New England Supernaturalism (1843, Whittier)

From Kook Science


By J. G. Whittier.


“There be no beggars in this country, but witches too many.”

Josselyn’s Rarities of New England

“YANKEE supernaturalism, forsooth!” sneers the reader: “What has your peddling, speculating, ’cute New Englander to do with matters beyond and above the conception of his sharpened five senses? Can he afford to tenant his houses with ghosts, who never pay rent? Can he sell city lots in Dreamland? In the midst of his steam-boats and rad-cars — in the whirl and buzz of his machinery — the rattle of his ‘notions’ — the chaffer of his bargaining, — can he hear the low voice which speaks from the Invisible? Ever in a hurry — swallowing his food as he does his physic, as if to taste were perdition — driven through the loom of life like the steam-sent spindles of his factories — plunging from one speculation to another, as if the fiery foot of the Evil One were fagging at his nether extremity, — what can he know of that deep, dark lore, that sublimated abstraction of soul, which has enabled the still, contemplative German to people even this material nineteenth century with the Shadows and Shapes of the World’s Childhood? With senses dulled to everything but the chink of the ‘all-mighty dollar,’ and the true stamp of the genuine bank-note, is he not what Dr. Buchanan would call an ‘unimpressible subject?’ — A man who has unconsciously revived the old Devil-worship of the early heretics — who bows down to the Demon of Thrift, according to the evangel of Dr. Franklin’s Almanac — and has set up the money-changing temples of his faith all over the land, like altars of Baal in Jeroboam’s Israel, — What has he to do with the deep, silent workings of the inner life — the unsounded depths of that mysterious ocean, upon whose solemn shores the loud foot-falls of Time find no echo?”

Nay, reader, this thrice-refuted abuse we will charitably pass to the account of thy ignorance of the facts in the case. Beneath the outward mask and habitude of the New England character there is a spiritual activity — an under-current of intense, earnest thought — an infinity of Belief — a capacity for Faith in its most transcendental possibilities. The careful observer will heed, above the din of practical and superficial Yankeedom, the low, deep questionings of the Future — the utterance of strange hopes and fears, from spirits nervously conscious, amidst the hurry and glare of life’s daily presentiments, of the growing and deepening shadow of the Eternal and the Infinite. He will discover no infrequent traces of the Old Superstition — that dark theory of the Invisible World, in which our Puritan ancestors had united the wild extravagances of Indian tradition with the familiar and common fantasies of their native land; and that gloomy, indefinite awe of an agency of Evil which their peculiar interpretations of the Sacred Volume had inspired;— a theory which threw a veil of mystery over the plainest passages of the great laws of the universe — agitating their entire community with signs, and wonders, and dark marvels — poisoning the fountains of education, and constituting a part of their religion. He will find that we, too, can

——— “listen to our own fond thoughts
Until they seem no more as Fancy’s children;
Yea, put them on a prophet’s robe, endow them
With prophet-voices;”

——— that our “young men can see visions, and our old men dream dreams.”

What means, for instance, that strange, vast, unsubstantial fabric, rising suddenly, like the genii-built palaces of the Arabian Nights, in the heart of Boston? Consider well that Temple of the Second Advent — its thronging thousands, with wild, awe-stricken faces turned towards the East, like Mussulmen to their Kebla, in hourly expectation of the down-rushing of the fiery mystery of the Apocalypse; waiting with trembling eagerness and “not unpleasing horror” to behold with the eye of flesh the tremendous pageant before which the elements shall melt and the heavens flee away — the Baptism of a World in fire! In what age or quarter of the world has the Supernatural in man taken a more decided and definite shape than this? Look at the nightly gatherings of the “Disciples of the Newness,” — grey, thought-worn manhood, and young, dreamy beauty, catching inspiration from the Orphic utterance of modern prophecy, and making glad the weary Present with sunny glimpses of a Transcendental Millennium. Look at Magnetism, with its fearfully suggestive phenomena, enacting daily in our midst marvels which throw far into shadow the simple, witchcraft of our ancestors. What are those but present manifestations of the unearthly and the superhuman bursting up through their crust of conventional and common-place existence?

Nor is this all. There is scarcely a superstition of the past three centuries which has not at this very time more or less hold upon individual minds among us. In the belief that facts illustrative of this will afford, some amusement to the reader, I shall throw together such as occur to my mind, and which find in New England “a local habitation.” They may be classed under the heads of Ghosts, Witches, Haunted Houses, Trances and Visions, Warnings, &c.

It has been said, with far more poetry than truth, that

“The last lingering fiction of the brain,
The church-yard GHOST, is laid at rest again.”

There is a lurking belief in nearly all minds, that there may be some truth in the idea of departed spirits revisiting the friends and places which were familiar to them in life. I am not disposed to enter into an argument in behalf of this belief. It does not lack greater and better names than mine in its support. For five thousand years the entire human family have given it credence. It was a part of the wild faith of the Scandinavian worshippers of Odin. It gave a mournful beauty to the battle-songs of the old Erse and Gaelic bards. It shook the stout heart of the ancient Roman. It blended with all the wild and extravagant religions of the East. How touching is that death-scene of Cyrus, as told by Xenophon, when the dying monarch summoned his children about him, entreating them to love one another, and to remember that their father’s ghost would be ever at their side, to rejoice with their rejoicing, and sorrow with their sorrow! All nations, all ages, as Cicero de Divinatione justly affirms, have given full credit to this ghost-doctrine; and this fact alone, Dr. Johnson argues, fully confirms it. The Doctor himself believed in the ghost of Cock-lane. Luther saw, talked, and fought with spirits. Swedenborg made them his familiar acquaintances. Coleridge, and his friend, the Apostle of the Unknown Tongues, were spectre-seers. Against so much evidence shall we urge the apparently common-sense view of the subject, that the apparition of a disembodied spirit to the sensual organs of sight, hearing, and touch, is a solecism in philosophy, — a subversion of all known laws of matter and mind? What will that avail with the man who has actually seen a ghost? Fact before philosophy always. If a man is certain he has seen the thing, there is an end of the matter. “Seeing,” as the old adage has it, “is believing.” Disbelief under such circumstances would justly subject him to the charge which pious father Baxter brought against those who doubted in relation to Cotton Mather’s witches: “He must be an obstinate Sadducee who questions it.”

For myself, I cannot dismiss the whole matter with a sneer. If I cannot believe, I cannot entirely disbelieve. Our whole being is a mystery. Above, below, around us, all is fearful and wonderful. The shadow of a solemn uncertainty rests over all. Who shall set limits to the capacity of the soul when its incarnation has ended, and it enters unfettered, unconfined, into a new state of being? The objection, that whatever in its new sphere may be the condition and powers of the freed spirit, it can never manifest itself to mortal organs, lies with equal force against the scriptural account of angel visitations and the apparition of Samuel. The angels which John saw in his awful prophet-trance on Patmos, were the spirits of those who had departed from this stage of being. The idea of such appearances has lent its deepest charms to American poetry and romance. What can be more beautiful than those lines of Longfellow?

“Ere the evening lamps are lighted,
And like phantoms, grim and tall,
Shadows from the fitful firelight
Dance upon my parlor wall;

“Then the forms of the departed
Enter at the open door,
The beloved ones, the true-hearted,
Come to visit me once more.

“With a slow and noiseless footstep
Comes the messenger divine,
Takes the vacant chair beside me,
Lays her gentle hand in mine.

“And she sits and gazes at me
With those deep and tender eyes,
Like the stars, so still and saint-like,
Looking downward from the skies.”

The lamented Otway Curry — the few fragments of whose dreamy and mysterious poetry have given his memory a place in many hearts — has made this idea of spiritual visitation his familiar theme. There is an exquisite beauty in the following, from his “Armies of the Eve”:—

“Not in the golden morning shall faded forms return,
For languidly and dimly then the lights of memory burn;
But when the stars are keeping their radiant way on high,
And gentle winds are whispering back the music of the sky.

“The dim and shadowy armies of our unquiet dreams,
Their footsteps brush the dewy fern and print the shaded streams;
We meet them in the calmness of high and holier climes,
We greet them with the blessed names of old and happier times,
And moving in the star-light above their sleeping dust,
They freshen all the fountain-springs of our undying trust.”


“One of their fables of a church-yard carcass raised and set a strutting.” —Bishop Warburton on Prodigies.

“Gorgons, and hydras, and chimeras — dire stories of Celcno and the harpies — may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition — but they were there before. They are transcripts, types — the archetypes are in us and eternal.” —Essays of Elia.

I CLOSED my last sheet with a special reference to ghosts. Modern scepticism and philosophy have not yet routed out the idea of supernatural visitation from the New England mind. Here and there — oftenest in these still, fixed, valley-sheltered, unvisited nooks and villages, — the Rip Van Winkles of our progressive and restless population may be still found, devout believers worthy of the days of the two Mathers. There are those yet living in this very neighborhood who remember, and relate with an awe which half a century has not abated, the story of Ruth Blaye, and the GHOST CHILD! Ruth was a young woman of lively temperament and great personal beauty. While engaged as the teacher of a school in the little town of Southampton, N. H. (whose hills roughen the horizon with their snowy outline within view of my window at this very moment), she was invited to spend an evening at the dwelling of one of her young associates. Several persons were present, of both sexes. The sun, just setting, poured its soft rich light into the apartment. Suddenly, in the midst of unwonted gaiety, the young schoolmistress uttered a frightful shriek, and was seen gazing with a countenance of intensest horror at the open window; and pointing with her rigid, outstretched arm at an object which drew at once the attention of her companions. In the strong light of sunset lay upon the sill of the open casement, a dead infant — visible to all for a single moment, and vanishing before the gazers could command words to express their amazement. The wretched Ruth was the first to break the silence. “It is mine — mine — MY CHILD!” she shrieked; “he has come for me!” She gradually became more tranquil, but no effort availed to draw from her the terrible secret which was evidently connected with the apparition. She was soon after arrested and brought to trial for the crime of child-murder, found guilty and executed at Portsmouth, N. H. I do not of course vouch for the truth of this story in all respects. “I tell the tale as ’twas told to me.”

Nearly opposite to my place of residence, on the south side of the Merrimack, stands a house which has long had a bad reputation. One of its recent inmates avers most positively that having on one occasion ventured to sleep in the haunted room, she was visited by a child-ghost which passed through the apartment with a most mournful and unbaby-like solemnity. Some of my unbelieving readers will doubtless smile at this; and deem it no matter of surprise that a young maiden’s slumbers should be thus haunted. As the old play-writer hath it:

“She blushed and smiled to think upon her dream
Of fondling a sweet infant (with a look
Like one she will not name) upon her virgin knees.”

An esteemed friend — a lady of strong mind, of the clear, common-sense cast, not at all troubled with nervous sensibility, and rather deficient in the organs of ideality and wonder than otherwise — has told me that while living with an aged relative, who was at that time in the enjoyment of her usual health, she was terrified by the appearance of a dead body lying by the side of her relative, who was quietly sleeping in her bed. The old lady died soon after, and my friend avers that the corpse as it lay before her recalled in the most minute particulars her recollection of the apparition. She had seen the same before by the side of the living sleeper.

A respectable and worthy widow lady, in my neighborhood, professes to be clearly convinced that she saw the spectre of her daughter a little time before her death, while she was yet in perfect health. It crossed the room within a few feet of the mother, in broad day-light. She spoke, but no answer was returned; the countenance of the apparition was fixed and sorrowful. The daughter was at that time absent on a visit to a friend.

I could easily mention other cases, some of which have occurred in my immediate vicinity, but the above may serve as a sample of all. I can only say that the character of these ghost-seers, in most instances, precludes the idea of imposture or intentional falsehood on their part. Most readers will remember the account which, about a year ago, circulated through all the newspapers, of an apparition seen in Warner, N. H., by two men while watching by the bed-side of a dying neighbor. A red, unnatural light filled the room; a stranger suddenly stood beside them, and fixed his eyes upon the dying man, who writhed and shrunk beneath their ghastly scrutiny. On the disappearance of the spectre, the sick man made an effort to speak, and in broken words confessed that many years before he had aided in the murder of the man whose spectral image had just left them. This statement, if I recollect rightly, was made under oath. It is but proper, however, to mention, that it has been intimated that the spirit seen on this occasion was none other than one of Deacon Giles’s sprites of the distillery — one of those bottle-imps which play as fantastic tricks with those who uncork them, as Le Diable Boiteux of the old French novelist did with the student of Salamanca.


—————— “There are powers
Which of themselves our minds impress.” —Wordsworth.

“Our mothers’ mayds have so frayed us with an ugly Divil having homes on his hedde, fire in his mouth, and a tayle at his back, whereby we starte and are afraid when we heare one cry, Boh!” —Reginald Scott.

WARNINGS of death and disaster — signs and omens of approaching calamity — are as carefully noted at the present day in our rural districts, as they were in ancient Rome. The superstition seems inwrought and permanent — a part of the popular mind. I have rarely met with a person entirely free from its influence. Who has not at times, under circumstances of deep depression, nervous disparagement or physical illness, or in those peculiar moods of the spirit when even “the grasshopper is a burden,” felt his flesh creep at the howl of a dog at midnight — the tick of a harmless insect in the wall — any unusual sight or sound the cause of which does not at once suggest itself — things in themselves trivial and meaningless, calling up dark and dread associations? There are, I believe, times when the most material sceptic of us reveals his deep and abiding awe of the invisible and the unknown; when like Eliphaz the Temanite, we feel a “spirit passing before us, the form of which is not discerned.” For one, I confess there are seasons when I love to con over Increase Mather’s Remarkable Providences, or Dr. More’s Continuation of Glanville, or any other chronicle of the marvellous, with which the divines of former days edified the people. I know very well that our modern theologians, as if to atone for the credulity of their order formerly, have unceremoniously turned witchcraft, ghost-seeing, and second sight, into Milton’s receptacle of exploded follies and detected impostures:

“Over the back side of the world far off,
Into a limbo broad and large, and called
The paradise of fools;”

—— that indeed out of their peculiar province, and apart from the phenomena of their vocation, they have become the most thorough skeptics and unbelievers among us. Yet, as Falstaff said of his wit, if they have not the marvellous themselves, they are the cause of it in others. In certain states of mind the very sight of a clergyman in his sombre professional garb, is sufficient to awaken all the wonderful within me. My imagination goes wandering back to the subtle priesthood of mysterious Egypt — I think of Jannes and Jambres — of the Persian Magi — dim oak-groves with Druid altars, and priests and victims rise before me. Caffre rain-makers, Lapland wind-wizards, Powahs and Medicine-Men, glide before me like spectres. For what is the priest even of our New England but a living testimony to the truth of the supernatural and the reality of the unseen — a man of mystery, walking in the shadow of the ideal world — by profession an expounder of spiritual wonders! Laugh he may at the old tales of astrology and witchcraft and demoniacal possession, but does he not believe and bear testimony to his faith in the reality of that Dark Essence which Scripture more than hints at — which has modified more or less all the religious systems and speculations of the heathen world — the Arimanes of the Parsee, the Pluto of the Roman mythology, the Devil of the Jew and Christian, the Shitan of the Mussulman — evil in the universe of goodness, darkness in the light of Divine intelligence — in itself the great and crowning mystery from which by no unnatural process of imagination may be deduced everything which our forefathers believed of the spiritual world and supernatural agency! That fearful being with his tributaries and agents — “the Devil and his angels” — how awfully he rises before us in the brief outline limning of the sacred writers? How he glooms, “in shape and gesture proudly eminent,” on the immortal canvass of Milton and Dante? What a note of horror does his name throw into the sweet Sabbath psalmody of our churches? What strange dark fancies are connected with the very language of our common law indictments, when our grand juries find under oath that the offence complained of has been committed “at the instigation of the devil?”

How hardly effaced are the impressions of childhood! Even at this day, at the mention of the Evil Angel, an image rises before me, like that with which I used especially to horrify myself in an old copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. Horned, hoofed, scaly and firebreathing, his caudal extremity twisted tight with rage, I remember him, illustrating the tremendous encounter of Christian in the valley where “Apollyon straddled over the whole breadth of the way.” There was another print of the enemy which made no slight impression upon me; it was the frontispiece of an old, smoked, snuff-stained pamphlet, the property of an elderly lady (who had a fine collection of similar wonders, wherewith she was kind enough to edify her young visiters), containing a solemn account of the fate of a wicked dancing party in New Jersey, whose irreverent declaration that they would have a fiddler if they had to send to the lower regions after him, called up the fiend himself, who forthwith commenced playing, while the company danced to the music incessantly, without the power to suspend their exercise until their feet and legs were worn off to the knees! The rude wood-cut represented the Demon Fiddler and his agonized companions literally stumping it up and down in “cotillions, jigs, strathspeys and reels.” He would have answered very well to the description of the infernal piper in Tam O’Shanter:

“A winnock-bunker in the east
There sat Auld Nick in shape o’ beast,
A towzie tyke, black, grim and large,
To gie them music was his charge.”

To this popular notion of the impersonation of the principle of evil, we are doubtless indebted for the whole dark legacy of witchcraft, possession, demons, &c. How far that notion is now seriously maintained, I am not aware. Certain it is that no public renunciation of it from our great theological authorities has been made. Failing in their efforts to solve the dark problem of the origin of evil, men fall back on the idea of a malignant being — the antagonism of good. Of this mysterious and dreadful personification, we find ourselves constrained to speak with a degree of that awe and reverence which are always associated with undefined power and the ability to harm. “The devil,” says an old writer, “is a dignity, though his glory be somewhat faded and wan, and is to be spoken of accordingly.” Cudworth, in his Intellectual System, says that “the inferior gods or demons being all of them able to do us hurt or good, and being also irascible, and therefore provokable by our neglect, it is our interest to appease and pacify them.”

I have seen persons in that state of the drunkard’s malady known as delirium tremens, who verily imagined they could see his Satanic Majesty hovering over them; but do not recollect of ever meeting with but one sane person who has been thus favored. He is a man of strong nerves, sound judgment in ordinary matters, and quite the reverse of superstitious. He states that several years ago, when his mind was somewhat “exercised,” to use his own words, on the subject of his religious duties, he was standing one moonlight evening in a meditative mood on the bridge which crosses Little River near its junction with the Merrimack. Suddenly he became sensible of a strange feeling, as if something terrible was near at hand; a vague terror crept over him. “I knew,” said he, in relating the story, “that something bad and frightful was behind me — I felt it. And when I did look round, there on the bridge, within a few paces of me, a huge black dog was setting, with the face of a man — a human face, if ever I saw one, turned full up to the moonlight. It remained just long enough to give me a clear view of it, and then vanished; and ever since, when I think of Satan, I call to mind the dog on the bridge.”


Tamar.— But are they round us, Hadad? Not confined
In penal chains and darkness?

Hadad.        So he said.
And so your sacred books infer. What saith
Your prophet? — What the prince of Uz?

Tam.        I shudder
Lest some dark minister be near us now!” — HADAD.

IN conversing with a friend recently, who is a most decided unbeliever in the supernatural, he mentioned a fact of his own experience. Awaking one night from sleep, he saw distinctly, before him, looking through the thick wall of darkness, an eye, intensely bright — large, luminous, and with an expression of terrible malignity. He rose up in his bed, and, being a man of firm nerves, looked calmly at the singular apparition. It seemed slowly to approach him, until it rested just at the foot of his bed, where its demon glare gradually faded into the darkness. Had my friend lived two centuries ago, instead of regarding it as an optical illusion, he would have called in the priest to dislodge an evil spirit.

