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:


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: