“Jury Finds Mary Bliss Parsons Not Guilty of Witchcraft”


Mass Moments is a project of Mass Humanities, whose mission is to support programs that use history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities disciplines to enhance and improve civic life throughout the Commonwealth. Mass Humanities receives support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Massachusetts Cultural Council as well as private sources. This project is funded in part by a grant from the “We the People” Initiative at NEH. Mass Moments project launched its electronic almanac of Massachusetts history—on January 1, 2005.  I subscribe to their  posts because many of my ancestors emigrated to Plymouth aboard the Mayflower ship and contributed to the development of New England.  In this historic instance, however, my ninth great maternal aunt, Mary Bliss Parsons, finds herself, not once, but twice, accused of being a witch!  Today’s Mass Moments article (below) expands on some of my earlier posts.

On This Day . . .

 May 13, 1675, a Boston jury reached a verdict in the case of Mary Bliss Parsons of Northampton: they found her not guilty of witchcraft. In seventeenth-century New England, virtually everyone believed in witches. Hundreds of individuals faced charges of practicing witchcraft. They were women, or sometimes men, who had “signed the Devil’s Book” and were working on his behalf. Their wickedness was blamed for calamities ranging from ailing animals to the death of infant children. While most of the accused never went to trial or were, like Mary Parsons, acquitted, not everyone was so lucky. Six Massachusetts women were hanged as witches in the years before the infamous Salem witch trials, which claimed 24 innocent lives.

Background . . .

Colonial Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as a litigious culture; fortunately it was also a record-keeping one. County courthouses are full of 300 year-old documents — depositions, trial transcripts, judges’ orders — that allow historians to reconstruct the stories of the people accused of witchcraft. One of the best documented, and most unusual, is the case of Mary Bliss Parsons of Northampton.

Mary Bliss and Joseph Parsons married in Hartford in 1646. After several years in Springfield, the Parsons family, which now included three children, moved to Northampton, a brand new settlement some 20 miles up the Connecticut River.

Joseph Parsons soon became one of Northampton’s leading citizens. A successful merchant, he served as a selectman and on the committee to build the first meetinghouse. Since the Parsons also owned the first tavern in town, they were right in the thick of things.

Another couple, Sarah and James Bridgman, followed a similar route but had a very different experience than the Parsons. They also wed in Hartford, moved to Springfield, and then onto Northampton, where a feud developed between the two families.

Soon after arriving in Northampton, Mary Parsons gave birth to a son, the first English child born in the town. That same month, Sarah Bridgman had a baby boy. When he died two weeks later, she claimed it was the result of Mary’s witchcraft. Rumors began to swirl about the town. Joseph Parsons decided to go on the offensive. He charged James Bridgman with slander for spreading rumors about Mary Parsons’s alleged witchcraft.

Even though juries usually sided with the plaintiff in such cases, Joseph Parsons was taking a risk by bringing rumors to the attention of officials. Authorities might decide there was merit to the accusations, and the plaintiff could suddenly find herself the defendant.

The case was heard at the Magistrates’ Court in Cambridge in October 1656; 33 depositions were given. Almost half of Northampton’s 32 households sent a witness; a few others came from Springfield.

Sarah Bridgman related her tale of how in May 1654 she heard a “great blow on the door” and immediately sensed a change in her newborn. Then she saw “two women pass by the door with white clothes on their heads.” The women disappeared, and Bridgman concluded her son would die because “there [was] wickedness in the place.”

Such testimony was the norm in witch trials. An argument took place, and when something went awry later, people attributed the problem to witchcraft. One Northampton woman testified that the yarn she had spun for Mary Parsons ended up full of knots. Since the yarn the woman spun for others had no knots, she concluded that Mary’s witchcraft was the cause. Another woman blamed Mary Parson when her daughter fell ill shortly after she had refused to let the girl work for Parsons. One man stated that the day after “some discontent[ed] words passed” between himself and Mary Parsons, he found his cow in the yard “ready to die,” which it did two weeks later.

A number of people testified in Mary Parsons’s defense. Three women described Sarah Bridgman’s baby as “sick as soon as it was born.” A neighbor stated that the cow in question had died of “water in the belly.” The court ruled in favor of the Parsons. The Bridgmans were given the choice of paying a fine or making a public apology. They paid the fine.

The feud and Mary Parsons’s ordeal resumed 18 years later, in 1674, when the Bridgmans’ son-in-law filed a new complaint. He “strongly suspect[ed] that [his wife] died by some unusuall meanes, viz, by means of some evell Instrument.” The instrument he had in mind was Mary Bliss Parsons.

On January 5, 1675, the county magistrates summoned Mary to appear before them. Women searched her body for “witch’s teats,” unexplained (to seventeenth-century eyes) protrusions where “imps” were said to suck. The record is silent as to what they did or did not find, but in March the Court of Assistants in Boston sent Mary Parsons to prison to await trial. The records from this trial do not survive, but we know that on May 13, 1675, a jury found her not guilty.

