Invisible Worlds: Magic, Spirits, and Experience in the Early Enlightenment

I’ve had a chapter published in a new volume on Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Enlightenment out earlier this year from Routledge. There are some fascinating essays here worth checking out.

Here’s an abstract of my chapter, “Invisible Worlds: Magic Spirits and Experience in the Early Enlightenment” and a link to read the first few pages.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, apparitions could be explained in many ways: as spirits sent out by witches, as demons summoned by magicians, as ghosts of the dead, or as an illusion or a symptom of affliction. While prescriptive literature instructed readers in how they should understand these phenomena, in practice people could use their own senses to resolve uncertainties in interpretation. One such case is John Beaumont (c.1640–1731), a member of the Royal Society who struggled to explain his visual and auditory encounters with spirits. He published his theories about the nature of spirits and described his personal experiences in brief but vivid detail. Although he demonstrated familiarity with occult texts, he was careful to note that he never summoned the spirits by magical means but rather was surprised each time they appeared to him unsolicited. Beaumont’s writings provide a rare opportunity to examine how a natural philosopher interpreted his own experiences with the preternatural during the early Enlightenment, when competing explanations provided ambiguity rather than clarity about the invisible world.

New England Witch Trials in Public Memory

I’ve been working on a new project about how New England memorialized seventeenth-century witch trials during the twentieth century, and recently presented some of this research at the fall New England Historical Association virtual conference.

By my count, there are at least a dozen memorials in New England dedicated to people who were accused, convicted, or executed for witchcraft. It will surprise no one to learn that the majority of these monuments in New England are related to the Salem witch trials of 1692, during which about 200 were accused and twenty-five people died. Currently there are witchcraft memorials in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. There are also what we might call unofficial monuments to witches in place names throughout New England. For example, there is a Witch Creek (aka Witch Cove) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire that still appears on USGS maps.

The earliest memorials in New England are connected to the Salem witch trials, and they were established by descendants of people who were executed in 1692. This includes the granite obelisk dedicated to Rebecca Nurse in 1885 in Danvers, Massachusetts and the John Proctor Memorial dedicated in 1902 in Peabody, Massachusetts. These earliest monuments were based on the desire to restore family honor, and to impact public memory by making a clear point that an ancestor accused and executed for witchcraft at Salem was innocent.

A rather different case is that of Eunice Cole. In 1938, Hampton, New Hampshire residents voted to exonerate and create a memorial for Cole, a local woman who had been accused of witchcraft by her neighbors repeatedly for more than two decades during the seventeenth century. As part of the town of Hampton’s 300th anniversary celebration, the town voted to exonerate her. Hampton declared August 25, 1938 “Goody Cole Day” and held a pageant that reenacted and dramatized the events of her trials.

However, the town did not actually install the memorial at that time (although newspaper reports said they were going to put up a tablet). A boulder was placed on the town green twenty-five years later in 1963 near where Cole lived while she was a ward of the town. The boulder was installed without a plaque or any marker during a ceremony as part of the town’s 325th celebration. Fifty years after that, a plaque was placed in front of the boulder as part of Hampton’s 375th celebration in 2013. Her reputation in public memory changed significantly over time; she was reviled by her community during her lifetime, but by the twentieth century she was characterized as a tragic, misunderstood figure rather than a scold and a menace.

Two memorials to the victims of the Salem witch trials were created in 1992 in Salem and Danvers. 1992 was the tercentenary of the Salem witch trials, and it was an anniversary that generated a remarkable amount of new attention and new scholarship on the history of witchcraft in New England. Most recently, the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial was dedicated by the city of Salem on July 19, 2017—it is a subtle design on a quiet street located outside of the tourist district.

In these examples and others, modern concerns motivated communities to create public memorials centuries after the events took place. By examining these representations of witch trials in public memory, we can see not only how ideas about witchcraft have changed over time, but also ideas about commemoration, justice, family legacies, and the responsibilities of communities that have been historical sites of violence. 

Despite Hampton’s efforts to generate tourism in the 1930s, very few people today visit the Eunice Cole Memorial, while hundreds of thousands will walk through downtown Salem’s 1992 memorial each year. Yet it was only in 2017 that the execution site was commemorated at Proctor’s Ledge. And in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a new memorial was just dedicated in 2019 to a woman executed in 1653. As these recent efforts to create new monuments show, New England’s work of commemorating the witch trials is far from over.

Photo of the Memorial to the Victims of the Witch Trials in Danvers, Massachusetts. (Photo credit: Tricia Peone)


Rebecca Nurse memorial: William P Upham, “Account of the Rebecca Nurse Monument” in Essex Institute Historical Collections vol. XXIII (Salem, MA: Essex Institute, 1886): 151-160.

Danvers 1992 memorial:


Salem: Judith Wasserman, “Retail or Re-tell?: The Case of the Salem Tercentenary Memorial” Landscape Journal 22.1 (2003): 1-11 and Dane Morrison and Nancy Schultz, eds., Salem: Place, Myth, and Memory (Northeastern University Press, 2004).

Proctor memorial:


Cotton Mather and the Preternatural

Boston minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) may have used preternature more than any other early modern writer in the British Atlantic world. Mather employed the term preternatural frequently in his description of the events at Salem which he published in his massive treatise Magnalia Christi Americana in 1702. In fact, he wrote “preternatural” six times in a single page of text. The above image contains five uses of the term within two paragraphs.

