Cotton Mather was an influential minister and a well-known author of books and pamphlets in Boston, Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the 17th and 18th centuries.
He was primarily known for his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and other works of history, for his scientific contributions to plant hybridization and to the promotion of inoculation as a means of preventing smallpox and other infectious diseases, and for his involvement in the events surrounding the Salem Witch Trials of 1692–3. He also promoted the new Newtonian science in America and sent many scientific reports to the Royal Society of London, which formally elected him as a fellow in 1723.
Cotton Mather and the Trials
Despite all of Cotton Mather'saccomplishments, his connection with the Salem Witch Trials would plague him the rest of his life.
Mather published Memorable Providences in 1689, which would lay the groundwork for the future Salem Witch Trials. In his book, he studied the children of the Goodwin family who were suffering from afflictions believed to be from a witch. Mather investigated the children to the point of taking home one of the children to investigate.
He was one of the leading accusers of Ann Glover, who was accused of bewitching the Goodwin children. Despite her proclaimed innocence, she would become the last person in Boston to be hanged for witchcraft, and Cotton Mather played a pivotal role in that execution.
Although he argued that spectral evidence should not be used in court, he laid the foundation for its use when, in his book, he said that witches appear "spectrally" as themselves. This is an important distinction because the "afflicted" girls during the Salem Witch Trials relied on these visions and spoke of being able to see the accused's specter.
Salem had become a hotbed for accusations of witchcraft. Shortly after Sir William Phips appointment as Governor, he was forced to establish a court to deal with those who had been locked up in jail and were awaiting trial.
Phips would appoint his lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, as head of a special witchcraft tribunal and then as chief justice of the colonial courts, where he presided over the witch trials. Mather had been influential in gaining the politically unpopular Stoughton his appointment as lieutenant governor under Phips through the intervention of Mather's own politically powerful father, Increase.
Cotton Mather denied ever attending a trial but did attend the executions. Despite his record of opposing the use of spectral evidence, Mather celebrated the trials as a triumph of justice, and despite claiming to be a non-partisan historian, he presumes guilt in his writings about the trials.
After the mass execution on September 22, 1692, Governor Phips became more involved in the trials. He replaced the court and wished to replace Stoughton. However, due to the Mather influence, Stoughton would be the head of the new court. Phips also banned the use of spectral evidence and also began to pardon those who had been convicted of witchcraft.
This occurred due to Phips's wife being accused of witchcraft, which caused him to change his complacency on the issue. After the new parameters were put into place, there was not another person executed for witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials.
As the hysteria faded, many regretted what had happened. However, Mather never regretted his actions and influence.
Wonders of the Invisible World contained a few of Mather's sermons, the conditions of the colony, and a description of witch trials in Europe. He somewhat clarified the contradictory advice he had given in Return of the Several Ministers by defending the use of spectral evidence. Wonders of the Invisible World appeared around the same time as Increase Mather's Cases of Conscience."
Mather did not sign his name or support his father's book initially:
Conclusion on Mathers
When it comes to Cotton Mathers and his involvement with the Salem Witch Trials, it was, unfortunately, a major failure in his life, and it would rightly taint his legacy.
Despite what he said about the use of spectral evidence, he did not seem to mind its use when convicting alleged witches. His complete lack of empathy for those who were executed and maintained their innocence in their grave is also unfortunate.
He lived at a time when superstition seemed to prevail and, despite being a brilliant man, seemed to add to what the Bible says about witchcraft.
After the trials were over and public opinion believed that they had killed innocent people, Mathers still held the position that the trials were done well. Robert Calef ended up opposing the Mathers in fear of another witch hunt as they had much influence in Boston society.
Benjamin Franklin, who was originally born in Boston until fleeing his brother to Philadelphia, was also critical of Mathers.