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Possession in History

…These Children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and back turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any Epileptick Fits, or natural Disease to effect.  Sometimes they were taken dumb, their mouths stopped, their throats choaked, their limbs wracked and tormented so as might move an heart of stone…

        Describing the courtroom drama unfolding at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, the clergyman Jonathan Hale was deeply moved by the afflictions of the young, female victims of witchcraft.  Like most spectators, he found their sufferings genuine, heartrending, and undeserved.  Simultaneously experiencing violent convulsions, the girls cried out in terror as specters, invisible to others, tormented them.  The girls pulled pins out of their bodies, claiming witches had pushed them in.  They mimicked the gestures of their tormentors, vividly demonstrating the presence of witchcraft.  Their agonies were so convincing that a panic ensued, with neighbor testifying against neighbor in a torrent of accusations.  Before the Salem “witchcraze” was over, nineteen people had hanged, one had been crushed to death by stones for failure to testify, and several died in prison.  Salem had been torn apart.
        The Salem episode is but one example of how participants might interpret and act upon cases of possession.  The striking symptoms of the afflicted and the confrontational courtroom dramas, however, were nothing new.  In fact, similar trials had occurred sporadically throughout the sixteenth and seventeen centuries on both sides of the Atlantic.  Though historians differ in their interpretations of many aspects of these trials, they agree on one point: the afflicted girls did not determine the outcome of the trials, although they frequently played a key role.  What really mattered was the response of the adults.  Family and friends, and soon physicians, clergymen, and magistrates attempted to heal the afflicted, interpret the meaning behind the possession, and punish those responsible for the suffering.  Adults determined whether a trial would take place, and once the trial began, adults would determine its outcome.  Outcomes could vary from acquittal to conviction and hanging.
       This is the focus and thesis of my paper.  It examines actual possession cases, including the 1692 episode at Salem, to demonstrate this multiplicity of outcomes, each determined by unique circumstances, personalities, and issues.  I have chosen these specific trials for their ability to reveal the diverse factors affecting possession cases, even though these examples shared certain stereotypical characteristics beyond the afflictions, such as the ages of the accusers and their socio-economic status compared to those they accused.  The Warboys case, which the historian George Kittredge calls “…the most momentous witch-trial that had ever occurred in England,”  is clearly notable, as it produced the archetype for possession trials throughout the next century, as young girls' sufferings and their vivid accusations of witchcraft led to hangings.  The Darrell case demonstrates the manipulation of unstable young people into faking possession to dramatically promote a religion.  The Mary Glover case illustrates contemporary medical theories concerning possession-like symptoms, and how divided the physicians were, depending on their political/religious orientation and allies.  Brian Gunter's exploitation of his daughter's afflictions reveals how a possession case could be used for personal reasons, such as revenge.  For many intriguing and idiosyncratic reasons, the events at Salem present the darkest and deadliest example.  From analyzing these case studies, I can form generalizations about possession, which are presented in the conclusion.
       How a society interprets and reacts to possession cases reflects its cultural characteristics, intellectual perceptions, popular beliefs, and laws.  It also depends on the values and beliefs of the individuals involved.  In order to explore this idea, this paper will discuss and analyze several case studies of possession that demonstrate the wide variety in how victims were treated and trials conducted.  After an introductory chapter on the phenomenon of possession in history, I will analyze several examples of demonic possession in England and colonial America during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  A final chapter will present my conclusions about possession.
       Demonic possesion refers to the belief that a supernatural force or being can enter and dominate an individual.  It has existed throughout history.  The Babylonians incorporated the concept of demonic possesson into the Code of Hammurabi (circa 2000 B.C.)  xiAncient Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Jews all believed that spirits or demons could inhabit individuals, for good or evil.  The influential Greek physicians Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) and Galen (129-216 A.D.) rejected possession as an explanation for physical and mental disorders, which they believed resulted from a humoral imbalance.  Many other Greek physicians, however, continued to regard supernatural factors, such as demonic possession and prayers to Asclepias (the Greek God of medicine), as genuine.
