The Irish statute against witchcraft still exists, as it would seem. Nothing occurred in that kingdom which recommended its being formally annulled; but it is considered as obsolete; and, should so wild a thing be attempted in the present day, no procedure, it is certain, would now be permitted to lie upon it.
If anything were wanted to confirm the general proposition, that the epidemic terror of witchcraft increases and becomes general in proportion to the increase of prosecutions against witches, it would be sufficient to quote certain extraordinary occurrences in New England. Only a brief account can be here given of the dreadful hallucination under which the colonists of that province were for a time deluded and oppressed by a strange contagious terror, and how suddenly and singularly it was cured, even by its own excess ; but it is too strong evidence of the imaginary character of this hideous disorder to be altogether suppressed.
New England, as is well known, was peopled mainly by emigrants who had been disgusted with the government of Charles I. in Church and state, previous to the great Civil War. Many of the more wealthy settlers were Presbyterians and Calvinists ; others, fewer in number, and less influential from their fortune, were Quakers, Anabaptists, or members of other sects who were included under the general name of Independents. The Calvinists brought with them the same zeal for religion and strict morality which everywhere distinguished them. Unfortunately they were not wise according to their zeal, but entertained a proneness to believe in supernatural and direct personal intercourse between the devil and his vassals, an error to which, as we have endeavoured to show, their brethren in Europe had, from the beginning, been peculiarly subject. In a country imperfectly cultivated, and where the partially improved spots were embosomed in inaccessible forests, inhabited by numerous tribes of savages, it was natural that a disposition to superstition should rather gain than lose ground, and that to other dangers and horrors with which they were surrounded, the colonists should have added fears of the devil, not merely as the Evil Principle tempting human nature to sin, and thus endangering our salvation, but as combined with sorcerers and witches to inflict death and torture upon children and others.
The first case which I observe was that of four children of a person called John Goodwin, a mason. The eldest, a girl, had quarrelled with the laundress of the family about some linen which was amissing. The mother of the laundress, an ignorant, testy, and choleric old Irishwoman, scolded the accuser; and shortly after the elder Goodwin, her sister, and two brothers, were seized with such strange diseases that all their neighbours concluded they were bewitched. They conducted themselves as those supposed to suffer under maladies created by such influence were accustomed to do. They stiffened their necks so hard at one time that the joints could not be moved ; at another time their necks were so flexible and supple that it seemed the bone was dissolved. They had violent convulsions, in which their jaws snapped with the force of a spring-trap set for vermin. Their limbs were curiously contorted, and, to those who had a taste for the marvellous, seemed entirely dislocated and displaced. Amid these distortions they cried out against the poor old woman, whose name was Glover, alleging that she was in presence with them, adding to their torments. The miserable Irishwoman, who hardly could speak the English language, repeated her Pater Noster and Ave Maria like a good Catholic; but there were some words which she had forgotten. She was, therefore, supposed to be unable to pronounce the whole consistently and correctly—and condemned and executed accordingly.
But the children of Goodwin found the trade they were engaged in to be too profitable to be laid aside, and the eldest, in particular, continued all the external signs of witchcraft and possession. Some of these were excellently calculated to flatter the self-opinion and prejudices of the Calvinist ministers, by whom she was attended, and accordingly bear in their very front the character of studied and voluntary imposture. The young woman acting, as was supposed, under the influence of the devil, read a Quaker treatise with ease and apparent satisfaction; but a book written against the poor inoffensive Friends the devil would not allow his victim to touch. She could look on a Church of England Prayer-book, and read the portions of Scripture which it contains, without difficulty or impediment; but the spirit which possessed her threw her into fits if she attempted to read the same Scriptures from the Bible, as if the awe which it is supposed the fiends entertain for Holy Writ depended, not on the meaning of the words, but the arrangement of the page, and the type in which they were printed. This singular species of flattery was designed to captivate the clergyman through his professional opinions ; others were more strictly personal; the afflicted damsel seems to have been somewhat of the humour of the inamorata of Messrs. Smack, Pluck, Catch, and Company, and had, like her, merry as well as melancholy fits. She often imagined that her attendant spirits brought her a handsome pony to ride off with them to their rendezvous. On such occasions she made a spring upwards, as if to mount her horse, and then, still seated on her chair, mimicked with dexterity and agility the motions of the animal pacing, trotting, and galloping, like a child on the nurse's knee; but when she cantered in this manner up stairs, she affected inability to enter the clergyman's study, and when she was pulled into it by force, used to become quite well, and stand up as a rational being. " Reasons were given for this," says the simple minister, " that seem more kind than true." Shortly after this, she appears to have treated the poor divine with a species of sweetness and attention which gave him greater embarrassment than her former violence. She used to break in upon him at his studies to importune him to come down stairs, and thus advantaged, doubdess, the kingdom of Satan by the interruption of his pursuits. At length the Goodwins were, or appeared to be, cured. But the example had been given and caught, and the blood of poor Dame Glover, which had been the introduction to this tale of a hobbyhorse, was to be the forerunner of new atrocities and fearfully more general follies.