Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 3 · April 2002
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Mary Beth Norton is the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American history at Cornell University. Interested in the relationship of gender and politics in early America, she has just completed a book on the Salem witchcraft crisis, In the Devil's Snare (New York, forthcoming in October 2002), from which this article is drawn.

 

 

"Who was Mercy Lewis, and why did she hate George Burroughs?"

The Refugee's Revenge
Mary Beth Norton

Part I | II

On August 3, 1692, Elizur Keysar of Salem Town testified before the grand jury considering possible indictments of the Reverend George Burroughs of Wells, Maine, for witchcraft. Keysar, who believed that Burroughs was "the Cheife of all the persons accused for witchcraft, or the Ring Leader of them all," described a "diabolicall apperition" he and his maidservant had seen on the evening of May 5, after he had conversed uneasily with Burroughs in a tavern then serving as the clergyman's makeshift prison. Back in an unlighted room in his own house, Keysar told the grand jury, "I did see very strange things appeare in the Chimney, I suppose a dozen of them, which seemed to mee to be something like Jelly that used to be in the water, and quaver with a strainge Motion, and then quickly disappeared." Next he saw a light up the chimney "aboute the bigness of my hand . . . which quivered & shaked." As Keysar completed his statement to the jurors, another witness offered an unusual interjection. In the words of a court clerk, "Mercy Lewis also said that Mr Borroughs told her that he made lights in Mr Keyzers chimny." (The crucial words "told her that" exist in a manuscript copy of the deposition only; they were omitted when the witchcraft documents were transcribed for publication.)

Mercy Lewis's own sworn testimony to the grand jury that day disclosed that she "very well knew" George Burroughs; indeed, she indicated that she had lived with Burroughs and his family, surely as a maidservant, at some point in the past. Burroughs's specter, she declared, had appeared to her twice in early May, torturing her and insisting that she sign a "new fashon book," which he claimed she must have previously seen in his study. Mercy, though, refused the request, recognizing the volume as the devil's book. She also reported that the malefic cleric had confessed bewitching other people and recruiting a Topsfield teenager, Abigail Hobbs, into the ranks of the witches.


Fig. 1. Detail from Accusation of a Witch by Elias C. Larrabee Jr. (1885), collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. Courtesy Picture Research Consultants.

In the oft-told tale of the Salem witchcraft trials, neither the nineteen-year-old maidservant Mercy Lewis nor her former master usually receives much attention. Abigail Williams, the eleven-year-old niece of the Reverend Samuel Parris (the Village pastor), and Ann Putnam Jr., the twelve-year-old daughter of a prominent Village family, have seemed to scholars and popularizers alike the most important of the afflicted accusers. Likewise, historians have concentrated on the large number of women charged with witchcraft, rather than the smaller though still substantial number of men so accused. Yet Elizur Keysar was just one of many contemporaries who thought that George Burroughs was the "Ring Leader" of the witches. So vast a conspiracy, many New Englanders concluded, could not be led by women. The witches' most likely master was, instead, a minister, a well-educated man who could subvert God's church from within.

And one of those best situated to uncover that man's alliance with the devil was someone who "very well knew" him and had once lived with his family, maidservant though she was. Mercy Lewis's addition to Elizar Keysar's grand-jury testimony revealed her extraordinary eagerness to support the charges against her former master. In only a bare handful of other instances are similar unsolicited interjections preserved in the Salem records.

Who was Mercy Lewis, and why did she hate George Burroughs? And who, for that matter, was Burroughs? Both have primarily been known as residents of Salem Village--Lewis as the servant of Thomas and Ann Carr Putnam, parents of the afflicted Ann Jr., and Burroughs as a one-time and angrily dismissed pastor of the Village church. But in fact, Lewis and Burroughs knew each other so well not in the Village but in another time and place: in the 1670s and 1680s in the little town of Falmouth (now Portland), located on Casco Bay, Maine.


Fig. 2. The Casco Bay region in the seventeenth century. From William Willis, History of Portland from 1632 to 1864 (Portland, 1865). Courtesy the American Antiquarian Society.

Mercy was born there about 1673. Her grandfather George Lewis had brought his wife and three children to Maine from England in the mid-1640s; four more children--including her father Philip--were born in America. For a time in the 1660s Philip Lewis lived on Hog Island in the bay, superintending the livestock herds of the Falmouth community, but whether his daughter Mercy was born on that island is unknown. In the mid-1670s, all Philip's siblings and his parents owned farms in the Casco region.

George Burroughs, who was born in Virginia but raised in Roxbury, Massachusetts, attended Harvard as a member of the class of 1670. In 1674, when Mercy was still an infant, he moved his new wife and young child from Roxbury to Casco, where he began to minister to the small congregation of settlers, including the many members of the extended Lewis clan. Neither then nor later did Burroughs achieve ordination as the leader of a formally organized Puritan congregation. Consequently, at no time during his pastoral career could he baptize babies or administer the sacraments, although he could both preach and instruct children in religious precepts. In fact, he probably taught Mercy Lewis, who knew her Bible well.

Suspicions of Burroughs first surfaced in mid-April 1692, after Abigail Hobbs confessed that the devil had recruited her as a witch about four years earlier while her family, too, was living in Falmouth. Abigail did not initially name the minister as Satan's agent, but about thirty-six hours after her confession, Ann Putnam Jr. did.

