By Edward T. O’Donnell
Three-hundred and 12 years ago this week, on Nov. 16, 1688, Ann "Goody" Glover’s exile came to an end. Eking out a humble existence in Boston as a washerwoman, this Irish widow found herself accused of practicing witchcraft to torment several children. After a speedy inquest headed by none other than Rev. Cotton Mather, she was convicted and summarily hanged.
Not much is known about Ann "Goody" Glover. Along with many other Catholics in 17th-century Ireland, she was exiled to Barbados by Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. She eventually made her way to Boston with her daughter around 1680. There she found a position as laundress, serving many families, including that of John Goodwin, a mason.
In the summer of 1688, four of the Goodwin children began to experience fits and wild visions. They alternated between a sluggish, almost comatose state and wild, manic agitation. They shrieked loudly and twisted their bodies into unimaginable contortions. According to one contemporary account, a doctor called in "found himself so affrontcd by the Distempers of the children that he concluded nothing but an hellish Witchcraft could be the Origin of these Maladies."
The only detailed account of the incident comes from the rather biased pen of Rev. Cotton Mather in a pamphlet published a year later, "Memorable Providences, Relating To Witchcrafts And Possessions." According to Mather, the story began when the oldest Goodwin child Martha, a girl of 13, told her parents that the fits began shortly after she confronted Goody Glover, their washerwoman, about some missing linens.
Glover was quickly arrested and put on trial. When questioned in court, wrote Mather, Glover exhibited strange and obstinate behavior. Although she spoke and understood English, "the court could have no answers from her, but in the Irish; which was her Native language."
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Since Puritans equated Catholicism with idolatry and superstition, if not outright Satanism, the judges made much of Glover’s faith. She freely admitted that she was a Catholic and recited prayers to prove it. As if to emphasize her religious commitment, she told the court that in Barbados her husband had been "scored to death and did not give up his religion, which same I hold to." Such firmness irked Mather, who described Glover as "a scandalous old Irishwoman, very poor, a Roman Catholic and obstinate in idolatry."
In the end, Glover allegedly confessed to practicing witchcraft and tormenting the Goodwin children. The judges took little time to deliberate and, in Mather’s words, "Sentence of Death was pass’d upon her."
On Nov. 16, 1688, Glover was hanged on the Boston Common before a large crowd. Just before dying, she informed those around her that her death would not end the Goodwin children’s fits. When her prediction proved correct, Mather and other Puritan leaders concluded not that Glover was innocent, but that others must be carrying on her work. More accusations and executions throughout the colony were to follow.
Historians have yet to reach a widely agreed upon explanation for the witch hysteria that struck Massachusetts in the late 17th century, especially in Salem. Some have argued that it stemmed from a crisis of religious and moral authority as Puritan society gave way to a more secular and commercial set of values. Others have used modern psychology, positing that since almost all incidents involved children accusing adults, the witchcraft hysteria represented a lashing out against a repressive society. Still another group has suggested that food poisoning may have produced the hallucinations and fits that were taken for satanic possession.
Whatever the cause of the witchcraft hysteria, it’s clear that Goody Glover’s trail and execution signaled the beginning of a colony-wide hysteria that would reach a crescendo four years later in Salem when 19 were executed before the governor intervened.
Today a plaque mounted in Our Lady of Victories Shrine in Boston remembers Glover as the first Catholic martyr in Massachusetts. She didn’t necessarily die because she was Catholic (after all, most accused witches were Puritans). But as Rev. Mather’s account indicates, the fact that she was a "superstitious" Catholic made it easier for her Puritan judges to believe she was in league with the devil.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Nov. 15, 1985: Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald sign the Anglo-Irish agreement, establishing greater cooperation between Britain and Ireland regarding Northern Ireland.
Nov. 19, 1798: The leader of the United Irishmen uprising, Theobald Wolfe Tone, commits suicide in his cell awaiting execution.
Nov. 19, 1913: The Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union establish the Irish Citizen Army to protect striking workers from Police violence during the great Dublin lockout.
As mopping up continues in areas hit by the recent record rainfall and subsequent flash floods, the Irish government will announce an aid package this week for those worst affected by the deluge that engulfed homes and businesses.
Nov. 15, 1887: artist Georgia O’Keefe born in Sun Prairie, Wis.
Nov. 19, 1905: orchestra leader Tommy Dorsey born in Mahanoy Plane, Pa.
Nov. 19, 1935: General Electric CEO Jack Welch, Jr., born in Salem, Mass.
Nov. 19, 1962: actress Jodie Foster born in the Bronx.
Nov. 20, 1874: Boston Mayor and Massachusetts Governor James Michael Curley born in Roxbury, Mass.
Nov. 20, 1925: U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senator Robert F. (Francis) Kennedy born in Brookline, Mass.
Readers may reach Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.