"Your Poor and Humble Petitioner": Political Agency in the Petitions of the Essex County Witchcraft Crisis, 1692-1712



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This thesis contextualizes the witchcraft crisis of 1692 within the realm of late seventeenth-century popular politics by examining how residents of Essex County utilized petitions to navigate a period of societal turmoil and, ultimately, bring an end to the witch trials. Although the civic dimensions of witch-hunting in New England certainly have not been ignored, historians have yet to connect colonists' response to the witchcraft crisis with the growth of the public sphere. Similarly, both personal and collective petitioning in Massachusetts Bay Colony has received minimal scholarly attention. Putting this essential political process in conversation with witchcraft brings a trend of local political activism to light. Drawing upon petitions issued by ordinary people from 1692 through 1712, this thesis identifies the social, economic, and legal arguments that petitioners used to attack the validity of the witch trials and the far-reaching consequences of unchecked witch-hunting on Essex County towns. It contends that the extraordinary circumstances of the witchcraft crisis afforded such individuals an unprecedented opportunity to assert their political agency, and that petitioning allowed local communities to hold their colony government responsible for their role in perpetuating the negative side effects of the witch trials. Petitioners' efforts to overturn the witch trials, seek exoneration for the falsely accused, and demand accountability from colonial administrators demonstrate that residents of Essex County were agents of political change and that the witchcraft crisis is an integral example of how witch-hunting intersected with regional politics.



witch, witchcraft, maleficium, puritan, 1692, seventeenth-century, New England, Essex County, Massachusetts Bay Colony, petitions, petitioning, political agency, public sphere