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Robert Calef

Birthdate: (70)
Birthplace: Stanstead, Suffolk, England
Death: April 13, 1719 (70)
Roxbury, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, United States
Place of Burial: Roxbury, Massachusetts
Immediate Family:

Son of Joseph Calfee and Martha Calfe
Husband of Maria / Mary Calef
Father of Joseph Calef; Robert Calef d. 1722; John Calef; Martha Hewes; Jeremiah Calef and 3 others

Occupation: A strong critic of the Salem Witchcraft Trials.
Managed by: Douglas Kastanotis
Last Updated:

About Robert Calef

The first record found of Robert and Mary Calef is that of the baptism of their son Edward at the New South Church, Boston, in 1688. In what year they came to this new land, and whether James Calef, forty years before in Rowley, and Samuel Calef, land owner in "the Eastern Country," now Maine, before 1700, were kin, are questions for the curious. All we know is that there were six children in the home of the doughty merchant when Edward was born, and since no record of their baptisms is found, it may safely be taken that they had been born in England, through their town is still to discover.

The family is of English origin. Camden's "Remains of Britaine" gives the epitaph of Sir John Calfe who lived in the days of Henry III, 1216 to 1270. A century later "the Danish King Waldemar IV gave to the nobleman Calf, his intimate friend, the Castle of Ripon, in Jutland" as is told in Sinding's "History of Scandinavia." In the Church of St. Nicholas in London, is an inscription to the memory of one John Calfe, dated 1426, and "Visitations" of several churches, as St. George's and St. Paul's, have references to Calfe or Calef.

Coming closer to Robert the emigrant is the will of Jerome Calfe made on the 11th of February 1640, at Stansted, England. Jerome left his goods to his brothers, Joseph, Robert, Edward, and to a nephew, Jerome, son of a brother William. These names are borne by sons and grandsons of Robert of Boston, save Jerome, and if that were used as a form of Jeremiah, the coincidence is complete.

Robert held continuing relations with the mother country, for he was part owner at different times of four vessels, the Three Brothers, captured from the French in July, 1696; the Unity, the Katharine, and late in life, the Adventure. Through the eighteenth century his grandsons and great grandsons were in close business relations with the London firm of Robert Calef and John Chuter, of 18 St. Mary's Axe, later of Old City Chambers, Bishopsgate Street. It is noteworthy, too that this firm came forward at once, without solicitation, to contribute to the fund raised in London for the sufferers from the Boston fire of 1787.

Legend, which his career in the new world gives no reason to doubt, says that Robert was well educated, attended one of the universities, was liberal in his views and, due to too sympathetic defense of the Quakers, found it well to leave England. He established himself as a merchant and cloth maker, and was soon one of Boston's solid citizens, serving as administrator of three estates in 1690 and appointed constable in 1691. He had reached Boston in an evil day, however, for men of his temper. The belief in witchcraft, throughout Europe for four centuries the source of untold mental anguish, of persecution and of hideous deaths, had crossed the Atlantic in the mental luggage of the settlers. Increase Mather, president of Harvard, had published his "Illustrious Providences" in 1684, and his son Cotton Mather had followed this in 1689 by "Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions." The delusion came to its head in Salem in 1692 where five men and women, protesting their innocence, were hung in one day. In all, twenty were executed and many lay in prison before sanity returned. The Salem hangings had given pause to the hysteria and the governor, Sir William Phips, coming back to Boston from an expedition against the French and Indians, thought matters were going too far. He dismissed the court he had set up and released the accused awaiting trial.

This might have seemed the end of the terror, but early in the next year another case of witchcraft was announced, this time in the North Church, the special domain of the Mathers, and Robert Calef went with others to visit this young woman, Margaret Rule, when Increase and Cotton Mather were both to be there. A description of Calef on this occasion exists in an article in the Boston Saturday Evening Gazette of September 7, --, by Walter Littlefield.

"He (Mather) was confronted by a little gentleman dressed entirely in black, whose dark eyes snapped with angry intelligence toward the person, who had just entered; this individual was Robert Calef, a man who had read a great deal,, and thought a great deal, and who earned his daily bread by carrying on the trade of a clothier. He had made a study of the case of the invalid during Mather's absence, and had come to the conclusion that she was simply the victim of nervous prostration, that was fast approaching insanity under the management of the deluded pastor. Words arose between the two in the sick chamber; Calef always calm and logical, Mather rapidly waxing passionate, until losing his temper entirely, he told his opponent that he was 'one of the worst liars'--and left the house in a rage."

