A few days after the election, I attended a panel on witch hunts. It felt appropriate—after all, this was the year of “Lock her up” and “Trump that bitch,” when a topless Hillary Clinton effigy was hung atop a crane in Oregon and individual members of the media were targeted and harassed. In the month following Donald Trump’s win, swastika sightings, Islamophobia, and violent hate crimes have increased, the president-elect unleashed his Twitter mob on a union leader who spoke out against him, and fake news reports drove a man to discharge his weapon in a pizza restaurant.
Targeted, misinformed loathing thrives today in spite of a wealth of historical precedent for the absolute mayhem these attitudes risk. Nazi Germany has, obviously, been an increased object of study since the rise of Trump. Indeed, there are many aspects of the time we’re living in right now that recall some distant, horrible past—and not necessarily just the imaginary “Great” America we’ve heard so much about, a phrase that seemed to nearly unhinge Rudy Giuliani’s gaping jaw as he howled it onstage at the Republican National Convention this summer. It’s also instructive to look to the crisis that took place between January 1692 and May 1693, when 20 people—14 of whom were women—and two dogs were executed for witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, a dramatic and belated incarnation of the witchcraft prosecutions that had already stormed through Europe.
Lorrayne Carroll, an English and Women’s Studies professor at the University of Southern Maine, spoke at the panel about Cotton Mather, a prolific Puritan pastor from Boston who, though not directly involved in the actual prosecutions at Salem, gave sermons and published works—including Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions in 1689 and Wonders of the Invisible World in 1693—that helped mold the way the Puritan community perceived the horrors they were supposedly up against.
“We must humbly confess to our God, that we are miserably degenerated from the first Love of our Predecessors,” Mather wrote in Wonders of the Invisible World; witchcraft, to Mather, was inextricably bound up within this Trumpian display of nostalgia. As Ibram X. Kendi pointed out in this year’s National Book Award winner Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, “Even after Massachusetts authorities apologized, reversed the convictions, and provided reparations in the early 1700s, Mather never stopped defending the Salem witch trials, because he never stopped defending the religious, class, slaveholding, gender, and racial hierarchies enforced by the trials.”
What better man, then, to help us understand the teeming mass of white male villainy we’ve found ourselves trapped underneath? What better historical moment to give us insight into the disaster of scapegoating and misinformation and bigotry that marks our own? The parallels are certainly there—and, these being our forefathers, how could they not be?—but in leaning too heavily on those parallels, Carroll warned, I risked stumbling into another hallmark of the American imagination: oversimplification. The Salem witch trials are “constantly asking us to look at complications, a set of unknowns that are never going to be known, and how they intersect.”
The following interview, taken from two phone conversations, has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: For those who are only familiar with the basics, can you explain who Cotton Mather was and what he stood for?
CARROLL: I think the most important aspect of this period that helps us understand our own period is [how] Cotton Mather framed the society he lived in. Mather, who was the son of the famous Puritan minister Increase Mather and the grandson of two famous Puritan ministers—he was named Cotton Mather because his grandfathers were John Cotton and Richard Mather—was constantly looking backward to a time that is the “purer” time of the Puritans, when Richard Mather and John Cotton had just immigrated to the new world.
For Cotton Mather, by the 1690s and the early 1700s, there’s just been this incredible decline. One of the connections that I make between Mather and Trump is that they both harken to this notion of a symbolic place called the past. For Trump, it’s “Make America Great Again.” For Cotton Mather, it’s “our forefathers were purer and we have degenerated from that,” and that’s implied in “Make America Great Again.” So for people who don’t understand that early American period, it’s really crucial to see how second and third-generation immigrants, in New England, anyway, were constantly being harangued to look back at a better time. Even that early on!
It’s interesting that they thought of it as a “better time” when it was so miserable.
