1 September 1716
The Reverend Dr. Cotton Mather found his memory drawn irresistably back to the morning of August 19, 1692. On that day he had watched as John Proctor, George Jacobs Sr., John Willard, George Burroughs and Martha Corey were taken from the gaol at Salem town and hanged from Gallows Hill west of town as witches. Burroughs had recited the Lord's Prayer and made a moving speech from the gallows ladder protesting his innocence, and many of those present had been vocal in their opposition to the hangings. Mather himself, sitting astride a horse, had set aside his own doubts and responded by reciting the evidence produced in the court against Burroughs, the integrity and worthiness of the judges who had tried Burroughs, and the assurance that Burroughs and the others all died by a righteous sentence.
After the traditional hearty breakfast, Mather was escorted from the gaol at Salem town by a squad of red-coated soldiers from one of the regiments currently occupying Massachusetts. The Duke of Marlborough, military governor of New England, was too busy overseeing the administration of the newly-subdued colonies to leave his headquarters in Charles Town. In his place, he had sent a regimental artillery commander, Colonel King. King, astride a horse of his own, watched in silence as the soldiers lifted Mather up into the cart that would convey him to his fate.
Twenty-four years earlier, crowds had gathered from miles away to watch the condemned witches hang. They had followed the prisoners' cart to Gallows Hill jeering and yelling, throwing rocks and rotten fruit at the five. Mather couldn't help but be pleased to see an even larger crowd come to see his own hanging. The sin of pride had been Mather's constant companion throughout life, and now it would accompany him to his death.
Mather had never liked noisy crowds. He had found the mob at the witch hangings unpleasant, and much appreciated the relative calm of the spectators of his own demise. There were a few shouted insults, but most of the people present seemed content to remain silent as they accompanied Mather's cart along the rutted trail to Gallows Hill. The soldiers guarding the cart seemed indifferent to the events around them, talking quietly with each other about where the cheapest food might be found, which of the women in the crowd might make suitable paramours, and when they might expect to be sent back to England. Colonel King maintained his silence, and seemed to be directing most of his attention to the crowd rather than Mather himself, as if suspecting them of plotting to overwhelm himself and his soldiers and set Mather free. Mather hoped that no such thing would happen, for Massachusetts was suffering privation enough as it was, and an uprising on his behalf would only make matters worse.
In a way, it was a pity he had to die now, for the whole world seemed to be in an uproar, and he would never learn the outcome of any of it. Governor Hunter of New York had led a regiment of his colony's militia into western Connecticut, and petitioned Marlborough for permission to annex the area to his own colony. The colonial charters of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts had all been revoked, and the three were to be combined into a single crown colony called Nova Anglia. The Royal Navy had taken the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, and the French outposts of Pondicherry and Karikal in India. In Europe, the losses incurred in the war had bankrupted the French government, and the young king's regent, Phillipe d'Orleans, had been forced to summon the Estates-General for the first time in a century.
Mather's thoughts on the state of the world came to a disjointed halt, along with rest of the party escorting his cart, when they came within sight of Gallows Hill and found over a hundred Indians waiting there. King's soldiers quickly formed themselves into a short line of battle, and a general babble rose from the crowd. Then one of the Indians left the assembled group and calmly walked up to face the soldiers and townspeople. Mather recognized him easily. It was the Abenaki sachem Taxous.
Taxous walked up to the mounted Colonel King and said, in fluent English, "I wish to speak with Dr. Mather."
Colonel King looked down at Taxous, looked over at the assembled mass of braves, looked over at his own half dozen troops, then looked back at Taxous. He finally spoke the first words Mather had heard from him that morning. "I'll take you to him."
King did so, and Mather found himself looking down from the cart at Taxous.
"I greet you, Crow," the sachem said in Abenaki.
"I greet you, my brother," Mather responded.
"We have heard in our country that the redcoats seek to hang you."
"You have heard truly, my brother. They do seek to hang me, and rightly so, for I rose up against the rule of the Great White Mother in London."
"If you give the word, Crow, my people will fight the redcoats and free you, for you have brought understanding of the True God to us, and you have also brought peace between us and the English, and we would not see you taken from us."
"It gladdens my heart to hear you say these words, my brother, but it cannot be. There would be war again between my people and yours, and the Duke of Marlborough would not rest until your people were dead, all of them. Tomorrow will bring others to teach the Abenaki of the True God, and as for today . . ."
Mather lifted up his eyes into the clear morning sky. There was a fresh breeze blowing from the west, and all the world seemed young in the first hours of the new day. Returning his gaze at last to his friend, Mather finished, "It is a good day to die."
Taxous nodded. "You speak truly, Crow, as always." Shifting back into English, Taxous said to King, "We will stay to watch Dr. Mather die, and then we will go."
King agreed, and Taxous returned to the other Abenaki. King ordered his men to resume their places around the cart, and the procession continued.
Gallows hill was too steep for the cart to climb, so Mather left it and climbed the rest of the way to the oak tree, just as Proctor and Burroughs had climbed it before him. As he stood on the ladder with the noose around his neck, Colonel King read out the charges against him, and the sentence passed. Then he said, "Has the condemned any last words to say before sentence is carried out?"
Mather looked out at the crowd of New Englanders, the small knot of soldiers, and the waiting Indians. "Twenty-four years and thirteen days ago I watched a man named George Burroughs stand on this ladder, with this rope around his neck, and proclaim his innocence to an uncaring mob that included myself. I do not claim, as Burroughs did, to be innocent, for I am not. I am as guilty as he was innocent, for his blood, and the blood of nineteen other men and women are on my hands. I do not care if King George of Hanover and the Duke of Marlborough hang me for treason, for their treason is my patriotism, and I am proud that I rose up against their rule, and would do so again were I given the chance. But the innocent lives of Burroughs and the other nineteen martyrs of Salem remain unredeemed, and it is for them that I dedicate my life this day. Blood for blood, guilt for innocence, so that the crime of Salem, Massachusetts may be expunged, and God's grace may return to New England."
Mather prayed silently to God as the hood was fitted around his head. He heard the executioner climb down the ladder, then felt him kick it away. His last thought was of his father.
(Proceed to Son of Maximum Massachusetts)