Well, it is that time of year again which means I can finally post this ghoulish story which has been sitting on the back burner for a few months.
So, the Salem Witch Trials. I never really thought that I would be posting anything related to this particular bit of American history, even though I have ancestors who I know were involved in a few witch trials, none had previously been a part of this particular one.
And, I have Esther Newell to thank for this excellent addition to the family archives. Esther’s mother was Abigail Smith, who’s line on her mother’s side goes back a few more generations to Mary Cheever, a daughter of Ezekiel Cheever.
Ezekiel is famously known as a Boston school master who wrote a latin textbook titled Accidence: A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue. This publication was used for many generations in the schools of New England. (I am including his biography in this .pdf file, it makes for a pretty interesting, short, read.) Cotton Mather, in his eulogy about Ezekiel, remembered his great piety and “his untiring abjuration of the Devil.” Judge Sewall had this to say, “The welfare of the commonwealth was always upon the conscience of Ezekiel Cheever,”…”and he abominated periwigs.” Apparently he despised the wigs so much he was known to pluck the despised object off an offender’s head and fling it out the window. (Which if you ask me is pretty rude. I hate hoodies and baseball caps, but you don’t see me running up to folks to rip the ugly fashion wear off and fling the items out windows – although…I would really, really love to do that.)
Ezekiel and his wife Mary Margaret Culverwell came to New England in 1637, eventually settling in Boston where he became head master of the Latin school there. Ezekiel married twice and had a total of 11 children. Our ancestress Mary Cheever was a daughter with his first wife Mary Margaret. With his second wife he had a son Ezekiel, junior. It is this son who we have to thank for our Salem Witch Trial connection.
Junior and his siblings were brought up in a very Puritan household where his father was known for his “untiring abjuration of the Devil.” Eventually junior grew up, married, had children and settled the family in Salem. He earned his living as a respectable tailor. As he grew older he also became an official clerk of the court, due mostly to his knowledge of shorthand, and earned prominence in town, eventually taking the oath of fidelity and the freeman’s oath. The family outgrew their home in town, so in 1684 they purchased and moved to the Lathrop farm in Salem Town.
In 1689 he was promoted to a charter member of the Salem Village Church, eventually becoming a deacon, a position he held for many years.
It was during the Salem Witch Trials that he was promoted as an official of the court, where he was called upon to present depositions and complaints. As church deacon he also made calls to the homes of the accused for questioning. His name is seen as the notetaker for a number of infamous witch trials at the time. In many of his notations he saw fit to incorporate his own views and opinions on the proceedings. In the case of Sarah Good he noted the accused behavior as being “in a very wicked, spiteful manner…with base and abusive words and many lies.”
In fact, Junior was also an accuser, filing accusations and complaints against accused – Bridget Bishop, Giles Corey*, Abigail Hobbs, and Mary Warren, after witnessing a number of the, supposedly, afflicted and tormented girls being harassed by their, conveniently invisible, tormentors. He also accused Martha Corey, at her questioning, of afflicting Ann Putnam, Jr. and Mercy Lewis, based upon testimony he had heard from others and his own observations, protesting that Corey was lying before the court. His view of the proceedings was no doubt colored and distorted by his upbringing, and his father’s views on the devil and evil in the world.
It was a dark and evil time in American history, unfortunately merely one of many. Ezekiel remained heavily immersed in Salem Church affairs after the trials. There is no indication in the records, or history, that he suffered guilt or remorse over his part in the murder of innocent victims of this mass hysteria. It is quite possible the rest of his family was cheering him on. I can only hope that his sister Mary, who was living in Farmington, Massachusetts at the time of the trials, with her husband William Lewis and their children, was appalled at her brother’s involvement.
There were public calls for justice, by others, starting to occur by at least 1695 when Thomas Maule, a noted Quaker, publicly criticized the way the court proceedings were handled. There was also a group of jurors from the trial who asked a local Reverend to read aloud a public apology and their pleas for forgiveness. One minister admitted, “Such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former presidents, that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way.” Even the Salem Village church began to seek repentance at they voted to reverse the excommunication of Martha Corey, Giles’ wife. Other church goers publicly asked for forgiveness from their fellow parishioners for their part, claiming that they had been deluded by Satan into denouncing innocent people.
Over time all of the accused were eventually pardoned by the State and the church. (Gee, that was mighty nice of them.)
Ezekiel Cheever, junior died in December of 1731.
2. New York Times article, By BLAKE BAILEY: Published: March 13, 2009