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Dr. William Griggs
Dr. William Griggs of Salem Village, though not referred to by name in the court documents, is generally accepted by historians as the doctor who made the diagnosis that the afflictions of the girls in Salem village were caused by “an evil hand,” not by natural causes. His diagnosis triggered a sequence of events that began with the making of a witch cake and led to hundreds of accusations of witchcraft.
Dr. William Griggs
Written by Beckie Dashiell
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Fall Semester 2006
Dr. William Griggs is often cited in connection with the witchcraft hysteria that plagued Salem Village in 1692 as the man who made the diagnosis which led to accusations of witchcraft. As the only physician in the village, he was called upon to examine the strange symptoms of the afflicted girls. His famous diagnosis as cited by both John Hale in A Modest Enquiry and Charles Upham in Salem Witchcraft – that the girls were “under an Evil Hand” – left the residents of Salem to assume witchcraft. Mary Beth Norton claims that Griggs was a supporter of Reverend Parris. So while the first afflictions occurred in Parris’s own home, it seems likely he would turn to his friend and church member Griggs for a consultation. Griggs and his wife are listed on the pro-Parris petition of 1695, and Griggs’s support never wavered, even after the witch trials. Dr. Anthony Patton also points to a close relationship between Thomas Putnam Jr. and Griggs, in which Griggs sided with Thomas Putnam in a probate dispute. Griggs supported Putnam heirs who tried to invalidate the will of Mary Veren Putnam (Putnam’s step-mother) by testifying to the incompetence of Mary Veren at the time she wrote her will. As court documents show, Putnam was a supporter of the "afflicted" girls in Salem village, the most prominent being his own daughter, Ann Putnam, Jr. Griggs’s own great-niece, Elizabeth Hubbard, was a friend of Ann Putnam, Jr. and among the most active of the young female accusers.
Dr. Griggs’s educational background is unclear. Given the context of the times in early colonial New England, it is unlikely that he received any formal medical training or that he was aware of the advances in medicine in Europe. As Patton indicates, women were responsible for primary care during sickness. Only when an illness was unusual or persistent were doctors called upon to examine patients. In cases when the physician was unable to explain the cause of the illness, usually a sudden and violent kind of sickness, doctors and family members sometimes suspected witchcraft. And to the New England Puritans in 1692, witchcraft was a valid diagnosis. The Puritans believed God punished all sinners with illness or calamity. In this sense, according to Norman Gevitz, ministers and physicians played complementary roles in tending to the sick. Ministers tended to spiritual needs while physicians tended to physical ones. Yet when a physical condition persisted, and the patient could not account for any spiritual shortcomings, he or she would look outwards for a cause, hence the validation of witchcraft.
As Gevitz points out, physicians were the “principal professional arbiters for determining natural versus preternatural signs and symptoms of disease,” and hence they wielded an incredible amount of power in determining the prevalence of witchcraft in a given town or village. The judges in Salem consulted the English Reverend Richard Bernard’s Guide to the Grand-Jury Men, written in 1627, in which he addressed the prosecution of witches. While the book’s main goal was to caution jurymen to exercise scrutiny when dealing with cases of witchcraft, Norton indicates that Bernard supported relying on doctors for the “initial diagnosis of diabolic activity.” Knowing that the Salem judges read this work, it is obvious why the doctor’s word was so weighty and irrefutable, and why Griggs’s pronouncement was the next key step in creating the paranoia in Salem.
The sequence of events leading up to and following Griggs’s diagnosis is important to trace. The first fits occurred in mid-January, yet no accusations were made until the end of February. According to John Hale’s contemporary book, A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft, when the girls in Parris’s household first exhibited their afflictions, Parris called in ministers and magistrates, the “Worthy Gentle-men of Salem,” for consultation. They concluded the afflictions were “preternatural,” and advised prayer. Griggs was also called in but spent several weeks observing the girls before he made his diagnosis. Hale’s book also gives us the only account of the girls’ afflictions before they were diagnosed: “These Children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way… so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any Epileptick Fits, or natural Disease to effect.” Doctors had enough medical information to know that the girls did not suffer from epilepsy or disease. Surely, these afflictions must have been unsettling. Hale’s book also gives us the account of Griggs’s diagnosis: the girls were “sadly Afflicted of they knew not what Distempers; and [Parris] made his application to Physitians, yet still they grew worse: And at length one Physitian gave his opinion, that they were under an Evil Hand. This the Neighbours quickly took up, and concluded they were bewitched.” Assuming, as most historians do, that the “physitian” here is Griggs, we see the immediate and painful influence of Griggs’s words as the neighbors took up his diagnosis to mean witchcraft. After Griggs’s diagnosis, Mary Sibley, a neighbor, told Parris’s slave John Indian to make a witch cake “to find out the Witch,” where upon the “afflicted” immediately began to make accusations.
