The Story of Margaret Rule

Author: Cotton Mather  | Date: 1700

The Story of Margaret Rule

THERE was one in the north part of Boston seized by the evil angels many months after the general storm of the late enchantments was over, and when the country had long lain pretty quiet, both as to molestations and accusations from the invisible world: her name was Margaret Rule, a young woman: she was born of sober and honest parents, yet living; but what her own character was before her visitation I can speak with the less confidence of exactness, because I observe that wherever the devils have been let loose, to worry any poor creature amongst us, a great part of the neighbourhood presently set themselves to inquire, and relate all the little vanities of their childhood, with such unequal exaggerations, as to make them appear greater sinners than any whom the pilot of hell has not yet preyed upon. But it is affirmed, that, for about half a year before her visitation, she was observably improved in the hopeful symptoms of a new creature; she was become furiously concerned for the everlasting salvation of her soul, and careful to avoid the snares of evil company.

’Twas upon the Lord’s day, the 10th of September, in the year 1693, that Margaret Rule, after some hours of previous disturbance in the public assembly, fell into odd fits, which caused her friends to carry her home, where her fits in a few hours grew into a figure that satisfied the spectators of their being preternatural Some of the neighbours were forward enough to suspect the rise of this mischief in an house hard by, where lived a miserable woman, who had been formerly imprisoned, on the suspicion of witchcraft, and who had frequently cured very painful hurts, by muttering over them certain charms, which I shall not endanger the poisoning of my reader by repeating. This woman had, the evening before Margaret fell into her calamities, very bitterly treated her, and threatened her; but the hazard of hurting a poor woman, that might be innocent, notwithstanding surmises that might have been more strongly grounded than those, caused the pious people in the vicinity to try, rather, whether incessant supplication to God alone might not procure a quicker and safer ease to the afflicted, than hasty prosecution of any supposed criminal; and accordingly that unexceptionable course was all that was ever followed; yea, which I looked on as a token for good, the afflicted family was as averse, as any of us all, to entertain thoughts of any other course.

The young woman was assaulted by eight cruel spectres, whereof she imagined that she knew three or four; but the rest came still with their faces covered, so that she could never have a distinguishing view of the countenance of those whom she thought she knew; she was very careful of my reiterated charges, to forbear blazing the names, lest any good person should come to suffer any blast of reputation, through the cunning malice of the great accuser; nevertheless, having since privately named them to myself, I will venture to say this of them, that they are a sort of wretches, who for these many years have gone under as violent presumptions of witchcraft, as perhaps any creatures yet living upon earth; although I am far from thinking that the visions of this young woman were evidence enough to prove them so. These cursed spectres now brought unto her a book about a cubit long-a book red and thick, but not very broad; and they demanded of her, that she would set her hand to that book, or touch it at least with her hand, as a sign of her becoming a servant of the devil. Upon her peremptory refusal to do what they asked, they did not after renew the proffers of the book unto her, but instead thereof they fell to tormenting of her in a manner too hellish to be sufficiently described-in those torments confining her to her bed for just six weeks together.

Sometimes, but not always, together with the spectres, there looked in upon the young woman (according to her account) a short and a black man, whom they called their master-a wight, exactly of the same dimensions and complexion and voice, with the devil that has exhibited himself unto other infested people, not only in other parts of this country, but also in other countries, even of the European world, as the relation of the enchantments there informs us. They all professed themselves vassals of this devil, and in obedience unto him they addressed themselves unto various ways of torturing her. Accordingly she was cruelly pinched with invisible hands, very often in a clay, and the black and blue marks of the pinches became immediately visible unto the standers-by. Besides this, when her attendants had left her without so much as one pin about her, that so they might prevent some feared inconveniences, yet she would ever now and then be miserably hurt with pins, which were found stuck into her neck, back and arms; however, the wounds made by the pins would in a few minutes ordinarily be cured; she would also be strangely distorted in her joints, and thrown into such exorbitant convulsions as were astonishing unto the spectators in general. They that could behold the doleful condition of the poor family without sensible compassions, might have entrails indeed; but I am sure they could have no true bowels in them.

