www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 3 · April 2002
"The hanging of the Reverend George Burroughs on August 19, 1692, can best be seen, therefore, as the wartime execution of a traitor."
The Refugee's Revenge
Part I | II
That same year, George Burroughs, too, returned to Falmouth. While the Lewises had been sheltered in Salem Town, he had lived first in Salisbury (then the home of Ann Carr, prior to her marriage to Thomas Putnam) and later, from late 1680 to the spring of 1683, in Salem Village. In Salisbury, Burroughs witnessed, and almost certainly took sides in, an acrimonious dispute that divided the town's minister, the elderly John Wheelwright, and Major Robert Pike, its magistrate and militia leader. The town split into two factions; Ann Carr's family sided with Pike, whereas Burroughs, who served briefly as Wheelwright's assistant and occupied the town pulpit for a time after the minister's death in November 1679, in all likelihood supported the aged clergyman.
If Burroughs ever had thoughts of succeeding Wheelwright as the leader of the Salisbury congregation, the affray (and perhaps his role in it) would have rendered that unlikely, if not altogether impossible. Accordingly, George Burroughs had to look elsewhere; and so too at the same time did Salem Village, following the less-than-amicable departure of Lawson, its first minister. The Village hired Burroughs in late 1680, but his tenure there was both brief and unpleasant. By the summer of 1682, dissatisfied Villagers were refusing to pay his salary. In early March 1683, Burroughs moved his family back to the recently reoccupied Falmouth, which was protected by Fort Loyal, newly constructed to help defend the region.
To advance the resettlement efforts, Falmouth took possession of 170 of 200 acres previously granted to Burroughs, for his property was close to the new town center. The remaining thirty acres of his original holding, which lay approximately half a mile west of the new fort, were confirmed to him. Later that year, he exchanged seven acres of his land for John Skilling's house and lot, conveniently located near the meetinghouse, which was sited to the east of the fort. John Skilling's dead brother Thomas had been Mercy Lewis's uncle by marriage. Philip Lewis's own house lot in the resettled community, where Mercy lived, lay approximately a quarter mile west of the fort and thus less than half a mile from Burroughs's new dwelling.
Philip Lewis's town lot lay near Joseph Ingersoll's. And here Abigail Hobbs reenters my narrative. In her 1692 confession, Abigail indicated that she knew Joseph Ingersoll's maidservant "very well" during her residence in Falmouth. Accordingly, the Hobbs family (which seems to have rented property there between 1683 and 1689), probably lived in close proximity to Ingersoll and thus to the Lewis household, which was situated on a neighboring lot. Mercy Lewis and Abigail Hobbs (who was five years younger) would have seen each other regularly in Falmouth village. Another quarter-mile west of their homes lay Burroughs's remaining twenty-three acres. Since he undoubtedly farmed or cut wood on that land, the clergyman would have passed the Lewis and Hobbs households as he moved between his house (to the east of Fort Loyal) and his land on the west side of town. Thus in Falmouth George Burroughs, Mercy Lewis, and Abigail Hobbs must have seen each other frequently in the mid-1680's, perhaps even daily.
The lives of all three people changed dramatically after a second Wabanaki attack on Falmouth, which occurred on September 21, 1689, during the Second Indian War. This time the English settlers received a timely warning of the impending assault, and Boston authorities reinforced Fort Loyal with a sizable contingent of militiamen under the command of the elderly, experienced Benjamin Church, who had achieved fame during King Philip's War. Sylvanus Davis, the fort's commander, later reported "a fierce fight" lasting about six hours, in which the New Englanders "forced them to Retreate & Judge many of them to bee slaine . . . there was Grate firings on Both sides." The English lost eleven soldiers killed and ten wounded, some of whom died later. How many townspeople were among the casualties went unrecorded; they might have included Mercy Lewis's parents (her father is last known to have been alive in April 1689). But the Reverend George Burroughs again survived the attack; on September 22 Church declared himself "well Satisfied with" Burroughs, who had been "present with us yesterday in the fight."
In the aftermath of the battle, the Hobbs family returned to Topsfield, whence they had come, and the by-then orphaned Mercy Lewis moved in with George Burroughs, almost certainly as his servant. Since her father and his extended family had owned a great deal of land prior to August 1676, her new dependent status must have been a shock. How long she lived with his family is unknown, but it was probably no more than a few months. When Burroughs, seeking a safer place to live, moved south to Wells some time during the winter of 1689-90, Mercy seems to have gone to Beverly, again as a servant. After about nine months there, she moved on to Salem Village, where her recently married sister lived, and where she was yet again hired out, this time to the Putnams.
Consequently, none of these former residents of Falmouth--neither Burroughs, Hobbs, nor Lewis--was present when the Wabanakis launched their third, and most devastating, attack on the little settlement in mid-May 1690. After a siege of five days, during which almost all of its male defenders were killed or wounded, Fort Loyal surrendered to a combined force of French and Indians. Promises of quarter were not fulfilled, and most of the two hundred or so survivors were slaughtered on the spot, with a few carried off into captivity by the Wabanakis. Among the dead and captured were three more of Mercy Lewis's relatives.
