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George Jacobs, Sr.
George Jacobs, Sr. was about 72 years old when he was hanged as a wizard on August 19, 1692, along with three other men and one woman -- the first time men were executed for witchcraft in Salem. He was accused, among many others, by his granddaughter, Margaret Jacobs who was also accused and imprisoned. Depending on scholarly opinion, he has been seen as the victim of personal grudges, the casualty of the socio-political climate of Salem, or the target of cultural system's effects on young, socially subordinate women.
George Jacobs, Sr.
Written By Kristin Buckstad
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001
George Jacobs, Sr. was born ca. 1620. Not much is known about when he came to Massachusetts Bay Colony, or about his first wife. He had three children from his first marriage, all born in Salem. George Jr. (b. ca. 1649), Mary (b. ca. 1650), and Ann (b. ca. 1655). He bought land in Salem around 1658 and married his second wife, Mary, about 1673. He had lived in Salem for a little over thirty years when he was accused of witchcraft.
George Jacobs, Sr. was arrested on May 10, 1692, along with his granddaughter Margaret Jacobs. He was examined twice, on the day of his arrest and on the following day. His trial took place in early August, and he remained in prison from the time of his arrest until his execution on August 19.
His primary accuser was Sarah Churchill, who was a servant in his home. She came from a wealthy family of English gentry in Maine but was most likely orphaned in Indian Wars. She, like Margaret, had been accused of witchcraft and, in her confession, accused others. George Jacobs granddaughter Margaret herself confessed to witchcraft and accused her grandfather among others who had already been accused in order, she wrote, "to save my life and to have my liberty." The list of accusers against Jacobs did not end there. It swelled to include Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, Mary Walcott, Sarah Bibber, Mary Warren, Joseph Flint, Thomas Putnam, John Putnam, Jr., and John DeRich.
The women accused his Jacobs' specter of beating them with his walking stick and other physical abuses. Not only did the women testify that Jacobs afflicted them, they also testified to witnessing the afflictions of the others. During his testimony, John DeRich, a sixteen-year old boy, was the only person to claim that Jacobs afflicted him. The Putnam men testified that they witnessed the afflictions that Mary Walcott and the other women suffered on May 11 at the hands of Jacobs' specter.
The Puritans believed that witches and wizards had proof of their covenants with the Devil on their bodies. Doctor George Herrick was sent to examine Jacobs' body for the witch's "teat," and found one on his right shoulder. This slight protuberance on his skin combined with the spectral evidence made the case strong enough for indictment.
George Jacobs, Sr. emerges as an interesting person from the records of his examinations on May 10 and 11. He was incredulous from the moment the first accuser, Abigail Williams, cried out against him. He laughed in court, always a risky response and said: "Because I am falsely accused.-Your worships all of you do think this is true?" One of his most famous protest was the defiant assertion, "You tax me for a wizard, you may as well tax me for a buzzard I have done no harm." Emphatically portraying his unwavering Christian faith, he declared, "Well: burn me, or hang me, I will stand in the truth of Christ, I know nothing of it." Several times he argued that "The Devill can go in any shape" or "can take any likeness." This was sound theological doctrine at the time, warning the court that it was doing the Devil's work by accusing innocent people. The judges, however, believed that the Devil cannot take a person's form "without [his] consent."
George Jacobs, Sr. was then indicted, tried, and found guilty of witchcraft. He was hanged on August 19, 1692 with George Burroughs, John Proctor, John Willard, and Martha Carrier. This was the first time men were executed as witches in Salem. Meanwhile, Jacobs' granddaughter Margaret Jacobs was free from danger after confessing and accusing her grandfather but remained in jail. Her father, George Jacobs, Jr., was also accused but fled from Salem Town. When he did so, he left behind his wife, Rebecca, in jail facing witchcraft charges. She became severely emotionally disturbed and was most likely ruled mentally incompetent and escaped conviction. George Sr.'s second wife, Mary, survived him and remarried on June 23, 1693 to John Wilds whose wife had been hanged as a witch on July 19, 1692. Jacobs body was retrieved from Gallows Hill by his family and buried on his land. In the 1980's his body had to be moved quickly, due to the sale of the Jacobs family property,. His bones were kept in storage in the Danvers Archive until 1992 when he was finally put to rest in the Rebecca Nurse Cemetery.
George Jacobs, Sr.'s role in the witch trials has been interpreted in several ways. Bernard Rosenthal views him as the victim of fabrication. For example, Ann Putnam and Abigail Williams knowingly put pins in their hands and accused his specter of putting them there to add to evidence against him (Salem Story). He was also a victim of the life-saving strategy that the accused learned during the early course of the trials: confess and your life will be spared. Two of his primary accusers were among the accused who confessed to save themselves..
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum interpret the trials in socio-economic and political terms. They argue that many members of the more rural and agricultural Salem Village (e.g. the Putnam family) were threatened by those with economic and political connections to Salem Town (e.g. the Porter family), the seaport and center of emerging capitalism. Salem Village had been trying to assert its independence from the Town by establishing its own church, and inhabitants of the Village with ties to the Town were seen as threats to the cause of Village independence. As such, the majority of accusers was from the Village and the majority of the accused who lived on the western side of the Village nearer to the Town. George Jacobs, Sr.'s son, George, was good friend of the Porters, making the family vulnerable to accusations, particularly from the Putnams. The phenomenon of the accused becoming accusers was due, they argue, to the swarm of accusations made in the heat of politics and economics. Eventually the confusion had to fall back on itself.
Carol Karlsen offers a more gender-oriented analysis. The "possessed accusers" were usually subordinate members of society such as servants. Many of them, like Sarah Churchill, were orphans. Their prospects for improving their social standings were virtually nonexistent since they had no families and no dowries to support them. Totally dependent upon the will of others, their discontent and anxiety would have been quite marked. Puritan society, however, did not tolerate socially aggressive and assertive women. Their fears were then converted, psychologically, into the belief that they were either witches or were possessed. After all, Carol Karlsen argues, a society that teaches the existence of possession will invariably contain persons who think they are possessed and are believed to be so by others. As for the specific reason that Sarah Churchill accused George Jacobs, he may have been seen as a tormentor or harsh master since most of the accusations contained charges of physical abuse.
All of these explanations fall short, however. None of them explains why Jacobs own granddaughter would accuse him of all people or why such a large number of accusations flew at Jacobs, except for the fact that he publicly denounced the circle of "afflicted" girls, thus opening them to charges of fraud and compliance with the Devil. If modern students and scholars find it hard to explain why so many people would spend their time accusing a 70 year-old man, it is quite easy to see why George Jacobs, Sr. laughed and told the judges that he could not believe this was happening.
Boyer, Paul and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, 1974.
Jacobs family. Home page. March 2001.
Karlson, Carol. F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, 1998.
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, 1993.
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds., The Salem Witchcraft Papers, 1977.