Some weeks ago I posted a photograph of stocks in Hellman’s Cross, Great Canfield, Essex, which marks and commemorates the site of execution of an unfortunate resident, Elizabeth Abbott. Elizabeth was a late victim of a countrywide surge of witch-finding, meeting her terrible fate in 1683.
The post also appeared on the ‘Memories of Bishops Stortford’ Facebook page and prompted a good response with one group member pointing out that one of the victims of the most infamous series of witch trials of them all which occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, had links with Bishops Stortford. This was something that I had to look into a little more closely.
The European witchcraft hysteria had largely abated by the end of the seventeenth century, but in the recently colonized settlements of New England conditions were very favourable to ferment another outbreak of occult madness. I am sure that the whys and the wherefores of how such a calamity befell Salem and Andover in 1692 could occupy many metres of shelving in the library of the largest Faculty of Psychology but below are some of the factors that students of the Salem crisis believe came into play.
Life in the colonies was incredibly hard. The authorities had stripped holidays out of the calendar such that 300 days of every year were given over to toil. One of the few escapes from the day’s labours was given to time spent in the village Meeting House to hear sermons delivered that told of the ever present machinations of the Devil to disrupt and corrupt the community and to undo God’s will in the young colonies. In this respect, the congregation was continually warned of their weaknesses and the importance of piety and regular religious observance in order to thwart the Devil in his evil designs and to prevent Satan from gaining a foothold in the land. And this is what passed off as entertainment in seventeenth century New England! The inhabitants of the Puritan communities were all steeped to the point of saturation in the Scriptures. Religion played an enormous part in every aspect of their day to day existence.
In addition to being physically hard, life within the colonies was also fraught with danger. King Philip’s War, sometimes known at the First Indian War may have ended a decade before the trials, but the frontier areas of North New England were still subject to violent raids by the Wabanaki Indians. Settlements on the frontier were periodically razed to the ground and the inhabitants slaughtered, scalped or taken into captivity.
The Puritan communities were made up of a limited number of settler families. In Salem the records abound with references the Putnams, Proctors and Jacobs. Inter-marriage was common as was inter-family feuding. Despite the deeply held faith of these New Englanders, lawyers were rarely short of work as residents sued and counter-sued each other. Disputes over land boundaries , cattle incursions into a neighbour’s field and unpaid debts all went through the courts. Whilst it is doubted that these commonplace disputes led directly to accusations of witchcraft, the longstanding rumours and local gossip arising from ill-feeling between families did call into question the reputation of individuals and this in turn opened the door to the more dangerous suggestion of witchcraft.
The start of the trouble is not altogether clear from the records, but it was either in late February or early March 1692. A number of adolescent women began to have seizures, uncontrollable spasms and be subject to pinches, needle pricks and bites from unseen (at least to the majority) assailants. It is interesting that the average age of these ‘afflicted’ girls was 17 and that they were mostly of higher than average intelligence, meaning that they could read, if not write. It has been suggested that in these young women, raised in such an environment it is hardly the greatest leap of faith that the supernatural imps, specters and demons, through to the Devil himself to which they were exposed to from religious texts as well as from the Minister’s pulpit manifested themselves in their young minds as they did. Needless to say that some have proposed repressed sexuality, or feelings of unrequited love interest among the afflicted (along with others as because before too long it seemed that everyone was accusing someone, almost as though to accuse someone served as a greater means of self protection than to accuse noone!) as a motivation for allegations of witchcraft.
If anything a greater leap of faith would be required to understand why it was that the trial officials, several of whom were highly educated Harvard graduates were taken in by the claims and counter claims of supernatural abuses.So what of George Jacobs Senior. At 81 he was the oldest of Salem’s victims. The circumstances that brought him to New England are lost to time. It is known that his father George Jacobs was a barber-surgeon and that his mother Priscilla was from Bishops Stortford in Hertforshire. It is recorded that George was married to his first wife on 27th June 1639 at St. Michaels Church in Bishops Stortford (a Church that is less than a five minute walk from my door). It is believed that he was christened in February 1609 at St Dunstans in the West, in London’s Fleet Street.