Old women in this region yet tell marvellous stories of Gen. M., of Hampton, N. H., of his league with the Devil, who used to visit him occasionally in the shape of a small man in a leathern dress. The General’s house was once burned, in revenge, as it is said, by the Fiend, whom the other had outwitted. He had agreed, it seems, to furnish the General with a boot-full of gold and silver poured annually down the chimney. The shrewd Yankee cut off, on one occasion, the foot of the boot, and the Devil kept pouring down the coin from the chimney’s top, in a vain attempt to fill it, until the room was literally packed with the precious metal. When the General died, he was laid out, and put in a coffin as usual, but on the day of the funeral, on opening the lid, his body was not to be seen, and the neighbors came to the charitable conclusion that the Enemy had got his own at last.

Haunted houses are getting scarce in New England. Formerly every village could boast of one or more of these favored tenements. I have nevertheless, seen several of a most unchristian reputation in this respect, — old, black, and unseemly, with shingles and clap-boards hanging loose, and ragged, like the cloak of Otway’s witch. A new coat of paint, in almost all cases, proves an effectual exorcism. A former neighbor of mine, — a simple, honest mechanic, — used to amuse us by his reiterated complaints of the diabolical revels of certain evil spirits, which had chosen his garret for their ballroom. All night long he could hear a dance going on above him, regulated by some infernal melody. He had no doubt whatever of the supernatural character of the annoyance, and treated with contempt the suggestion of his neighbors, that, after all it might be nothing more than the rats among his corn.

Whoever has seen Great Pond in the East parish of Haverhill, has seen one of the very loveliest of the thousand little lakes or ponds of New England. With its soft slopes of greenest verdure — its white and sparkling sand-rim — its southern hem of pine and maple, mirrored, with spray and leaf, in the glassy water — its graceful hill-sentinels round about, white with the orchard-bloom of spring, or tasselled with the corn of autumn — its long sweep of blue waters, broken here and there by picturesque islands — it would seem a spot, of all others, where spirits of evil would shrink, rebuked and abashed, from the presence of the Beautiful. Yet here, too, has the shadow of the supernatural fallen. A lady of my acquaintance, a staid, unimaginative church-member, states that a few years ago she was standing in the angle formed by two roads, one of which traverses the pond shore, the other leading over the hill which rises abruptly from the water. It was a warm summer evening, just at sunset. She was startled by the appearance of a horse and cart of the kind used a century ago in New England, driving rapidly down the steep hill-side, and crossing the wall a few yards before her, without noise, or the displacing of a stone. The driver sat sternly erect — with a fierce countenance; grasping the reins tightly, and looking neither to the right nor the left. Behind the cart, and apparently lashed to it, was a woman of gigantic size, her countenance convulsed with a blended expression of rage and agony, writhing and struggling, like Laocoön in the folds of the serpent. Her head, neck, feet and arms were naked; wild locks of grey hair streamed back from temples corrugated and darkened. The horrible cavalcade swept by across the street, and disappeared at the margin of the pond.

I have heard many similar stories, but the foregoing may serve as a sample of all. When we consider what the popular belief of New England was no longer than a century and a half ago, it is by no means surprising that something of the old superstition still lingers among us. Our puritan ancestors were, in their own view of the matter, a sort of advance guard and forlorn hope of Christendom, in its contest with the Bad Angel. The new world into which they had so valiantly pushed the outposts of the Church militant, was to them, not God’s world, but the Devil’s. They stood there on their little patch of sanctified territory, like the game-keeper of Der Frieschutz in the charmed circle, — within were prayer, and fasting, unmelodious psalmody, and solemn hewing of heretics “before the Lord in Gilgal;” without were “dogs and sorcerers,” red children of perdition, Powah wizzards and “the foul fiend.” In their grand old wilderness, broken by fair broad rivers, and dotted with loveliest lakes, hanging with festoons of leaf and vine and flower, the steep sides of mountains, whose naked tops rose over the surrounding verdure like altars of a giant world — with its early summer greenness, and the many-colored verdure of its autumn, all glowing as if the rainbows of a summer shower had fallen upon it, under the clear, rich light of a sun, to which the misty day of their cold island was as moonlight, — they saw no beauty, they recognized no holy revelation. It was to them terrible as the forest which Dante traversed, on his way to the World of Pain. Every advance step they made was upon the Enemy’s territory. And one has only to read the writings of the two Mathers, to perceive that that Enemy was to them no metaphysical abstraction, no scholastic definition, no figment of a poetical fancy, but a living, active Reality, alternating between the sublimest possibilities of evil, and the lowest tricks of mean mischief; now a “tricksey spirit,” disturbing the good wife’s platters or soiling her new-washed linen, and anon riding the storm-cloud, and pointing its thunder-bolts; for as the elder Mather pertinently inquires, “how else is it that our meeting-houses are burned by the lightning?” What was it, for instance, but his subtlety, which, speaking through the lips of Madam Hutchinson, confuted the “Judges of Israel,” and put to their wit’s end the godly ministers of the puritan Zion? Was not his evil finger manifested in the contumacious heresy of Roger Williams? Who else gave the Jesuit missionaries — locusts from the pit as they were — such a hold on the affections of those very savages who would not have scrupled to hang the scalp of pious father Wilson himself from their girdles? To the vigilant eye of Puritanism was he not alike discernible in the light wantonness of the May-pole revellers, beating time with clever foot to the vain music of obscene dances; and in the silent, hat-canopied gatherings of the Quakers, “the most melancholy of the sects,” as Dr. More calls them? Perilous and glorious was it under these circumstances, for such men as Mather and Stoughton to gird up their stout loins, and do battle with the unmeasured, all-surrounding Terror. Let no man lightly estimate their spiritual knight-errantry. The heroes of old romance who went about smiting dragons, lopping giants’ heads, and otherwise pleasantly diverting themselves, scarcely deserve mention in comparison with our New England champions, who, trusting not to carnal sword and lance, in a contest with principalities and powers—

———— “Spirits that live throughout,
Vital in every part, not as frail man,”

encountered their enemies with weapons forged by the stern spiritual armorer of Geneva. The life of Cotton Mather is as full of romance as the legends of Ariosto, or the tales of Beltenebros, and Florisando in Amadis de Gaul. All about him was enchanted ground — devils glared on him in his “closet wrestlings,” — portents blazed in the heavens above him, — while he, commissioned, appointed, and set apart as the watcher and warder, and spiritual champion of “the chosen people,” stood ever ready for battle, with open-eye and quick ear for the detection of the subtle approaches of the enemy. No wonder is it that the spirits of evil combined against him — that they beset him as they did of old St. Anthony — that they shut up the bowels of the General Court against his long-cherished hope of the Presidency of old Harvard — that they even had the audacity to lay hands on his anti-diabolical manuscripts, or that “ye divil that was in ye girl flewe at and tore” his grand sermon against witches. How edifying is his account of the young bewitched maiden, whom he kept in his house for the purpose of making experiments which should satisfy all “obstinate Sadducees.” How satisfactory to orthodoxy, and confounding to heresy is the nice discrimination of “ye divil in ye girl,” who was choked in attempting to read the Catechism, yet found no trouble with a pestilent Quaker pamphlet, — who was quiet and good-humored when the worthy Doctor was idle, but went into paroxysms of rage when he sat down to indite his diatribes against witches and familiar spirits.

All this is pleasant enough now; we can laugh at the Doctor and his demons: but little matter of laughter was it to the victims on Salem hill — to the prisoners in the jails—to poor Giles Corey, tortured with planks upon his breast, which forced the tongue from his mouth, and his life from his old palsied body — to bereaved and quaking families — to a whole community priest-ridden and spectre-smitten — gasping in the sick dream of a spiritual nightmare, and given over to believe a lie. We may laugh, for the grotesque is blended with the horrible, but we must also pity and shudder. God be thanked that the delusion has measurably vanished; and they who confronted that delusion in its own age, — disenchanting with strong, clear sense, and sharp ridicule, their spell-bound generation, — the German Wierus,the Italian D’Apone, the English Scot and the New England Calef, — deserve high honors as the benefactors of their race. They were indeed branded through life as infidels and “damnable Sadducees,” by a corrupt priesthood, who ministered to a credulity which could be so well turned to their advantage, but the truth which they uttered lived after them, and wrought out its appointed work, for it had a divine commission and Godspeed.

“The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving;
Apollo from his shrine
Can now no more divine,
With hollow shriek the step of Delphos leaving.”

Dimmer and dimmer, as the generations pass away, this tremendous Terror — this all-pervading espionage of Evil — this well-nigh infinite Haunter and Tempter — this active incarnation of motiveless malignity, — presents itself to the imagination. The once imposing and solemn rite of exorcism has become obsolete in the Church. Men are no longer in any quarter of the world racked, or pressed under planks, to extort a confession of diabolical alliance. The heretic now laughs to scorn the solemn farce of the Church, which in the name of the All-Merciful formally delivers him over to Satan. Oh, for the sake of abused and long-cheated humanity, let us rejoice that it is so, when we consider how for long, weary centuries the millions of professed Christendom stooped, awe-stricken, under the yoke of spiritual and temporal despotism, grinding on from generation to generation in a despair which had passed complaining, because Superstition, in alliance with Tyranny, had filled their upward pathway to Freedom with Shapes of Terror — the spectres of God’s wrath to the uttermost — the Fiend and his torment, the smoke of which rises forever. Through fear of a Satan of the future — a sort of ban-dog of Priestcraft, held in its leash and ready to be let loose upon the disputes of its authority, — our toiling brothers of past ages have permitted their human task-masters to convert God’s beautiful world, so adorned and fitted for the peace and happiness of all, into a great prison-house of suffering, filled with the actual terrors which the imagination of the old poets gave to the realm of Rhadamanthus. And hence, while I would not weaken in the slightest degree the influence of that doctrine of future retribution, the truth of which, reason, revelation and conscience unite in attesting, as the necessary result of the preservation and continuance in another state of existence, of the soul’s individuality and identity, I must, nevertheless, rejoice that the many are no longer willing to permit the few, for their especial benefit, to convert our Common Father’s heritage into a present hell, where, in return for undeserved suffering and toil uncompensated, they can have gracious and comfortable assurance of release from a future one. Better is the fear of the Lord than the fear of the Devil. Holier and more acceptable the obedience Of love and reverence than the crushing submission of slavish terror. The heart which has felt the “beauty of holiness,” which has been in some measure attuned to the divine harmony, which now, as of old in the angel-hymn of the Advent, breathes of “glory to God, peace on earth and good will to men,” in the serene atmosphere of that “perfect love which casteth out fear,” smiles at the terrors which throng the sick dreams of the sensual, which draw aside the night-curtains of guilt, and startle with whispers of revenge the oppressor of the poor.

There is a beautiful moral in one of Fouque’s Miniature Romances, “Die Kohlerfamilie.” The fierce spectre, which rose, giant-like, in its blood-red mantle, before the selfish and mercenary merchant, ever increasing in size and terror with the growth of evil and impure thought in the mind of the latter, subdued by prayer and penitence, and patient watchfulness over the heart’s purity, became a loving and gentle visitation of soft light and meekest melody, — “a beautiful radiance at times hovering and flowing on before the traveller, illuminating the bushes and foliage of the mountain forest — a lustre strange and lovely, such as the soul may conceive, but no words express. He felt its power in the depths of his being — felt it like the mystic breathings of the spirit of God.”


“It is confessed of all that a magician is none other than Divinorum cultor et interpres, a studious observer and expounder of divine things.” —Sir Walter Raleigh.

THE old tales of New England witchcraft are familiar to all. I shall therefore speak only of some of the more recent manifestations of glamour and magic which have been vouchsafed to an unbelieving generation, which, as King James lamented in his time, “maintains ye old error of ye Sadducees, ye denying of spirits.” I give the incidents in the order in which they occur to my memory.

Some forty years ago, on the banks of the pleasant little creek separating Berwick in Maine from Somersworth in N. H., within sight of my mother’s borne, dwelt a plain, sedate member of the Society of Friends, named Bantum. He passed, throughout a circle of several miles, as a conjuror, and skillful adept in the art of magic. To him resorted farmers who had lost their cattle, matrons whose household gear, silver spoons, and table linen had been stolen, or young maidens whose lovers were absent; and the quiet, meek-spirited old man received them all kindly, put on his huge iron-rimmed spectacles, opened his “conjuring book,” which my mother describes as a large clasped volume in strange language and black letter type, and after due reflection and consideration gave the required answer, without money and without price. The curious old volume is still in the possession of the conjuror’s family. Apparently inconsistent as was this practice of the Black Art with the simplicity and truthfulness of his religious profession, I have not been able to learn that he was ever subjected to censure on account of it.

Still later another member of the Friend‘s Society in Vermont, of the name of Austin, in answer, as he supposed, to prayer, and a long-cherished desire to benefit his afflicted fellow-creatures, received, as he believed, a special gift of healing. For several years applicants from nearly all parts of New England visited him with the story of their sufferings, and praying for a relief, which, it is averred, was in many instances really obtained. Letters from the sick who were unable to visit him, describing their diseases, were sent to him, and many are yet living who believe that they were restored miraculously at the precise period of time when Austin was engaged in reading their letters. One of my uncles was commissioned to convey to him a large number of letters from sick persons in his neighborhood. He found the old man sitting in his plain parlor, in the simplest garb of his sect — grave, thoughtful, venerable — a drab-coated Prince Hohenlohe. He received the letters in silence, read them slowly, casting them one after another upon a large pile of similar epistles in a corner of the apartment.

In the town of Kingston, N. H., there lived a few years ago a family of reputed dealers in magic. There were two poor old sisters who used to frighten school-urchins and “children of a larger growth,” as they rode by on their gaunt skeleton horses, strung over with baskets for the Newburyport market. They were aware of the popular notion concerning them, and not unfrequently took advantage of it to levy a sort of black mail upon their credulous neighbors. An attendant at the funeral of one of those sisters, who when living was about as unsubstantial as Ossian‘s ghost through which the stars were visible, told me that her coffin was so heavy that four stout men could barely lift it.

One of my earliest recollections is that of an old woman residing at Rocks village in Haverhill, about two miles from the place of my nativity, who for many years had born the unenviable reputation of a witch. She certainly had the look of one — a combination of form, voice, and features, which would have made the fortune of an English witch-finder in the days of Mathew Paris, or the Sir John Podgers of Dickens, and insured her speedy conviction in King James‘ High Court of Justiciary. She was accused of divers ill doings, such as preventing the cream in her neighbor‘s churn from becoming butter, and snuffing out candles at huskings and quilting parties.

“She roamed the country far and near,
  Bewitched the children of the peasants;
Dried up the cows and lamed the deer,
  And sucked the eggs and killed the pheasants.”

The poor old woman was at length so sadly annoyed by her unfortunate reputation that she took the trouble to go before a Justice of the Peace, and make solemn oath that she was a Christian woman and no witch.

Not many years since a sad-visaged, middle-aged man might be seen in the streets of one of our sea-board towns, at times suddenly arrested in the midst of a brisk walk, and fixed motionless for some minutes in the busy thorough-fare. No effort could induce him to stir until, in his opinion, the spell was removed, and his invisible tormentor suffered him to proceed. He explained his singular detention as the act of a whole family of witches, whom he had unfortunately offended during a visit down east. It was rumored that the offence consisted in breaking off a matrimonial engagement with the youngest member of the family, — a sorceress, perhaps, in more than one sense of the word, like that “winsome wench and walie,” in Tam O‘Shanter‘s witch-dance at Kirk Alloway. His only hope was that he should out-live his persecutors; and it is said that at the very hour in which the event took place, he exultingly assured his friends that the spell was forever broken, and that the last of the family of his tormentors was no more.


“Our superstitions twine
Each with the next, until a line
They weave, that through each varied stage
Runs on from infancy to age,
Linking the spring with summer Weather,
And chaining youth and years together.” —Scott.

SOMETHING of that deeply wrought superstition of our Scotch and Irish ancestors, embodied in their Banshee and Bodach Glas, the melancholy spectral presage of coming death, beautiful In the melody of Moore and the romance of Scott, still exists in New England. A writer in the N. A. Review of 1832, alluding to this subject, says : “Our minds involuntarily turn to the instance in which the early death of one of the brightest sons of genius in this city (Boston) was revealed at the moment of its occurrence to his venerable father, himself sinking under the pressure of infirmity, at a distance from home. We have also heard, on authority which we cannot question, another instance, in which a lady of no vulgar mind communicated to her friends her impression of the death of a favorite daughter, from whom she had long been separated, and where the impression justified the event.”

Two similar instances have occurred in my immediate vicinity. During the late war with Great Britain, a sloop of war was lost on Lake Erie, and among those who perished was Lieut. C-, of Salisbury. On the night of the event, his brother, who had just retired to rest, was startled by a loud hoarse gurgling sound, like that produced by file plunging of a heavy mass in water. He left his bed instantly and declared his conviction that his brother had just been drowned in the lake. A circumstance of the same nature occurred in the case of Capt. B-, of this town, who was last year drowned near Eastport. The memory, probably of every reader, will recur to some parallel case.

Is it not possible that there is a reality in this? May it not be the result of laws which have hitherto escaped human investigation? May not the spirit, on the eve of its departure, communicate with beloved objects by the simple volition of intense sympathy without the aid of its ordinary medium Walton, in his life of Dr. Donne, after relating a striking case of this kind, attempts to account for it by supposing the existence of a sympathy of soul — as when one of two lutes in the same apartment is touched, a soft responsive note will be heard from the other. May not the sudden agony of death, intensated by the thought of some deaf and distant object of affection, communicate a vibration to the electric chain of mental affinity, strong enough to reach that object, and impress it with an unmistakeable sense of its bereavement?

As might be expected, in a community like ours, attempts are not unfrequently made to speculate in the superb natural — to “make gain of soothsaying.” In the autumn of last year, “wise woman” dreamed, or somnambulised, that a large sum of money, in gold and silver coin, lay buried in the centre of the great swamp in Poplin, N. H., whereupon an immediate search was made for the precious metal. Under the bleak sky of November, in biting frost and sleet-rain, some twenty or more of grown men, graduates of our “common schools,” and liable, every mother’s son of them, to be made deacons, squires, and General Court members, and such other drill-officers as may be requisite in the “march of mind,” might be seen delving in grim earnest, breaking the frozen earth, uprooting swamp-maples and hemlocks, and waking, with sledge and crow-bar, unwonted echoes in a solitude which had heretofore only answered to the woodman’s axe, or the scream of the wild fowl. The snows of December put an end to their labors; but the yawning excavation still remains, a silent but somewhat expressive commentary upon the “ Age of Progress.”

Still later, in one of our Atlantic cities, an attempt was made, partially, at least, successful, to form a company for the purpose of digging for money on one of the desolate sand-keys of the West Indies. It appears that some mesmerized “subject,” in the course of one of those somnambulic voyages of discovery, in which the traveller, like Satan in Chaos:

“O’er bog, o’er steep, through straight, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet, pursues his way,
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies,”

while peering curiously into the earth’s mysteries, chanced to have his eyes gladdened by the sight of a huge chest packed with Spanish coins, the spoil, doubtless, of some rich-freighted argosy, or Carthagena galleon, in the rare days of Queen Elizabeth’s Christian buccaneers. Who, after this, shall set limits to Yankee faith in — moneygetting?

