Margaret Rule and the ‘Smutty’ Cotton Mather

In September of 1693, in the aftermath of the Salem witchcraft hysteria, a Boston girl, Margaret Rule, convinced the town that she was possessed by demons. It very nearly restarted the witch hysteria.

Rule was a member of Rev. Cotton Mather’s North End church in Boston. Mather was an instrumental instigator in the Salem witch trials, and a believer in the power of spirits. When he learned of Margaret Rule’s afflictions, he went to visit.

John and Emma Rule of Saco, Maine had been forced south to Boston because of the fighting between colonists and Indians in the north. They were a sober and honest family, Mather believed. Their daughter Margaret had an uneasy relationship with an older woman in their North End neighborhood, and in September the older woman scolded Margaret. The woman had previously been accused of casting spells, but the Rules chose not to make any public accusation against her.

susannah martin

The Witch No. 1, lithograph, J.E. Baker.

Margaret grew ill, experiencing fits and falling into a trance. She was feverish and seemingly delusional. Rule was being tormented by demons, she said, probably summoned through witchcraft. She was able to identify several women who were among her tormentors. Rule was bedridden and a group of friends stayed with her constantly, praying. The visitors reported some sort of demon, roughly the size of a rat, would occasionally brush against them. One group of visitors swore that while they were with Margaret, she levitated, hovering over her bed.

Margaret Rule Overheats

On September 13, Margaret had attracted the usual crowd at her bedside. The room grew overheated. Margaret fainted, and Mather fanned her with his hat. Margaret had begun to sense information via her spiritual connections. She correctly predicted the near drowning of a local boy. Cotton Mather had grown irritated that 17 pages of a sermon had been misplaced, and Rule told him that the spirits had told her demons had taken it, but that it would be returned.

In the community, some believed Margaret was an oracle and wanted to question her more about her visions. Mather stepped in and forbade it. He advised Margaret to stay quiet, fast and pray. She revealed the names of the people she thought were tormenting her. She even suggested that Mather might be a witch. For his part, Mather avoided calling Margaret Rule’s illness a case of witchcraft. He probably believed the visions Rule saw were demons. However, he did caution that they might also be simply illusions.

On September 19, Mather visited Margaret Rule once again. She was still sick, but she felt she was getting the upper hand in expelling the demons.

Robert Calef Tells a Story

Robert Calef, a Boston cloth merchant, was growing weary of the popular obsession with witches. He believed the Mathers, Cotton and his father Increase, and others were dangerously whipping up public hysteria to gain attention for themselves. So he decided to write his own account of the Margaret Rule affair.

In Calef’s retelling, (published as More Wonders of the Invisible World) the scene at Margaret Rule’s bedside becomes rather more tawdry. In Calef’s version of events, Margaret Rule looks more like an attention-starved young woman. And the Mathers come off as more manipulative. And, Calef included a shocking detail. He hints that the Mathers put their hands on Margaret and that she was not always properly covered while lying in bed. Calef sent his manuscript to Mather to seek comment. Cotton Mather fired off a letter:

“A false representation it is that I rubbed Rule’s stomach, her breast not being covered,” Mather objected. “You cannot but know how much this representation has contributed to make people believe a smutty thing of me.”

While Calef suggested Mather was hoping to whip up another round of witchcraft hysteria in Massachusetts, Mather defended himself. He pointed out that he used all his influence with Rule to stop her from naming anyone as a witch.

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