A shadowy figure looms over gravestones in Portland's Western Cemetery. More than 300 years ago, the supposed Witch King of Hell presided over church services in town. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — The Rev. George Burroughs was seated at his supper table in Wells when lawmen dragged him away on the night of May 4, 1692.

Acting on the authority of a court in Salem, Massachusetts, deputies bound Burroughs and began hauling him south. They gave him neither time to pack nor make arrangements for his family.

Along the way, somewhere below Wells, a terrible storm arose. Lightning split the sky. Thunder burst forth through a torrential rain. The sudden, angry weather frightened the lawmen and their horses.

But none were surprised.

They surmised it was the devil, attempting to free his trusted minion. Burroughs was, after all, the supposed Witch King of Hell.

By the end of the summer, Burroughs was dead and lying in a shallow grave, convicted of supernatural crimes during the mass hysteria now known as the Salem Witch Trials. Their fascinating, grim proceedings are a well-documented and dramatized slice of American history.

What’s less well-remembered is, Burroughs and his three initial accusers all lived in Portland when it was a tiny town huddled against a frontier coast, under constant threat of annihilation. He was their pastor.

What’s more, Burroughs was accused of committing many of his fantastical deeds in Maine. They ranged from uncanny feats of strength, to holding Satanic church services in the woods, to handing out black magic dolls with pins for poking.

One person even testified Burroughs ruled hell, second in command to only Beelzebub, himself.

The beginning

Like all threads running through the Salem Witch Trials, Burroughs’ story is a tangled mess, even without the dark arts accusations. He moved around a lot, looking for work and dodging battles with the Wabanaki.

Just where Burroughs was from is unknown. 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 was remembered as a clever student and outstanding athlete.

By 1674, though never officially ordained, he’d taken up the pastoral post at Portland’s Congregational Church. Burroughs held the job 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, foraging for 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.

The grass in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park is marked by a red shadow. More than 300 years earlier, the Rev. George Burroughs helped defend the town on the same ground. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

With Portland no longer inhabitable, the unemployed Burroughs made his way to Salisbury, Massachusetts. There, he took up a job assisting an aged church pastor, hoping eventually to succeed the man. That was not to be. Ensuing church politics and impending poverty forced Burroughs to move again, seeking work elsewhere in 1680.

That’s when he got a job pastoring the church in fabled Salem Village. It was a short and unhappy tenure.

When he got there, Burroughs discovered the parsonage was uninhabitable and the former preacher had left town when the congregation refused to pay him. Within two years, amid constant church infighting, congregants began withholding Burroughs’ salary, too.

When his first wife died, the broke pastor was forced to borrow money from the Putnam family to bury her. Shortly thereafter, he skipped town — with the church owing him and him owing the Putnams.

Burroughs fled back to Portland in 1683, shepherding the scant townsfolk and bare garrison of soldiers stationed at Fort Loyal. At the time, the town was New England’s easternmost outpost, just beginning to repopulate after the previous war.

Burroughs remarried and had more children but continued to struggle.

He tried to get a better preaching position with a well-provisioned royal military expedition headed for Pemaquid but failed. In doing so, he made several political enemies in the small town, including young Susannah Sheldon’s family.

The Sheldons would later lose everything in subsequent Wabanaki attacks, returning to Massachusetts in poverty, where Susannah Sheldon would accuse Burroughs of witchcraft.

Also under Burroughs’ pastoral care in Portland was a girl named Abigail Hobbs. When she was later accused of witchcraft in Salem, she claimed it was only because Burroughs began bewitching her at night in Portland in 1688, when she was 11 years old.

In fall 1689, Portland was again attacked by the Wabanaki and Burroughs survived once more, helping repulse the Wabanaki in what’s now Deering Oaks Park.

By this time, Mercy Lewis’ parents were dead and the helpless, orphaned 13-year-old moved in with Burroughs’ family as a servant. His second wife had also died and Burroughs was married for a third time. He was said to be cruel to Lewis, often whipping her.

The stage is set

In 1688 and 1689, Burroughs was Portland pastor to all three girls who would later start the storm of accusations in Salem. Each would have plausible motivations 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 just in time.