Now it is possible to return to Ann Putnam Jr.'s vision of April 20, 1692. Ann Jr.--whose source of information, recall, was Mercy Lewis--charged Burroughs with killing his successor's child because Deodat Lawson had been hired as chaplain to Andros's men. But why would Burroughs care? In September 1689 Benjamin Church alluded to a possible reason for the purported malefic act. In his remarks on the minister, he commented that Burroughs "had thoughts of removing" from Falmouth because "his present maintenance from this Town by reason of their poverty, is not enough for his livelihood." So, Church declared, "I shall Encourage him to Stay promising him an allowance from the publique Treasury for what Service he shall do for the Army."
That observation suggests a motive for Burroughs's possible anger about Lawson's employment with Andros: perhaps he had wanted the job himself. Did Burroughs express jealousy or frustration about Lawson's chaplaincy in the hearing of Mercy Lewis when she lived in his household? She could later have passed that on to Ann Putnam, who incorporated the information into her spectral vision of the minister.
Burroughs's specter also told Ann Jr. that "he had bewitched a grate many souldiers to death at the eastward, when Sir Edmon was their [sic]." The malevolent killing of soldiers in Maine during Andros's campaign could have had only one purpose: assisting the Wabanakis in their war against God's people. But why would Burroughs do such a thing? And why would that treachery help to reveal his identity as a witch?
New Englanders had long thought of Native Americans as devil worshippers. North America had been "the Devil's territories," Cotton Mather later wrote, before the Christian English settlers arrived. That George Burroughs had indeed spectrally allied himself to Satan and the Wabanakis could well have appeared likely to anyone who contemplated his uncanny ability to survive the attacks on Casco in August 1676 and September 1689, followed by his remarkably prescient decision to leave Falmouth sometime in the winter of 1689-90, mere months before the town fell to the Wabanakis in May 1690. And the "anyone" in that sentence was not, of course, just anyone--it was a very specific someone, Mercy Lewis, whose large extended family had essentially been wiped out in the same devastating attacks from which Burroughs had so stunningly and completely escaped.
He was, therefore, a witch. Mercy Lewis knew it because of her experiences on the northeastern frontier, and she, Ann Putnam, Abigail Hobbs, and others said it. They accused Burroughs at his formal examination on May 9, 1692, and they repeated their charges at the grand-jury proceedings on August 3 and at the clergyman's trial two days later. Much of the testimony offered on August 5 pertained to Maine, and to Burroughs's role as the witches' leader. Deodat Lawson, who attended the trial, later recalled that the eight unnamed confessors who testified (almost certainly including Abigail Hobbs) described "some hundreds of the society of witches, considerable companies of whom were affirmed to muster in arms by beat of drum." Burroughs summoned them to the meetings "from all quarters . . . with the sound of a diabolical trumpet," and "did administer the sacrament of Satan to them, encouraging them to go on in their way, and they should certainly prevail."
The confessors' use of military imagery was not coincidental. People, especially refugees from the Maine frontier, were all too well accustomed to the sounds of trumpets summoning militiamen to battle, and to the sight of forces mustering to oppose the enemy. The wars that had begun in the visible world in 1675 were continuing in 1692 in the form of struggles in the invisible world as well.
The hanging of the Reverend George Burroughs on August 19, 1692, can best be seen, therefore, as the wartime execution of a traitor. Mercy Lewis, the refugee who had lost everything but her life in the war, thereby exacted her revenge.
Months earlier, in mid-April, Ann Putnam Jr. had turned Abigail Hobbs's confession, which generally described deviltry on the Maine frontier, into a specific accusation of George Burroughs, whom she was too young to have known personally. But Mercy, the family's maidservant, had undoubtedly filled Ann's head with tales of the mysterious clergyman she had previously served. The link between the Maine frontier and Salem Village, first identified by Abigail Hobbs and then forged firmly by Mercy Lewis, altered the course of the burgeoning crisis, causing an explosion of accusations outside the confines of Salem Village and spreading witchcraft charges throughout all of Essex County. The event known today simply as "Salem" in reality, then, involved much of northern New England.
The records of the Salem witchcraft trials were transcribed by the WPA in the 1930s and can be found in Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds., The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692, 3 vols. (New York, 1977), available on the Internet at the Website "Witchcraft in Salem Village". Information on the family of Mercy Lewis comes primarily from Sybil Noyes, Charles Thornton Libby, and Walter Goodwin Davis, Genealogical Dictionary of Maine and New Hampshire (1928-33; reprint, Baltimore, Md., 1996). There is no detailed published account of the Indian wars on the Maine frontier, but much of the relevant evidence is included in James Phinney Baxter, ed., Documentary History of the State of Maine, in Collections of the Maine Historical Society, 2d ser., vols. 4 (1889), 5 (1897), 6 (1900), 9 (1907). Information about Falmouth in the seventeenth century is contained in William Willis, The History of Portland, from 1632 to 1864 (Portland, 1865).
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