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The Last Salem Witchcraft Trial and a Case of Attempted Murder

1878 Was Not a Good Year for Daniel Spofford

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In the spring of 1878, Daniel Spofford of Newburyport, Mass., was astonished to find himself facing charges of mesmerism and witchcraft.  He was accused of using evil thoughts to control the mind of Lucretia Brown of Ipswich, causing her great mental and physical harm.

Daniel Spofford

The case was scheduled to be heard in Salem, the Essex County seat.

Predictably, the press dubbed this case the last witchcraft trial in Salem.

Both Spofford and Brown were followers of Christian Science, a Christian belief system led by Mary Baker Eddy.

Christian Science

Eddy founded the Church of Christ, Scientist officially in 1879, but had practiced and promoted it for years before, building a devoted circle of followers.  The basic tenets of the belief are found in Eddy’s 1875 book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Eddy considered herself a healer and taught others her healings arts.

Mary Baker Eddy in the 1880s

Christian Scientists believe that the material world is an illusion, and that reality is in the spiritual world. Because illness of the mind or body is part of the material world, they don’t really exist, and the assistance of a trained practitioner through silent prayer can lead the ill person to see that the ailment is just an illusion, thus precluding the need for medicine.

In Christian Science, evil doesn’t exist, but evil thought does.  Practitioners of mesmerism, or something Eddy called malicious animal magnetism, can project evil thoughts that can cause mental or physical harm to an unsuspecting person.

Eddy maintained a tight grip on her followers, demanding total obedience and loyalty.  She was litigious and not afraid to sue a follower with whom she had disagreements, often accusing them of practicing mesmerism.  This was the case with Spofford.

The Defendant in the Last Witchcraft Trial

Spofford was born in New Hampshire in 1842, and later moved to Massachusetts as a young boy, where he became a watchmaker’s apprentice.  Eddy’s biographer describes him as an idealist and somewhat melancholy, with intense blue eyes and a gentle manner.   He enlisted in the United States Army during the Civil War.

While in the army, Spofford frequently wrote letters to his mother describing the details of daily life: the weather, endless marching, the mud and poor morale.  In one he mentions that a fellow soldier was a medium who made predictions about the future.  Was this Spofford’s introduction into the spiritual world?

After the war, Spofford met Eddy, becoming a devoted student, agreeing to pay Eddy $100 to learn the healing arts and to provide the Association 10 percent of his earnings from his practice. He opened his private practice in Lynn in 1875.

He became Eddy’s chief adviser and treasurer of the Christian Science Association and worked diligently on the publication of her book Science and Health.

A dispute over royalties from that book’s first edition led to their eventual parting in 1877.  Spofford insisted that any royalties be given to the book’s main supporters, two students who contributed $1500 towards the publishing costs, whereas Mrs. Eddy felt the royalties should go either to her or toward a second edition of the book.

Spofford was officially expelled from the Christian Science Association in January 1878. In April, Eddy sued Spofford for failure to provide the contracted 10 percent.

The Accuser

Lucretia Brown was a semi-invalid who lived with her mother and sister in Ipswich. The Brown household was known for its cleanliness and its inhabitants for their abstemious diet.   Long plagued by spinal issues, Brown was often bed-ridden and able to walk only short distances. She supported herself by contracting crocheting jobs.

Lucretia Brown

Brown was a Congregationalist but in 1876 sought out Christian Science to treat her ailment. Through the ministrations of Miss Dorcas Rawson, one of Eddy’s earliest students, she was relieved of her suffering to the extent that she could walk two to three miles at a time without any ill effect.

Brown converted to Christian Science, and during her training took a course from Spofford.

Brown lived in the house to the left on Ipswich Green

At some point, Spofford paid a visit to Brown, who soon after suffered a relapse, apparently unraveling all the good works of  Miss Rawson.   Eddy believed that Spofford was using mesmerism to afflict Brown.

Brown and Eddy sued Spofford, demanding he desist from his malignant mesmerism.

Salem’s Last Witch Trial

The initial hearing of the mesmerism trial was held on Tuesday, May 14, 1878, presided over by Horace Gray, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and later a U.S. Supreme Court justice.  On that morning, Mrs. Eddy and 21 followers arrived at the Salem train depot from Lynn, making their way to the brick courthouse on Federal Street.   The structure still stands, although greatly altered from its appearance in 1878.

Horace Gray

This was an equity case, in which the plaintiff sought an injunction against Spofford, in effect a cease-and-desist order to keep him from mesmerizing Lucretia Brown.   The complaint accused Spofford of using mesmerism to cause Brown great suffering, including severe spinal pain and neuralgia, and that she was wholly unable to escape from his control.

Neither the plaintiff nor defendant were in court that day.  Arguing the case for Miss Brown was Edwards J. Arens, a Christian Scientist, who was not a lawyer.

Gray seemed skeptical. One of Eddy’s followers attending court that day said that at one point the judge laughed.  Yet, Gray agreed to hear the case further and ordered Spofford to appear in court. He set the date for later that week, Friday, May 17.

