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Thomas Brattle (1658 - 1713) was a well-educated and prosperous Boston merchant who served as treasurer of Harvard College, and was a member of the intellectually elite Royal Society. In early October 1692 he wrote a letter to an English clergyman which was critical of the Salem witch trials. The letter was circulated widely in Boston at the time, and it continues to be studied for its reasoned attack on the witchcraft trials in Salem. Brattle presents a compelling argument against the legal premises and procedures involved in the afflictions, accusations, and executions, with a particular focus on the validity of spectral evidence in proceedings. He was careful not to argue against the motives of the "Salem Gentlemen" as he calls the judges and ministers at the helm, but rather against the methods they employed. He concludes by saying "I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things will leave behind them upon out land."
Written By Mathew Madden
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001
Thomas Brattle, born in 1658, was "an opulent and cultivated Boston merchant" and a generous Harvard alumnus. Made treasurer in 1693, a post that he held for twenty years, the college grew in fiscal strength. Brattle was also a noted amateur astronomer and mathematician, and a member of the Royal Society. In 1699, following the principles of religious toleration established by the new royal charter, he quietly organized the Brattle Street Church, which tended toward the teachings of the Church of England instead of staunchly Puritan doctrine.
Brattle's significance to the Salem witchcraft outbreak stems mainly from his authorship on October 8, 1692 of a widely read Letter sent to an unknown "clerical correspondent," which denounced the foundations on which the accusations, arrests, trials, and executions were conducted in Salem. It was sent only five days after the circulation of Increase Mather's book Cases of Conscience that denied the theological validity of spectral evidence. Brattle, a liberal in both politics and religion, provided a secularized perspective on the trials. According to Perry Miller, Brattle's letter was "the first treatment of the disaster that step[ped] outside the scheme of the jeremiad" (New England Mind). Due to the "highly literate and satirical tone" of Brattle's Letter, Perry Miller refers to it as "a milestone in American literature." While Brattle makes very clear his complete agreement with Mather's Cases, a comparison of the tone and focus of these two works is exemplary of the developing departure from Puritanism then underway in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In his Letter Brattle focuses most of his account on the method of the madness. He describes to his English correspondent the nature of the accusations, examinations, and trials, and he brings to the attention of the "Salem Gentlemen" some of the public criticism against the trials. First, the method of proving guilt by requiring the accused to relieve the suffering of the afflicted in court by a touch of the hand was of special concern to Brattle. "I cannot but condemn this method of the Justices, of making this touch of the hand a rule to discover witchcraft; because I am fully persuaded that it is sorcery, and a superstitious method, and that which we have no rule for, either from reason or religion." Here, the place of reason before religion was more than a stylistic device, but a method of analysis. Brattle further writes that this kind of "sorcery" and "superstition" is not fit to be named a new philosophy "in a land of such light as New England" and that "the reasonable part of the world, when acquainted herewith, will laugh at the demonstration, and conclude that the said [Salem Gentlemen] are actually possessed, at least with ignorance and folly."
Second, Brattle turns his attention to the nature and validity of confessing witches. In a methodical argument, Brattle finds that these confessors are "unfit to be evidence either against themselves, or any one else" and that they "do very often contradict themselves, as inconsistently as is usual for any crazed, distempered person to do." Hoping that the people of the colony will join him in rationally appreciating the desperate situation the confessed "witches" are in, Brattle argues that "his neighbors" will "be soon convinced that there is nothing at all in these arguings, if they would but duly consider of the premises."
Finally, he looks at the indictments and trials themselves. He assails the use of spectral evidence by the Magistrates and Jury, but does so on legal rather than theological grounds. He finds that despite the denials made by the Salem supporters of the trials, spectral evidence is the basis on which innocent people are convicted. Therefore, Brattle writes that the most recently executed "went out of this world not only with as great protestations, but also with as good shews of innocency, as men could do."
After excoriating the substance and basis of the trials, Brattle continued to denounce a number of associated practices. He noted the ability of some accused to escape arrest and persecution by virtue of their high social position or family relationships. Many were allowed to escape while others were hounded into the jails. Additionally, Brattle attacked the practice of recruiting the advice of the afflicted girls in rooting out witchcraft, pointing specifically to the circumstances in Andover that does "now rue the day that ever the afflicted [girls from Salem Village] went among them". However, Brattle aimed his most scathing criticism at the effect of this hysteria on the liberties and freedoms enjoyed among men in the colony. "Liberty was evermore accounted the great privilege of an Englishman; but certainly if the devil will be heard against us, and his testimony taken to the seizing and apprehending of us, our liberty vanishes, and we are fools if we boast of our liberty."
Brattle concludes his account with what Perry Miller regards as "one of the greatest sentences of the time, which, eschewing the jargon of the covenant, reveals how much the theme of the jeremiads had become, if only through the discipline of disillusion, a secular patriotism." Brattle states, "I am afraid that ages will not wear off that reproach and those stains which these things leave behind them upon our land." The focus here on the effects the episode will have on "our land" was significant for a Puritan world accustomed to viewing itself as the domain of God.
Thomas Brattle's Letter pried opened a chink in the armor of the Puritan jeremiad and the logic of the covenant by the use of reason to combat hysteria. Miller writes that "[b]y strictly and conscientiously applying the doctrine of the jeremiad, the court created a situation in which meretricious confession went free and sincere denial automatically became guilt." Whereas the Puritan covenant with God placed high value upon confession and repentance as a cure for social ills, these became evasive maneuvers which "did not heal the grievance, but compounded the evil."
While Thomas Brattle's vision Letter of October 8, 1692 did not contribute to ending the Salem witchcraft hysteria, it provides a brilliant example of a growing sentiment in late-17th Century New England that the strictures of the jeremiad and framework of the covenant may not be the omnipotent force which many a Puritan minister admonished his flock from the pulpits of Boston. The Letter shows, instead, how the extreme events that occurred in Salem revealed clearly to some the extremism and danger inherent in the reigning theology of the day.
Thomas Brattle, "Letter," in Burr, G. L. Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1914. See: http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/BurNarr.html
Perry Millar, "The Judgment of the Witches," The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, Chapter 13. 1953: 191-208.