A curious affair of this kind astonished the worthy citizens of Rye, N. H., last spring. Rye is a small farming and fishing town, looking out upon the broad Atlantic; and in the summer season, with its green headlands jutting into the ocean, its fine white beach, relieved in the back-ground by dark green woods, through which peer out file white walls of farm-houses, it is deservedly held in high estimation as a quiet and beautiful place of resort from the unmitigated heats of the inland. In the winter and spring its inhabitants are almost entirely left to themselves. In early March, however, of this year, a double sleigh drove to the door of Elder Philbrick, a worthy old gentleman, whose attention is by toms occupied with the duties of a landlord and publican, the oversight and direction of half-a-dozen fishing- smacks, and the untying of knotty texts •f scripture. It deposited four of its passengers—three long solemn-looking men with hair hanging down around their lank visages “ like pounds of candles,” and a female figure, closely muffled and veiled. They bespoke lodgings of the Elder, who was not a little puzzled to divine why his guests had chosen such an inappropriate season for their visit. Early the next morning, however, the good man was still more amazed to see the whole party wend their way to the beach, where one of them appeared engaged in performing some mystical incantation over the veiled figure, moving his hands in a mysterious manner above her head, and describing strange circles in the air before her. They soon returned to their lodgings, conducted the woman to her room, and having borrowed the Elder’s shovels and crowbar, immediately commenced digging with great diligence in the spot which had been occupied by the veiled mystery, only abandoning their work as the night closed around them. The same ceremony was acted over again the next morning; and Elder P., deeming it his duty as a Christian man to inquire into the matter, was gravely informed that his visitors were in search of a large sum of money, which the veiled woman had seen in the magnetic sleep, a few feet below the surface of the beach! The search continued for three or four weeks; the muffled Pythoness perversely changing the location of the treasure, now to the right and anon to the left of the previous day’s excavation, wearying alike the souls and bodies of her companions with “ hope deferred ” and hard delving. They were at length reluctantly compelled to relinquish their object, and depart sorrowful and heavy at heart, yet firm in their faith that they were leaving behind them a treasure reserved for some more fortunate experimenters in somnambulism and second-sight.

Fortune-telling did not die with Moll Pitcher, the celebrated Lynn Pythoness. There is still living within a few miles of my residence, an old colored woman, who, during the last twenty years, has been consulted by thousands of anxious inquirers into the future. Long experience in her profession has given her something of that ready estimate of character, that quick and keen appreciation of the capacity, habits, and wishes of her visitors, which so remarkably distinguished famous Madame Le Normand, of Paris. And if that old squalid sorceress, in her cramped Parisian attic, redolent of garlic and bestrewn with the greasy implements of sorry housewifery, was, as has been affirmed, consulted by such personages as the fair Josephine Beauhamois, and the “Man of Destiny,” the late Napoleon himself, is it strange that the desire to lift the veil of the great mystery before us should overcome, in some degree, our peculiar and most republican prejudice against color, and reconcile us to the disagreeable necessity of looking at Futurity through a black medium?


“Thus saith the Book, ‘Permit no witch to live,’
Hence Massachusetts hath expelled the race,
Connecticut, where swap and dicker thrive,
Allows not to their feet a resting place,
With more of hardihood and less of grace,
Vermont receives the sisters grey and lean,
Allows each witch her broomstick flight to trace
O‘er mighty rocks and mountains dark with green,
Where tempests wake their voice and torrents war between.”

So sang Brainard many years ago. The hospitality of the good people of Vermont is proverbial, and, for aught we know, it may have been extended even to those whom sea-board Puritanism has felt bound to exorcize and cast out by Law and Gospel. But that the evil brood is not entirely extirpated, even in the old Bay State, seems manifest enough.

It is an old and familiar proverb, that a certain malignant personage is always nearest at hand when spoken of; and, in confirmation of this, since my last paper was in type, a scene of genuine diablerie has been enacted in the goodly and respectable town of Pepperell, in an adjoining county. There, it seems, is a veritable witch, riding o’ nights in this cold autumnal moonlight, on a spectral white horse, like that of Dana’s Buccaneer, with

“ghostly sides,
Pale streaming with a cold blue light,”

— a steed upon whose silent hoof shoe was never set, unless by the grim artizans of the infernal smithy. A poor girl, supposed to be one of her victims, recently died, and on the night of her death the witch was seen riding hurry-scurry around the house, not indeed by natural eye-sight, but through the magic spectacles of animal magnetism. A mesmerised girl was put on the track of an old woman long suspected of being little better than she should be. She found her body lying without any spirit in it — the merest husk and shell imaginable, and following in the track Of lie wandering soul, discovered its whereabout. She is at present grievously afflicting another poor child; and, as is usual with such evil-disposed characters, has made sad work with the dairies of her neighbors, bewitching churns and preventing the butter from “coming” — a peculiarly diabolic feat, which Burns alludes to in his enumeration of the ill-doings of “Auld Clootie:”—

“Thence kintra wives wi’toil an’ pain,
May plunge an’ plunge the kirn in vain,
For, ah, the yellow treasure’s ta’en
By witching skill.”

In this case, however, she has not altogether escaped with impunity, for the red hot tongs being suddenly applied to the refractory cream, a corresponding burn was found the next day on her own “shrunk shank.” Upon this fact and the evidence of the somnambulist, some of the good people are half disposed to hang her outright, as an undoubted witch.

The circumstance of the old woman’s abandonment of her body during her nocturnal equestrian excursions, reminds us of the hypothesis of the erudite Dr. Jung Stilling, in his “Theorie der Gristerkunde.” The Doctor professes to believe that the soul in a state of peculiar exaltation may be disengaged from the body, for a short space of time, without the supervention of death, and cites several remarkable instances in support of his belief.

During the past summer the quiet Shakers of Canterbury, N. H., who profess, in the midst of a sneering generation, to have restored within their family limits the lost innocence and purity of Eden, have, I am told, like our first parents, been troubled with the subtle enemy. Not having forgotten his old tricks, he has once more crept into Paradise. He has been only seen by two or three peculiarly sagacious members of the family; but they have had several thorough hunts for him, the entire community joining with commendable alacrity in the search, and at times very nearly succeeding in capturing him. Once under the barn they supposed they had him fast, but he escaped the eye of some less vigilant brother or sister and took refuge under the great stone watering-trough. His cunning saved him; and he still, as my informant states, goes about subjecting the worthy family to divers perplexities and troubles, and new hunts equal to any recorded in the olden annals of New-England.

In a letter which I have just received from a distinguished member of the legal profession in New-Hampshire, a very remarkable case is narrated. My friend’s informant was Judge Gove, at that time attorney-general. A few years since while attending court in Cheshire county, in his official capacity, a person came before the grand jury to enter a complaint for murder. As he had heard of no murder committed in that county, he looked at the complainant carefully, suspecting him to be insane. He was a young man of about twenty-five years of age, good-looking, intelligent and well-dressed. Perceiving the surprise of the attorney-general, he said to him, “I do not wonder at your astonishment: examine these papers.” They were certificates of good character and perfect sanity from a large number of the most respectable people in the town where he resided. He then proceeded to state his complaint as follows:— In the winter previous he had been hired to work by a farmer. Soon after he went to live with him he heard strange noises in the cellar and rooms. At first he took little notice of them; but one night he distinctly heard a spinning-wheel in the cellar, and loud sounds in the entries. The doors flew open as often as they were latched. The farmer laughed and remarked: “They keep up quite a rumpus tonight.” The next night he heard groans as he went out to feed the cattle; soon after he saw a bright light in his bed-room, and an apparition, which said to him: “I will see you again; you are too much alarmed now.” The next morning while passing an old covered well, he heard a noise. He spoke, and a voice from the well answered: “I am the Irishman who was murdered by Mrs. F., and put here.” The farmer’s wife saw him looking and beckoned to him to desist and escape; and looking up he saw the farmer pointing a gun at him through the window. He at first fled, but returning, promised to reveal nothing and continued to labor. Soon after, however, the farmer attempted to kill him with a sled-stake. On his return one night, the windows in the lower part of the house seemed brilliantly illuminated. He made some remark about having company, when suddenly the lower windows became dark and the upper ones illuminated, and the whole house was a blaze of fire. Upon this the farmer swore : “This is that cursed Irishman’s work!” He now left the house, and told the story to the neighbors, and then was informed that some years before an Irishman in the employment of the farmer suddenly disappeared, and was by many supposed to have been murdered. The young man made oath that the facts above stated were in his belief true, but, of course, the intelligent attorney did not deem it a sufficient ground for prosecution.