Thomas Putnam reported to the Salem magistrates, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin, that on the evening of April 20 his daughter "was greviously [sic] affrighted and cried out oh dreadfull: dreadfull here is a minister com[e]: what are Ministers witches to[o]"? The specter tortured Ann while she carried on a dialogue with him. "It was a dreadfull thing," she told the apparition, "that he which was a Minister that should teach children to feare God should com[e] to persuad[e] poor creatures to give their souls to the divill." After repeatedly refusing to tell her who he was, the specter finally revealed his identity: "[H]e tould me that his name was George Burroughs and that he had had three wives: and that he had bewitched the Two first of them to death: and that he kiled . . . Mr Lawsons child because he went to the eastward with Sir Edmon and preached soe: to the souldiers and that he had bewitched a grate many souldiers to death at the eastward, when Sir Edmon was their [sic]. and that he had made Abigail Hobbs a witch and: severall witches more." During the day on April 21, Abigail Williams also saw the specter of George Burroughs and conversed with it, but her vision lacked those elements of Ann's that referred to "the eastward," or Maine, nor did she mention Burroughs's role as a teacher of children. Those omissions suggest that Ann Jr., but not Parris's niece, had been talking to someone who knew the clergyman as a religious instructor, and who also knew a great deal about recent events in Maine--talking, in short, to the Putnams' servant, Mercy Lewis.

What had happened "at the eastward," and what valence did those events retain in Salem? The references in Ann Jr.'s vision cannot be understood without a brief discussion of happenings on the Maine frontier during the preceding four years. "Sir Edmon" was Sir Edmund Andros, the governor of the Dominion of New England from 1686 until he was ousted in the Massachusetts phase of the Glorious Revolution in April 1689. During the winter of 1688-89, Andros led a large militia force to Pemaquid, northeast of Casco Bay, in an attempt to quash a burgeoning conflict between the Wabanaki Indians and English settlers that had begun the previous August. Andros failed; and by 1692 Wabanaki victories in the struggle that has become known as King William's War (called the Second Indian War in Maine) had led to the abandonment of Falmouth and all the other Anglo-American settlements north of Wells.

The "Mr. Lawson" whose child Burroughs had reputedly killed was the Reverend Deodat Lawson, Burroughs's immediate successor as minister in Salem Village. Lawson had served as the chaplain to Andros's troops at Pemaquid; his first wife and child both died at about that time (evidently during his absence). Others too later repeated Ann's charge that Burroughs had bewitched them.

But why were these matters relevant to the charge that George Burroughs was a witch, and what, other than the fact that she had once been his servant, caused Mercy Lewis's animus against George Burroughs?

To answer those questions it is necessary to go back nearly two decades, to the moment when the lives of a little girl and a young minister first began to intertwine.

In August 1676, the three-year-old Mercy Lewis and the twenty-three-year-old George Burroughs were both living in Falmouth, when their world suddenly collapsed around them. The previous fall, violent clashes had erupted between English settlers and the Wabanakis, all of whom had until that time lived in relative peace, engaging in trade that benefited everyone. (In southern New England, related hostilities were known as King Philip's War; Maine residents eventually called it the First Indian War.)

On Wednesday, August 9, some Wabanakis killed a cow belonging to Captain Anthony Brackett. An Indian named Simon, who had been hanging around Brackett's farm for several weeks, said he would find the culprits. Early on Friday morning the eleventh, Simon returned with the men responsible for the killing. They invaded Brackett's house, took his weapons, and asked him "whether he had rather serve the Indians, or be slain by them." Faced with that choice, Brackett surrendered, along with his wife and children. But his brother-in-law tried to resist and was killed.

The Indians moved through the area called Back Cove, striking one farm after another on the mainland north of the peninsula on which the town of Falmouth was situated. At Robert Corbin's, they surprised him and his brother-in-law Benjamin Atwell while they were haying in the fields, killing both men and capturing their wives and several children. They next slew James Ross and his wife, taking some of their children captive. Two men traveling by canoe managed to warn the town, but the numbers killed and captured mounted as the day wore on. Mercy's parents escaped with her to an island in the bay, along with George Burroughs and others, but her father's extended family was hard hit. The dead men Benjamin Atwell and James Ross were her uncles by marriage, the captured Alice Atwell and the dead Ann Ross her father's sisters. Her paternal grandparents numbered among those slain. Many of her young cousins were killed or captured, including all but one of the children of another of her father's sisters, Mary Lewis Skilling. One more uncle and his wife died later in the war.

Altogether, wrote a survivor five days later, eleven men died and twenty-three women and children were killed or captured at Casco on August 11. "We that are alive are forced upon Mr. Andrews his Island to secure our own and the lives of our families[.] we have but little provision and are so few in number that we are not able to bury the dead till more strength come to us," he told his mother-in-law in Boston, pleading for assistance of any sort. The help the refugees received permitted them to leave. Mercy and her parents probably moved temporarily to Salem Town, where her uncle by marriage Thomas Skilling died a few months later, possibly from a wound suffered in the attack. A treaty ended the war in 1678, and former residents thereafter slowly filtered back to Falmouth and the other towns abandoned in 1676. By 1683, the Lewises had returned to rebuild their lives in Casco Bay. Mercy was then ten years old.

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