It were a most unchristian and uncivil, yea, a most unreasonable thing, to imagine, that the fits of the young woman were but mere impostures; and I believe scarce any but people of a particular dirtiness will harbour such an uncharitable censure. However, because I know not how far the devil may drive the imagination of poor creatures, when he has possession of them, that at another time, when they are themselves, would scorn to dissemble any thing, I shall now confine my narrative unto passages wherein there could be no room left for any dissimulation. Of these, the first that I’ll mention shall be this: From the time that Margaret Rule first found herself to be formally besieged by the spectres, until the ninth day following, namely, from the 10th of September to the 18th, she kept an entire fast, and yet she was unto all appearance as fresh, as lively, as hearty, at the nine days’ end, as before they began; in all this time, though she had a very eager hunger upon her stomach, yet, if any refreshment were brought unto her, her teeth would be set, and she would be thrown into many miseries; indeed once or twice or so in all this time, her tormentors permitted her to swallow a mouthful of somewhat that might increase her miseries, whereof a spoonful of rum was the most considerable; but otherwise, as I said, her fast unto the ninth day was very extreme and rigid: however, afterwards there scarce passed a day wherein she had not liberty to take something or other for her sustentation. And I must add this, further, that this business of her fast was carried so, that it was impossible to be dissembled without a combination of multitudes of people, unacquainted with one another, to support the juggle; but he that can imagine such a thing of a neighbourhood, so filled with virtuous people, is a base man- I cannot call him any other.

But if the sufferings of this young woman were not imposture, yet might they not be pure distemper? I will not here inquire of our Sadducees, what sort of a distemper ’tis shall stick the body full of pins without any hand that could be seen to stick them; or whether all the pin-makers in the world would be willing to be evaporated into certain ill habits of body, producing a distemper; but of the distemper my reader shall be judge, when I have told him something further of those unusual sufferings. I do believe that the evil angels do often take advantage, from natural distempers in the children of men, to annoy them with such further mischiefs, as we call preternatural. The malignant vapours and humours of our diseased bodies may be used by devils, thereinto insinuating as engines of the execution of their malice upon those bodies; and perhaps, for this reason, one sex may suffer more troubles of some kinds from the invisible world than the other; as well as for that reason, for which the old serpent made, where he did, his first address. But I pray, what will you say to this? Margaret Rule would sometimes have her jaws forcibly pulled open, whereupon something invisible would be poured down ’her throat; we all saw her swallow, and yet we saw her try all she could, by spitting, coughing and shrieking, that she might not swallow; but one time the standers-by plainly saw something of that odd liquor itself on the outside of her neck: she cried out of it, as of scalding brimstone poured into her, and the whole house would immediately scent so hot of brimstone that we were scarce able to endure it - whereof there are scores of witnesses; but the young woman herself, would be so monstrously inflamed, that it would have broke a heart of stone to have seen her agonies. This was a thing that several times happened; and several times, when her mouth was thus pulled open, the standers-by clapping their hands close thereupon, the distresses that otherwise followed would be diverted. Moreover there was a whitish powder, to us invisible, sometimes cast upon the eyes of this young woman, whereby her eyes would be extremely incommoded; but one time some of this powder was fallen actually visible upon her cheek, from whence the people in the room wiped it with their handkerchiefs; and sometimes the young woman would also be so bitterly scorched with the unseen sulphur thrown upon her, that very sensible blisters would be raised upon her skin, whereto her friends found it necessary to apply the oils proper for common burnings; but the most of these hurts would be cured in two or three days at farthest. I think I may without vanity pretend to have read not a few of the best systems of physick that have been yet seen in these American regions, but I must confess that I have never yet learned the name of the natural distemper whereto these odd symptoms do belong: however, I might suggest perhaps many a natural medicine which would be of singular use against many of them.

