Reverend Cotton Mather was an influential Puritan minister in Boston, serving his community for 43 years. Though famously associated with the Salem witch trials, Mather was only peripherally involved in the events of 1692. Nevertheless, to this day he is frequently cast as a major participant, even the leader of the witch-hunt.
This is primarily due to his work The Wonders of the Invisible World, published in the winter of 1692. At the behest of the newly appointed Royal Governor, 29-year-old Cotton Mather was given access to the original trial transcripts and court documents and speedily composed the monograph. This was to be the official court sanctioned account of the witchcraft trials. It presented the cases of five of the nineteen individuals who were executed, described a previous witchcraft case which employed similar evidentiary methods, and described the dangerous threat that had descended upon New England in 1692. As such, this text presented the witchcraft trials and actions of the magistrates as necessary, and even vital to the safety of the colony.
Strangely, this account was a sharp contrast to Mather’s actual involvement in the events of 1692. Along with other notable Boston ministers, Cotton Mather had warned against the use of spectral evidence, and advised caution from the onset of the trials. He seems to have traveled from Boston to Salem on only one occasion, to witness the execution of Reverend George Burroughs, former minister of Salem Village. One account suggests Mather may have calmed the crowd after the minister perfectly recited the Lord’s Prayer prior his execution (a feat that was allegedly impossible for a true witch). However, as this was a folk test, this action would have been consistent with Mather’s advice at the start of the trials– this test should never not have been employed by the magistrates in the first place.
It is important to note, as a well-read, intelligent man (he was accepted to Harvard College at age 11), his education affirmed that witchcraft was a real and frightening problem that could very well be the cause of the strange behavior in Salem. He would have believed that the judges were honest, earnest men of the law who were therefore capable of making impartial rulings, as they had done in previous witchcraft cases. It is therefore very likely he, like so many others, truly believed witchcraft was at work in Salem and demanded intervention. However, both Cotton and his father Reverend Increase Mather believed that innocent people had at the very least been accused in 1692. The senior Mather authored an essay entitled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits in late September, arguing against the use of spectral evidence and the folk tests used by the Salem magistrates. He went as far as to say “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, then that one innocent person should be condemned” (Mather, Cases of Conscience, 40).
Given this background, there is much speculation as to why Cotton Mather consented to write The Wonders of the Invisible World. A particularly interesting theory is put forward by historian Emerson Baker. By 1692, the Providence of Massachusetts Bay was in a precarious political situation. The Crown had revoked the colony’s charter in 1684 and after years of negotiation the new charter was felt insufficient by many Puritan leaders. Worry spread that the Puritan core of the colony was weakening and the great Puritan experiment was in jeopardy. According to Baker, Mather’s actions can best be understood in this tense environment. He notes, “With Massachusetts beset with internal political division and locked in a desperate military struggle with the French and their Native allies, a public acknowledgment that the judicial system had wrongly executed nineteen people, pressed to death another, and imprisoned well over a hundred more would have brought down the new government and threatened the existence of the city upon a hill.” (Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft, 200).
In 1700, Robert Calef, a contemporary of Cotton Mather, wrote a scathing criticism of The Wonders of the Invisible World. This narrative primarily placed blame on the magistrates and ministers, arguing they failed to control the proceedings, and instead were “governed by blindness and passion” (Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World, VII). Without obtaining Mather’s permission, Calef’s book included the five trial summaries from The Wonders of the Invisible World, a series of letters written between himself and Cotton Mather, and an account of a recent possession case observed by Mather in Boston—each paired with Calef’s own commentary and criticism. While Robert Calef is a notable figure, one who bravely dared to publicly highlight the injustices perpetrated during the witch trials only a few years after the fact, this work did not necessarily present a measured, reasoned account of the events of 1692. Nevertheless, his perspective significantly influenced popular perception of the trials for centuries to come, particularly in regards to the role of Cotton Mather. As famously observed by historian Samuel Eliot Morison, “Robert Calef, who had it in for Cotton Mather, tied a can to him after the frenzy was over, and it has rattled and banged through the pages of superficial and popular histories” (Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft, 228).
It can be argued that Cotton Mather’s reputation never truly recovered after the publication of More Wonders of the Invisible World. The lasting shift in the public’s perception was particularly evident by 1721, when Reverend Mather found himself at the center of yet another major public controversy—the debate over the use of inoculation to prevent smallpox. In the years since the witch trials, Mather had become increasingly engrossed in Enlightenment science and was particularly interested in finding ways to prevent the spread of disease. In 1713, he published a pamphlet about the symptoms and treatment of measles in which he “urged good nursing and moderate remedies such as honey and tea rather than the depletive procedures commonly prescribed, such as bleeding and vomiting,” (Kass, “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic,” 8). On April 22, 1721, a ship infected with smallpox arrived in Boston harbor, causing the first outbreak in two decades. Having come across a Turkish medical report that described the process of inoculation in 1716, Mather was determined to find a physician to test this technique at the onset of this latest epidemic. A risky and foreign procedure, the only physician who would consent to test the theory was Zabdeil Boylston, a local surgeon and apothecary owner.
Though initial attempts at inoculation yielded positive results, the residents and physicians of Boston were shocked and dismayed by this new technique, fearing the procedure was dangerous and would ultimately spread the disease. In July of 1721, Scottish physician William Douglass became the first to publicly criticize the new procedure and the men who advocated for its use—a criticism that took full advantage of Mather’s relationship to the events of 1692. In the ensuing pamphlet war Mather was frequently portrayed as a “credulous, vain preacher” (Kass, “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic,” 18), and was on more than one occasion attacked specifically for his role in the Salem witch trials.
In popular culture today, Cotton Mather continues to be shadowed by Calef’s narrative, depicted as a vindictive witch-hunter, a leader of the witchcraft trials. This dramatic interpretation can be seen in numerous recent pop-culture appearances. For example, Cotton Mather appears as the evil witch-hunting villain in the 1976 Marvel Comic “Spider-Man and the Scarlet Witch.” His depiction is similarly sinister in WGNA’s popular television series Salem, where he is depicted as the needy and lustful son of famous witch-hunter, Increase Mather. This is yet another fascinating example of how figures in history can be distorted over time, becoming forever coded as either hero or villain in the retelling of events.
Marvel Comics, Marvel Team-Up: Spider Man and the Scarlet Witch, January 1976. Cotton Mather can be seen in the background, behind Scarlet Witch, with the speech bubble “Wanda, your mind belongs to Cotton Mather.”
WGNA, Salem (TV Series), 2014-2017, Cotton Mather’s character appears in the top center panel of this scene.
Emerson Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
Robert Calef, More Wonders of the Invisible World or The Wonders of the Invisible World Displayed in Five Parts, (Salem: Cushing and Appleton, 1823), https://archive.org/details/morewondersofinv01cale/page/n5/mode/2up
Stephen Coss, The Fever of 1712: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics, (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2016).
Amalie Kass, “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic,” Massachusetts Historical Review 14 (2012)
Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World: being an account of the tryals of several witches lately executed in New England: to which is added a farther account of the tryals of the New-England witches, (London: John Russell Smith, 1862). https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/wondersofinvisib00math
Increase Mather, Cases of conscience concerning evil spirts personating men, witchcrafts, infallible proofs of guilt in such as are accused with that crime: All considered according to the scriptures, history, experience, and the judgment of many learned men, (Boston: Benjamin Harris at the London Coffee House, 1693). https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eebo2;idno=B43422.0001.001
Marilynne K. Roach, The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, (Landham: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004).