“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.

Hello Again, World – My 145th Post


My First Post – Eight Months Ago

salem-witches 1692-1693

salem-witches 1692-1693

Eight months ago on November 15, 2012, I published “Hello World“–my 341-word first blogpost ever, under the category of Witches and Witchcraft.  I wondered then if some of my family from among the 40 generations I have traced back could have been among those accused of witchcraft in Connecticut or Winston-Salem, Massachusetts.  I noted that most women and men who were accused in the 15th-19th centuries were feared for their nonconformist ways more than anything else.  And, I wondered if I inherited my self initiative and personal drive from anyone of those accused. By the way, the jury remains out on those issues.

So, despite only six people reading my first post, I went on to write 144 others on a variety of categories over the next eight months; making today’s post number 145!  And today, I took to data mining my blog’s statistics to see just how readership and visits stand at my 100th post.

Understanding my blog’s readership demographics

On April 25, 2013, Our Heritage:  12th Century and Beyond, captured its largest number of readers in one day–totalling 74:  as you can see, many people that day were drawn to my Home page/Archives (24), and the Plymouth Pilgrims, Puritans, The Great Migration…post (10).

April 25-2013Stats

On June 19th, one of my most popular posts was about a  “dragon boat racing event” to end hunger in Calvert County.  It received 39 views, but a total of 66 views were made of the blog site that day.  This post had nothing to do with my family genealogy but did hit a home run on topic and history of a little known sport for a good cause.  And, today I have 88 blog followers and the following keeps growing, too.

The United States’ State Department recognizes 195 independent countries from around the world.  The U.S.Census Bureau posts today’s world population at 7,097,725,000 and counting.   My blog’s readership in comparison is small, but steadily growing.  To date, 3,350 people from 64 countries–one third of the world’s countries, have read at least one of my posts.  Below are the top five countries based on overall readership, with the remaining 190 countries making up 6.1 percent of the world’s remaining readers to visit my site.  The Census Bureau’s total estimated population for today (and counting) is 316 million. That means a little over one percent of the U.S. population has read a post from my blog during the past eight months.

Blog Readership

Googling for other genealogy-based blogs

I then googled “genealogy blogs,” to see just how many I might find out there.  There actually is a site Genealogy Blog Finder that tracks 1,782 blogs worldwide.  It lets you filter by:  recently updated, what’s new, and who’s blogging where in the world:Genealogy Blog FinderSo, it made sense to me when I learned that nearly 86 percent of my readership is in the United States. Pingdom.com’s study of blog readership states that there are actually over 157 million blogs on Tumblr and WordPress, alone.  Comparing the 157 million blogs number to the 1,782 genealogy blogs, I see that just 1.14 percent of all of those blogs are genealogy-based posts.  

And finally, according to Blogpulse.com; “No wonder many bloggers have a hard time getting noticed.  There are more than 144 million blogs in the world, publishing 1 million posts per day. So there is some competition.”

When I reflected on these staggering facts, I can only feel very appreciative for all readers who have taken their time to find and read my posts.  Happy blogging and reading.  Hope you will visit with me again!

 

Will Baby be Witch or Warlock?–Revisited


2 Mar 2013:

While continuing my research into accused witches in New England, I discovered additional resources1. It appears that Mrs. Rachel Fuller, wife of John Fuller of Hampton, CT, may replace Lydia “witch” Gilbert (still looking for maiden name confirmation that she might have been a Lathrop), on my list of possible ancestors who were accused of sorcery and witchcraft in New England. Once again, the research continues, and I follow the paths redrawn for me by this additional resource. However, I remain compelled to correct and/or redact earlier writings as new information becomes available. I would never want inaccuracy or incomplete stories left untold because I didn’t take time to update my work.

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The following blog, the first of at least two, looks at Witches and Witchcraft during the 15th Century–a period most commonly known as The Salem Witchcraft Trials. The second blog planned will focus on our family’s very own Lydia “witch” Lathrop Gilbert.

I lifted the article below directly from The Tuscaloosa News – Sunday, August 15, 1993, written by: Jane Alexander of The Associated Press, to frame the history around the topic and to show that witches and witchcraft continue to be of interest and concern today.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The descendants of the accused witches in Salem, Mass., 300 years ago include three former presidents and such disparate people as Clara Barton, Walt Disney, and Joan Kennedy. Now comes along a couple that only recently found out that their unborn child belongs in that company.

NEW YORK–I’m going to have my first child any day now. Girl or boy? My husband and I haven’t tried to find out. We’re more concerned about which ancestors the baby might take after. Will the child be curious or quiet? Tall or short? Witch or warlock?

Well, we’re not really concerned to tell the truth, but I will admit that I was astonished to discover that not long ago 300-year-old witch skeletons hung–literally–from my husband’s family tree.

Family Tree of Edward William Knight

Family Tree of Edward William Knight

Unbeknown to him and the rest of his immediate family, his ninth great grandmother, Sarah Towne Bridges Cloyce, and her two sisters, were accused of witchcraft in 1692 in Salem, Mass. Although Sarah escaped the noose, her sisters, Rebecca and Mary, were hanged.