There is one phase of the supernatural which perhaps more than any other is at the present day manifested among us, growing out of the enthusiasm which not unfrequently attends strong religious feeling and excitement. Thus the state of Trance or Extasy, the subject of which sometimes visits in imagination the abodes of blessed spirits, hears ravishing music, and gazes upon Ineffable Glory,—

“Sees distant gates of Eden gleam.
And does not dream it is a dream,”—

is not confined to the Methodist campground, but is sometimes among the phenomena of an awakened religious interest in other sects. The doctrine of the second coming of the Messiah, which has been zealously preached in almost all sections of New-England & few years past, has had a powerful influence over the imaginative faculty in its recipients. One of my neighbors, a worthy and estimable man, believes that in June, 1838, he saw the “sign of the Son of Man in the heavens” at noon-day — a glorious human form, with the figure 5 directly beneath it, indicating that the great consummation was to be in five years, in 1843.” I have alluded to this subject with somewhat of hesitation and delicacy, for I feel that it is extremely difficult to define the exact point where devotion ends and fanaticism begins. In the beautiful records which Lady Guion, John Woolman, Dr. Payson and Mary Fletcher, have left us of their religious experience, we are compelled to make some allowance for over-wrought feeling and imagination. Bunyan in his remarkable auto-biography, “Grace Abounding,” tells us that he heard devils behind him, and that he kicked at and spurned them; Swedenborg squelched a whole legion of fiends on the street pavement; Sir Henry Vane, the glorious martyr in the cause of civil and religious freedom, believed himself specially called to bear rule in the millennium; Luther, with true Teutonic vigor, dashed his massive ink-stand in the face of the Annoyer, grimly glaring on him through the stone wall of bis cell, being “born,” to use his own words, “to fight with devils;” Wesley was beset with invisible house-haunters; George Fox rebuked a witch in his meeting — but are we therefore to shut our eyes to the reality of the spiritual life in these men? For myself, I cannot but treat with some degree of reverence and respect every manifestation of the religious principle even where it seems to me the reverse of that quiet obedience to simple duty, that sober and “reasonable service” which our heavenly Father requires at the hands of his children. The excesses and extravagances to which I have alluded, are not the fault of the great subject itself, nor always of the manner however objectionable in which it is presented. The infinite importance of the soul’s preparation for the great change which awaits it — the terrible and glorious imagery of the Bible — Heaven’s unimaginable bliss, hell’s torment unutterable, — the sudden awakening of a sordid earth-bent soul to the consciousness that broad acres and hoarded coin are but shadows and phantoms, that Eternity and God are realities — the startling inburst of truth upon a hard dark heart, throwing intolerable; light upon its secret sin—the overwhelming contrast of human weakness and guilt with Almighty power and purity, — surely in all this there is enough to shake and overawe the strongest mind. Often to minds which have grovelled in the very earth, wholly absorbed in the sensual, it carries an instantaneous revelation of the tremendous conditions of their existence. It is to them like the light which shone down on Saul of Tarsus. They tremble to know of a truth that “a spirit is with-in them,” that life is no longer a mere money-making convenience, that the universe is no longer dead mechanism; even the common sequences of Nature seem to stretch beyond the limited horizon of time and lose themselves in the Infinite; the simplest phenomena of daily life take a solemn and supernatural character. Is it strange, that such circumstances of intense excitement should sometimes lead to a temporary aberration of intellect? It is indeed painful to witness in a Christian assembly the extravagance and superstitious folly of an Indian powow, or the whirl-dance of the Dervishes of Stamboul. But there is a sadder spectacle than even this. It is to see men regarding with satisfaction such evidences of human weakness, and professing to find in them new proofs of their miserable theory of a Godless universe, and new occasion for sneering at sincere devotion as cant, and humble reverence as fanaticism. Alas! in comparison with such, the wildest and most extravagant enthusiast, who in the midst of his delusions still feels that he is indeed a living soul, and an heir of immortality, to whom God speaks from the immensities of his universe, is a sane man. Better is it in a life like ours to be even a howling Dervish or a dancing Shaker, confronting imaginary demons with Thalaba’s talisman of Faith, than to lose the consciousness of our own spiritual nature, and look upon ourselves as mere brute masses of animal organization — barnacles on a dead universe; looking into the dull grave with no hope beyond it; earth gazing into earth, and saying to corruption, “thou art my father,” and to the worm, “thou art my sister!”

I have occupied more space than I intended with these papers, and more than the reader will probably deem profitable. In a desultory manner I have thrown together such facts in illustration of my subject as chanced to present themselves, with very little regard to order or connexion. It has been no part of my object to apply to these facts the test of philosophical and scientific analysis. I have contented myself with sketching in dim and indistinct outline the great temple of mystery, leaving to others the task of ascertaining whether it is really a solid structure or a palace of cloud-land; and of applying with mathematical accuracy Ezekiel’s reed to the walls thereof and the gates thereof. I shall be satisfied if I have contributed in any degree to the innocent amusement of the reader. The very nature of my subject has led me, by sudden transitions, from the grave to the gay, from the horrible to the grotesque and ludicrous; and it has been difficult to avoid altogether the appearance of irreverence on the one hand and of credulity on the other. I am aware that there are graver aspects to the subject than any I have presented, and which are entitled to serious inquiry. For the Supernaturalism of New-England and of all other countries, is but the exaggeration and distortion of actual fact — a great truth underlies it. It is Nature herself repelling the slanders of the materialist, and vindicating her claim to an informing and all-directing Spirit — the confused and incoherent utterance of her everlasting protest against “the fool who hath said in his heart there is no God.”

Originally serialised in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (Vol. XIII) of Sept., Oct., and Nov. 1843.

Sources for all quotes in this piece are on the Discussion Page.