condemned to execution by hanging. Prior to her death, the almshouse where she had lived was plagued with mysterious banging noises. En route to her execution, she said that the children would not be relieved by her death, for others had a hand in it, and she named one other person.
The three children still afflicted were not relieved at the death of Glover; rather, matters grew worse. John, Jr., saw a specter in the house and was pushed and stabbed by it. The children barked like dogs, yowled like cats, and complained that they felt as though they were in a red-hot oven. Their bodies were covered with bruises and red marks. The children would have periods of relief for a few weeks, and then the troubles would start again. The afflictions were the worst whenever ministers visited to pray. Martha enjoyed some relief upon her arrival in Mather’s home but then declared that the devils found her, and she began suffering again. She vomited weird balls the size of eggs and said she could feel the chains of the dead witch upon her. If Mather read the Bible, her eyes went blank, and she writhed on the floor and howled. She could not say the names of God and Christ. A Demon in the form of a spectral horse appeared on many occasions and took her on flights through the air.
The other suspect named by Glover died before she could be brought to trial. Mather and other ministers continued their prayers of deliverance and finally broke the possessions by November 1688. There was one final serious assault on Martha, when she said an invisible rope came about her neck and she choked until she was black in the face. Handprints were seen on her neck. After that, the assaults of the Demons dwindled in frequency and severity. At Christmastime, Martha and one sister were made drunk without having had any alcohol. In her final fit, Martha seemed to be and thought she was dying. The fit ended, and she recovered. Mather was pleased with the case and considered it a fine example of righteousness overcoming the Devil.
– Burr, George Lincoln, ed. Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648–1706. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914.
– Middlekauff, Robert. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals 1596–1728. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 2009 by Visionary Living, Inc.