Thirty-seven or so years into researching my family’s history, I still remain committed to it. Some days my findings seem to be the same old stuff and on others, I am literally knocked out of my seat by them–like today! I am reviewing hints about family members that I haven’t spent much time with and I stumble right into another witch hunt. This time, 17 years have passed since my ninth maternal great aunt, Mary Bliss Parsons was accused and tried of being a witch and “questionably” acquitted (it is told her acquittal was due to her husband Joseph’s ability to purchase her freedom).
Characteristics of 17th Century Persons Accused Witches
Now, let’s understand just how (in the 17th Century), you might find yourself accused as a witch. Here’s a list of nine characteristics according to the 17th century British sources used by Massachusetts courts — Richard Bernard’s Guide to Grand Jury Men…in Cases of Witchcraft, William Perkins’s Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, and John Gaule’s Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts — and more recent studies such as John Demos’s 20th century work Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (Oxford):
You are female.
All through western history more women than men have been accused of witchcraft. It took less for a woman to be considered out of line.
You are middle aged.
Although suspects in 1692 ranged from Mary Bradbury in her 80s to the approximately five-year old Dorothy Good, most supposed “witches” were in their late 40s and 50s. Maybe other adults were resentful of a bossy mother-figure, or maybe not.
You are related to or otherwise associated with a known suspect.
As William Perkins pointed out “witchcraft is an art that may be learned,” so even if you weren’t a middle-aged woman you might be accused if you were friends with a suspected “witch” or if the neighbors had had their doubts about your mother, especially in 1692.
You are of an English Puritan background.
For the most part, the accused came from the same majority ethnic group as the accusers.
You are married but have few or no children.
Neighbors suffering misfortune might think you were attacking their larger families from jealousy especially if you lacked kin to speak up for you. Unprotected widows were at even more of a risk.
You are contentious and stubborn with a turbulent reputation.
Where a man might be considered forceful, a woman might have been labeled as contentious. The situation would be worse if you were also at odds with your own family. After all, the Devil encourages discord.
You have been accused of other crimes before such as theft or slander.
As John Gaule put it a “lewd and naughty kind of life” was just the sort of thing that attracted devils.
You are of a relatively low social position.
Status and rank was stronger in the 17th century. Being too often dependent on the neighbors’ help could cause them to resent you.
A confessed “witch” accuses you of being a fellow witch.
This was a big problem in 1692 when so many suspects “confessed” from fear, confusion, or an attempt to curry the court’s favor. These confessing accusers generally named people already under suspicion.
And, our lesson learned from all this?
Anyone might be accused of witchcraft. But if you were a widowed middle-aged English Puritan woman with few if any living children and had slim financial resources, were known for having a temper and were suspected of petty crimes (whether justified or not), and might have been related to or were friends with someone else who was suspected of witchcraft — watch out for your neighbors.
In our hunt, however, the accused is not a female, but rather, my 61 year old 9th paternal great grandfather, Robert Williams, a Puritan, emigrant from Norwich County, Norfolk, England, and a cordwainer (leather worker or shoemaker) by profession for a short time (Literally, a “cordwainer” is someone who works in “cordwain,” an archaic word for cordovan leather), who emigrated to Massachusetts aboard the John & Dorothy of Ipswich at age 29 in April 1637.
In 1644 Robert became a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company (the oldest chartered military organization in the western hemisphere).
Twenty-five years later in 1669, we find Robert Williams listed among the accused as a witch in Hadley, Massachusetts. A complaint is filed accusing him of being a witch. He appears before the courts–an indictment preliminary to trial occurs–then he is tried and acquitted of his charges at this trial.
In Law and Liberty in Early New England: Criminal Justice and Due Process, 1620-1692, By Edgar J. McManus (1993), Appendix D., Page 211, cites Robert Williams as being accused of witchcraft and then shows the verdict as acquitted, but adds that he was whipped and fined for lying.
Now, here’s a real lesson for all you budding family historians and researchers
Please sit up and pay attention here. How closely did you look at the List of Accused Witches, above? Did you take a good look at the entry for accused Robert Williams, or did you like me, just drop your jaw, and move forward? In my case, my “moving forward,” meant looking for more specifics about Robert’s accusal/accuser.