But there fell out some other matters far beyond the reach of natural distemper. This Margaret Rule once in the middle of the night lamented sadly that the spectres threatened the drowning of a young man in the, neighbourhood, whom she named unto the company: well, it was afterwards found that at that very time this young man, having been pressed on board a man of war, then in the harbour, was out of some dissatisfaction attempting to swim ashore, and he had been drowned in the attempt, if a boat had not seasonably taken him up; it was by computation a minute or two after the young woman’s discourse of the drowning, that the young man took the water. At another time she told us, that the spectres bragged and laughed in her hearing about an exploit they had lately done, by stealing from a gentleman his will soon after he had written it; and within a few hours after she had spoken this, there came to me a gentleman with a private complaint, that having written his will, it was unaccountably gone out of the way; how, or where, he could not imagine; and besides all this, there were wonderful noises every now and then made about the room, which our people could ascribe to no other authors but the spectres; yea, the watchers affirm, that they heard those fiends clapping their hands together with an audibleness wherein they could not be imposed upon; and once her tormentors pulled her up to the ceiling of the chamber, and held her there, before a very numerous company of spectators, who found it as much as they could all do to pull her down again. There was also another very surprising circumstance about her, agreeable to what we have not only read in several histories concerning the imps that have been employed in witchcraft, but also known in some of our own afflicted; we once thought we perceived something stir upon her pillow at a little distance from her; whereupon one present laying his hand there, he to his horror apprehended that he felt, though none could see it, a living creature not altogether unlike a rat, which nimbly escaped from him; and there were divers other persons who were thrown into a great consternation by feeling, as they judged, at other times, the same invisible animal.

Not only in the Swedish, but also in the Salem witchcraft, the enchanted people have talked much of a white spirit, from whence they received marvellous assistances in their miseries. What lately befell Mercy Short, from the communications of such a spirit, hath been the just wonder of us all; but by such a spirit was Margaret Rule now also visited. She says that she could never see his face; but that she had a frequent view of his bright, shining and glorious garments; he stood by her bedside continually heartening and comforting of her, and counselling her to maintain her faith and hope in God, and never comply with the temptations of her adversaries. She says he told her that God had permitted her afflictions to befall her for the everlasting and unspeakable good of her own soul, and for the good of many others, and for his own immortal glory; and that she should therefore be of good cheer, and be assured of a speedy deliverance; and the wonderful resolution of mind wherewith she encountered her afflictions was but agreeable to such expectations. Moreover, a minister having one day with some importunity prayed for the deliverance of this young woman, and pleaded that as she belonged to his flock and charge, he had so far a right unto her as that he was to do the part of a minister of our Lord for the bringing of her home unto God, only now the devil hindered him in doing that which he had a right thus to do; and whereas he had a better title unto her to bring her home to God, than the devil could have unto her to carry her away from the Lord, he therefore humbly applied himself unto God, who alone could right this matter, with a suit that she might be rescued out of Satan’s hands. Immediately upon this, though she heard nothing of this transaction, she began to call that minister her father and that was the name whereby she every day before all sorts of people distinguished him. The occasion of it she says was this: the white spirit presently upon this transaction did after this manner speak to her: " Margaret, you now are to take notice that (such a man) is your father; God has given you to him; do you from this time look upon him as your father, obey him, regard him, as your father; follow his counsels, and you shall do well." And though there was one passage more, which I do as little know what to make of as any of the rest, I am now going to relate it: more than three times have I seen it fulfilled in the deliverance of enchanted and possessed persons, whom the providence of God has cast into my way, that their deliverance could not be obtained before the third fast kept for them, and the third day still obtained the deliverance; although I have thought of beseeching of the Lord thrice, when buffetted by Satan: yet I must earnestly entreat all my readers to beware of any superstitious conceits upon the number three: if our God will hear us upon once praying and fasting before him, ’tis well; and if he will not vouchsafe his mercy upon our thrice doing so, yet we must not be so discouraged as to throw by our devotion; but if the sovereign grace of our God will in any particular instances count our patience enough tried when we have solemnly waited upon him for any determinate number of times, who shall say to him, What doest thou? And if there shall be any number of instances wherein this grace of our God has exactly holden the same course, it may have a room in our humble observations, I hope, without any superstition. I say, then, that after Margaret Rule had been more than five weeks in her miseries, this white spirit said unto her, "Well, this day such a man (whom he named) has kept a third day for your deliverance; now be of good cheer, you shall speedily be delivered." I inquired whether what had been said of that man were true, and I gained exact and certain information that it was precisely so; but I doubt lest in relating this passage that I have used more openness than a friend should be treated with, and for that cause I have concealed several of the most memorable things that have occurred, not only in this but in some former histories, although indeed I am not so well satisfied about the true nature of this white spirit, as to count that I can do a friend much honour by reporting what notice this white spirit may have thus taken of him.

