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Groton’s Founding Father: The Life and Legacy of Capt. James Parker SubheadThe Groton witch

Groton’s Founding Father: The Life and Legacy of Capt. James Parker SubheadThe Groton witch

Puritan Writer

Massachusetts Puritan clergymen Cotton Mather, above, and his father, Increase Mather, both referred in their writings to the Elizabeth Knop (or Knap) of Groton and her supposed demoniac possession in 1671. Their knowledge of the incident came from a letter written by the Rev. Samuel Willard, then minister of Groton.

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Witchcraft Reference

Dr. Mather’s Magnalia includes several alleged examples of 17th century witchcraft in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Example 2 describes the strange “possession” of Groton’s young Elizabeth Knop in 1671.

(Capt. James Parker, a native of England, sailed in the 1630s to the Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay. He became one of the principal figures during the formative years of the town of Groton, which this year celebrates its 350th birthday. Previous installments of this series have followed his early life and growth in importance.)

The Groton Witch Incident

One of the first big tests for James Parker, the Rev. Samuel Willard and other community leaders came in the fall of 1671, less than 10 years after Groton’s settlement. Two decades before witchcraft was to make Salem infamous, there was an instance of supposed satanic possession in Groton.

The incident is recorded in Dr. Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, which gives numerous examples of alleged witchcraft in the early Bay Colony. Groton’s story of the 16-year-old Elizabeth Knop (or Knap) comes as Mather’s “Second Example.” It was based on a letter by the Rev. Samuel Willard, for whom the teenager worked as a servant in 1671.

During one notable fit, she reportedly charged that another “Woman in the Neighborhood appeared unto her, and was the only cause of her affliction.” When “this innocent woman” came to pray “with, as well as for, this possessed creature,” the demon was exorcised, and Elizabeth Knop “confessed that she had been deluded by Satan, and compelled by him unreasonably to think and speak evil of a good neighbor without cause.”

As an officer of the town as well as the church, James Parker certainly played a role in resolving the incident of Elizabeth Knop in Groton, especially since his was among the select few of Groton’s roughly 40-50 families who lived “in the Neighborhood” of Willard’s home. According to a map in Virginia May’s Groton Plantation, the Parkers lived in the next house north of the Willards.

To place the early Massachusetts mania over witchcraft into context, it is important to understand Puritan beliefs. Immigrants to the Bay Colony brought with them an inherited belief in the supernatural embodiment of the underworld. References to witches in Shakespeare’s and other Elizabethan plays are indicative of common beliefs among the English in the few decades immediately prior to New World settlement.

Meanwhile, the Puritan doctrine held that, although all people were born under the weight of Adam and Eve’s original sin, God had predestined certain individuals for salvation. These individuals, went the belief, could be identified by living a godly way of life as outlined in holy scriptures.

Although interpretations of what was and what was not “godly” were constantly debated between individual congregations and sects, it was commonly believed that anyone who strayed too far from the accepted norms thereby proved they were not among God’s chosen. These individuals were, in the Puritan scheme, shut out from heavenly salvation and, as a result, susceptible to attempts by Satan to disrupt the society in which they lived.

It is certainly a testament to their tolerance that Groton’s leaders did not follow the same violent path as their eastern neighbors. Lessons learned in 1671 likely contributed to Mr. Willard’s subsequent arguments following the Salem mania that Puritan witch judges were playing a role better left to God. It is also perhaps significant that Elizabeth Knop was the daughter of Sergeant James Knop (or Knopp, as in Knopp’s Pond), who served under Capt. Parker in the local militia.

Another new town

Somewhere in the middle of the 1670s decade, Capt. Parker became involved in another town-building venture with land northeast of Groton. He formerly owned about 3,000 acres of this land, which he sold in 1660 to Edward Tyng. Now Parker was working out the details with Edward’s son Jonathan Tyng to incorporate land in that area into a gigantic new town named Dunstable, which included the land later set off as Tyngsboro and many present-day New Hampshire communities, including Nashua.

Before that business could be concluded, however, Capt. Parker had another matter that suddenly required all his attention.


Copyright © 2005 by Rudy VanVeghten. Used by permission.