       Since examples of possession and the casting out of demons existed in the Bible and patristic literature, employing scriptures to understand and treat the affliction became customary during the medieval and early modern periods.  In the New Testament, both Jesus and the disciples dispossessed “unclean spirits” from afflicted individuals.  These events are discussed in Mark 5.  2-13; Mark 9.  16-28; Mathew 17.  14-20; Luke 8.  27-33 and Luke 9.  37-43.  Although most of these New Testament accounts emphasize the need for faith for dispossession, no specialized ceremony for exorcism existed.  Jesus ordered the demons to depart and they did.  Significantly, nothing in the Bible states suggests that human beings had any role in causing possessions.
           During the Middle Ages, a distinctive European view of demonically possessed persons and their behavior developed.  Possessed individuals were usually girls or female adolescents who experienced convulsions; loss of speech, hearing, or appetite; abnormal body strength; breathing problems; hallucinations; violent disgust directed at sacred objects; and abnormal vocalizations.  They frequently experienced feelings of being pinched, bitten, or pricked or being insensible to pain.  They sometimes appeared to understand languages they had never heard or studied, and occasionally, they vomited pins or other objects. This presented the sufferer's family with a truly terrifying situation.  As historian Barbara Rosen writes, “The sudden emergence, in a docile and amenable child, of a personality which raves, screams, roars with laughter, utters dreadful blasphemies and cannot bear godly utterances - or alternatively, withdraws into complete blankness - seems, even today, like the invasion of an alien being.”  
        Several of these symptoms and behaviors, however, were also characteristic of many female medieval mystics and saints.  Contemporaries disagreed whether God or Satan motivated an individual to display such traits.  Due to this uncertainty, these possessed individuals did not automatically receive veneration or respect; in fact, many were viewed with deep suspicion and repugnance.
        Some of the possessed truly believed a spirit or spirits had entered their body.  Others, ill for apparently no reason and perhaps swayed by a physician's diagnosis of the supernatural, found demonic possession perfectly possible in the medical/theological understanding of the day.  Some seemed to enjoy the theatrics and attention.  Some of them were manipulated into feigning possession for profit, revenge, or power by unscrupulous parents or clergy.  
         Important and powerful people almost never became possessed.  As the psychologist and author Nicholas Spanos comments concerning the afflicted in early modern Western Europe, “Those who became demoniacs were usually individuals with little social power or status who were hemmed in by numerous social restrictions and had few sanctioned avenues for protesting their dissatisfactions or improving their lot.”
        Contemporaries believed there were three possible explanations for causes of possession-like symptoms: fakery, illness, or actual demonic possession.  How they interpreted the causes of possession naturally shaped their response to it.  These categories, however, were not always precisely delineated.  An illness, for example, could lead to demonic possession, as Satan could theoretically exploit the infirmity.  Alternatively, a natural illness could be manipulated into a so-called supernatural affliction for fraudulent or malicious purposes, as we will see.  Assorted motivations on the part of both the spectators and the possessed included political, religious, or social manipulation, greed, intense spirituality, malice, frustration, and even desire for attention.
          When faced with such symptoms with no discernible natural cause or cure, people occasionally diagnosed witchcraft.  They would identify, accuse and try a witch (usually, but not always, an elderly and troublesome woman).  In the belief system of the day, the witch was responsible for the affliction.  To decipher these extraordinary cases, people called on doctors, clergymen, and magistrates.  Authors wrote “demonologies,” as new laws were promulgated to judge these unusual cases.  As author and professor G.S. Rousseau wrote:

Meticulous courtroom procedures were developed throughout Europe to winnow true demoniacs and witches from those erroneously or falsely accused - those whose prima facie manifestations of possession were due to other causes - to illness, accident, suggestion, or even fraud.  Expert witnesses were heard, especially physicians; often these were the same physicians who were compiling medical definitions of hysteria.

           Early modern European possession cases fall into two categories.  The first involves a group of possessed individuals, often nuns.  The second involves only one or perhaps a few possessed people (usually siblings).  In both situations, the possessed tended to be young girls living in a strict religious environment.
