“People tend to view things through the lenses of personal experience and the folklore of their day. Today we have a lot more scientific knowledge at our disposal, and a better understanding of how our universe works. But history is long and deep; communities have encountered the unexplainable countless times over the centuries, and every time they have, they’ve done their best to frame it in a way their contemporaries would understand. But just because they happened long ago doesn’t make these events any less mysterious. In fact, some tales can be downright terrifying.”
In episode 115 of the Lore podcast, “Perspective,” Aaron Mahnke focuses on the colonial community of Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the time of King William’s War in the early 1690’s. He strikes a chilling note early on with the story of Ebenezer Babson, who returning home one day spies two mysterious figures stepping back outside (when Babson subsequently interrogates his family inside, they prove unaware of any intrusion). From here, matters escalate, and the Babsons are forced to take refuge inside the Gloucester garrison, which is continually harassed by an increasing number of odd-looking, musket-wielding strangers (at first assumed to be scouts, these antagonists clearly aren’t French or Indian soldiers). Skirmishes persist over the course of three weeks, during which the attackers display a knack for picking themselves back up after being shot. The garrison defenders are slow to catch on that this is no mortal foe, but eventually conclude that they are confronted by forces of the devil (who has perhaps recently migrated from Salem). All told, Mahnke’s extended narrative here doesn’t have a great payoff (the listener is way ahead of the Gloucester folk in recognizing the supernatural aspect of the attackers), and fails to form the “downright terrifying” tale that Mahnke teases in the intro.
Mahnke admits that this Gloucester account is drawn from the writings of Cotton Mather, an integral figure in the then-recent Salem Witch Trials. The highlight of Episode 115 occurs when Mahnke shifts his perspective onto Mather in the concluding segment. According to Mahnke, another witch panic might easily have broken out in Boston (as Mather observed a seemingly demonically-possessed young girl, Margaret Rule). The podcast takes a mostly critical look at Mather; Mahnke invokes the reverend-rebutting Robert Calef, who denounced Mather as a “foolish instigator” who “contributed directly to the death toll in Salem.”
The stories in “Perspective” are set in a time and place not far removed from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and demonstrate how those unsettling events resonate beyond the infamous village. This episode thus makes a fine companion piece to another Mahnke podcast, Unobscured, which explored the Salem Witch Trials at length in its inaugural season.