The result of this encounter was a series of letters and a description of the examination made by the two clergymen of the poor woman that caused Cotton Mather to have Calef arrested for slander, and to decry him from the pulpit.

Calef appears to have been unperturbed by the arrest, and used part of his time while on bail to write further to the incensed minister. The case was dismissed, no one appearing against Robert, but he still persisted in his demand for a relay to his questions. What he asked for and never got was scripture warrant for the definition of witchcraft and for the methods used to discover witches, that had led to "a bigotted zeal stirring up a most Blind and Bloody rage not against enemies or irreligious, profligate persons, but against as virtuous and as religious as any they have left behind them in this country," and "occasioning great Dishonour and Blasphemy of the name of God, . . . and as a natural effect thereof . . . great increase of Atheism".

He analyzes the doctrines behind this madness to their logical conclusions, to a universe ruled by two powers, God and the Devil, and declares that the leaders are but the ancient Manicheans come to life; that the Indians share their belief and that the Papists borrowed it from the heathen. He is afire with indignation over "that hobgoblin monster witchcraft, whereby this country was nightmared" and in his horror at the events he blames the learning of the day, The "heathen philosophies, " in which he himself had probably been trained, as the source of these diabolical beliefs. When Cotton Mather offers the use of his library that Calef may become better informed on the subject which he is daring to discuss, he retorts, "That there are witches is not in doubt, the scriptures else were in vain which affirm their punishment to be death, but what this witchcraft is and wherein it does consist seems to be the whole difficulty."

The "levitation" of Margaret Rule he turns back upon her minister with the comment, that, if true, it appears to settle the question "long controverted between the Protestants and Papists, whether miracles are ceased," in favor of the Papists!

His letters infuriate Cotton Mather to such phrases as "vile fool," "coal from Hell," but while Calef was always studiously courteous the flashes of satire and again of humor make no doubt that he is enjoying the combat. His relish is plain to read in the postscript which he adds to a respectful letter in 1693, to report the comment made by an Indian to a Captain Hill at Saco Fort. "French ministers," said the Indian, "are better than English ministers, for before the French came there were a great many witches among the Indians, but now there are none, and there are witches among the English ministers, as Burroughs, who was hanged for it."

"Were I disposed to make reflections upon it," adds Calef, "I suppose you will judge the field large enough, but I forbear."

"He inquires in his reply to an "uninterested gentleman" who came to the defense of the witchcraft theory, if good angels only able to go on missions when sent by God, are not therefore less powerful than fallen angels who according to the teachings in question, could and did "go to and fro on the earth seeking whom they may devour," Perhaps his neatest conclusion is written also to this defender of orthodoxy. "The Romanists are much obliged to you for making transubstantiation... to be of as old a date as the appearance of devils, and that the one implieth no more contradiction than the other: if so we do well to think seriously whether we are not guilty of great sin in separating from them..."

His account of certain of the witchcraft cases follows these various letters and really completes the book, but the appearance of a laudatory "Life of Sir William Phips" was more than Calef could endure in silence. He adds to his book a "Postscript," not carefully considered like his letters, but red hot. Though Phips's biographhy had been issued without signature, Calef remarks that "it were not witchcraft to determine that Mr. Cotton Mather is the author of it." Then follows a scathing review that yields us one more fact about Robert himself. He was as opposed to the political theories of the Mathers as he was to their theology.

No Boston printer would risk printing this handful of dynamite the the papers traveled to England where they found a publisher, Nath. Hillar of London. Calef may have sent them to those London Calefs whose relationship was closer than mere business, or have taken them over himself. They did not come back till 1700, and then the booksellers eyed askance the beautiful small quarto, hardly more than a pamphlet. They saw only danger to themselves in reopening the controversy that had lain a few years quiet, and refused counter room. How the author dealt with the edition one cannot guess. President Increase Mather "ordered the wicked book to be burnt in the College Yard" - presumably he had a copy. Cotton Mather had one, now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Governor Bellmont's copy was sent him by Robert with an inscription in the author's beautiful and clear writing, and is now one of the treasures of the New York Public Library. The Mathers themselves saw to it that the book should be well advertised, for they encouraged the printing of a rely by a group of members of the North Church. This bears the title "Some few remarks on a Scandalous Book against the Government and Ministry of New England, by one Robert Calef, detecting the unparalleled malice and falsehood of said book, composed and published by several persons belonging to the flock of some of the injured pastors, and concerned for their justification, printed in Boston, 1701."