The Parsons returned to Northampton, but in 1679 or 1680, they moved back to Springfield, perhaps to escape the rumors that continued to dog them. Mary Bliss Parsons was in her mid-80s when she died in 1712.

Although Mary Parsons occupied a far more secure social position than almost all of the other women charged with witchcraft in early New England — after all, she was the wife of one of the richest, most respected men in western Massachusetts — her experience fit the norm in other ways. Middle-aged women were the most likely to be accused of witchcraft. The issues of jealousy, personal animosity, and family feuds that were so evident in her case would fuel the Salem witch hysteria of 1692 as well.

The horror that began in Salem Village (present day Danvers) and spread to almost every town in Essex county saw women, children, and men, including the former minister of Salem Village, hauled before magistrates. At one point some 170 accused witches were being held in jails in Ipswich, Salem, Boston, and Cambridge. Between June and September of 1692, authorities hanged 19 people and pressed one to death; four more died in prison, awaiting trial. In 1693 the madness ended. There would be no more convictions and executions for witchcraft in New England, although it would be another century before the belief in witches lost its hold on the people of the region.

Sources

A Delusion of Satan, by Frances Hill (Da Capo Press, 1997).

Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, by John Putman Demos (Oxford University Press, 1982).

“The Goody Parsons Witchcraft Case: A Journey to Seventeenth-Century Northampton.” Available online.

Witches and Witchcraft Revisited–Another Brick Wall Downed!


Mary Bliss Parsons - 9th great auntJust a short 3-1/2 years ago (November 15, 2012) I wrote my first post Hello World! to this blog site.  In it, I alleged my family may have an ancestor who was accused of being a witch in Massachusetts.  (Note that most women, and men, who were accused of witchcraft in the 15th-19th Centuries were feared for their nonconformist ways more than anything else.)  If you go to this post’s link, you will also find at the bottom of it, links to three more posts that include mentions of witches and witchcraft in them over the next eight-month period.  Despite all my research and readings I didn’t find specific evidence of any alleged witches among my ancestors until today–exactly 341 years after a Boston jury reached its verdict on charges that Mary Bliss Parsons, my 9th maternal great aunt, was accused of being a witch.  Here’s the brief article I discovered:

Jury Finds Mary Bliss Parsons Not Guilty of Witchcraft: May 13, 1675
Published by massmoments.org May 13, 2016

Mary Bliss Parsons and childOn this day in 1675, a Boston jury reached a verdict in the case of Mary Bliss Parsons of Northampton: they found her not guilty of witchcraft. In seventeenth-century New England, virtually everyone believed in witches. Hundreds of individuals faced charges of practicing witchcraft. They were women, or sometimes men, who had “signed the Devil’s Book” and were working on his behalf. Their wickedness was blamed for calamities ranging from ailing animals to the death of infant children. While most of the accused never went to trial or were, like Mary Parsons, acquitted, not everyone was so lucky. Six Massachusetts women were hanged as witches in the years before the infamous Salem witch trials, which claimed 24 innocent lives.

I referred to the following free e-book on Google Play to learn further facts about the allegations of witchcraft against Mary Bliss Parsons. Page 15 is the digital page number where her story begins:

Parsons family: descendants of Cornet Joseph Parsons, Springfield, 1636–Northampton, 1655, Volume 1 

Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, 1912
The Strong Witch SocietyD. H. Parsons (9th great grandson of Mary Bliss Parsons), on January 19, 2011, authored a much different perspective of Mrs. Parsons’ involvement in Witchcraft and Witch Societies in his 4-star rated book:  The Strong Witch Society: The Diary of Mary Bliss Parsons.  The following is Amazon’s summary about it:
In 1675, Mary Bliss Parsons, the author’s great grandmother nine times removed, was tried for witchcraft during the Salem witch trials. She was acquitted only because her husband, Joseph, was able to purchase her freedom. Such is the known history of Mary Bliss Parsons. What is not so well known is that Mary was a member of a small but powerful group of witches, The Strong Witch Society. After her death in 1712, it became Mary’s purpose to somehow “awaken” in the mind and spirit of one of her future descendants in order to reinstitute The Strong Witch Society. The author is that grandchild. What unfolds on the pages of this book is a rollercoaster of supernatural events and ‘lessons’ designed with the express purpose of calling together the remaining Strong Witches in order to divert an impending world disaster. This book is about far more than just Witches. It introduces and covers many other subjects including Alien Contact, Inter-Dimensional Travel, the Natural Disasters our world is facing today, political crises, and etc. It offers Simple solutions on how to deal with all of those problems before it is too late. It gives information on how you the reader can actually help to solve the problems without much effort at all. But time is running short. And always remember that this book is true, not fiction, not conjecture, not theory.
This jury remains out for me, and many references have surfaced since my initial research. So, I guess I have a lot more reading to do before I draw my conclusions about my 9th great aunt, Mrs. Mary Bliss Parsons.