Philip English and witchcraft allegations

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Arrested in Salem and accused of witchcraft

By Anne Taite Austin

Prominent person

Philip English is an interesting figure in the Salem witch trials because his prominence in the community raises questions about the pattern of accusations; his escape from jail and the gallows provides insight about the politics behind the trials; and his post-trials experience highlights how the Colony attempted to rectify the fiscal wrongs committed against the victims of the trials.

A warrant was issued for English's arrest on 30 April 30, but he was nowhere to be found, and another warrant had to be issued on 6 May. His wife Mary had been taken into custody one week earlier. Facing indictments from Mercy Lewis, Susannah Sheldon and William Beale, in late May, Philip finally surfaced from hiding and joined his wife in John Arnold's jail in Boston, perhaps because his avoidance of the law was hurting their legal situation.

Philip and Mary stayed in Boston for nine weeks under lenient supervision, until the eve of their expected return to their August trial in Salem. But instead of returning, the couple escaped to New York where they stayed throughout the duration of the trials. Men of prominence including The Rev Joshua Moody, of Boston; Governor Phips, of Massachusetts, and Governor Fletcher, of New York, apparently aided the them to escape into safe hands. New York was a predominantly Dutch settlement, and it was known for its religious tolerance and disapproval of the proceedings in Salem.

After Governor Phips officially ended the trials in May 1693, Philip English returned to Salem with his wife in good spirits. But he soon became disheartened by the pillaging of his wealthy estate at the hands of Sheriff Corwin and the death of his wife Mary by consumption during childbirth a year later.

He fought through several petitions for restitution of his estate (which in 1692 included 14 buildings, 21 sail vessels, a wharf, and a warehouse). He estimated damages of £1,183, of which he was only awarded £60 during his lifetime and another £200 at his death. The legality of such land and estate seizures is complex, but it remains that several authorities including Phips, English's ally, knew that Essex County Sheriff George Corwin was not forwarding the money to the colony or the Crown as he claimed. This brief sketch of Philip English's involvement in the trial raises many questions - one of course being the reason he was accused - especially considering the fact that he was allowed to disappear.

Mysterious past

The biography of Philip English, born Philippe Langlois in 1651, begins hazily as historians have had little luck discerning his past before he came to Salem in 1670. Of French Huguenot descent, he emigrated from Jersey into the mercantile class of Salem town. From this point, historians have had little trouble keeping track of him because quickly upon his arrival, he established himself as a successful trading merchant.

His success increased when he married Mary, the only daughter of William Hollingsworth, the head of a prominent shipping legacy and longstanding family in Salem and Massachusetts. This brief introduction sets up several characteristics that have been argued as the root of English's involvement with the witch trials:

  • English was an immigrant
  • He had Protestant tendencies
  • He was successful in the changing economy of Massachusetts.

In sum, English was an outsider to the community. Despite his involvement within the community on economic, political and social realms, he existed as an outside threat to the harmony of the Salem community.

First, he was French, and a Huguenot at that. Bryan F Le Beau's essay, "Philip English and the witchcraft hysteria", emphasises English's non-Puritan religious background, even though he and Mary attended services and baptised their children at Salem's First Church. His wife was even admitted into full communion in 1681.

Hostile to Puritan faith

Many legends report English to have been hostile towards the Puritan faith, but conflict did not arise until long after the trials in 1714, when he gave money to help erect an Anglican church in a nearby town. At this point tension arose, as English refused to pay his church taxes, and as Le Beau's essay cites, he spoke out feverishly against Rev Noyes, one of the Puritans ministers during the trials, as having "murdered" John Proctor and Rebecca Nurse.

Although English later rebelled against the Puritan religion, there is no documented basis to believe that his religion was an outright problem with the Puritans at the time of the accusations. Nonetheless, his French Protestant descent made him different and consequently vulnerable.

English's personal character probably caused more discontent than his Anglicanism. Having many land parcels in various locations made him liable to frequent episodes of litigation. The lawsuit brought against him by William Beale involved a heated debate about the boundaries of a piece of land in Marblehead. English's open hostility against Beale would come back to haunt him when Beale accused English's specter of witchcraft two years later during the trials. English's consistent land disputes when coupled with the town's prejudice against the superior style in which his family lived exposed English to a volatile hostility.

The rich lifestyle of the family may have caused resentment among Salem villagers, but more accurately, the fact that an Anglican immigrant merchant could find such spectacular financial success in Salem was especially disturbing. According to Boyer and Nissenbaum in Salem Possessed:

”If one had to choose the single person most representative of the economic and social transformations which were overtaking Salem - and Massachusetts as a whole - in the late 17th century, Philip English might as well be that person."

Salem factions

Boyer and Nissenbaum claim that factions had arisen between Salem Village and Salem based on economic and political relationship. English was incredibly successful in the young mercantile industry, rather than in farming, and was thus representative of the new economy that many farmers perceived as a political threat to the Villagers' desire for independence from Salem and its accompanying social style.

Infuriating the farmers, perhaps, merchants in Salem were taking prominence in local politics. Philip English had been appointed as a town's selectman in March of 1692 - one month before he was accused of witchcraft.

English fits into Boyer and Nissenbaum's analysis of the witch trials as an outgrowth of pre-existing tensions along economic and political lines, but more broadly, English became a representative of all that Salem Villagers distrusted: he lived a lavish lifestyle, he was Anglican, he was an immigrant, he sympathized with other French Huguenot immigrants, and he was becoming politically active. English would not be able to escape the accusation, but he was able to escape the gallows.

Historians do know that higher political authorities, such as Governor Phips, were an ally of English in his escape and in the restitution of his estate, so perhaps his powerful allies made it futile to go after English. Since I believe English was targeted as a threat to the agrarian community, perhaps the stripping of his lucrative estate and his complete absence from the town were sufficient to satisfy the accusers' goals.

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