He noted that the troubles in Salem began with people afflicted with “Preternatural Vexations upon their Bodies, and a variety of cruel Torments, which were evidently inflicted from the Dæmons, of the Invisible World.” Mather explained the distinction between natural and preternatural in his discussion of how the afflicted were bewitched. He wrote:

it was found, that various kinds of natural Actions, done by many of the accused in or to their own Bodies, as Leaning, Bending, Turning Awry, or Squeezing their Hands, or the like, were presently attended with the like things preternaturally done upon the Bodies of the afflicted, though they were so far asunder, that the afflicted could not at all observe the accused.

-Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana, Book II, p. 60.

He used preternatural in this treatise to mean something that was extraordinary and beyond the powers of nature, caused by invisible forces, and associated with diabolic witchcraft. Mather addressed the skeptics of such “odd Phænomena” by instructing them that there were “Hundreds of the most sober People” who had witnessed these events. Mather’s works show how the preternatural could function as both a category of thought and a set of interrelated beliefs about how the invisible world operated, and he made significant contributions to the transatlantic debate over preternature from his home in New England.

Data visualization for the term “preternatural”

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer to explore the frequency and usage of the term “preternatural” in English language books published between 1600 and 1850 yields interesting results. Of course we should be cautious about drawing conclusions from these results for a variety of reasons (for one thing, this only searches books that have been digitized, and OCR is still difficult for early modern printed materials).

The word appeared most frequently in the second half of the seventeenth century. There were spikes again in the 1740s and 1780s. After 1800, the word preternatural was used much less often in print.

Before 1700, many writers were using preternatural to refer to phenomena associated with apparitions, witchcraft, magic, or demons. One example is Increase Mather’s An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684) in which he described “things praeternatural which have hapned in New-England” and included accounts of witches, demonic possession, and apparitions. After around the turn of the eighteenth century, the term loses those associations and was more frequently used in a medical context to indicate something unusual or idiopathic. The medical usage of preternature can also be found prior to 1700.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, defined preternature as “different from what is natural; irregular.” His examples of usage in quotations show no association with demons or magic at all. However, under the entry for “metaphysical” he noted an earlier meaning: “In Shakespeare it [metaphysical] means supernatural or preternatural.”

Another dictionary from this period, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, defined preternatural as “beside or out of the Course of Nature, extraordinary.” In addition, it defined prodigy as “an Effect beyond Nature, a monstrous or preternatural Thing.”

A treatise published in 1823 by a medical doctor used preternatural with its older associations in An Essay on Apparitions, in which their appearance is accounted for by causes wholly independent of preternatural agency. The author acknowledged that ghost belief is universal, but argued that they had natural causes (such as hallucinations) rather than preternatural ones (such as being the returned spirits of the dead).

He wrote: “A celebrated conjuror, or mystic mason, with whom I had a conversation some years ago, told me, he could give me a receipt for a preparation of antimony, sulphur, &c., which, when burnt in a confined room, would so effect the person shut up in it, that he would fancy that he saw spectres and apparitions; and that, by throwing his voice into a particular part of the room, he could make the person believe he was holding converse with spirits” (Alderson, Essay on Apparitions, 46).

Cemetery Project

In the summer of 2019, I served as the Project Historian with Nearview, LLC for a survey of six cemeteries in Bristol, NH. I conducted background research to establish the origins of each cemetery, assessed their historical significance, and documented the results in a report.

Read about the project here:

The final report, Archaeological Survey of Six Historic Burial Grounds in the Town of Bristol, Grafton County, New Hampshire, was submitted to the town in July 2019.

Strange shall be the wonders: Preternature in the Early Modern English Atlantic World

My 2015 doctoral dissertation (University of New Hampshire) was titled “Strange shall be the wonders: Preternature in the Early Modern English Atlantic World.”


The preternatural—magic, witchcraft, wonders, apparitions, demons, and other unusual phenomena—was a powerful component of early modern culture. It functioned as a category of thought and as a set of interrelated beliefs. Preternature served an important ontological role in theology and natural philosophy as an intermediary category for phenomena that were not caused by direct divine agency but had no definitive natural cause. Attempts to mark the boundaries between the visible and invisible worlds were fraught with difficulty. Moreover, the social and political changes that took place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries generated an influx of information that transformed the way early moderns understood their universe. By examining the literary debates and analyzing the impact of learned thought on popular experiences with unusual phenomena, this dissertation argues for the centrality of preternature to early modern ways of knowing. In addition, exploring how the boundaries of preternature were challenged by New World encounters, colonial witchcraft trials, and the dissemination of natural knowledge by institutions such as the Royal Society reveals the complex process by which the category of the preternatural ultimately disappeared from modern thought.

John Hale (1636 – 1700)

Several years ago I wrote a short biography of Reverend John Hale, famous for his role in the Salem witch trials, for American National Biography. I think his views on witchcraft are often misunderstood. Here is a short extract. The full bio is online:


Hale, John (03 June 1636–15 May 1700), Congregational minister, author, and participant in the Salem witch trials, was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to Robert Hale and Joanna Cutter. Robert Hale emigrated from England and became a selectman and a deacon in the church at Charlestown. Little is known of John Hale’s early life. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1657. Hale was called to the ministry in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1667, having served as a teacher in the church there for a few years before the town formally separated from Salem in 1668. As minister, Hale received a house, land, firewood, and a salary of seventy pounds per year….

The Real Witches of New Hampshire

Last fall, I worked on a podcast miniseries called “The Real Witches of New Hampshire.” The project was a collaboration between New Hampshire Humanities and New Hampshire Public Radio. Links to episodes are below, along with my suggestions for further reading for each episode.

Episode 1: The Rarest of Witches

Reading list for Episode 1

Episode 2: The Cutting Edge of the Occult

Reading list for Episode 2

Episode Three: The Road to Witch City

Reading list for Episode 3