In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Child Witches in Colonial America

  • Introduction
  • Contemporary Sources on Colonial Witchcraft, including the Roles of Children
  • Documentary Sources on Colonial Witchcraft, including the Roles of Children
  • Textbooks on Colonial Witchcraft and the Roles of Children
  • Journal Articles on Colonial Witchcraft and the Roles of Children
  • The Roles of Children within Textbooks on Colonial Witchcraft
  • References and Chapters in Books on Childhood and Colonial Witchcraft
  • Children and Witchcraft beyond Colonial America in Textbooks
  • Mentions of Children and Colonial Witchcraft in Articles
  • Child Witches in Articles

Childhood Studies Child Witches in Colonial America
Kristina West
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0274


It is perhaps unsurprising that the figure of the child in colonial witchcraft cases has been accorded relatively little critical attention; the persecution by and of children in European cases—such as Mora, Sweden; Augsburg and Wurzburg in Germany; and Pendle in Lancashire—all predated and outnumbered even those in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Yet given the predominance of child accusers in Salem and in other New England witch accusations, the number of accused children in Salem, and the citing of children as victims of witchcraft across colonial America, it seems there is still room for further investigation of their role. Yet discussing children is always difficult in these cases, as the definition of what a child is varies significantly across time and geographical location, and even frequently within those boundaries. What is more certain is that, as in earlier European accusations, children and young people were often the instigators of witch accusations, either directly (in that they accused specific people of witchcraft) or indirectly (in that adults assumed witchcraft to be the cause of their ailments or in adult accusations against midwives whose roles were, by definition, bound up with children). The illnesses and accusations of children were at the heart of many Connecticut cases between 1647 and 1697; children played a major role as accusers in the 1688 Boston case against Ann Glover; and they were central to the proceedings in Salem as both accusers (at least 27 accusers were under the age of 18) and accused (24 under-18s were accused of witchcraft and six were tried in a full court; at least three of those were tortured; and one was found guilty and sentenced to death although the execution never took place). Even some of the very few cases that came to court in Virginia mentioned children in relation to midwives and/or as victims. By far the majority of historical works on colonial witchcraft focus on the role of children as accusers; very few consider children as witches. And while many view Salem as the end of colonial witch trials, 1692 only marks the end of witchcraft-related executions; accusations continued up to and beyond the end of the colonial era in 1763, as did the role of children.

Contemporary Sources on Colonial Witchcraft, including the Roles of Children

These sources contain the majority of the claims about children and witchcraft in colonial America that have since been used as the basis for histories, analyses, and literature about the involvement of children in witchcraft cases. There is some overlap between sources; however, each has unique aspects in the examination of children’s roles in American witch trials. Lawson 1692 and Hale 1702 were drawn directly from their authors’ involvement in the early stages of the Salem panic and interaction with afflicted and accused children; Sewall 2019 (1674–1700) contains diary entries regarding Sewall’s time as a Salem witch trials judge, and Cotton Mather’s multiple works have significantly influenced modern-day conceptions (and misconceptions) about the roles of both adults and children in New England witch trials. Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693) offers an analytical view from a legal perspective, and Calef 1700 provides details unavailable elsewhere.

  • Calef, Robert. More Wonders of the Invisible World. London: Nath. Hillar and Joseph Collyer, 1700.

    Calef’s rebuttal of Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World treads a fine line between contemporary account and history. Little is known about Calef except that he worked as a merchant in Boston and that it is unlikely he was an eyewitness to the events in Salem; as such, his account must be secondhand. However, he also offers details about the children unavailable elsewhere, including sixteen-year-old Margaret Jacobs’s escape from hanging due to an abscess in her head (Burr 1914, p. 366, cited under Documentary Sources on Colonial Witchcraft, including the Roles of Children).

  • Hale, John. A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1702.

    A minister from Beverley, Hale was asked by Samuel Parris to observe and comment on the behavior of the afflicted girls early in the proceedings. His later account challenged both the legal proceedings and religious motivations of witch trials in general, but also provides a firsthand account of the sufferings of the Salem children. Hale further exposed the role of children as victims or (sometimes inadvertent) instigators in other witchcraft cases prior to Salem, including in Dorchester, Cambridge, and Boston.

  • Lawson, Deodat. A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Persons at Salem Village. Boston: Benjamin Harris, 1692.

    Lawson’s account of the happenings at Salem remains one of the most important documents about the Salem trials. As a witness to many of the early events, such as the first affliction of twelve-year-old Abigail Williams and the examination of four-year-old Dorcas or Dorothy Good, as well as his observations of the “afflictions” of the accusing girls in court, Lawson’s narrative is vital in understanding the earlier stages of children’s involvement in the trials.

  • Mather, Cotton. Wonders of the Invisible World. London: J. R. Smith, 1693.

    Mather’s Wonders provides his firsthand account of “several witches lately executed in New-England.” His account of Samuel Shattock’s testimony against Bridget Bishop claiming that she came “with a purpose of mischief” to injure his eldest child shows the sometimes overlooked role of the child as victim in Salem’s trials (pp. 80–81). He includes the testimony of child accuser Phebe Chandler against Martha Carrier and notes that her own children testified that the Devil promised she should be Queen of Hell (pp. 93–94).

  • Mather, Cotton. Diary of Cotton Mather, 1682–1708. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1911.

    Mather’s diary offers a unique insight into the affairs in Salem, although other writings explore them in more detail. Vol. 7 focuses on the years 1680–1707, thus encompassing both the Goodwin affair in Boston and the Salem trials, although Mather only comments on Salem in an August 1692 letter to John Cotton and sundry short diary entries. He also writes at some length about the case of Mercy Short, a young woman who was “horribly possessed with Divils” (p. 160).

  • Mather, Cotton. “A Brand Pluck’d Out of the Burning.” In Narratives of the New England Witchcraft Cases 1648–1706. Edited by George Lincoln Burr, 253–288. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1914a.

    Originally 1693. There are a number of claims to the “other” witchcraft case of 1692, but that of Mercy Short is probably best known due to this narration of events from Mather, who took the afflicted sixteen-year-old into his own home to care for after her apparent possession by witches and demons.

  • Mather, Cotton. “Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft.” In Narratives of the New England Witchcraft Cases 1648–1706. Edited by George Lincoln Burr, 89–144. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1914b.

    Originally 1689. Mather’s Memorable Providences predates the Salem trials to focus on the case of the Goodwin children who accused Boston laundress Ann Glover of witchcraft; Glover was put to death on their evidence. He also tells the stories of Groton’s Elizabeth Knapp, who claimed affliction in 1871, and the 1679 case of William Morse in Newberry, who—along with his wife and young grandson—were “strangely disquieted by a demon” (pp. 23–32).

  • Mather, Increase. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits. Boston: Benjamin Harris, 1693.

    Mather Senior’s account of witchcraft in the New World is less illuminating than other sources due to his physical distance from the trials and focus on an ecclesiastical interpretation of witchcraft. However, it remains a valuable background source to understanding the trial process, particularly the change of heart regarding spectral evidence in which the afflicted children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents during examinations. The early pages shed most light on Mather’s position with respect to the afflicted girls.

  • Sewall, Samuel. Diary, Vol. 1, 1674–1700. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2019.

    As one of the judges during the Salem trials, Sewall’s testimony should be invaluable. As it is, he says little about the trials beyond a few short entries from April to October 1692; the notes, however, are also worth reading as they explain Sewall’s role and his later penitence in more depth.

  • Willard, Samuel. “A Brief Account of a Strange and Unusual Providence of God Beffalen to Elizabeth Knap of Groton.” In Groton in the Witchcraft Times. Edited by Samuel A. Green. Groton, MA, 1883.

    Willard’s account covers the 1671 case of sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Knapp in Groton, Massachusetts, a case about which Willard wrote at length to Cotton Mather and which undoubtedly influenced Mather’s own later investigations into witchcraft.

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