On the last day of the week her tormentors (as she thought and said) approaching towards her, would be forced still to recoil and retire as unaccountably unable to meddle with her; and they would retire to the fire side with their poppets; but going to stick pins into those poppets, they could not (according to their visions) make the pins to enter. She insulted over them with a very proper derision, daring them now to do their worst, while she had the satisfaction to see their black master strike them and kick them, like an overseer of so many negroes, to make them do their work, and renew the marks of his vengeance on them when they failed of doing it. At last, being as it were tired with their ineffectual attempts to mortify her, they furiously said, "Well, you shan’t be the last." And after a pause they added, "Go, and the devil go with you, we can do no more;" whereupon they flew out of the room, and she, returning perfectly to herself, most affectionately gave thanks to God for her deliverance. Her tormentors left her extreme weak and faint, and overwhelmed with vapours, which would not only cause her sometimes to swoon away, but also now and then for a little while discompose the reasonableness of her thoughts. Nevertheless, her former troubles returned not; but we are now waiting to see the good effects of those troubles upon the souls of all concerned. And now I suppose that some of our learned witlings of the coffee-house, for fear lest these proofs of an invisible world should spoil some of their sport, will endeavour to turn them all into sport; for which buffoonery their only pretence will be, "They can’t understand how such things as these could be done; " whereas indeed he that is but philosopher enough to have read but one little treatise, published in the year 1656, by no other man than the chirurgeon of an army, or but one chapter of Helmont, which I will not quote at this time too particularly, may give a far more intelligible account of these appearances than most of these blades can give why and how their tobacco makes them spit, or which way the flame of their candle becomes illuminating. As for that cavil, "The world would be undone if the devils could have such power as they seem to have in several of our stories," it may be answered, that as to many things, the lying devils have only known them to be done, and then pretended unto the doing of those things; but the true and best answer is, that by these things we only see what the devils could have powers. to do, if the great God should give them those powers; whereas now our histories afford a glorious evidence for the being of a God. The world would indeed be undone, and horribly undone, if these devils, who now and then get liberty to play some very mischievous pranks, were not under a daily restraint of some Almighty Superior from doing more of such mischiefs. Wherefore, instead of all apish shouts and jeers at histories which have such undoubted confirmation, as that no man that has breeding enough to regard the common laws of human society, will offer to doubt of them, it becomes us rather to adore the goodness of God, who does not permit such things every day to befall us all, as he sometimes did permit to befall some few of our miserable neighbours.

