August 19, 2021
On this day 329 years ago, Martha Carrier was taken in a cart to Gallows Hill in Salem, where she and four men were hanged after being convicted in the infamous witch trials. A poor woman with an independent spirit, she’d previously drawn the hostility of her neighbors in Andover, who accused her of causing a smallpox outbreak that killed thirteen townspeople. The “afflicted girls” who started the panic screamed in court that they could see the ghosts of the dead. Denounced by the Rev. Cotton Mather as “this rampant hag,” Martha maintained her innocence to the last, refusing to confess to “a falsehood so filthy.“
All of this is well-known. What I didn’t know until recently was that among the witnesses in Martha’s trial was Phebe Chandler, who was not quite twelve years old and was my cousin several times removed. Phebe stated she heard Martha’s disembodied voice saying “I should be poysoned (sp) within two or three days,” after which her hand and face became swollen and “exceeding painful.” Later, she said, she was struck deaf during a Sabbath meeting, “and could hear no prayer, nor singing, till the last two or three words of the singing.”
Not everyone joined in the frenzy. Phebe’s aunt Hannah was the wife of the Rev. Francis Dane, who fiercely opposed the trials even after he and his relatives were themselves accused. The family history book that chronicled every Chandler for two and a half centuries is silent about Phebe’s later life, though other sources indicate she married, had three children, and died around 1720.
Though it’s easy to look back on these horrors as a moment in the ancient past, the witch hunt was fueled by ignorance, intolerance, and religious extremism. Which brings us to Cardinal Raymond Burke, not a Salem inquisitor but a present-day prelate and former archbishop of St. Louis. Back in the aughts, he declared that Catholics who voted for President Obama “collaborated with evil.” In 2015, he said gay people and remarried Catholics are as bad as “the person who murders someone.”
Last year, he spread the conspiracy theory that Covid vaccine advocates believe “a kind of microchip needs to be placed under the skin of every person, so that at any moment, he or she can be controlled regarding health and regarding other matters which we can only imagine as a possible object of control by the state.” He also criticized church members for not believing Christ would protect them, calling God “the ultimate provider of health.”
Someone besides God must have provided the ventilator that’s keeping Burke alive. If he survives, he probably won’t be spat on in public like Mather was after the hysteria ended. But years from now, the anti-vaxxers and haters will be remembered the same way as the mob that cheered while Martha Carrier died.