Fear of witches, witchcraft and being possessed by demons was very real and eventually created mass hysteria in Massachusetts towns like Salem.
Witches in the 1600s were scarier than "pointy hat witches" are depicted today; witches typically looked normal--so it was hard to know who was a witch which led to people mistrusting their friends and neighbors. Anyone slightly abnormal, including foreigners was a candidate for witchcraft. During the Salem Witch Trials, devout Christians of high social standings were being accused of being possessed by demons which was unprecedented.
Cotton Mather was a reverend and trusted writer on witchcraft and it is thought that his sermons and writings on witches helped ignite the witch hysteria during the late 1600s. Although after the trials he claimed that people could not be convicted of "spectral evidence" alone, many people were convicted one solely the claims of others.
Cotton Mather Approved These Ways of Identifying Witches:
- "If the Party suspected be found to have the Devil's mark ; for it is commonly thought, when the Devil makes his Covenant with them, he alwaies leaves his mark behind them, whereby he knows them for his own:—a mark whereof no evident Reason in Nature can be given."
- Birthmarks, moles, and other skin abnormalities were considered proof of a witch. A confession and a mole were sufficient evidence to condemn a person to death. People believed that these unexplainable marks were made when the devil touched his followers in order to be able to recognize them. These marks were sometimes referred to as "witches’ teats" and it was thought that witches fed evil creatures with them. (How many people have a skin abnormality?)
- "If it can be proved, that the party hath entertained a Familiar Spirit, and had Conference with it, in the likeness of some visible Creatures ; here is Evidence of witchcraft."
- Some black cats, toads, humanoid figures, spirits, certain dogs were thought to be "familiar friends" of witches. These familiars were thought to help witches carry out their curses and spell casting. Some people even thought that witches could even turn into a cat 9 times during their lifetime, creating the folklore that "cats have 9 lives." Witches were expected to feed their familiars, this could be done through their "devil's mark," or not. (How many people feed stray cats?)
- “By the Witches Words As when they have been heard calling on speaking to or Talking of their Familiars or when they have been heard Telling of Hurt they have done to man or beast Or when they have been heard Threatning of such Hurt Or if they have been heard Relating their Transportations.”
- (How many people talk to their animals?)
- “By the Witches Deeds. As when they have been seen with their Spirits, or seen secretly Feeding any of their Imps. Or, when there can be found their Pictures, Poppets, and other Hellish Compositions.”
- (How many people own a scary doll?)
- “By one or more Fellow- Witches, Confessing their own Witchcraft, and bearing Witness against others; if they can make good the Truth of their Witness, and give sufficient proof of it.”
- Sufficient proof could be as simple as having a respected church member claim that they had seen the witch in question do something witch-like. (How many people have angered another human being enough that they would pretend that you are evil?)
- “By the Witches own Confession, of Giving their Souls to ' the Devil. It is no Rare thing, for Witches to Confess.”
- It was thought that the devil walked the forests with a book where he would collect the names of people who would sign their souls over to him. Many people did confess to being witches. It is thought that many people admitted to being witches in a hope to end their ordeal.
I always wonder about the Puritan naming system, I thought "Cotton" was a strange name but then his father was named "Increase,"and a 5 year old "witch" was named "Dorcas Good," (she claimed that a little snake would suckle blood from her finger."