Yet, according to Gevitz, doctors were often pressured to diagnose diabolic activity, as a means to validate the suspicions of the patient’s family and friends. We can’t know whether Griggs was pressured to make his diagnosis that the girls were “under an Evil Hand” on account of his friendships with Parris and Thomas Putnam Jr., or whether he simply was baffled and could find no natural cause for the girls’ afflictions. Either way, as a church member he must have been under pressure to make a diagnosis, and we can see how his pronouncement of witchcraft was taken both definitively and seriously in the village.
Situating Griggs among his contemporaries in and around Salem, we can use the Salem witchcraft court records to examine the role of physicians in Salem around 1692. In a deposition against Rebecca Nurse, Nathanial and Hannah Ingersoll recount that Benjamin Holton “died a most violent death with dreadfull fitts and the Doctor that was with him said he could not tell what his distemper was.” Here, we see the doctor’s inability to make a diagnosis. Yet, Holton’s death occurred in 1689, so in claiming his death as proof of Rebecca Nurse’s malice, Ingersoll was using a doctor’s inability to diagnose in the past as proof of witchcraft in the present. In the deposition of Samuel Shattock against Mary Parker, Shattock recalls his “Child . . . to have bin under an ill hand for Severall years before: was taken in a Strange & unuseall maner as if his vitalls would have broak out his breast boane … So Strange a maner that the Docter & others did beleive he was bewitched.” Again, we see a past event being taken as proof of witchcraft, and a “Doctor & others” are baffled so that they “believe he was bewitched.” In a deposition against John Willard, villagers “sent to the french Doctor but hee sent word againe that it was not a naturall Cause but absolutly witchcraft to his Judgment.” Here we see another doctor who made the same diagnosis as Griggs. And in the deposition of William Brown against Susannah Martin, Brown claimed that his wife was ill and he “porcured Docter fuller & Crosby to com to her for her releas but thay did both say that her distemper was supernatural & no siknes of body but that some evil person had bewiched her.” These references to doctors in the court documents show that other physicians experienced the same difficulties: when they couldn’t find a natural cause for an illness, they would diagnose witchcraft. And in some cases, Salem villagers used the doctor’s inability to diagnose as proof of witchcraft.
Griggs’s place in history is well-established. He appears in Arthur Miller’s 1954 play The Crucible by name only, though he is brought onscreen in Miller’s movie adaptation. In the text of the play he heightens the hysteria when he sends a verbal message to Reverend Parris “that he cannot discover no medicine for [the girls’ afflictions] in his books.” His message also tells Parris, “you might look to unnatural things for the cause of it.” In the play, we see how these comments support Parris’s convictions that witches are among the villagers of Salem. Charles Upham’s account of the witch trials also refers to Dr. Griggs and to the diagnoses of doctors who “When their remedies were baffled, and their skill at fault, the patient was said to be ‘under an evil hand.’” Upham blasts Griggs and the doctors in general for “so far as the medical profession is concerned they bear a full share of responsibility for the proceedings.” In giving doctors the “full share of responsibility,” Upham, as a minister himself, perhaps tries to shift blame from the clergy to the doctors, though we know ministers were also consulted and concluded that the symptoms were “preternatural.”
Upham's scathing 19th century indictment of Griggs also fails to account for the pressures he might have faced, as well as the popular belief in witchcraft. None of the Puritans in 17th Century New England doubted the presences of witches; it was perhaps more a question of knowing how and when to identify them. Against this background, Griggs’s diagnosis was fairly normal, as he was certainly baffled by the girls’ afflictions. As a man of limited medical training and a church member, he was also responding to the fear created by the idea of Satan attacking the village church, something alluded to in the Rev. Parris’s sermons. As there exists no personal explanation by Griggs himself, we cannot definitively account for his diagnosis. As a church member whose friends and their children were caught up in the afflictions, even his own grad niece seventeen year-old Elizabeth Hubbard, Griggs would have been troubled by the fact that prayer was not working to cure the girls’ “fits,” as they were called. But his diagnosis does not warrant a “full share” of blame. Rather, Griggs shares responsibility with the ministers and magistrates as one of the professionals involved in advancing the Salem witch trials.
Paul Boyer and Steve Nissenbaum, eds. Salem Witchcraft Papers, 1977.
John Hale, A Modest Enquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft, 1697.
Norman Gevitz, “‘The Devil Hath Laughed at the Physicians’: Witchcraft and Medical Practice in Seventeenth-Century New England,” Journal of the History of Medicine, January 2000.
Arthur Miller, The Crucible, 1953.
Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil’s Snare, 2002.
Anthony Patton, M. D., A Doctor’s Dilemma: William Griggs & The Salem Witch Trials.
Charles Upham, Salem Witchcraft, 1867.