Here was the end of the episode. Judges and jury were coming to their senses and confessing their error. The people were awaking from the nightmare, shocked at what they had approved. Of Calef, twenty-five years later Mather's son Thomas said, "The man is dead, his book died long before him." It was however still so alive that it was worth while to reprint it in 1796. There were several editions in the last century and a partial reprint is included in Burr's authoritative study of Calef published in 1914. Hutchinson, closely related to the Mathers, writes in his "History of Massachusetts" of Calef as "a fair man, who substantiated his facts,", and Andrew D. White in "Warfare of Science and Theology" places him beside Montaigne, Voltaire, and Tomasius in his effort for right reason. (Robert Calef's book is More Wonders of the Invisible World.)

There has been dispute as to authorship, some attributing the work to Robert, son of the emigrant, but a comparison of the two handwritings, were there no internal evience that thought and phrase are those of a mature man, has settled that question. Also it has been held that Calef was in a fashion a mouthpiece and helped in the compositions by those who would not come out into the open, Mr. Brattle, brother of the treasurer of Harvard being especially named. The Brattles had no need to hide behind Calef, both suffering for sufficiently outspoken criticism of the court and church proceedings. Calef no doubt consulted with others of like mind. He lays no claim to learning, but "that his reading is larger than he cares to parade" writes Burr, "is evident to the student of the literature of witchcraft."

Whether or not his single-handed attack on the mighty injured him financially, it did not apparently hurt his standing in the community. Indeed, as though one risk were not enough, in the midst of the fray he, with Thomas Banister, went bail for Thomas Maule, a Quaker of Salem, who had published a book about that sect, "Truth held Forth and Maintained." It is likely that his is the work described by Cotton Mather as "That vile book of Tom Maule's which the General Court condemned unto the flames."

Defender of outcasts as he was and no respecter of persons, Calef's fellow townsmen trusted him. He was fence viewer, clerk of the market, appraiser. He was called as juror of inquest, commissioner of an estate, arbitrator in a dispute as to a ship's cargo of "blackin' and starch." He was for several years overseer of the poor with Judge Sewall, who calls at his house to talk over the town's charities. At the time of his removal to Roxbury in 1710, he was tithing-man, an office of dignity, tapping the heads of drowsy parishioners and restless girls and boys being but the lighter part of its duties.

In Roxbury he and Mary had a dozen quiet years in which they watched their children make their way as substantial citizens. Daniel, the youngest child, died and was buried in the Eliot Cemetery. The daughter Mary married Roxbury's physician. Dr. Stevens, and lived nearby. The other daughter was in Portsmouth. Sons were in near-by Boston and Ipswich and pioneering in New Hampshire and there were already a few books in these new homes, and bits of silver. In Roxbury, Robert himself set up loom and dye house, bought and leased tracts of land, still ventured in foreign trade and served his fellow townmen as selectman until the day came when he knew that he had fought his last battle. Trusted neighbors were called and children and a grandson, and the old man told what was to be done with his property. In another room these friends wrote down what he told them and signed it. The will, in this rare form gave everything to the beloved wife, Mary to be divided after her death among the children. It was a large property. Mary outlived her husband by but a few months, and the grandson, Joseph, was years in settling the estate. A lawsuit as to a lease in Dorchester ran until 1771. Mary's family name is nowhere given, but close friends and next-door neighbors were the Dorrs, and their names and Mary's are found together on deeds that suggest family ownership.

Among the immediate descendants of Robert and Mary Calef there is one fact noticeable that might be laid to the door of Robert's passage at arms with the Mathers. All the family were good church folk, subscribing to steeples and bells and owning pews and helping to choose ministers; but, unlike many families of like standing, there were no clergymen among them before the Rev. Jonathan Calef, born in 1762, and few indeed thereafter. These were merchants, sailors, farmers, teachers and physicians often, but not ministers.