A few months later, in spring 1690, Fort Loyal and the rest of Portland was wiped out by an enormous combined French and Wabanaki force. There were no survivors. All settlers and soldiers were killed and their bones lay in an unburied heap for years. For a while, Portland ceased to exist.

Burroughs pastored in Wells and neighboring frontier towns until he was arrested in May 1692.

The trial

By the time Burroughs was arrested, all three young women were living in Salem. In April, Lewis was the first to accuse Burroughs.

By then, she was working for the Putnam family — the same clan Burroughs had left town indebted to for his first wife’s funeral.

Lewis said her former pastor appeared at night, in the form of Satan, taking her to a mountaintop, showing her his kingdom of demons. Burroughs said it could all be hers if she would only write her name in his book.

She refused.

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. Upon confessing, Hobbs was encouraged to name names, possibly lessening her sentence. She said Burroughs had turned her into a witch four years prior, in Portland.

He also came to her at night with his demonic book, she said.

A red shadow stretches over the cobblestones in Portland. In 1688, the Rev. George Burroughs was a preacher in town. He was later hanged in Salem as a witch. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The same month, Sheldon also accused Burroughs. Her family had lost everything in conflicts against the Wabanaki — a fate Burroughs had avoided by moving to Wells a few months before Portland was destroyed.

This was used as evidence against the pastor. Sheldon said it was proof he was in occult league with the Wabanaki. She also said Burroughs bewitched troops at Fort Loyal, causing them to lose the battle.

Additionally, during his trial, Sheldon said Burroughs came to her at night, bragging about how he’d smothered 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 at Burroughs from people who knew him in Maine and Massachusetts.

In all, 30 people testified against him. Nine accused him of diabolical feats of strength. Some said he could lift kegs of molasses no mortal man could possibly heft without assistance from the devil. Others said they saw him lift a seven-foot musket in Maine, by merely sticking his fingers in the end of the barrel.

(That particular firearm was thought to be on display at Fryeburg Academy for many years after 1808, until a fire leveled the school in 1850.)

In addition to murdering his first two wives, Burroughs was also accused of being horrible to his third, censoring letters written to her father about his cruelty.

Several witnesses said Burroughs was the literal King of Hell, sent by Satan to infiltrate the Christian church. He would appear to good people in the wee, darkened hours, threatening, pinching, poking and choking them until they signed their names in his hellish book.

With their names secured, Burroughs would then lead them in black, firelighted Masses in the forest, providing his now-damned congregation with dolls and pins so they might work witchcraft on others.

The narrative was convenient. At the time, it was thought women couldn’t play leadership roles in the church, Satanic or otherwise. They needed a man to guide them.

Burroughs, being clergy, fit the bill.

He further damned himself at trial by his lackadaisical pastoral habits.

When asked by his examiners the last time he took communion, the rough, borderland preacher said he could not remember. It also came out that he’d neglected to baptize all but one of his children.

The execution

Burroughs was convicted and then executed on Aug. 19, 1692, in Salem. Just prior, he gave a moving recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, something a true witch was thought incapable of doing.

They hanged him anyway, along with four more people that day.

Stripped bare, and with the halter still around his neck, townsfolk dragged his body a short way and buried Burroughs in a two-foot-deep grave with a pair of other corpses. Officials didn’t bother with much dirt. His hands, feet and chin were left protruding from the ground.

Lewis, Hobbs and Sheldon’s ultimate fates are unknown but none are ever thought to have traveled back to Portland, where Fort Loyal still lay in ruins.

Lewis moved to Boston and was married by 1701. Though a convicted witch, Hobbs escaped execution after naming Burroughs. Sheldon is thought to have died unmarried and childless years later.

Like many of the condemned, Burroughs was eventually pardoned and, 21 years on, his third wife’s family was awarded 50 pounds for their troubles. Heirs from 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 was assembled from several historic and contemporary accounts, including: “Satan’s War against the Covenant in Salem Village, 1692,” published 2007 by Benjamin C. Ray; “Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society Vol. 5,” published 1860-1862; “The Witchcraft Delusion in New England,” published 1860 by W.E. Woodward; and “George Burroughs and The Girls From Casco: The Maine Roots of Salem Witchcraft,” published 2002 by Mary Beth Norton.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.