Thursday, August 13, 2009

Our Family In The Salem Witch Trials, 1692: part 1

Some of our descendants (of2 different generations) thought the new Harry Potter movie was dull, so here for you is a true story of good and evil, medieval superstition, false accusations, church feuds, ghostly hauntings, property disputes, grudges, Indian attacks, imprisonment, escape from jail, even death - all involving your ancestors! And so it won't be quite as long as HP6, it is divided into parts.

History is best told through the lives of those who lived it. I started this blog to tell the stories of some of our ancestors, and so bring them and their part in history to life. Truth isn't only stranger than fiction, it is far more fascinating.

Just as in the American Revolution, we have ancestors on both sides of the Witch Trials in Salem, MA. It was a tragedy for everyone involved. Brought on by fear, superstition, jealousy, greed, paranoia and religious misbelief, 20 people were executed, and 5, including our ancestor Roger Toothaker, died in prison. Three other ancestors, on the jury, condemned these innocent people to death in a court of law with witness testimonies of ghostly specters and the presence of the Devil. How this happened in small Salem Village (now Danvers), MA, home of English Puritans who came for religious freedom, has been studied and written about for over 300 years.

Witchcraft - the Devil's magic - has a long history, and many were still being put to death in England in the 1600s. Belief in supernatural powers and evil spirits to explain illness, bad weather, crop failures, earthquakes, eclipses and any other misfortune was common in all levels of European society. Who but Satan could be responsible for these strange occurrences? If your wife/husband/child/cow got sick or acted strangely, your milk/cheese/butter went bad, blame the odd-looking old neighbor woman who had walked by your house the day before, perhaps muttering to herself and casting an 'evil eye' on you. Most people who lived in the 1600s believed in witches. Folklore, the occult and magic (both 'black' and 'white') were part of centuries of cultural heritage. Evidence of Satan's conspiracy seemed all around the Salem Puritans.

Salem Village (now Danvers), Massachusetts
In Jan 1692, Betty Parris, age 9, her 11-year-old cousin Abagail Williams, and Ann Putnam, 12, began acting strangely. In Feb a doctor was called in, and finding no physical cause but not wanting to say so, suggested witchcraft. Pressured by ministers and others to say who did this to them, the girls named the Parris's West Indies servant Tituba and 2 other women. Other girls claimed the same afflictions and named more women, who were all arrested and jailed. Under "intense questioning" (it is thought that many of the accused were tortured), 55 confessed and were not executed. Strangely, confession avoided the gallows. Family members of the prisoners began to be accused. In April the first man, husband of one of the accused, was arrested. The girls then accused the former minister. On May 18, our ancestor Dr. Roger Toothaker was arrested. Nearby jails being full, he was sent to prison in Boston. On May 27, MA Gov. Phips commissioned a court and named judges.

June 10, the first hanging (our ancestor's step-mother, Bridget Bishop) took place on Gallows Hill.

Photo: The judge's wax seal on Bridget Bishop's death warrant.

In court, the witnesses, who were also often the accusers, gave 'spectral evidence', based on their dreams and visions. They testified that the accused witch's spirit/specter appeared to them as a black cat, etc, who bit/pinched/choked them. This was actually admitted as evidence, and none of the accused were allowed to have defense counsel.

June 16, 1692, our ancestor Dr. Roger Toothaker died in Boston Jail. He was there because Salem, Ipswich, Charlestown and Cambridge jails were filled with the accused.

The last executions were on Sep 22. On Oct 29 Gov. Phips prohibited any more arrests, released many of the accused and closed the court. (Could the fact that someone dared to accuse his wife have influenced his decision?) In Jan 1693 most of those accused of witchcraft were released, because their arrests were based on spectral evidence. In May 1693 the rest were freed - free to go as long as they paid their jail fees. Many stayed in jail for months longer because they could not pay their bill.

During 1692, 200 had been arrested and imprisoned on witchcraft charges, and more accused. Several dogs were accused and two were even executed as suspected accomplices of witches, since dogs were believed used by witches as agents to carry out their devilish commands. Lasting over a year, the Salem witchcraft hysteria finally burned itself out. Not only the victims and their families, but Puritanism, a major force in New England religion and government, had been damaged.

In 1702 the General Court declared the trials unlawful and in 1711 a legislative bill restored the rights of those accused of witchcraft and granted 600 pounds in restitution, divided among their heirs.

Witchcraft accusations in our family even before 1692

Grampy's ancestors
Jane Walford (abt 1600 - bef 1681) of England, Charlestown, MA and Portsmouth, NH. She was accused of witchcraft in 1648, 1656, & 1669. She was acquitted in court each time, yet the "stigma of witchcraft .... was apparently passed on to all 5 of her daughters." Descriptions of Jane (who was "witnessed" transforming into a variety of cats) have evolved into the present-day depiction of a witch - an old bent-over crone dressed in black, wearing a pointed black hat, a cat by her side.

Thomas Philbrick (1584 - 1667) of England and Hampton, NH. He testified against accused witch Eunice Cole: "The deposition of Thomas Philbrick: this deponent saith that Goodwife Cole said that if this deponent's calves if they did eat any of her grass she wished it might poison them or choke them and one of them I never see it more and the other calf came home and died about a week after... Sworn in court Sep 4, 1656"

Next - Part 2


Brin said...

First to read it!!! I love it. I read the Crucible in English last year so I recognized the story of Abigail Williams and Ann Putnam. I'm glad you wrote this blog. I've always been fascinated by the Witch trials. Next time I come to MA I would love to visit Salem.


p.s. I'm mailing you a birthday present

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the background info on the whole hysteria.
Did it really only last about a year?
I missed the riddle, so here are some you might like:
What exam does a young witch have to pass?
(A Spell-ing test)
What did the witch do to make the tissue dance?
(She put a little boogie in it)
p.s. Looking forward to the next segment.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I'm fairly new, as well, and have found it most stimulating, especially the Daily Themes.

Roger Conant - stautue near the Salem Museum - was one of ninth great-grandfathers. My daughters have visited Salem... it is still on my list. Many ancestors from MA and NH, among others.

Keeping telling your ancestor stories!

Dr. Bill ;-)