George Jacobs Snr was an imposing man known to have a violent temper. He was fined for striking a man named John Tomkins Jr in 1677, and as the report has it he would have landed many more blows had he not been restrained by a witness, such was his fury.
A description of George at the time of his trial is provided by Charles W. Upham who wrote a history of the trials in 1867.
“George Jacobs, Sr,
was an aged man. He is represented in the evidence as ‘very gray-headed;’ and
he must have been quite infirm, for he walked with two staffs. His hair was in
long, thin, white locks; and, as he was uncommonly tall of stature, he must
have had a venerable aspect. Perhaps he was the ‘man in a long-crowned white
hat,’ referred to by Deliverance Hobbs. The examination shows that his
faculties were vigorous, his bearing fearless, and his utterances strong and
Churchill confronted her employer in court stating that “Last night I was afflicted at Deacon Ingersolls, and Mary Walcot said it was a man with 2 staffs, it was my master.” Notably, Jacobs was know to walk with the assistance of two canes.
Jacobs was also accused as carrying with him the book in which the afflicted would sign over their souls for a fixed period of time to the Devil. He denied these claims of beating Sarah Churchill when in a spectral form (the court acknowledged that he was on the other side of the Waters River when the alleged assault occurred).
Upon the Magistrate urging Jacobs to confess to the charges laid out before him, George Jacobs countered with “You tax me for a wizard, you may as well tax me for a buzzard I have done no harm.”
When challenged as to how it was he that his accuser witnessed him in spectral form he stated that the Devil can assume anyone’s likeness. This was a contention that was to provoke much legal and theological discussion in the trials that followed. Could the Devil use a person for the purposes of affliction and murder without the consent of the ‘witch’ or ‘wizard’? That is to say, could someone harming someone by means of witchcraft be as innocent as the person afflicted?
His accuser went on to state that Jacobs neglected his expected obligation to pray with his family (after all how else could the Devil’s plans be defeated?). When asked to recite ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ Jacob’s stumbled over some of the words. This was considered to be a task beyond the ability of genuine witches and wizards.
At the conclusion of the hearing George Jacobs Senior uttered the prophetic words “Well burn me, or hang me, I will stand in the truth of Christ, I know nothing of it.”
Other girls testified on 10th May that George Jacobs Senior in spectral form had visited them and done them harm. This testimony from Abigail Williams survives.
At a second hearing on the following day, conducted at Beadle’s Tavern in Salem Town the afflicted girls who were present convulsed with fits and Ann Putman offered up the ‘fact’ that the specter had confessed to have been a witch for forty years.Further into the hearing the presiding Magistrate asked whether it was he, George Jacobs’ who had created a scene at a recent Meeting House lecture on 31st March 1692. This lecture also involved prayers and fasting for the benefit of those girls afflicted with witchcraft and it is possible that the plain speaking elder Jacob spoke out against the girls at this point.
Of the two charges of witchcraft brought against him, only one was upheld, the other was dismissed for lack of evidence.
On the same day (11th May), Margaret Jacobs, George’s Grand-daughter was also examined and according to the testimony of another witness, one Joseph Flint, she offered a confession to the fact that she was a witch. She went further accusing both her Grandfather and the Reverend George Burroughs of being witches. This was a confession that she would later sorrowfully retract.
A court order of 12th May directed a local officer to escort George Snr and nine other accused residents to the jail in Salem Town. Two days later warrants were issued for the arrest of his son, George Junior and his daughter-in-law, Rebecca Jacobs. The latter was brought in whilst the former fled thereby evading arrest. Witness to their mother’s arrest were Rebecca’s four young children who followed the cart that carried her away as far as their young legs could take them before they were taken in by neighbours.
Both Rebecca and her daughter Margaret languished in jail for a full eight months before their trial and acquittal in January 1693. In this time, Margaret had recanted her earlier confession stating that she only confessed upon being told that to do so was the only means by which her life would be spared.