And what, after all my unwearied cares and pains to rescue the miserable from the lions and bears of hell, which had seized them, and after all my studies to disappoint the devils in their designs to confound my neighbourhood, must I be driven to the necessity of an apology? Truly the hard representations wherewith some ill men have reviled my conduct, and the countenance which other men have given to these representations, oblige me to give mankind some account of my behaviour. No Christian can (I say none but evil workers can) criminate my visiting such of my poor flock as have at any time fallen under the terrible and sensible molestations of evil angels: let their afflictions have been what they will, I could not have answered it unto my glorious Lord, if I had withheld my just counsels and comforts from them; and if I have also with some exactness observed the methods of the invisible world, when they have thus become observable, I have been but a servant of mankind in doing so; yea, no less a person than the venerable Baxter has more than once or twice in the most publick manner invited mankind to thank me for that service. I have not been insensible of a greater danger attending me in this fulfilment of my ministry, than if I had been to take ten thousand steps over a rocky mountain filled with rattlesnakes; but I have considered, he that is wise will observe things; and the surprising explication and confirmation of the biggest part of the Bible, which I have seen given in these things, has abundantly paid me for observing them. Now, in my visiting of the miserable, I was always of this opinion, that we were ignorant of what powers the devils might have to do their mischiefs in the shapes of some that had never been explicitly engaged in diabolical confederacies, and that therefore, though many witchcrafts had been fairly detected on inquiries provoked and begun by spectral exhibitions, yet we could not easily be too jealous of the snares laid for us in the devices of Satan. The world knows how many pages I have composed and published, and particular gentlemen in the government know how many letters I have written, to prevent the excessive credit of spectral accusations; wherefore I have still charged the afflicted that they should cry out of nobody for afflicting of them; but that, if this might be any advantage, they might privately tell their minds to some one person of discretion enough to make no ill use of their communications; accordingly there has been this effect of it, that the name of no one good person in the world ever came under any blemish by means of any afflicted person that fell under my particular cognizance; yea, no one man, woman or child ever came into any trouble for the sake of any that were afflicted, after I had once begun to look after them. How often have I had this thrown into my dish, that many years ago I had an opportunity to have brought forth such people as have in the late storm of witchcraft been complained of, but that I smothered all; and after that storm was raised at Salem, I did myself offer to provide meat, drink and lodging for no less than six of the afflicted, that so an experiment might be made, whether prayer with fasting upon the removal of the distressed, might not put a period to the trouble then rising, without giving the civil authority the trouble of prosecuting those things which nothing but a conscientious regard unto the cries of miserable families could have overcome the reluctancies of the honourable judges to meddle with. In short, I do humbly but freely affirm it, there is not that man living in this world who has been more desirous than the poor man I to shelter my neighbours from the inconveniencies of spectral outcries; yea, I am very, jealous I have done so much that way, as to sin in what I have done; such have been the cowardice and fearfulness whereunto my regard unto the dissatisfactions of other people has precipitated me. I know a man in the world, who has thought be has been able to convict some such witches as ought to die; but his respect unto the publick peace has caused him rather to try whether he could not renew them by repentance; and as I have been studious to defeat the devils of their expectations to set people together by the ears, thus, I have also checked and quelled those forbidden curiosities which would have given the devil an invitation to have tarried amongst us, when I have seen wonderful snares laid for curious people, by the secret and future things discovered from the mouths of damsels possest with a spirit of divination. Indeed I can recollect but one thing wherein there could be given so much as a shadow of reason for exceptions, and that is, my allowing of so many to come and see those that were afflicted. Now for that I have this to say, that I have almost a thousand times entreated the friends of the miserable, that they would not permit the intrusion of any company, but such as by prayers or other ways might be helpful to them; nevertheless I have not absolutely forbid all company, from coming to your haunted chambers; partly because the calamities of the families was such as required the assistance of many friends; partly because I have been willing that there should be disinterested witnesses of all sorts, to confute the calumnies of such as would say all was but imposture; and partly because I saw God had sanctified the spectacle of the miseries on the afflicted unto the souls of many that were spectators; and it is a very glorious thing that I have now to mention: The devils have with most horrendous operations broke in upon our neighbourhood, and God has at such a rate overruled all the fury and malice of those devils, that all the afflicted have not only been delivered, but I hope also savingly brought home unto God, and the reputation of no one good person in the world has been damaged; but instead thereof the souls of many, especially of the rising generation, have been thereby awakened unto some acquaintance with religion; our young people, who belonged unto the praying meetings, of both sexes, a part would ordinarily spend whole nights by whole weeks together in prayers and psalms upon these occasions, in which devotions the devils could get nothing, but, like fools, a scourge for their own backs; and some scores of other young people, who were strangers to real piety, were now struck with the lively demonstrations of hell evidently set forth before their eyes, when they saw persons cruelly frighted, wounded and starved by devils, and scalded with burning brimstone; and yet so preserved in this tortured state, as that, at the end of one month’s wretchedness, they were as able still to undergo another; so that of these also it might now be said, "Behold they pray." In the whole-the devil got just nothing- but God got praises, Christ got subjects, the Holy Spirit got temples, the church got addition, and the souls of men got everlasting benefits. I am not so vain as to say that any wisdom or virtue of mine did contribute unto this good order of things; but I am so just as to say, I did not hinder this good. When therefore there have been those that picked up little incoherent scraps and bits of my discourses in this fruitful discharge of my ministry, and so travestied them in their abusive pamphlets as to persuade the town that I was their common enemy in those very points, wherein, if in any one thing whatsoever, I have sensibly approved myself as true a servant unto them as possibly I could, though my life and soul had been at stake for it - yea to do like Satan himself, by sly, base, unpretending insinuations, as if I wore not the modesty and gravity which became a minister of the gospel - I could not but think myself unkindly dealt withal, and the neglects of others to do me justice in this affair has caused me to conclude this narrative with complaints in another hewing of such monstrous injuries.

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Chicago: Cotton Mather, The Story of Margaret Rule Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024,

MLA: Mather, Cotton. The Story of Margaret Rule, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Mather, C, The Story of Margaret Rule. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from