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Sex in Massachusetts

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So, the month wrapped and I still hadn’t gotten around to posting a list of the April books, and then in between not doing that and finally doing it, I read another book, and then–

 Okay, so let’s back up a little.

I want to talk about a book, sort of, and things the book connects to in my life and thinking.

And that book–called The Devil in Massachusetts, by Marion L. Starkey–will appear as the first on the May list. 

It’s a short book and a very good one, but that doesn’t begin to cover the issue here.

So I’ll start with–

By now, anybody who has read this blog  regularly knows that I am very much interested in all things New England, and especially in New England history,  intellectual history, and literature.

Because of this, I sometimes get accused of “liking” things I don’t actually like–the works of the New England Transcendentalists, for instance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson makes my head ache, and I think Hawthorne–although a more interesting and powerful mind–is a leaden writer who tells too much and shows too little.

Still, I am interested in them both, because they are part of a region and a history that are deeply a part of me. 

Sometimes I get interested in things simply for the fact that they belong to me. 

I never studied American history in a classroom setting after I got past high school. 

Over the course of my life, my reading patterns have mimicked my father’s–lots of novels to start, veering into nonfiction, veering into general history, veering into American history.

I have no idea why that should be the case, but there it is. 

The book in question–Marion L. Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts–has been lying around my house for a long time.

I think I may have gotten it from the History Book Club back when Bill was still alive.

For a long time, I resisted reading it, because I assumed that it was a contemporary book, and contemporary books on the Salem witch trials make me very nervous.

Too many of them take a Women’s Studies approach to the issue, which ends up being a lot of ahistorical fulminating about Sexism and Repression and Older Women as the Other.

I own a number of very good books written by academics in Women’s Study, including one of my favorites (Women of the Left Bank, by Shari Benstock), but there is a particular WS mental illness that creeps into a lot of this stuff, and I’d rather not bother.

I picked up The Devil in Massachusetts this time because I had just finished rereading Gone With The Wind.  GWTW is long and fiction.  I wanted something short and nonfiction to follow it with.

Me being me, there is not a lot of short on my TBR pile, but my younger son dutifully started deconstructing the thing to see what we could find, and this was what turned up.

I read the introduction cautiously, and it was good news and what I thought might be bad news.

The good news was that The Devil in Massachusetts was not written by a contemporary Women’s Studies professor.  It wasn’t written by a professor at all.

The author, Marion L. Starkey, was one of those  amateur historians from the  Thirties, Forties and Fifties who seem to have died out with the coming of Major Social Change.

I’m not sure why.  In general, these writers–and they’re almost all women–wrote clearer and more interesting history than most professionals, and the world is poorer for the passing of people like Barbara Tuchman and Catherine Drinker Bowen.

And yes, I do  know that Alison Weir is still writing.

At any rate, Marion L. Starkey was not a Women’s Studies person but one of these, and that made me very happy.

What made me less happy was her announced intent to bring Freudian analysis to bear on the witchcraft incident.

So I started with the feeling that I might have to pitch the thing across the room a few times before I finished it.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about.  Whatever Starkey meant about taking Freud into account in understanding the witch trials, it did not result in the kind of heavy handed “exploration” of everybody’s subconscious motivations accompanied by overconfident declarations of the existence of the Oedipus Complex that I’m used to in the worst of Freudian criticism.

In fact, it didn’t seem to me to engage in any Freudian criticism at all. 

It puzzled me for a while, and I finally came to the conclusion that Starkey’s interest in Freud had led her to report–and analyze–a set of incidents and circumstances I’d never read about before.

Those incidences and circumstances pertain specifically to the character and life of Cotton Mather and his father, Increase Mather.

And they’re a pip.

Increase and Cotton Mather were big time intellectual heavyweights in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, active as both ministers and politicians in every important issue of the day.

Puritan New England was an intellectual society that placed enormous emphasis on study and erudition.  These are the people, after all, whose first act after hatcheting a living out of a wilderness was to found Harvard.

And I already knew something about Increase and Cotton Mather, including the fact that Increase wrote a book about how to discern true witchcraft from false allegations that was–well, let’s just say that if you ever came to trial for any reason, you wouldn’t want your court to be relying on those rules.

The Mathers were not intellectuals I respected, and there were a number of other intellectuals in the colony at the time (and later) that I respect very much.


You’ve got to understand that witch trials were driven by accusers who claim to be possessed by witches who sent their spectral bodies to pinch,  hit and otherwise torment their neighbors.

And these accusers–the girls who claimed to be afflicted by witches–were almost always  teen-aged girls.

Afflicted girls would fall down to the ground and writhe in fits and tell the authorities that the “spectral body” of Mrs. X was grabbing at them and giving them pain.

The authorities would t hen arrest Mrs. X and “examine’  her.  Then they would demand that she confess.  If she would not confess,  she would be sent to trial and convicted.  If she would still not confess, she would be hanged.

And she would inevitably be convicted, because the assumption was that “the devil can’t appear in the form of the righteous.”

