PORTLAND, Maine – Reverend George Burroughs was seated at his dinner table in Wells when lawyers dragged him on the night of May 4, 1692.
Acting on the authority of a court in Salem, Massachusetts, MPs bound Burroughs and began transporting him south. They did not give her time to pack or make arrangements for her family.
Along the way, somewhere below Wells, a terrible storm occurred. Lightning split the sky. Thunder erupted in torrential rain. The sudden, angry weather frightened the lawyers and their horses.
But none were surprised.
They assumed it was the devil, trying to free his trusted servant. Burroughs was, after all, the supposed wizarding king of hell.
By the end of the summer, Burroughs was dead and lying in a shallow grave, convicted of supernatural crimes during mass hysteria now known as the Salem Witch Trials. Their fascinating and sinister debates are a well-documented and dramatized slice of American history.
What is less remembered is that Burroughs and his first three accusers all lived in Portland when it was a small town huddled against a border coast, under the constant threat of annihilation. He was their pastor.
Additionally, Burroughs has been accused of committing several of his fantastic deeds in Maine. They ranged from bizarre feats of strength, to holding satanic church services in the woods, to distributing black magic dolls with prick pins.
One person even testified that Burroughs ruled Hell, second in command to only Beelzebub, himself.
Like all of the threads that walk the Salem Witch Trials, Burroughs’ story is a tangled mess, even without the dark art accusations. He moved around a lot, looking for work and dodging battles with the Wabanaki.
It is not known where Burroughs came from. He may have been born in England, Massachusetts or Virginia. Sources vary. He definitely graduated from Harvard College – now a university – in 1670, where he is remembered as an intelligent student and exceptional athlete.
By 1674, although he was never officially ordained, he had served as pastor at the Portland Congregational Church. Burroughs held the post until the town was nearly wiped out by Wabanaki forces two years later, in August 1676.
After the battle, Burroughs and his young family fled to an island in Casco Bay, seeking food with a number of other survivors. Among them was a young baby named Mercy Lewis and her parents. Years later, that same child would help seal Burroughs’ fate.
With Portland no longer inhabitable, the unemployed from Burroughs moved to Salisbury, Massachusetts. There he accepted a job as an assistant to an elderly church pastor, hoping to eventually succeed the man. It didn’t have to be. The ensuing church policy and impending poverty forced Burroughs to relocate again, seeking work elsewhere in 1680.
It was then that he got a job as a church pastor in the legendary village of Salem. It was a short and miserable mandate.
When he got there, Burroughs discovered that the rectory was uninhabitable and that the former preacher had left town when the congregation refused to pay him. In less than two years, amid the church’s constant infighting, worshipers also began to withhold Burroughs’ salary.
When his first wife died, the broke pastor was forced to borrow money from the Putnam family to bury her. Soon after, he left town – the church being indebted to him and he before the Putnams.
Burroughs fled to Portland in 1683, flanking the city’s few inhabitants and the bare garrison of soldiers stationed at Fort Loyal. At the time, the town was New England’s easternmost outpost, just starting to re-populate after the previous war.
Burroughs remarried and had more children, but continued to struggle.
He tried to secure a better preaching position with a well-stocked royal military expedition to Pemaquid, but failed. In doing so, he made several political enemies in the small town, including the family of young Susannah Sheldon.
The Sheldons would later lose everything in Wabanaki’s subsequent attacks, returning to poverty-stricken Massachusetts, where Susannah Sheldon would accuse Burroughs of witchcraft.
A girl named Abigail Hobbs was also under the tutelage of Burroughs in Portland. When she was later accused of witchcraft in Salem, she claimed it was only because Burroughs started bewitching her at night in Portland in 1688, when she was 11 years old.
In the fall of 1689, Portland was again attacked by the Wabanaki and Burroughs survived once again, helping to push the Wabanaki back into what is now Deering Oaks Park.
By this time, Mercy Lewis’s parents were dead and the helpless 13-year-old orphan moved in with Burroughs’ family as a servant. His second wife had also died and Burroughs had married for the third time. He was said to be cruel to Lewis, often whipping her.
The stage is set
In 1688 and 1689, Burroughs was the pastor of Portland for the three daughters who would later start the storm of accusations in Salem. Each would have plausible motives for fingering him at trial.
But before that happened, shortly after surviving the second life-threatening attack in Portland in 1689, Burroughs moved to safer ground in Wells.
He was right on time.
