Witch-Hunting in America: The Case of William Barker

In American historiography there is a particular focus on witch-hunting – especially as it occurred in Salem (and the larger Essex County region). The problem with the obsession over witch-hunting in Puritan New England is that the stereotypical images are precisely that, stereotypical. In reality, especially compared to Europe, witch-hunting was far less common in the Americas than in the Old World and no witches were burned in America. Additionally, many witch-craft accusations and trials were often dismissed if otherwise not even entertained by the courts. However, there were still many individuals who were accused and the usual norm of higher courts throwing out witchcraft cases was not the case in Salem. Insofar as it is a concern to see how witch-craft trials and accusations worked in Salem let us now examine the case of William Barker Sr.

William Barker was a resident of Essex County during the height of last major witch-hunt episode in colonial history. On January 13, 1693, the formal accusation against Mr. Barker read that he, “mallitiously and felloniously A Covenant with the Devill did make, And did Signe the Devills Booke with Blood, and gave himselfe Soule & body to the Devill.” The first thing that should be visible in the accusation against Barker is the inversion of Puritan theology in the charged accusation against him. He supposedly made a covenant with the Devil, and then after making this covenant with the Devil, gave his blood to the Devil (an inversion of Christ giving his blood to the world) and thereby “gave himself to the Devil.” In the opening accusation against Mr. Barker we also see that the Devil cannot create anything ex nihilo (per God’s power). Instead, covenanting with the Devil can only amount to parody and inversion of “true religion.”

Before the formal accusation of witchcraft against William Barker his tale from jail confession to being a covenanter with the Devil is a peculiar and enticing case from what records have been preserved (assumed date on, or before, August 29, 1692). For whatever reason(s) the origo of William Barker’s saga begins in prison where he confesses his first encounter with the Devil. “God having called me to Confess my sin and Apostasy in that fall in giving the Devil advantage over me appearing to me like a Black, in the evening to set my hand to his Book, as I have owned to my shame.” Barker continued in confessing his apostasy and sin, “And now I hope God in some measure has made me something sensible of my sin and apostasy, begging pardon of God, and of the Honourable Magistrates and all Gods people, hoping and promising by the help of God, to set to my heart and hand to do what in me lyeth to destroy such wicked worship.” Regardless of the reasons for Barker having been imprisoned (there are no records indicting as to why he was imprisoned), he nevertheless confesses to witchcraft while in prison.

Considering what followed from his confession, and his naming of names of others covenanting with the Devil, it is safe to presume he was likely imprisoned as someone who was named by someone else. It was common in the Essex County/Salem witch-hunts for people to confess to the charges of witchcraft (and therefore be sparred death) and accuse (name) others who were “guilty” of witchcraft. As such, and considering Barker’s first appearance in documented records is his confession of witchcraft from prison, it is likely that he was named as a witch by another accused and confessed to having made a covenant with the Devil.

What followed from William Barker’s confession in prison was a rapid succession examination of his confession with the intent of gathering more information as to the size of the witch cult. In the examination before four witnesses, Barker is recorded to have said from the writings of the examiners, “[Barker] Confesses he was at a metting of the witches at Salem Village where he Judges there was about a hundred of them.” What is interesting is that Barker claimed that the devilish activity occurred nearby the green of the local pastor’s church and that it was apparently well-attended (with nearly “a hundred of them”). This confession helps to confirm the typical image – which was already preconceived in the Puritan imagination, pardon the pun – that satanic rituals and “services” were deliberate parodies of true religion and therefore would sometimes occur near sacred ground in order to make a greater mockery and parody of Christ’s atonement and word.

In continuing the examination, Barker stated to the witnesses that the rituals of Satanic covenanting had been occurring for three years. It was, by Barker’s account, three years ago when the Devil first appeared to him and demanded that he give up his body and soul. The caveat was that the Devil would promise a “great family” in covenanting with him. This confession also touches upon a sensitive topic of witchcraft, magic, and “superstitious” rituals that were exhaustively being purged away by Protestant sects. Only God could fulfill one’s desires. There was no “good magic” as it were. For him to have covenanted with the Devil was also sign of his infidelity toward Christ. To top off his confession before the examiners Barker claimed to have signed his name in blood in the “Devil’s Book.” Barker was then accused of afflicting Abigail Martin, and then a warrant for his apprehension (arrest) was issued. On January 13, 1692, he was formally indicted with “covenanting with the Devil.” However, due to his confession of guilt of witchcraft, along with listing others who were assumed guilty of having also covenanted with the Devil, Barker was not executed for his supposed witchery.

The case of William Barker is more unique among the Salem-era witch-hunts because he was among the male accused and confessed. However, in his afflicting Abigail Martin, we also see – through his case – the reality that it was predominately women who were “afflicted” of possession and accused of witchcraft. In his warrant of apprehension he is named alongside Mary Marston and Mary Barker (of no relations to William Barker); thus we also see the extent to which women accused and apprehended outweighed male accused and apprehended. Furthermore, Barker described the Devil as “The Black Man.” Harkening back to Tituba, who also described the Devil appearing to her as “the Black Man” and writing her name in the “Devil’s book,” the same phenomenon is witnessed to again by William Barker. And just like in the case of Tituba, who confessed to having been set upon by the Devil, Barker’s confession of witchcraft ended up sparing his life. (Whether there was growing common knowledge among the accused by this point in time remains unknown, though it seems likely given the communal nature of the Puritan town in early colonial New England at the time.)

*This post was originally posted at Hesiod’s Corner, 8 November 2017.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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