The Curious Story of John Godfrey: A Man Who Used ‘Witch Hysteria’ to His Advantage in New England Before it Was Deadly

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Salem Witchcraft Trial / Wikimedia Commons


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By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

“Religion,” wrote Dan Brown in Angels and Demons, “is like language or dress.  We gravitate towards the practices with which we were raised.”  It is that simplicity which so often sets the parameters within which groups of people operate.  A collective mentalité can take root over the course of many generations or find solid ground in periods of new attitudes and reinterpretations.  The people of early 17th to early 18th century New England had brought with them and instilled in their descendants the beliefs influenced by their European heritage, including a tacit understanding that witchcraft and magic were real and people existed who were willing to use it for malevolent purposes.  This would result in what was a seemingly abrupt explosion of accusations, trials and executions culminating in the tragedy in Salem Village in 1692.  In Europe, before the witch hunts entered an aggressive phase, both religious and secular authorities were hesitant to accept charges based upon accusations alone and certainly required more than simply ethereal evidence while providing those accused with the rights of due process of law.  As the hunts ramped up, much more latitude was provided, and those who exhibited certain characteristics and were vulnerable to such accusations suddenly found themselves without that protection.  It wasn’t until the return of skeptical thinkers and the beginning of the Enlightenment that it finally abated.  In New England, a step behind those across the pond, the same process can be uncovered and is evident in the story of one man.  The experiences of John Godfrey, a herdsman from Andover, epitomized those traits that would later lead many to the gallows.  But the response to accusations brought against him and his own retaliation against them also foreshadowed the lamp of reason that was already in the New World and that would, as it had in Europe, bring events full circle in the waning years of the crisis.

Godfrey was precisely the type of person vulnerable to accusations.  Though he was obviously a male, his status as a bachelor working as a roving herdsman would set him on the perimeter of society.[1]  He would have been familiar with the types of traits that would place someone in a position of suspicion.  About ten years prior to the hunts of self-styled Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins began his reign of terror in Essex, records show a John Godfrey boarding the William and Mary leaving London and bound for the shores of New England.[2]  Did he recognize his commonality with such people and seek to leave the hysteria, or was he simply journeying to the new colonies like many others in search of a better life?  The answers to such questions can only be conjectural, but coming from such an environment would make him quite familiar with those things that would draw suspicion.  Upon his arrival, he simply went to work as a herdsman in much the same way as he had before he left his native land.  Adding to his status as a single man, Godfrey set himself apart by being a rather cruel person as well.  He obtained employment under threat and actually intentionally engaged in criminal activity designed to cause problems for those who did not bend to his wishes.[3]  The rational mind would assume that he had not considered the tendency of people at the time to consider maleficium as the likely cause of such troubles and that they might subsequently accuse him of witchcraft, the alternative being that poor Mr. Godfrey was mentally disturbed with a death wish.

Fortunately for Godfrey, New England was consistently a step behind Europe and secular and religious authorities had not yet fallen into the witchcraft frenzy taking place overseas.  Concrete evidence and due process were still important, and their skeptical mindset would make it very difficult for successful accusations to be lodged.  Prior to the Salem trials, only five people are known to have been tried and executed for witchcraft.  The environment still favored the accused and generally authorities found them guilty of much lesser offenses if anything at all.[4]  Godfrey pushed his luck even further to obtain those things to which he felt he was rightfully due.  Most if not all people on both continents at the time would surely do everything possible to distance themselves from anything that may cause raised eyebrows.  But not John Godfrey.  He used the hysteria to his gain, actually implying to others that they would not want to be an enemy of his.  He not only did not fight but indeed fed suspicions of him by intimidating various people, suggesting that they certainly would not want to suffer Satan’s revenge for a witch not “kindly treated.”[5]  The ethical problem with his motivations and tactics aside, this must have taken nerves of steel!  Perhaps he knew what he was doing, because the financial profit he could not realize even in the face of threats and intimidation came to him in another manner.  He was reported to frequently use threats veiled in words and phrases intended to instill shock, such as wishing a farmer’s animals to not return home alive or a reference to his “new master” (which could easily refer to a new primary employer but could be taken as something more sinister with that clarifying information withheld).[6]

Godfrey’s disputes with neighbors and potential employers had consistently resulted in his involvement in many lawsuits, most often as the one suing.  He would not hesitate to use the legal system to force his desires upon them.  His activity as a perpetual plaintiff eventually served him during these early years of sporadic witchcraft accusations.  Because of the higher standards accusers were held to, Godfrey was never convicted of witchcraft.  However, he did what seems to have little if any precedent in England – to file a suit for defamation and slander against those who brought him up on such charges.  Could it be that he knew the implications he put forth and the lifestyle he lived would cause such accusations to arise?  Knowing the stringent requirements of evidence in trials would certainly make it a masterful plot – cause the accusations to surface, and then sue the accuser when the lack of evidence resulted in acquittal.  He sued a man by the name of Job Taylor for money he claimed was owed to him for work on Taylor’s farm.  Taylor subsequently accused Godfrey of witchcraft, and his relatives were deposed to have seen Godfrey working with a familiar in the form of a bird.  The case was presided over by Reverend Francis Dane, who had a reputation for not believing in the concept of witchcraft.  He himself testified on Godfrey’s behalf and dropped all charges.[7]  Taylor lost his suit and his property.  Godfrey may well have been the only person, or at least one of a very few, who in the end actually gained from accusations of witchcraft.  The accusations levied against Godfrey and the reputation he had earned would likely have resulted in anyone else’s execution, but he sued his accusers and won.[8]

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“Examination of a Witch” in Salem / University of Missouri-Kansas City

Not long after the days of Godfrey, when the reasoned thinking of authorities required more than a bad reputation and hearsay testimony to prove someone a witch, the environment shifted.  The crisis in Salem Village erupted in 1692 and presented a culture in which someone like Godfrey would soon be swinging from a tree.  The Enlightenment was in its early stages, returning Europeans once again to a more rational approach to understanding themselves and nature.  But the lagging New England was now ramping up witchcraft hysteria to the previous levels of Hopkins in Essex.  The collective mentalité was ripe for wild accusations, kangaroo courts and quick executions.  There was no Reverend Francis Dane to come to the rescue with a sensible mind as he had for Godfrey.  He was now replaced by the ilk of Cotton Mather and like-minded authorities who considered the ethereal to perfectly legitimate and wantonly suspended due process of law.  Mather was accused skeptical contemporaries of fostering the culture in which such a hysteria could cultivate and grow, ultimately to threaten “…the devouring of this Country.”[9]

In the years following the mayhem in Salem Village, authorities once again returned to a reasoned approach, including Increase Mather, Cotton’s own father.  The Enlightenment period was reaching the shores of the New World, and apologists for the Salem incident came forward as well as some of those who had been directly involved to recant their testimony and denounce the executions of innocent people.  The world with which John Godfrey was familiar vanished for a brief period of time only to be reborn.  Had he lived but a few short decades later in either Essex in England or in the Salem of 1692, his story would have been much different – and likely much shorter.  Would he have maintained the same personality and fostered the same actions and reputation in that later environment?  The rational mind would again venture to suppose that he wouldn’t, but Godfrey was never accused of being rational.  His successes happened when they did because the mentalité had not yet reached the panicked peak of later years.  In spite of the unfortunate respite from that into mass hysteria, the general culture would come full circle and revive once again the due process and skeptical thinking of both secular and religious authorities that had been the rule of the day in earlier years.  People once again gravitated toward that which formed their core and which they had come to adopt as a standard way of life – the only sensible and comfortable thing they had to move past such a non-sensible experience.

[1] John Demos, “John Godfrey and His Neighbors:  Witchcraft and the Social Web in Colonial Massachusetts,” The William and Mary Quarterly 33:2 (April 1976), 242.

[2] John Demos, “John Godfrey and His Neighbors,” 244.

[3] Bruce M. Tyler, The Tyler Family and the Salem Witchcraft Trials, Middletown, CT:  Godfrey Memorial Library (October 1997), 3.

[4] Francis Hill, The Salem Witch Trials Reader, Cambridge:  De Capo Press (2000), 258.

[5] Marilynn K. Roach, The Salem Witch Trials:  A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, New York:  Cooper Square Press (2002), xxi.

[6] John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan:  Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, Oxford:  Oxford University Press (2004), 41.

[7] Kathy Weiser, “Massachusetts Legends:  Reverend Francis Dane of Andover,” 2003 (Last Updated July 2012), <http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ma-francisdane.html>.

[8] Francis Hill, The Salem Witch Trials Reader, 259.

[9] Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World, London:  Nath Hillar on London Bridge (1700), 156.

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