|People and Topics||Biographical Data|
Mercy LewisMercy Lewis Born in Falmouth, Maine in 1675, Mercy Lewis lost both her parents to Indian attacks and became an orphan at a young age. Dislocated from her family, like many of the accusing girls in Salem Village, she resided first as a servant with Reverend George Burroughs and then later with the family of Thomas Putnam to whom she was distantly related. As a friend of Ann Putnam and the other girls involved in the witchcraft accusations, Mercy herself became one of the most consistent and vocal accusers during the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem.
Written By Meghan Carroll, 2001 and Jenny Stone, 2002
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2002
"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. The Lewis family lived in Maine until an Indian attack killed all of Mercy's extended family. In the Devil's Snare historian Mary Beth Norton suspects that Mercy's parents were killed in a later attack witnessed by Mercy herself. This tragic event cemented Mercy's connection between the Wabanaki Indians and Satan. The settlers came to fear death, captivity, and torture by the Indians. "In light of the perceived alliance between Satan and the Wabanakis, such suffused dread could easily have been vocalized in what became the commonplace description of the devil's threats to 'tear [the afflicted] to pieces' if they did not comply with his demands." Mercy testified to one of the witch conventions and reported that they were singing biblical passages regarding God's judgment of the heathen.
As a result of being orphaned, Mercy was sent to live as a servant with Reverend George Burroughs 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 by specters of witches. From her previous experience, Mercy was chief source of information about George Burroughs and the Hobbs family in Maine. To support their accusations, Mercy Lewis and the other girls continued to display spectral "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. Norton notes that Mercy displayed her leadership in the core group of accusers at least two times. She dismissed Ann Jr.'s claim against Nehemiah Abbott Jr. by saying that Ann was mistaken and "essentially single-handedly... prevented [Mary] Easty from being freed" when all other accusations had been withdrawn.
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 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. Indeed, Rev. John Hale noted in his Modest Inquiry, two of the "afflicted" Salem girls were anxious about their marriage prospects. Norton draws attention to the Indian attacks in many of the girls' pasts and comments that the status of the accusers shifted from lowest to highest in the family and community. Daily life changed because the girls stopped doing their chores and neighbors constantly visited to see them perform. This was especially prominent at the Putnam household where Mercy lived because so many of the women living there were afflicted. Boyer and Nissenbaum, who cite primarily socio-economic causes for the witchcraft trials, might agree that these girls -- who possessed essentially no social standing 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 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 most 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?."
Mary Beth Norton, In the Devil's Snare, 2002.
Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. Salem Possessed, 1974.
John Hale, Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, 1702.
Carol F. Karlsen, Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 1998.
Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story, 1993.
Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft,1867.