That is, if the Accuser saw the “spectral body” of Mrs. X, it really was Mrs. X, because the Devil was incapable of sending a spectral body that looked like a good Christian.

If this is beginning to sound to you like what was going on in the day care child sex abuse hysteria of the Nineties–children never lie about being abused!–it is.  In fact,  it’s virtually exact. 

It’s exact right down to the “if you confess, we won’t totally destroy your life” bit.  Gerald Amirault remained in jail for decades because he adamantly refused to “confess” to something  he didn’t do.  Salem’s accused witches went to the gallows for the same refusal.

And you think this thing can’t happen any more. 

At any rate, Increase Mather didn’t start the Salem witch trials and he didn’t participate in them, but he also did nothing to stop them and did a lot to insure that the hysteria continued  unabated far longer than it would have done by endorsing (albeit ambiguously) that business about how the devil couldn’t appear as the spectral body of a good person.

And his son Cotton was worse.

Anyway, I knew all that before I started this book.  And Increase and Cotton Mather were never among my favorite New England people.

But then came the information I’d never read before.

The first inkling I got that something was even more wrong with the Mathers than I’d realized was when Starkey reported that Cotton Mather would often take “afflicted” girls to help “cure” them of the influence of witches upon them.

Cotton Mather was, by then, a middle aged man.  His father was an old man.  And these were teen-aged girls.


But then there was the report of an incident–actually, a series of incidents–where the Mathers took in an afflicted girl and then called the neighbors in to watch while they worked to affect a “cure” of demon possession.

The cure consisted of stripping the girl to well below the waist and having father and son rub her naked breasts and belly until she stopped having “fits” and calmed down.

I mean–um?

And no, the people of the time were not all in awe of the Mathers or driven into blindness by the idea that important ministers like the two of them couldn’t possibly  be engaged in–well, what that looked like.

Increase and Cotton, however, were outraged at any suggestion that what they were doing had anything to do with sex.  And they were powerful enough in the colony that you didn’t want them outraged at you.

In the long run, it didn’t matter.  The witch trials destroyed both of them.  Their reputations haven’t recovered to this day.

My problem is that I can’t get the image out of my head, and it’s a foul and nasty image.  Those two old man, rubbing and rubbing at the breasts and bellies of a girl younger than their own daughters, with an audience of neighbors for a kick.

It’s like the plot of a bad porn movie.

And I will never, ever be able to think of the Mathers in any other way but this.

I followed The Devil in Massachusetts with volume two of Perry Miller’s intellectual history of New England, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province.

He devotes a chapter and a half to the witch hysteria, without, of course, mentioning the Mathers and their young girls.

Miller has no  more use for the Mathers than I ever did.  Even without the young girls, it’s hard to see how anybody could have any use for them except as cautionary tales for stopping witch hunts–and given the day care sex abuse hysteria, we aren’t using them for that.

But the young girls are, I think, an important piece of information–a part of what caused both Increase and Cotton to think about witches and witch trials in the way they did.

Maybe that’s how Freud affected Starkey’s writing of this history.

Unlike everyone else, once she was in possession of the information about t hose girls, she thought it was important to report it.

Written by janeh

May 7th, 2013 at 8:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Sex in Massachusetts'

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  1. Starkey as described makes sense.
    As for “amateur” historians–you seem to just mean “not employed by a university,” since Tuchman wasn’t an amateur in any other sense–welcome to my world. Outside of Christopher Duffy, I can’t remember the last time I read a new piece of military history written by anyone with a paid position in a university. Fortunately, there seems to be a good supply of obsessives willing to spend decades to research something to write books which will never make up the cost of the research.
    Same thing in literary criticism, by the way: hardly an author I’ll read about being researched or criticized by the professorate, but they’re being researched and criticized all the same.
    Anyone for a book on the growing irrelevance of the universities to liberal arts scholarship?


    7 May 13 at 2:36 pm

  2. What was the source of the story about the Mather? I assume private diaries or letters since it certainly wouldn’t be in the public town records!

    The witch hunting does remind me of the day care cases. It also reminds me of “recovered memory” and the current fashion for arresting 80 year old men for sex offenses committed 50 or 60 years ago. What ever happened to statutes of limitation?


    7 May 13 at 7:22 pm

  3. It’s not the statutes of limitations that bother me, it’s the difficulty of proving some that happened 50 years ago beyond a reasonable doubt – especially when it involves something so often done in private, like sexual abuse, and something the definition of which has changed. When I was a girl, getting ‘felt up’ wasn’t a crime, although it was often unwanted and unwelcome. Now it’s lumped with actual rape. It also happens with WW II war criminal – like that unfortunate old fellow who was accused of being a murdering guard in one camp, and when that wasn’t true, hey, they charged him with being a different murdering guard in a different camp! He had to be guilty, it just seemed to be a matter of getting something through the courts.

    The Salem incident as described by Jane seems to have been fairly public, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there were records of it. It’s astonishing (or would be if it weren’t so common) how often allegations against women involve them being examined or treated or punished while naked by men.


    8 May 13 at 6:05 am

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