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

Witches and Witch Trials: How to Convict a Witch

This essay originally appeared as “Witches and Witch Trials: How to Convict a Witch” on the now defunct website on October 27, 2015. Apparently it was bought out in 2016 and they deleted everything? Oh well, here’s my article:

The witch has become one of the most prominent symbols associated with Halloween. At this time of year you are likely to see images of witches with pointy hats, dressed in black, maybe accompanied by a cat or a cauldron. In popular culture, the image of a witch is often alluring—witches are attractive like the Halliwell sisters on Charmed or Samantha Stephens on Bewitched. Yet the symbol of the witch is often quite different from the reality of the historical witch. Our modern ideas about the qualities that define a witch have changed significantly from the ideas prevalent during the early modern period (1500-1800 CE) when witchcraft was a serious crime.

A lot has been written about the history of witchcraft in Europe and North America. By focusing on the concept of witchcraft as a legally-defined crime, we can get a clearer picture of the significance of witchcraft. Exploring the evidence used to convict for witchcraft helps us to understand what it meant to be accused of witchcraft during a period when people were actually executed for it.    

Witchcraft was a type of magic that was defined by legal codes; it was generally understood as magic that caused harm to people or property. The laws in England in the seventeenth century covered several types of magical practices: it was a felony to conjure an evil spirit, to use witchcraft to injure a person, or to dig up corpses to use in spells. In addition to the laws against witchcraft, there was a large body of literature courts could draw on to help them identify and prosecute suspected witches.

In colonial North America, witches were defined by the specific types of evidence presented against them in court proceedings. For people living in the seventeenth century, magic and invisible forces were verifiably real and they could be harnessed for good or bad purposes. The evidence produced during witch trials demonstrated the reality of witchcraft to contemporary observers.

There was also a body of popular literature and folklore that could help someone who believed that they had been affected by witchcraft. Fashionable books on astrology could instruct readers in how to tell if their problems were caused by witchcraft, bad luck, or divine judgment. One of the most common remedies for removing a curse in colonial New England was boiling urine. And, of course, keeping a horseshoe over your doorway wouldn’t hurt. (NB: If you think you have been afflicted by a witch’s curse, heat your urine on the stove with a couple of crooked pins thrown in until the urine smokes. That should break the curse. Be warned though, it might also cause the witch to come to your house and appear concerned. If that happens, try putting some salt or bay leaves in the doorway to keep the witch outside. Do not let the witch inside.)

Evidence against an accused witch could include testimony from neighbors and family members. These proceedings were usually public, and old grievances between neighbors might become evidence of witchcraft: a sick child, a cow that wouldn’t produce milk, a frightened horse—when misfortune followed a disagreement, witchcraft could be the cause. Generally, the targets of these accusations were women. Women were more susceptible to the Devil’s trickery and more inclined towards evil. An anonymous author of an English pamphlet on witchcraft argued that women were too stupid to use real magic (that was the domain of learned male sorcerers), but by their nature women were vengeful and enlisted the help of the Devil to perform magic on their behalf.    

It was also possible to find physical evidence of witchcraft. If someone died and witchcraft was the suspected cause of death, the accused would be asked to touch the corpse. If the corpse bled, that indicated that the accused person was guilty (this technique worked with all murder cases, not just those caused by witchcraft). In the majority of cases, the body of an accused witch would be searched for suspicious marks—often described as a flap of extra skin or a mole that resembled a tiny nipple. These marks on a witch’s body were caused by an animal familiar who suckled the witch for nourishment, generally after performing magic at the witch’s request. Margaret Jones, accused of witchcraft in Massachusetts in 1648, had “an apparent teat in her secret parts as fresh as if it had been newly sucked.” Jones was convicted of witchcraft and executed. Midwives were called in during these court proceedings to examine the body of accused women and report their findings to the court. This could be tricky because sometimes witches used their powers to make marks on the body disappear. Finding a suspicious mark was a clear indicator of guilt, although it was not enough on its own to convict.

Animals could also provide evidence against a suspected witch. Testimony against suspected witches included neighbors who noticed strange animals coming or going from the suspect’s house. Sometimes animals were also incorporated into confessions of witchcraft. In seventeenth century New England, cats talked to people in an effort to convince them to give their souls to Satan. A grey cat in New Hampshire offered a young girl “fine things” if she would agree to go and live with a suspected witch. At Salem in 1692, Mary Osgood confessed that a cat had tricked her into signing a covenant with the Devil.    

Of course, the best piece of evidence against an accused witch was a confession. The purpose of gathering other evidence against the accused was to encourage them to confess in court. One legal reference book of the period suggested that a witch’s confession should include a description of the harm the witch had done to people, how she had made a contract with the Devil to become a witch, and the names of the familiar spirits she used.   

Interestingly, a formal accusation of witchcraft was often preceded by attempts by members of the community to find other explanations for strange events, and accusations of witchcraft didn’t always stick. Sometimes accused witches sued their accusers for slander, and this strategy was occasionally successful. A woman accused of using witchcraft against her neighbors (and of turning into a cat) won damages against her accuser in the 1660s.

Witch trials were complicated legal procedures, and it was the strength of the evidence presented in court that determined whether or not someone would be convicted. Marks on the body, suspicious animal activity, and complaints from neighbors were strong indicators that someone was a witch. While witches have become cultural icons in modern society, the historical witch was defined as a legal transgressor, a criminal whose presence in society necessitated the harshest punishment courts could give: public execution.      

Further reading:

Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials (London: Athalone Press, 2002).

John Demos, Entertaining Satan (New York: Oxford, 1982).

Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon (New York: Oxford, 1999).

Carol Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987).

Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History (New York: Routledge, 1996).

Old link for posterity: