Cotton Mather’s Accounts of the Trial of Witch Bridget Bishop in 'The Wonders of the Invisible World'

Cotton Mather was a prominent minister in Boston, Massachusetts, who became closely involved in the Salem witch trials. Although he was not a trial judge, he worked in conjunction with his father, Increase Mather , to root out witches who were doing the work of the devil in New England. Cotton Mather thought that witches were not possessed by spirits, but that they were agents of the devil. Modern historians have been mystified by Cotton Mather: although he was one of the foremost American intellectuals and scientists of the time, he was capable of deep superstition, even ignorance, in religious matters. According to Mather, witches had been sent as divine judgment against a sinful people. Therefore, witches—or sin—had to be destroyed before the Puritans could fulfill their destiny as "a people of God" in America ("once the Devil's territories").

In 1693 Mather wrote The Wonders of the Invisible World, in which he defended the Salem trials in lofty theological (religious) terms, with biblical references to support his view of the Puritan mission in the New World. According to Mather, the devil was trying "all sorts of methods to overturn this poor plantation, the Puritan colony." Yet Mather saw this as a special challenge: once the Puritans were rid of the witches in their midst (had trodden "all the vultures of Hell" under their feet), God would bless them with eternal happiness ("halcyon days").

From Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World we find a vivid picture of the witch trials.  But as we go through his sermons , we realize that Cotton Mather himself was not wholly convinced regarding the evidences that were brought against the so-called witches. Although Cotton's words describe, and to some degree justify the trials and deaths in Salem that year, the book is anything but resolved with regards to Mather's true feelings about the trials. Cotton writes of the trials of accused witches such as Bridget Bishop saying there was "little occasion to prove witchcraft, it being evident and notorious to all beholders".

Here follows the description of the witch trials that we find in Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World.

 Bridget Bishop, one of the so-called witches, was accused of bewitching of several persons in the Salem village. There were several persons, who had long undergone many kinds of miseries and generally ascribed unto an horrible Witchcraft. Nobody felt the necessity to prove the witchcraft as it was already evident to all who were present there. The people, who had been previously afflicted by Bridget Bishop, brought many evidences of witchcraft against her.  Several inhabitants of Salem testified that the Shape of Bridget Bishop did oftentimes very grievously pinch them, choke them, bite them, and afflict them; urging them to write their names in a Book, which the said Specter called, Ours. One of them did further testify, that it was the Shape of Bridget Bishop, with another, which one Day took her from her Wheel, and carrying her to the River side, threatened there to Drown her, if she did not Sign to the Book mentioned: which yet she refused. 

Other bewitched persons also gave different testimonies before the Magistrates. They said that they had been extremely tortured Bridget Bishop.  According to them, if she did cast her eyes on them, they were presently struck down. But when she lay their hands on the fainted persons, they would immediately revive; but not upon the touch of any ones else. Moreover, upon some special actions of her Body, as the shaking of her head, or the turning of her eyes, they presently and painfully fell into the like postures.
There was Testimony likewise brought in, that a man striking once at the place, where a Bewitched person said, the Shape of this Bishop stood, the Bewitched cried out, that he had Tore her Coat, in the place then particularly specified; and the Womans Coat was found to be Torn in that very place.
Another woman named Hobbs, who had confessed her being a Witch, now testified that this Bishop tempted her to Sign the Book again, and to deny what she had confessed. She affirmed that it was the Shape of Bishop, which whipped her with Iron Rods, to compel her. And she affirmed that this Bishop was at a General Meeting of the Witches, in a Field at Salem-Village, and there partook of a Diabolical Sacrament in Bread and Wine.

John Cook, another victim, testified that about five or six years ago, one morning, about Sun-Rise, he was in his chamber assaulted by the shape of Bishop. In that morning Bishop looked on him, grinned at him, and very much hurt him with a blow on the side of the head and that on the same day, about Noon, the same shape walked in the room where he was, and an apple strangely flew out of his hand, into the lap of his mother, six or eight foot from him.

Samuel Gray, another victim of Bishop, testified that about fourteen years ago he was disturbed by Bishop during the night time. On a Night Bishop visited him and terrified his sleeping child. John Bly and his Wife, a couple of Salem village, testified that he bought a sow of Edward Bishop, the Husband of the prisoner; and was to pay the price agreed, unto another person. This Prisoner being Angry that she was thus hindered from fingering the money, Quarreled with Bly. Soon after which, the Sow was taken with strange Fits, Jumping, Leaping, and knocking her head against the Fence; she seemed Blind and Deaf, and would neither eat nor be sucked. Whereupon a neighbor said, she believed the Creature was Over-Looked; and sundry other circumstances concurred, which made the Deponents Believe that Bishop had Bewitched it.
Richard Coman , another victim, testified that eight years ago, as he lay awake in his bed, with a Light Burning in the Room, he was annoyed with the apparition of this Bishop, and of two more that were strangers to him, who came and oppressed him so, that he could neither stir himself, nor wake any one else, and that he was the night after molested again in the like manner. He also said that Bishop took him by the Throat, and pulled him almost out of the Bed. 

In the similar fashion, many other victims including Samuel Shattock, John Louder, William Stacy, John Bly and William Bly who also testified Bishop’s witchcrafts and accused her as a witch. The arguments put forward by the so-called victims seem to be fictitious and groundless to the modern readers.  But to the puritans, who strongly believed in the existence of the witches, these evidences were absolutely true.

The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692 represent a cruel part of New England history. Twenty people were killed after they were accused of being witches or wizards. Dozens were imprisoned. One of the key figures today around the trials is Cotton Mather. Although he was not directly involved in accusing or judging the people, he wrote a book about the trials, called The Wonders of the Invisible World. In this book, he listed the different indicators about how to discover someone practicing witchcraft. This essay will concern Cotton Mather’s arguments concerning witchcraft, their origin, and his theories about their treatment. The trials in Salem will play an essential part, because the practices during the trials show how witchcraft was proved then, regardless of the guilt of the accused. It was impossible for an accused person to escape punishment in Salem and Mather’s and his colleagues arguments served as additional justification for killing innocent people in Salem.