Yeah. Except that for them, a couple of things, again, resonate with our own time. When the first generation of Puritans came over, their interactions were among themselves and with the Native communities that they... intersected with, to use a kind term. They were building this “city upon a hill,” they were listening to John Winthrop talk about them as the “chosen people” and a “shining light” in the wilderness. So they dealt with themselves as a community that was, for them, mostly homogeneous. And by the time Cotton Mather is writing 60 years later, there are people who are not Puritans; there are the dreaded Quakers, there are people from the Church of England. So they were in a much more diverse community that threatened their sense of what they called their “errand into the wilderness,” and also made them deal with people—not just Native Americans, who were considered extremely “Other,” but also enslaved people, and Europeans, people from Germany, for example. By the 1690s, this was a much more heterogeneous community, and part of the argument Cotton Mather makes is, we’re watered down. We’re degenerating.
And that language really resonates with this sense [that] the “others” are polluting us, that’s such a basic racialist construction. That we should not deal with diversity, they should assimilate into us—or we should just exterminate them, as they did, or tried to do, with many Native American communities. Because they have an “errand.” Because they’re the chosen people. Because they’re somehow special.
I just read an interview from 2014, in which Steve Bannon was taking part of a conference at the Vatican. It’s a very interesting article, because it makes clear that he just sees Judeo-Christian people and beliefs as superior to all others. And to me that’s Cotton Mather 2.0, or 5.0, or whatever you want to call it. This assertion that all other ways of seeing the world are inferior.
What exactly was Cotton Mather’s involvement in the Salem Witch Trials?
He wasn’t, for example, a magistrate, or one of the people on the special Court [of Oyer and Terminer], but he did attend the execution of George Burroughs, who had been the minister at Salem. So he’s not directly part of the processes, but he’s a part of the larger discourse. I would never dream of teaching Salem without teaching Wonders of the Invisible World.
He argues in the first part [of Wonders] that there are witches, and if you deny that there are witches, then you are not a true believer and you don’t understand the bible. Then he [talks about] all the ways people can find witches, looking at people who in Europe, and England in particular, were witch-finders. And then he gets into the specific cases of each of the people in Salem, and for each one, he has a set of justifications.
As this is happening, there’s a person who also lives in Boston, who’s not a Puritan, named Robert Calef, who writes something called More Wonders of the Invisible World, in which he prints a correspondence with Cotton Mather where he’s pushing back against Mather’s findings—and of course they wouldn’t publish it in Boston, so it had to be published in London. So at the time, there were people pushing back—Thomas Brattle was another. He was not directly involved in the juridical process, but he was a very strong discursive presence.
Do you think Mather believed what he was saying?
Yes, I do. I don’t think there’s any kind of historical or textual indication that Mather was in bad faith with himself. I think he was a true believer. The horror for him would have been if he hadn’t or if he’d had doubts, because that would have made him a hypocrite, and that is a huge sin.
With both Donald Trump and Cotton Mather, you see men who are basically trying to narrate their own versions of history.
Absolutely, and they do it by passing into what one scholar calls the “symbolic imaginary.” In other words, you get into people’s imaginations and you throw in some images, metaphors, some visualizations that activate people’s fears, for example. Or their desires, their longings. I think both Mather and Trump—and for that matter, Bannon—are really effective at manipulating imaginative terrains.
In The Witches: Salem 1692, Stacy Schiff pointed out how dark the world was back then, both literally and in terms of how little was actually known. This idea of not really knowing what’s real—we live in that time, too, now, but we have too much information, and a lot of it is fake.
In the witchcraft trials, one of the major issues that Mather argued for in Wonders of the Invisible World was spectral evidence. It was deeply unpopular; even the people who were holding the trials had some real reservations about admitting spectral evidence. The girls who were accusing would say [something like]: “I saw the specter of Bridget Bishop trying to bite me,” and then there would be a moment where someone said, “Yeah, I saw it too, and I struck at that specter with my sword,” and then they’d go over and look at Bridget Bishop’s coat and it would have a little tear in it, and they’d say “that’s where the sword cut the coat!”
That notion of spectral evidence was deeply, deeply controversial, and yet it is the reason everybody was convicted. How do you argue that you didn’t send your specter out? So spectral evidence as a kind of false narrative and a false image then ties into a larger narrative of, say, satanic manipulation and the devil’s attempt to take over New England. And we have the same phenomenon now, which is, you know, a fake news story by a Macedonian teenager feeding into the larger narrative of “Make America Great Again.” You have to have the broader narrative in place for all these elements to have their salience. But then when you do add all these elements, they reinforce each other—the narrative, and then the element within the narrative.
There’s this sense that there was a halcyon time, a time when everybody knew the rules and everybody followed the rules—although there’s a boatload of cases of infanticide and unmarried pregnancies that nobody wants to talk about in early America—and everybody knew “their place.” This is a fundamental Puritan notion that John Winthrop set out in his sermon: everybody has a rank, they know what that rank is, and we all occupy our space. That’s a real originary moment of social order that appeals to people. Especially, obviously, if they’re at the top of the ranks.
Once others started living in the same space with this community, then those verities of truth, of clarity, so-called, became muddied. Plus, the Indians were attacking, so you have this external enemy you can invoke as a source of fear and loathing, as people do here with Muslims because of radical Islamic activity in other parts of the world. So there are strong parallels, but I never want to be presentist—our economic situation is so much more complicated than the economic situation was in New England in the 17th century, and access to information was so much more restricted.
In our email exchange, you mentioned a phrase called “creolian degeneracy.” What does that mean, in this context?
When the Puritans used the phrase “creolian degeneracy,” what they meant is when the fathers came, they were the purest, and as we were born—Cotton Mather was actually third generation born in New England—we’re farther away from our fathers, and therefore we are literally degenerated in the sense that gens, genus means family. So there’s that sense of degeneration, and you can understand how a discussion of degeneracy can very easily morph into a discussion of race, because “gens” is the bloodline.
Was this an idea that Cotton Mather specifically spoke of?
His sermons are constantly going back to that. He has this great sermon called—you’re gonna like this one—“Humiliations Follow’d With Deliverances.” He talks about how everybody needs to be humiliated, because until they examine themselves for their sinfulness and their degeneracy from the pure behaviors and bearings of their fathers, they can’t be delivered. Now, there’s a whole other aspect of this regarding the fine details of Puritan doctrine—they believed that when you were born, even before you were born, it was determined whether or not you were going to be saved.
So people didn’t know whether or not they were saved or un-saved, and the argument was that if you go out and murder somebody, it’s likely an indicator that you’re not saved, but it’s not proof, because we can never know. Think about the radical indeterminacy that people lived with every day. Am I saved, or am I not saved?
So it’s this impossible scenario, basically.
It is. And that is, to me, one of the darkest aspects of Puritan culture—that people walk around every day going, oh my God, I could be condemned to hell and I have no control over it. All I can do is try to behave, because maybe that indicates that in my trying, I have some sort of salvational germ inside me that’s making me do that.
This is something that’s always confused me—why would anybody try?
Well, that’s what I always say to my students, it’s like, why not murder, what the hell? If you’re saved, you’re saved. I see it as a really failed social policy, but it worked, because people believed that if they tried to hew to the straight and narrow, that indicated to them that they maybe had this salvational germ in them. Although to say that you believed you were saved, and this is what got Anne Hutchinson in trouble, was to fly in the face of Puritan dogma, because only god knows who has grace. So you’re screwed, in every way.
At a certain point during the trials in Salem, they weren’t even scapegoating particular groups anymore, right? Men, children, churchgoers—society just started eating itself, because anybody could say anything.
Yes, and by the time Governor Phips disbanded the court, there were over 200 people in jail. But Phips ended it when the “afflicted” girls cried out against Governor Phips’s wife. Ta da, comes to a screeching halt, once it begins to touch the elites. When they admitted the spectral evidence, it was like the cat was out of the bag, you couldn’t bring that back in again—it was going to keep happening until it hit the hallways of advanced power, in this case Governor Phips.
For me, teaching Salem is always one of the most fundamental lessons in intersectionality and indeterminacy you can ever, ever find. Salem is really different because, as you say, not all of the people accused were women, not all of the people hanged were women, and not all of them were poor, not all of them were outcasts, so they’re not fitting that narrative. My students often struggle with it, and what I try to get them to look at, especially as they read the actual documents, is that the first three people accused as the kick-off to this thing were in fact Tituba, an enslaved woman, who had virtually no cultural power or social power, Sarah Goode, an outcast, very poor woman, and Sarah Osborne, who was constantly seen as someone who made all the wrong choices—she was widowed, she married somebody else.
