Mercy Lewis
Written By Meghan Carroll

Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001

"I veryly believe in my heart," began 19 -year-old Mercy Lewis on April 19, 1692, "that Giles Corey is a dreadful wizzard." Lewis's confidence in herself was not unique to her accusation of Corey during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Throughout the months plagued by chaos and confusion in Salem Village, Mercy Lewis acted as a member of the core group of accusing young women in the Village, blatantly accusing several persons of afflicting herself and her friends. Besides Giles Cory, Mercy Lewis accused Bridget Bishop, Mary Lacey, Sr., Susannah Martin, John Willard, Nehemiah Abbot, Jr., Sarah Wilds, and her former guardian, George Burroughs.

Mercy Lewis was born in Falmouth, Maine in 1675. Early in her life, however, she was orphaned when both of her parents were killed in Indian attacks witnessed by Mercy herself. As a result, Mercy was sent to live with Reverend George Burroughs as his servant in Maine and then later to the household of Thomas Putnam in Salem Village. At the Putnam household, Lewis befriended Ann Putnam and her cousin Mary Walcott who were among the first to make claims of affliction resulting in accusations of witchcraft. To support their accusations, Mercy Lewis and the other girls continued to display "evidence" of affliction. In one notable incident, Lewis is reported by Edward Putnam to have been drawn helplessly by an unseen force across a room directly towards a burning hearth while in the presence of an accused Martha Corey.

Is it possible that the girls, including Mercy Lewis, actually were afflicted? The position taken by Bernard Rosenthal in Salem Story considers two possible explanations. Either the girls were experiencing psychological disorders or they were simply frauds, and decides in favor of fraud. Nineteenth century historian Charles Upham, author of Salem Witchcraft, suggests a mixture of explanations "credulity, hallucination, and the delirium of excitement" to account for the girls' behavior.

Regardless of what may have fueled the incessant accusations, the fact remains that the girls accused innocent persons of witchcraft, costing many of them their lives. Historian Carol Karlsen in her book Devil in the Shape of a Woman attempts to explain the girls' afflictions as a response to their personal insecurities -- both economic and social. Mercy Lewis's case illustrates Karlsen's point well. Lewis experienced a traumatized childhood and lived in a relatively insecure social and economic circumstances. As an orphan, she had no money or dowry to offer in marriage, so the chances of obtaining a husband and thus escaping her social position of servitude must have seemed bleak. As Rev. John Hale noted in his Modest Inquiry, several of the "afflicted" Salem girls were anxious about their marriage prospects. Boyer and Nissenbaum, who cite primarily socio-economic causes for the witchcraft trials, might agree that these girls -- who possessed essentially no social influence before the trials -- were greatly empowered by their accusations. Moreover, many of the accused persons are examples of people who managed to climb the social ladder or become assertive women -- both feats that Mercy Lewis was unable to accomplish. Furthermore, because Mercy Lewis was not involved in the initial accusations but rather joined Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard a little later in the game, it seems that perhaps a desperate need for social empowerment and belonging were strong, underlying motives.

Finally, it may be asked, "What did an accuser hope to achieve by naming a person as a witch?" No one's socio-economic status improved as a result of the trials, and many of the accused suffered financial losses. Mercy Lewis herself did not marry until late in life and then only after she had given birth to her first child. Perhaps Bernard Rosenthal's response to the question is most appropriate. He replies with a quotation from Herman Melville who simply asks, "How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?."


Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: 1974.

John Hale, Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, 1702.

Carol F. Karlson, Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 1998

Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story, 1993

Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft, 1867.