Whittier, writing a century and a half later of the bitterness born of those hideous witch-ridden days, faces forward, in the close of his lines on "Calef of Boston."

When the thought of man is free

Error flees its lightest tones . . . . . . .

Evil can but serve the right

Over all shall Love endure.

Today we know a little more of the power and the peril of mass psychology and of fear, so look more understandingly on those who yield, while honoring those who, like Robert Calef, are wise and brave enough to resist injustice.

--Compiled by Anne Calef Boardman

Calfe Family Story originally submitted by noblehorse_0423 to The Noblehorse & Payne Forest on 10 Nov 2007 The Calf(e) family came to East Anglia in 1066 from Normandy -- with good old William the Conqueror.

The original family name was Calfe, (earlier, Calf) the anglicized version of the French surname, which was Veal. Roger le Veal came with William and founded the English Branch, from which we are descended.

In Normandy they spoke French and wrote in Latin. Latin for Veal (calf) is Calvus. Ricardo Calvus (Richard Calf) was buried in Bury St. Edmonds in 1070, only 4 years after the Norman Invasion. Veal was a Norman Baronial name. The coat of arms for the Calf and Veal families shows three calfs.

English as we know it was not spoken for 200 years after the Battle of Hastings (1066) so there are no early references to Calf(e) until later on in English history. Variants of the early name were: Veille, Val, Vel, Viel,Vail, Calvus, Calver, Calfo, Le Chauve.

In the historical rolls we find some interesting folks: Lawrence Calf was a Knight in Ireland (1351); Richard Calf was the Bishop of Down, Ireland (1354); Walter Calf was the Bailiff (jailkeeper) of Dunwich, Sufolk, in 1289; Simon Le Cauf a Gentleman and Mariner, was killed in 1457; Maurine Calf was a shipmaker (1474); Lanfrance Calve was a Merchant in Genoa (1377).

St. James Church, parish church to the early Calfe family still stands in Stanstead, Suffolk, East Anglia, Britain.

William Calfe was born circa 1545 and was a yeoman (farmer) of Stanstead. He was buried May 2, 1600.

His son Jerome Calfe was the third of five children and was baptized in 1572, died in January of 1638.

His son was Joseph Calfe, sixth of eight children, baptized in 1609, died around 1650.

Joseph's son Robert Calfe was born in 1648 and baptized in Stanstead, England in 1648 (not 1674), emigrated to New England, and died in Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts on April 13 1719. Robert is buried in the Eustis Street Burying Ground in Boston. I am told the tombstone is in good repair.

It would appear that he changed the spelling of our name to Calef from Calfe. In the book, his name is printed Calef, but his signature reads Calfe.

Robert was a very brave man as he took on Colonial Governor John Winthrop, as well as Cotton Mather -- and fought against the bigotry that 90% of the early Colonists held as the truth. Robert defended a number of the poor souls accused of witchcraft, including John Alden Jr., son of the John Alden whom Longfellow made famous in the poem, "The Courtship Of Myles Standish". The Rev. Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, ordered Robert's book burned in Harvard Yard in 1700. Very few copies survived. Robert had to have the book printed in London as no New England printer would touch it. The book, as you probably know, is titled More Wonders of the Invisible World.

In addition to Robert, who opposed Cotton Mather during the Salem Witch trials, we are also related to Gen. Joseph Warren who was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His grandmother was Mary Calef, daughter of Robert.

During the Civil War, Lt. John Calef encountered the very first elements of the Confederate Army at the Railroad Cut, west of Gettysburg. An Artillery Officer, John he opened fire with his horse-drawn cannons, firing the very first shots in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1864.

Memoir of Robert Calef: online.

See also "Robert Calef: Merchant of Boston," in The Granite Monthly: A New Hampshire Magazine Devoted to History, Volume 39, online.

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Robert Calef's Timeline

November 21, 1648
Stanstead, Suffolk, England
Age 12
United Kingdom
Age 25
United Kingdom
Age 26
Age 31
Roxbury, Suffolk County, Massachusetts Bay Colony
Age 34
United Kingdom
Age 36
January 30, 1687
Age 38
Boston, MA, USA
December 27, 1691
Age 43
Boston, MA, USA