Excitement spread throughout Essex County and the commonwealth: a 19th-century witchcraft trial in Salem!

Essex County Courthouse, circa 1910

On Friday, a large crowd appeared at the courthouse, but the hoped-for fireworks never materialized.  Spofford didn’t show up.  Instead, his lawyer filed a demurrer, a pleading that challenges a lawsuit, in this case arguing that the court is unable to give relief. In effect, no court could control Spofford’s mind.

Gray agreed.

An appeal date was set for November, but the case was never heard. The last Salem witchcraft trial was a bust.

A Murder Conspiracy

But Spofford’s tribulations were not over.

Just six months later, Spofford was hiding in fear of his life.  According to The Boston Globe,  Eddy’s husband, Asa, and Edward J. Arens, the man who represented Lucretia Brown in the witchcraft case, allegedly hired a local thug to kidnap and kill Spofford for $500.  They felt that Spofford was interfering with the mind of Mary Baker Eddy, causing her great mental and physical distress. If the courts couldn’t stop Spofford, the malignant mesmerist, murder would.

Asa Eddy

The story reads like a crime novel with clandestine meetings on Boston Common, in dark alleys and at a “house of ill repute.” Eddy and Ames even used aliases in carrying out the plot.

The plan was to take Spofford into the country, ostensibly to treat a sick child, and kill Spofford while in a secluded spot, making it look like an accident.

Thankfully for Spofford, the hitman, James Sargent, got cold feet and alerted both the police and Spofford what was going on.  Working together with the police and Sargent, a frightened Spofford left town secretly, holing up at Sargent’s brother’s house in Cambridge. The police then planted stories in the newspapers saying that Spofford was missing.

This ploy was so effective that Spofford’s brother, with the aid of Newburyport police and a locksmith, broke into Spofford’s office there a week after his disappearance looking for any signs of him.

Sargent used Spofford’s absence as evidence that he completed his task and demanded final payment from the conspirators, which they willingly gave.

Asa Eddy and Edward Arens were arrested on October 29 and held on $3,000 bail.

The Arraignment

At their arraignment hearing at Municipal Court in Boston on November 7, The Boston Globe reported that Sargent claimed Arens approached him and said, “I want to get a man licked.  I want him licked so bad that he won’t come to again.” Sargent said he was the man to do it.

A bartender at Sargent’s saloon testified that Sargent had asked him to hide in a freight car at a railroad bridge in East Cambridge, so that he could hear the conspirators plotting.  He confirmed Sargent’s testimony.

Sargent’s sister, Laura Sargent, who ran a brothel on Bowker Street, said that she had seen Arens there four times and that he had exchanged money with her brother.

And finally, the state police detective, Hollis C. Pinkham, testified to seeing the three conspirators together on several occasions.

The judge ruled there was enough evidence to send the case to Superior Court on the December docket. A grand jury indicted the two defendants on two counts: conspiracy to commit murder, and specifically hiring Sargent to commit bodily harm against Spofford.

But the case was never to be.

The district attorney, Oliver Stevens, for reasons unknown, chose not to prosecute.  Perhaps the witnesses were too unsavory to get a conviction,  The defendants were released.

For the second time that year, a case involving Daniel Spofford came to naught.

Eddy fought back after the witchcraft trial, publishing the confession of a witness recanting his testimony, and providing alibis for her husband’s whereabouts at key moments.  But by then, it was beside the point.

Spofford left Lynn but continued with his healing profession in Boston and Newburyport.  He died in 1924, and is buried in Newburyport, Mass. , in a grave marked Pvt. Daniel Spofford.

End Notes

Image of witchcraft trial characters

Spofford photo. Unknown photographer. From Milmine, pp. 252-253. {{PD-US}}; Brown photo. Historic Ipswich (Mass.). https://historicipswich.net; Brown house painting. Historic Ipswich (Mass.). https://historicipswich.net; Mary Baker Eddy photo. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction No. LC-USZ61-215; Courthouses. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Reproduction No. LC-DIG-det-4a19770; Gray engraving. House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/5772; Asa Eddy photo. Unknown photographer. From Milmine, pp. 168-169. {{PD-US}}; Arens photo. Author Kendall. From Milmine, pp. 252-253. {{PD-US}}; Newspaper report. The Daily Item (Lynn, Mass.), Oct. 23, 1878, p.4. Accessed from Newspapers.com, June 2, 2024.

Witchcraft trial sources

The Life of Mary Baker Eddy, 1909. Georgine Milmine. Exported from Wikisource on May 27, 2024.

The Boston Globe, May 11,12,15, November 8, 9, 1878. Accessed from Newspapers.com, May 23, and June 1, 2024.

Boston Post, October 24, 1878, p.2. Accessed from Newspapers.com, June 2, 2024.

Historic Ipswich (Mass.). https://historicipswich.net.

Massachusetts Historical Society. Collections online. Daniel Spofford Letters. Daniel Spofford to Rachel Spofford, 25 January 1863.

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