DUBLIN — In the season of the supernatural that just passed, the city of Salem gets some serious media coverage outside New England on account of its witch trials, which from June through September 1692 saw 19 men and women tried, convicted, and hanged for the crime of witchcraft.
Four years earlier, though, the clergy of Boston got a jump on their Salem brethren when they presided over the hanging of Irishwoman Ann Glover for the same offense. This persecution of a household servant isn’t nearly as well known as Salem’s more pervasive witch mania, but at the time it caused a sensation in Boston, thanks to the notoriety accorded to the case in a popular contemporary book titled “Memorable Providences” by Puritan minister Cotton Mather, pastor of the Old North Church.
Since 1988, Boston has declared Nov. 16 “Goody Glover Day” in recognition of the injustice done to Goodwife Ann Glover, whom Mather proclaimed an “idolatrous Roman Catholick” during her trial.
A fascinating account of this historical curiosity is contained in “Nailing Theses,” a collection of essays by the eminent Irish literary scholar Alan Titley.
As well as being a writer of far-reaching intellect and erudition, Titley happens to be my cousin. I caught up with him and was introduced to the extraordinary case of Boston’s Irish witch at the launch of his new book in Dublin’s Irish Writers Centre.
According to his meticulously researched essay on the subject, very little is known about Ann Glover, apart from some basic facts that appear primarily in Mather’s book. Indeed, even her real name is lost to us, with Ann Glover being her slave name, or the name of her master.
One thing is certain, though: She was definitely Irish, because she spoke only the Irish language at her trial and during her interrogations. In fact, Mather writes that Ann Glover “entertained me with nothing but Irish, which Language I had not Learning enough to understand without an Interpreter.”
The reason Ann Glover spoke exclusively in her native tongue remains a mystery, since this could well have supported the charges against her and it is likely that she spoke and understood English.
So how did a native Irish-speaking woman find herself in Boston in 1688 accused and ultimately convicted and hanged for the crime of witchcraft, a form of social dementia unknown in Gaelic Ireland even as it swept across 17th-century Europe?
Piecing together historical evidence from the period, Titley speculates that Glover was one of the 30,000 or more Irish people deported to Jamaica, Barbados, or Montserrat in the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell’s savage conquest of Ireland from 1649 to 1652. (This mass deportation explains why Irish was the common language of Montserrat — the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean — up until the early 19th century.)
According to Titley’s account, the woman known as Ann Glover came to Boston from Barbados and she would have acquired her Anglicized surname in one of those two places. It is also likely that whatever her Irish first name was, “she may never have had any surname at all, as many Irish of the common people did not acquire surnames until that same 17th century.”
Puritan Boston would have seemed a forbidding place to Glover. At least there were Irish in Barbados. The Irish in Boston were a different breed, Titley writes: “those Ulster Presbyterians who had made a short sojourn in Ireland before setting sail for a newer world where they had only to deal with Indians rather than Catholic Irish.” For Glover, the severe judgments of Puritan society, endorsed without exception by an uncharitable god, “must have been scary beyond the slavery of Barbados.”
Finally — and perhaps most interestingly — several major characters in the Salem witch trials also appear in Glover’s story. Mather was profoundly involved in both. Also, Glover was visited in prison by Rebecca Nurse, who was later condemned as a witch and put to death in Salem. And in a dramatic twist, Tituba — the Indian or Negro slave servant who was the first person accused of witchcraft in Salem and who is a primary character in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” — is believed to have been present at Glover’s hanging in the streets of Boston.
So thank you, Alan, for alerting me to this piece of my hometown’s history.
Medford native Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of “This Thought's on Me: A Boston Guy Reflects on Leaving the Hub, Becoming a Dub & Other Topics.”