October 12, 2004

Wonders of the Invisible Blog


I don't think Cotton Mather, a peripheral figure in the Salem witch trials (he certainly believed in witchcraft, but he wasn't involved or even in Salem during the proceedings), qualifies as our blogging forefather, as American Digest suggests, but I was reminded of blogging -- liveblogging, actually -- when I read about the circumstances under which Mather composed Wonders of the Invisible World, which was supposed to be an account of the Salem trials based on the transcripts and records:

The court could not immediately supply the material needed; nevertheless Mather began his writing. Unfortunately, the material still didn't arrive, and Mather continued writing....

T.J. Holmes has plotted Cotton Mather's progress. Having written his 'Enchantments Encountered', he unearthed a sermon delivered on 4 August, and included it under the title of 'A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World'. This he also probably expanded by adding the corollaries, etc. He ended this section by saying, 'But so much for our Corollaries. I hasten to the main thing designed for your entertainment. And that is," but the promise ends abruptly with the comma and instead Mather proceeds to 'An Hortatory and Necessary Address'. But before he actually wrote this address Mather probably sent the manuscript as completed up to that point to [William] Stoughton [the Lt. Gov. of Mass., and one of the judges whom Mather sought to defend by writing the work -- ideofact]: in reply he received the letter which he published in his 'Authors Defence' which he next composed. Returning to his comma, he inserted the 'Address', promising at the end to supply next 'the chief Entertainment which my Readers do expect, and shall receive ... a true History of what has occurred'. However, since he could not supply what he didn't have, he instead moved on to 'A Narrative of an Apparition'. At the end he made a determined effort to will the reports into being: 'But I shall no longer detain my Reader from his expected Entertainment, in a brief account of the Tryals.' Faith may move mountains, but the court remained unmoved, so Mather had to move on to his account of the famous Bury St Edmunds trial under Sir Matthew Hale. At last the report from Salem arrived, and Mather could pretend that all had worked out as he had planned, as he introduced the trial of the Reverend George Burroughs in a businesslike manner.

One can well imagine Mather cursing his modem -- well, he was a Puritan writing in the 17th century, so I guess it would be admonishing his modem -- to download the Salem material faster. Oh, and he kept posting throughout the wait --

Holmes suggests that Mather may well have sent each section off to the printer as he completed it.

--From M. Wynn Thomas, "Some Metamorphoses of Salem Withcraft," in The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft, edited by Sydney Anglo.

Posted by Ideofact at October 12, 2004 10:09 PM

Cotton Mather may not have had a direct hand in the Salem trials, but as I recall he was practically a cheerleader at the execution of his Harvard classmate Rev. George Burroughs.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens at October 13, 2004 04:06 PM

True -- although I'm not sure that "cheerleader" quite captured what Mather did.

Burroughs flawlessly recited the Lord's Prayer, something that someone who had sold their soul to the devil wasn't supposed to be able to do. Mather gave a short speech saying something to the effect that people should have faith in the magistrates and the court that pronounced guilt. Though Mather had not witnessed the proceedings, most of the others there to see the hanging had, and based on what they had seen in the courtroom, they were satisfied that Burroughs was guilty.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Salem trials, and New England witchcraft trials in general, is the extent to which laymen felt betrayed by courts that rendered "not guilty" verdicts (something they did something like 80 percent of the time). Mather's appeal to the correctness of the verdict -- when most men knew that most courts were reluctant to condemn witches to death -- must have struck a reassuring chord. Whether or not that's cheerleading -- well, I suppose that's in the eye of the beholder.

Posted by: Bill at October 14, 2004 11:27 PM