           Early modern France had the greatest number of group possessions.  A succession of politically and religiously motivated public “show trials” exploited cases of possession between 1562 and 1642.  In many cases, these trials attempted to demonstrate the righteousness of Catholicism against the evils of Protestantism.  Nuns played a large role in many of these dramatic exorcisms and trials.  Trials involving possessed nuns occurred at Aix-en-Provence (1611), Lille (1613), Loudun (1634), and Louviers (1642).  The most famous case occurred at Loudon from 1630-34.  Powerful enemies of Father Urbain Grandier accused him of bewitching the entire Ursuline convent at Loudun, including the Mother Superior.  Though Grandier was well connected, his opponents conspired to stage-manage the nuns and exorcisms, forge evidence, and use political influence for revenge.  He was burned alive at the stake on August 18, 1634.  
       One noticeable difference between the French possessions at the convents and the “afflictions” occurring in England and colonial America was the lurid sexual theatrics of the French nuns.  They raised their habits, begged for sexual attention, used vulgar language, and made lascivious movements.  At Loudon, a local doctor, Claude Quillet, considered the disorders “…hysteromania or even erotomania.  These poor little devils of nuns, seeing themselves shut up within four walls, become madly in love, fall into a melancholic delirium, worked upon by the desires of the flesh, and in truth, what they need to be perfectly cured is a remedy of the flesh.”  English trials were much less prurient.
          This book will concentrate on the English and colonial American trials in which only one or a few possessed individuals were involved, albeit at Salem approximately dozen girls and others were afflicted.  Some were simple cases of fraud, others had grander and more complex intentions, still others were influenced by either local concerns or national issues and controversies.
            After this introduction, we will look at the case of the Throckmorton children, occurring at Warboys, England from 1589 to 1593.  It provides an ominous template of a repertoire of recognizable and socially understood behaviors that we will see repeatedly throughout the trials discussed in the thesis.  
       Chapter Three will explore the political, religious, and medical implications and tensions surrounding two possession cases that shared several of the same participants.  Based in Nottingham and London between 1597 and 1602, the William Somers and Mary Glover cases involved some the most powerful members of the Anglican hierarchy in attempts to disprove their demonic possessions.  
       Chapter Four will bring to light another category of possession cases, that of deliberate fraud.  In 1604-5, Brian Gunter beat, drugged, and threatened his daughter Mary to fake possession to avenge himself upon his neighbors.  Once again, the case created a controversy.  Several of the same members of the Anglican hierarchy, as well as Doctor Edward Jorden, who had been present at the Mary Glover trial, examined young Anne Gunter.  Anne, a pawn in her father's plot, even found herself cross-examined by a skeptical King James I.
       Chapter Five illustrates how a judge, Sir Matthew Hale, renowned for his wisdom and compassion, and a well-respected physician/essayist, Sir Thomas Browne, could contribute to the execution of two elderly widows for bewitchment at Bury St. Edmunds.  The following chapter describes the events leading to the hanging of the widow Glover in Boston for witchcraft.  This episode unfortunately influenced the atmosphere and the decisions made at Salem four years later.  
         Chapter Seven will look at events in Salem.  The chapter demonstrates how English colonists arriving in America brought with them their fundamental beliefs and traditions concerning witchcraft.  First, we will look at several examples from the trials that demonstrate the diverse ways the adult community interpreted these cases.  We will also examine the unique and multiple problems Salem experienced which allowed the community to be so receptive to its beliefs in Satan and witchcraft at such a late date.
By examining these cases in depth, we can get a sense of the people and relationships involved.  We can also gain a sense of the dynamics of possession cases, since all these cases are in some ways unique.  We have Sir Robert Throckmorton forcing Alice Samuel to live at his manor to obstruct her from afflicting his children; Judge Anderson manipulating a jury by proudly stating, in front of several members of England's medical elite, he had more than two dozen witches hanged; King James I disbelieving and helping to disprove Anne Gunter's fraudulent symptoms; Reverend John Darrell accused of tutoring disturbed teenagers to act possessed; Dr. Edward Jorden testifying Mary Glover's suffering was due to a natural illness - not possession, and later repeating the diagnosis for Anne Gunter; Judges Hawthorne and Corwin turning back the jury's decision to acquit Rebecca Nurse … these are people who shaped individual examples of possession.  Their stories are both interesting and significant, for they genuinely had life or death consequences.