Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/36

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.

which the perversion shows itself more in the mental state alone, leading to strange aberrations of Mind, and ultimately to very sad results in the condition of society where these things have spread, but not leading to any thing like these convulsive paroxysms. I particularly allude now to the epidemic belief in Witchcraft, which, more or less, formerly prevailed constantly among the mass of the population, but every now and then broke out with great vehemence. This belief in witchcraft comes down to us from very ancient periods; and at the present time it is entertained by the lowest and most ignorant of the population in all parts of the world. We have abundant instances of it still, I am sorry to say, in our own community. We have poor, ignorant servant-girls allowing themselves to be—if I may use such a word—"humbugged" by some designing old woman, who persuades them that she can predict the husbands they are to have, or tell where some article that they have lost is to be found, and who extracts money from them merely as a means of obtaining a living in this irregular way, and I believe at the bottom rather enjoying the cheat. Every now and then we hear of some brutal young farmer who has pretty nearly beaten to death a poor old woman, whom he suspected of causing a murrain among his cattle. This is what we know to exist among the least cultivated of the savage nations at the present time, and always to have existed. But we hope that the progress of rationalism in our own community will, in time, put an end to this, as it has in the middle and upper ranks of society during the last century or century and a half. It is not very long since almost every one believed in the possession of these occult powers by men and women, but especially by old women. This belief has prevailed generally in countries which have been overridden by a gloomy fanaticism in religious matters. I speak of it simply as a matter of history. There is no question at all that this prevailed where the Romish Church was most intolerant, especially in countries where the Inquisition was dominant, and its powers were exerted in such a manner as to repress free thought and the free exercise of feeling; and, again, where strong Calvinism has exercised an influence of exactly the same kind—as in Scotland, a century and a half ago, and in New England, where there was the same kind of religious fanaticism. It is in these communities that belief in witchcraft has been most rife, has extended itself most generally, and has taken possession of the public mind most strongly; and the most terrible results have happened. Now, I will only cite one particular instance, that of New England, in the early part of the last century and the end of the century before. Not very long after the settlement of New England, there was a terrible outbreak of this belief in witchcraft. It began in a family, the children of which were out of health; and certain persons whom they disliked were accused of having bewitched them. Against these persons a great deal of evidence that we should now consider most absurd was brought forward, and they were actually