Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/37

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
25
EPIDEMIC DELUSIONS.

executed: and some of them under torture, or under moral torture for it was not merely physical torture that was applied; in many cases it was the distress and moral torture of being so accused, the dread, even if found not guilty, of being considered outcasts all their lives, or of being a burden to their friends—made confessions which any sober persons would have considered perfectly ridiculous; but, under the dominant idea of the reality of this witchcraft, no one interfered to point out how utterly repugnant to common-sense these confessions were, as well as the testimony that was brought forward. And this spread to such a degree in New England, one person being accused after another, that, at last, even those who considered themselves God's chosen people began to feel, "Our turn may come next;" they then began to think better of it, and so put an end to these accusations, even some who were under sentence being allowed to go free; and to the great surprise of those who were entirely convinced of the truth of these accusations, this epidemic subsided, and witchcraft was not heard of for a long time afterward; so that the belief has never prevailed in New England from that time to the present, excepting among the lowest and most ignorant class. In Scotland, these witch-persecutions attained to a most fearful extent during the seventeenth century. They were introduced into England very much by James I., who came to England possessed by these ideas, and he communicated them to others, and there were a good many witch-persecutions during his reign. After the execution of Charles I., and during the time of the Commonwealth and the Puritans, there were a good many witch-persecutions; but I think, after that, very little more was heard of them. And yet the belief in witchcraft lingered for a considerable time longer. It is said that even Dr. Johnson was accustomed to remark that he did not see that there was any proof of the non-existence of witches; that, though their existence could not be proved, he was not at all satisfied that they did not exist. John Wesley was a most devout believer in witchcraft, and said on one occasion that, if witchcraft was not to be believed, we could not believe in the Bible. So you see that this belief had a very extraordinary hold over the public mind. It was only the most intelligent class, whose minds had been freed from prejudice by general culture, who were really free from it; and that cultivation happily permeated downward, as it were; so that now I should hope there are very few among our intelligent working-class in our great towns—where the general culture is much higher than it is in the agricultural districts—who retain any thing more than the lingering superstition which is to be found even in the very highest circles—as, for instance, not liking to be married on a Friday, or not liking to sit down thirteen at the dinner-table. These are things which even those who consider themselves the very aristocracy of intellect will sometimes confess to, laughing at it all the time, but saying, "It goes against the grain, and I would rather not do it." These,