After querying and browsing a few hours searching on Google, I happened upon an Ancestry.com message board entry from “Lois in Michigan” that dated back to 2012. Lois queried:
…I have looked in many, many places, checked out recommended reference books, and looked in the Suffolk Co. court transcripts, but have either missed it or looked in the wrong places. I believe he was associated, at various times, with Roxbury, Hadley, and Stonington [Massachusetts]. Any help would be much appreciated.
(So, I, unknowingly, had followed in Lois’ steps.) Six hours after Lois’ query came this response from “LSLangille:
Search GOOGLE BOOKS with his name in quotes as such: “Robert Williams” witchcraft Massachusetts.
There’s about 5 or 6 hits. Search for his name in here too:
And then, Lois’ final comment in this threaded discussions:
Thank you so much! Found him! To my disappointment, the Robert WILLIAMS accused of witchcraft was not the Robert WILLIAMS who was my ancestor….
Once again I followed Lois’ steps to prove for myself her findings. And my 9th great grandfather Robert Williams was of “Roxbury,” and was a man of means. Meanwhile, the listed Robert Williams was of “Hadley,” and a servant!
And, here’s the “icing on the cake.” In the book Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639 – 1702) THE PYNCHON COURT RECORD, I find my own proof that in fact there was a Robert Williams of Hadley as well as a Robert Williams of Roxbury:
An entry at the March 29, 1670 court held at Northampton notes that Robert Williams of Hadley, a former servant, was bound over to the court by John Pynchon in ten-pounds bond and, for want of sureties for his appearance, committed to prison. The ground for this action was the offender’s “notorious Lyinge,” but he was also suspected of witchcraft. The evidence of witchcraft was not of sufficient force to keep Williams in prison or to warrant sending him to superior authority. However, for his lying, Williams was adjudged to pay a five-pound fine to the county, to be whipped with fifteen stripes, to pay all charges of his imprisonment, and to stand committed until the court’s order was performed. This punishment, harsher than that appointed by law, was undoubtedly influenced by the suspicion of witchcraft.
And, here’s a map that shows the close geographic proximity of Hadley, Roxbury, and Northampton:
So, whatever happened to my 9th paternal great grandfather, Robert Cooke Williams–who was not an accused witch?
Fast forward to 1684. Robert Cooke Williams is now 76 years old. He is still living in the midst of all this mass hysteria and scapegoating within these dark times in our American History known as The Salem Witch Trial Era.
Four of his five sons are still alive. Their ages are 44 to 52. He first wife, Elizabeth died 10 years prior; he has been married to his second wife, Margaret for nine years. King Charles II has just revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s royal charter, a legal document granting the colonists permission to colonize. It is still a devout and strongly religious community, with people living in near isolation, and still fearing that the Devil was constantly trying to find ways to infiltrate and destroy their Christian communities. Conversely, King Charles believed the colonists had broken several of his charter’s rules; including basing new laws on their religious beliefs and discriminating against the English Church and Anglicans.
King Charles II died in 1685 and King James II replaced him. In 1686, King James II merged the Massachusetts Bay Colonies (Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island) into one large colony known as the Dominion of New England. And, in 1688 he again expanded the dominion to include New York and New Jersey as well as instituting a royally-appointed government with many new and more strict laws.
Occurring next, The Glorious Revolution in England, when Mary and William of Orange took over the throne from James II. Upon learning of Mary and William’s take over in England, the colonists especially in the Massachusetts Bay executed a series of revolts against the government officials appointed by James II. And in 1689, these colonists overthrew the unpopular Dominion of New England.
And now, it’s 1692, Robert Williams’ age is 84 and unperceived to anyone, Robert is living the final year of his life still in the midst of The Salem Witch Trials which were in full stride. The trials began in February 1692. Finally, the colonists began to doubt that so many people could actually be guilty of witchcraft. They feared many innocent people were being executed. Local clergymen began speaking out against the witch hunt and tried to persuade officials to stop the trials, but the executions continued through September 22 when the last eight people were hanged. In October 1692, the 52 remaining people in jail were tried in a new court and pardoned or released from jail by May 1693. In all, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were killed.
Finally–I am without words!