The retraction of her confession survives in the records and is worth presenting in full as it sheds significant light upon the atmosphere that prevailed in Massachusetts at the time of the trials:
declaration of Margaret Jacobs unto the honoured court now sitting at Salem,
sheweth That whereas your poor and humble declarant being closely confined here
in Salem goal for the crime of witchcraft, which crime thanks be to the Lord I am
altogether ignorant of, as will appear at the great day of judgment: May it
please the honoured court, I was cried out upon by some of the possessed
persons, as afflicting them; whereupon I was brought to my examination, which
persons at the sight of me fell down, which did very much startle and affright
me. The Lord above knows I knew nothing, in the least measure, how or who
afflicted them; they told me, without doubt I did, or else they would not fall
down at me; they told me, if I would not confess, I should be put down into the
dungeon and would be hanged, but if I would confess I should have my life; the
which did so affright me, with my own vile wicked heart, to save my life; made
me make the like confession I did, which confession, may it please the honoured
court, is altogether false and untrue. The very first night after I had made
confession, I was in such horror of conscience that I could not sleep for fear
the devil should carry me away for telling such horrid lies. I was, may it
please the honoured court, sworn to my confession, as I understand since, but
then, at that time, was ignorant of it, not knowing what an oath did mean. The
Lord, I hope, in whom I trust, out of the abundance of his mercy, will forgive
me my false forswearing myself. What I said, was altogether false against my
grandfather, and Mr. Burroughs , which I did to save my life and to have my
liberty; but the Lord, charging it to my conscience, made me in so much horror,
that I could not contain myself before I had denied my confession, which I did
though I saw nothing but death before me, chusing rather death with a quiet
conscience, than to live in such horror, which I could not suffer. Where, upon
my denying my confession, I was committed to close prison, where I have enjoyed
more felicity in spirit, a thousand times, than I did before in my enlargement.
And now, may it please your honours, your declarant, having, in part, given
your honours a description of my condition, do leave it to your honours pious
and judicious discretions, to take pity and compassion on my young and tender
years, to act and do with me, as the Lord above and your honours shall see
good, having no friend, but the Lord, to plead my cause for me; not being
guilty in the least measure of the crime of witchcraft, nor any other sin that
deserves death from man; and your poor and humble declarant shall for ever
pray, as she is bound in duty, for your honours happiness in this life and
eternal felicity in the world to come. So prays your honours declarant.
The trial of George Jacobs Senior began in the first week of August 1692 and on the 4th a George Herrick testified that in May he had travelled to Salem Jail in order to conduct a physical examination of Jacobs in the presence of constable Joseph Neale (the arresting officer) and the jail keeper, William Dounton. The purpose of the examination was to identify any ‘witch marks’ on the prisoner’s body, physical attributes known to be possessed by witches and wizards, the functions of which were to allow their ‘familiars’ to suckle…. all quite obvious really. Lo and behold, one such mark was observed on George’s right shoulder. Described as about a quarter of an inch long with a sharp point that pointed downwards, this physical anomaly was described unsurprisingly as a teat…. Yet more proof of this unfortunates guilt, as I am sure you would agree. Those of rationale mind could challenge this proof of ‘collusion with the Devil’ with the fact that by the time that a human frame had reached the ripe old age of 81 (and this was in 1692 when such longevity was rather remarkable in itself!) the absence of warts, skin tags, growths and the like would be a greater indicator of supernatural interference than otherwise! Nevertheless the nature and purpose of George’s displaced tit was confirmed by the needle test i.e. when pierced it did not bleed. The case against poor, unfortunate George Jacobs was almost wrapped up.
George Jacobs Senior was convicted on the grounds of his mark and spectral evidence alone. The admission of spectral evidence in court was, along with the debate as to whether the Devil could use a person’s spectral form without their express permission, a hot topic that was much debated both during and after the trials. In fact it was the legal opinion that deemed that spectral evidence was admissible in court in the trial of two convicted witches in Lowestoft in Suffolk that validated George Jacobs’ one way passage to the gallows.The trial that occurred on 5th August was short, George was found guilty on one charge of witchcraft and sentenced to death by hanging. The date of execution was set as 19th August and he would be joined on the gallows by John Proctor, Reverend George Burrows, Martha Carrier and John Willard. All five protested their innocence until their final moments.
