I always think about the Salem Witch Trials in September, as the cumulative hysteria of 1692 was coming to a close with the execution of the last eight victims on September 22. Every year at this time I ponder a particular aspect of the accusations and trials, or a particular victim. There’s always a certain poignancy about this time of year in Salem for me—and others too I am sure—as the anniversary of the worst day comes just before the City descends full throttle into the celebration of Halloween, drawing on a very tenuous connection between the persecution of people who were not witches, and a modern holiday symbolized by stereotypical figures who are. So this is a nice week of reflection before the deluge. This month, and this week, I’ve been thinking about the sole male victim of September 22: Samuel Wardwell of Andover, who also happened to be the sole accused person to be executed after recanting an earlier confession. Wardwell had confessed, in detail, to entering into a covenant with the Devil almost as soon as he was accused: he implicated others as well and was in turn accused by his own wife and child. He was not a pristine character, but rather a real person: who made mistakes, and enemies. At the eleventh hour, and right up to the moment of his death, he recanted, and according to the famous narration of Robert Calef, Wardwell was still proclaiming his innocence on the gallows on this very day in 1692, when a puff of tobacco smoke from the executioner’s pipe “coming in his face, interrupted his discourse: those accusers said that the devil did hinder him with smoke”.
The devil did hinder him with smoke. Wardwell does sound like a bit of a rascal; I wonder if he had come to the conclusion that his confession would not save him because of his reputation in general, and his fortune-telling in particular. And so he recanted bravely, only to have his big moment marred by the Devil’s smoke! A tragedy in numerous ways. Wardwell seems like a regular seventeenth-century Englishman to me, rather than an abstract Colonial Puritan: across the Atlantic people were buying books of fortune-telling tricks, and demonic interventions were the stuff of ballads, rather than trials. The Devil was a capricious bogeyman in Old England in 1692, but in New England he was very, very real.
Strange News from Westmoreland, 1662-1668; A Merry Conceited Fortune-Teller, 1662. Over a century later, George Cruikshank’s satirical illustrations for The Man in the Moon (1820) seem to mock contemporary descriptions of the executions on September 22.