So if we can think about it this way, you start with those very conventional patriarchal gestures—go after people who are weakest and most vulnerable. But then once people start buying into a narrative, that narrative can grow and become elaborated, and it can begin to catch, with its different elements, people who aren’t fitting that little bill, and then it becomes this out of control chain of events that then builds on itself. So in terms of intersectionality, you can start asking—what’s the role of masculinity here? Well, you can certainly look at the language and see the ways in which, for example, some of the men who accused the women, they fashioned themselves in a subordinated position to the witches, so it then taps into larger narratives of gender transgression.
One of the men who testified against Bridget Bishop explained that she came to him in a dream, and she sat on his chest—this is a very common trope, even in European witchcraft trials—and he couldn’t move, and she just sat there while he was in his bed. Note that he’s on the bottom, she’s on the top, she’s in control, so masculinities and femininities get reversed in this conversation. So for me, from a feminist perspective, paying attention to not just who’s a man and who’s a woman, but who gets represented in a gendered way and how gendered behaviors are either disciplined or valorized.
Many people who lived in Salem had moved back their from what they called the Maine frontier. So Mary Beth Norton makes a point that a lot of what happened in Salem was because people there were dealing with the traumas of warfare against the natives in borderlands, in the border settlements. One of the girls had seen her entire family massacred in front of her up in Maine, and she got brought down to Salem, and she became one of the accusers.
What can we learn from the way women reacted to their circumstances at this time?
Well, it really calls into question the idea of gender solidarity, that’s for sure. I mean, a lot of women were accusing other women, and not just in Salem. It shows that gender is not monolithic, that where you are in terms of your economic situation, your religious situation, your embodiment, really has a huge affect on gender as a process, rather than as a thing.
It must be interesting from your perspective to watch what’s happening now with Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and minorities. We’ve been scapegoating people for so long, why don’t we learn not to do that?
When people are desperate, and when people have no hope that they can change their situation, and they’re not seeing a larger collective formation in which they can participate fully and take what they need, it causes a lot of bad behavior.
Teaching it is really eye-opening. My students are always surprised at not just the brutality and the violence and the trauma, but also these voices of people who said no. When the Salem events were happening, there were always voices of resistance, providing counter-narratives, questioning the premises on which all of these things were happening, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I can still teach this stuff, because I can find these counter-narratives.
You said during the panel that you were struck by how nasty Cotton Mather could be in his writing.
He’s a really complicated historical figure, and there are some things, from our presentist perspective, that would indicate he was kind of progressive. One of the things that Mather argued for was smallpox inoculation, and he took a lot of abuse for that because many people were still very suspicious of it, but he thought it was an effective breakthrough and that it was going to protect people.
His father and his grandfather both were very powerful men, and he was constantly trying to get out of their shadow. Mather had a really, really bad stutter, and the only time it disappeared was when he preached a sermon.
He wrote some really horrible things about the women in Salem particularly, although I have to say that in Wonders of the Invisible World, he saved his deepest venom and his harshest language for George Burroughs. Because for him, the worst kind of sinner was a fallen minister. So his argument was that Burroughs was more culpable than any of the other witches, because he fell farther.
How have the Salem Witch Trials impacted the American imagination?
Everybody comes to Salem through The Crucible. It’s an incredibly powerful work of literature, it was an extraordinary intervention in its own moment—the moment of the House on Un-American Activities Committee. But because of the particular interest that Miller had in thinking about his own political and social moment, he shaped his play to help maintain that allegory. And in so doing, he took liberties, which anybody does when they write a work of fiction. And that’s why lots of people think Tituba was black [Tituba is now widely believed to have been kidnapped from South America, where she was a member of the Arawak Indian tribe], that the whole problem of Salem was that Abigail Williams had a crush on John Procter, that the witch trials happened because the young girls foolishly played games with Tituba and then got caught. It’s a really psychosexual reading, and it’s also really horrifying in terms of its gender politics.
But that shapes people’s understanding of Salem, and they want to read it as, Salem was when society broke down because individuals couldn’t get along—when in fact it’s much more complicated than that. I really don’t want to portray Mather in the way that Nathaniel Hawthorne did. Hawthorne hated Mather, hated him. Whenever you read any representation of Mather in Hawthorne, and here I’m thinking of the end of Young Goodman Brown, and Alice Doane’s Appeal—I think if he could go back in time and beat the living daylights out of [Mather], he would have.
What is there to like about Cotton Mather, exactly?
If you read his diary, he genuinely cared about the people he ministered to. He believed deeply in his religion, so he worried very much, to almost the extent that we might call obsession and anxiety, about the souls of his congregation. So that kind of care needs to be recognized, I think. He wasn’t just walking around as this massive authoritarian who didn’t care about people. Even in his execution sermons, there’s a sense of despair, and a kind of empathy.
I hate reading some of the things that he wrote, and it’s so easy to caricature him as this awful arch-Puritan, as Hawthorne does, but I try to think about what the daily life of Cotton Mather was like, and I imagine it was really, really hard. It makes me think about that phrase Hillary Clinton used to describe Trump supporters, when she called them a “basket of deplorables.” You could really easily say, oh my God, Cotton Mather, what a deplorable man—because look at some of the horrifying stuff he wrote. Really nasty, venomous stuff. On the other hand, I try to think about the larger dimensions of someone’s life.
He didn’t really show up at any of the Salem trials, and he only showed up for the execution of George Burroughs. So he wasn’t intimately involved, and yet everybody connects him to it—nobody connects him to the campaign to get people smallpox vaccinations, or, I imagine, the daily walking about town and praying with his parishioners and trying to comfort them as their children died, as they died of sickness, as they endured harsh winters.
But isn’t it true that racist ideologies very much impacted his worldview?
He lived in a place and a time when the notion of race as we think of it was not fully theorized yet. It’s easy to call Mather a racist, because he wrote really horrible things about Native Americans, these “tawnies,” these “instruments of the devil.” He uses horrifying and dehumanizing metaphors when he discusses them. In addition to that, [however,] he had a deep reverence for the work of John Eliot, who was called “Apostle to the Indians.”
So it’s hard for us to look at these people and see what they did and what they said. On the other hand, if you want to just call him a racist and say, “I would never do that”—well, what do you know? How would I know how I’d behave in Massachusetts in 1692? I would hope that I wouldn’t go after people, but I don’t know. The trauma they lived in, the amount of death and dying and destruction and starvation—it doesn’t bring out the best in people.
At this point in time, though, as Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning, slavery was becoming a massive part of the culture of this place, and there was a lot of intellectual capital dedicated towards making it seem morally okay—and Cotton Mather was one of those thinkers, so he was helping to develop these ideologies that stick with us today that are considered racist, right?
There’s no doubt in my mind that Mather sees white European bodies quite differently than the way he sees native bodies, or African bodies. And that he sees these cultures as different and inferior because they’re not Christian. So for him, the problem is largely a problem of religion, and the sense that to be “heathen” is to be in the thrall of the devil. And I agree that his writing is part of the emerging ideologies of the 17th and 18th centuries that seek to define or describe differences and then attribute a hierarchy of qualities or values to them. That’s true, they’re deeply ideological.
[But] I just think to extract out only the deeply disturbing ideologies is too easy. It does harm to a fuller understanding of what those people’s lives were, to our understanding of what it means to be human. I’m not an apologist for Cotton Mather, at all, but look at the complications. Everybody wants to find out why it happened in Salem—is it poisoned rye, is it a land dispute, is it the crappy gender relations? Everybody is looking for the answer, and Salem will never give that answer up, ever. It’s never going to give you the origin of all hell breaking loose. It is constantly asking us to look at complications, a set of unknowns that are never going to be known, and how they intersect.
It’s like when Bridget Bishop says [during her trial], “I’m not a witch, I know not what a witch is.” And Mr. Hathorne says, “How do you know then that you are not a witch?” And you get that moment of a woman being completely cowed and intimidated by a powerful man, and you can talk about the gender relations and class positions, even the legal positions of that. But it doesn’t tell you that Hathorne is a 100% evil man, and that Bridget Bishop is a woman who is completely victimized. It just tells you what’s happening in that moment.
I really worry about these reductions that give us heroes and villains, and victims and oppressors, and that’s all it does. That, to me, is really indicative of our political moment.