On the morning the 19th the five condemned prisoners were taken by cart from the jail in Salem Town to Gallows Hill on Proctor’s Ledge for the death sentence to be fulfilled. In full view of an illustrious throng that included Cotton Mather, a big hitting figure in New England politics with a big hand in the conduct of the trials at Salem.
George Jacobs Senior was the last of the prisoners to be pushed off the gallows platform into the abyss.
Once dead, the prisoners were cut down and allegedly dragged by their nooses to shallow graves that had been dug close by.
Legend has it that Jacobs’ body was reclaimed from the execution site, undercover of night and reburied at the family’s property.
Support for this outcome comes from the discovery of human remains in the nineteenth century on the former Jacobs property. Once again according to Charles Upham:
“The tradition has
descended through the family, that the body, after having been obtained at the
place of execution, was strapped by a young grandson on the back of a horse,
brought home to the farm, and buried beneath the shade of his own trees. Two
sunken and weather-worn stones marked the spot. There the remains rested until
1864, when they were exhumed. They were enclosed again, and reverently
redeposited in the same place. The skull was in a state of considerable
preservation. An examination of the jawbones showed that he was a very old man
at the time of his death., and had previously lost all his teeth. The length of
some parts of the skeleton showed that he was a very tall man. These
circumstances corresponded with the evidence, which was that he was tall of
stature; so infirm as to walk with two staffs; with long, flowing white hair.
The only article found, except the bones, was a metallic pin, which might have
been used as a breastpin, or to hold together his aged locks.”
George’s remains suffered further indignity when disturbed by a bulldozer's bucket in the 1950’s when the site was redeveloped. After a period in storage the remains were buried for a third time in 1992 on the Rebecca Nurse (another hanged victim of Salem) Farm. The remains were put into the earth in a replica seventeenth century coffin and the site marked with a headstone typical of his day.
As reported in the recent 2014 publication by Emerson W. Baker entitled ‘A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience’.
“In 1992 Danvers also endorsed another modest act of reconciliation. There was a tradition in the Jacobs family that George Jacob’s body had been taken from Gallows Hill after his death and buried on his farm, which is located within the town’s borders. A skeleton exhumed and then reburied on the farm in the mid-nineteenth century was believed to be his, and this skeleton was rediscovered by a bulldozer when the property was developed in the 1950s. Safeguarded for years by Danvers officials, the skeleton was quietly reburied on the Rebecca Nurse farm, complete with replica seventeenth-century coffin and gravestone, in 1992. Although analysis of the remains established that they were those of an old man and generally fit Jacob’s description, it will never know whether they really were those of Jacobs. However, it was still an important and sincere gesture.”
In the years that followed the Salem tragedy, the events of 1692 were hushed up. In the immediate aftermath, the proceedings the court sessions, although not the judges, were called into question. Eventually over a long period of time, acceptance of the fact that 20 innocents (19 by hanging and one by pressing) had perished came. Salem remains to be an embarrassment to the American nation and a warning as to how legal proceedings can escalate out of control.
Today, amends have been made to the victims of 1692. Memorials to George and his fellow victims have been raised in several locations connected with the trials, including the execution site at Proctor’s Ledge and at the new site of his grave in the Rebecca Nurse Homestead family cemetery.
May the last word go to George’s strickened Grand-daughter, Margeret, who wrote to her father on the day of George’s execution:
“The reason of my
confinement is this, I having, through the Magistrates threatenings, and my own
vile and wretched heart, confessed several things contrary to my conscience and
knowledge, though to the wounding of my own soul, the Lord pardon me for it;
but Oh! the terrors of a wounded conscience who can bear…”
It would appear that news of Margaret’s retraction of her confession reached George as he amended his Last Will and Testament to award his Grand-daughter an additional £10 in silver, although after his death, the court did not honour his amendments and besides, most of his possesions had been claimed by Judge Corwin and his men even before Jacobs' sentence was carried out.