A few months later, in the spring of 1690, Fort Loyal and the rest of Portland were wiped out by an enormous combined French and Wabanaki force. There were no survivors. All the settlers and soldiers were killed and their bones lay in an unburied heap for years. For a while, Portland ceased to exist.
Burroughs ministered to Wells and neighboring border towns until his arrest in May 1692.
At the time Burroughs was arrested, the three young women were living in Salem. In April, Lewis was the first to accuse Burroughs.
At the time, she was working for the Putnam family – the same clan that Burroughs had left town in debt for the funeral of his first wife.
Lewis said his former pastor appeared at night, in the form of Satan, taking him to the top of a mountain, showing him his demon kingdom. Burroughs said it could all be hers if she just wrote her name in her book.
This continued for many nights with him trying to convince her under threats of violence, according to Lewis.
Lewis also accused Hobbs of being a witch that month. After confessing, Hobbs was encouraged to name names, possibly reducing her sentence. She said Burroughs had turned her into a witch four years ago in Portland.
He also came to see her at night with his demonic book, she said.
That same month, Sheldon also accused Burroughs. His family had lost everything in the conflicts with the Wabanaki – a fate Burroughs had avoided by moving to Wells months before the destruction of Portland.
This was used as evidence against the pastor. Sheldon said it was proof that he was in the occult league with the Wabanaki. She also said Burroughs bewitched the troops at Fort Loyal, causing them to lose the battle.
Additionally, during her trial, Sheldon said Burroughs came to see her at night, bragging about how he choked and strangled his first two wives, threatening to do the same to her if she testified.
Once Lewis, Hobbs, and Sheldon opened the floodgates, a slew of new and corroborating accusations flew to Burroughs from people who knew him in Maine and Massachusetts.
A total of 30 people testified against him. Nine accused him of diabolical feats of strength. Some said he could lift barrels of molasses that no mortal could lift without the help of the devil. Others said they saw him raise a seven-foot musket in Maine, simply putting his fingers at the end of the barrel.
(This gun was thought to be on display at the Fryeburg Academy for many years after 1808, until a fire ravaged the school in 1850.)
In addition to murdering his first two wives, Burroughs has also been accused of being horrible to his third, censoring letters written to his father about his cruelty.
Several witnesses said Burroughs was the literal King of Hell, sent by Satan to infiltrate the Christian Church. He appeared to the right people in the early morning, the dark hours, threatening them, pinching them, pushing them and suffocating them until they signed their names in his hellish book.
With their names secure, Burroughs would then lead them to black fire-lit masses in the forest, providing his now-doomed congregation with dolls and pins so they could practice witchcraft on others.
The story was convenient. At the time, it was believed that women could not play a leadership role in the church, satanic or otherwise. They needed a man to guide them.
Burroughs, being a member of the clergy, did the trick.
He also condemned himself to the trial by his nonchalant pastoral habits.
Asked by his examiners about the last time he took Communion, the rude, borderline preacher said he couldn’t remember. It also appeared that he had neglected to baptize all of his children except one.
Burroughs was convicted and then executed on August 19, 1692 in Salem. Right before that, he gave a moving recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, something that a real witch was considered incapable of doing.
They still hanged him and four other people that day.
Naked and with the halter still around his neck, the townspeople dragged his body a short distance and buried Burroughs in a grave two feet deep with a pair of other corpses. The officials didn’t care about a lot of dirt. His hands, feet and chin protruded from the ground.
The ultimate fates of Lewis, Hobbs, and Sheldon are unknown, but none would ever have returned to Portland, where Fort Loyal was still in ruins.
Lewis moved to Boston and married in 1701. Despite being a doomed witch, Hobbs escaped execution after naming Burroughs. Sheldon is believed to have died unmarried and childless years later.
Like many convicts, Burroughs was eventually pardoned and, 21 years later, his third wife’s family received £ 50 for their troubles. The heirs to Burroughs’ first two wives then spent years suing them for part of the money.
Today there are two historic markers dedicated to Burroughs in Salem. There are none in Maine.
This account has been assembled from several historical and contemporary accounts, including: “Satan’s War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692”, published in 2007 by Benjamin C. Ray; “Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society Vol. 5 ”, published 1860-1862; “The Witchcraft Delusion in New England”, published in 1860 by WE Woodward; and “George Burroughs and The Girls From Casco: The Maine Roots of Salem Witchcraft”, published in 2002 by Mary Beth Norton.