Sarah’s name was buried in the family records as Sarah Towne, who married Edmund Bridges, Jr. in 1660. But after Edmund’s death in 1680, she married the widower Peter Cloyce. Only when reading accounts of the trials during last year’s tricentennial did it dawn on me that Sarah Cloyce, accused witch, was the same woman as Sarah Towne Bridges, esteemed ancestor.

Ed’s line of descendancy from Sarah is contained in the family history, “The Paddock Heritage,” which was self-published by some of his relatives in 1985.

Story lost

It’s not surprising that Sarah’s story was lost. Only in 1957 did the General Court of Massachusetts resolve “that no disgrace nor cause for disgrace” be borne by descendants of witch-trial victims.

Over the centuries, many families have indeed felt disgrace and distress.

New England author Enders Robinson calls the witch trials “the grimmest of stories and one in which my father believed plunged the family into ignominy, and was best “forgotten.” His sixth great grandfather, Samuel Wardwell, was hanged from a locust tree the same day as Ed’s Aunt, Mary Towne Estey.

Presidents, too

Three presidents–Taft, Ford, and Arthur–also are descended from one of Salem’s 20 executed witches or their siblings. So are Clara Barton, Walt Disney and Joan Kennedy. And, of course, our descendant in-the-making.

During the Salem hysteria, being related to an accused witch, was enough to cast doubt on one’s own innocence. Ed’s Sarah was likely singled out because her older sister had been accused.

So were they witches? No. The Towne sisters were devout Puritans. Then why were they accused? Theories range from the simplistic–boredom–to the bizarre–hallucinations brought on by eating moldy bread. The truth is likely more complex: a combination of family rivalries, fights over property, and grabs for power.

Rebecca Towne Nurse and Mary Estey were among 13 women, six men, and two dogs hanged as witches. Another 80-year-old man, Giles Corey, was tortured under a pile of stones as townspeople tried to force him to enter a plea. His only answer before being crushed to death was immortalized in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. “More weight,” he said. Eight more accused witches died in jail.

Must confess

Only those who did not confess to witchcraft were considered dangerous. Those who admitted to guilt were not treated as harshly, particularly if they conjure up names of other “witches.” Those who refused to say they consorted with the evil were imprisoned, usually in irons, often tortured, and sometimes executed.

“They lost their lives because they commited the error of truth,” said Enders Robinson, author of “The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692.”

Rebecca, Mary, and Sarah were daughters of English-born William and Joanna Blessing-Towne. They moved their family to the settlement with the hopeful name of Salem, from the Hebrew word for peace.

It was there nearly 50 years later that their daughters would be tested.

“What sin has God found me unrepented of, that he could lay such an afflicition on me in my old age?” asked Rebecca. The 70-year-old matriarch was nearly deaf, was taken from her sickbed on March 24, 1692, and arrested for witchcraft.

Kids tormented

Local children said her “specter” tormented them. She was condemned, brought in chains into the First Church in Salem and–most horrific to the God fearing woman she was–excommunicated by unanimous vote. Rebecca was hanged on Gallows Hill on July 19, 1692.

Meanwhile, Mary and Sarah also had been jailed. Mary would not enter a false confession. “I dare not belie my own soul.” Mary was hanged, along with seven others, on a cold and rainy Thursday, September 22.

Sarah was spared. Though kept in irons for nearly a year, she fought back against her accusers. Upon hearing testimony of John Indian, one of the minister’s servants that she was a witch, she snapped in court: “Oh! you are a grievous liar.”

Eventually the political winds shifted, Sarah was freed on January 23, 1693, and spent 10 years before her death trying to clear her sisters’ names. A movie version of her battle, “Three Sovereigns for Sarah,” stars Vanessa Redgrave.

Today, Towne descendants have a 442-member family association. It features a quarterly newsletter, “About Towne;” coffee mugs; “Remember Rebecca” T-shirts; annual reunions, and the determination not to let history be forgotten.

Some descendants of witch-trial players would rather it be forgotten. The fact that Magistrate John Hathorne wore the robes of chief witch hunter haunted his great-great grandson, who altered his own last name to distance himself. In his essay “The Custom-House,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of his ancestors: “I, as their representative, hereby take shame on myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them may now and henceforth be removed.”

Five of the 20 who were executed had no known children or grandchildren. They leave only a legacy of refusing to betray their beliefs. I hope our child were inherit that, along with a drop of Sarah’s blood and bear Towne proudly as a middle name.–End of Article.

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1Samuel Gardner Drake, Annals of Witchcraft in New England (Boston:W. Elliott Woodward, 1869), pgs. 150-156.

Hello world!


salem-witches 1692-1693

salem-witches 1692-1693

This is my very first post.    I’m looking forward to sharing with you many interesting facts and stories about the nearly 40 generations of people in my family and their times from around the world.  Many of the stories were unearthed through my 20+ years of  genealogical research.  As in most families, ours has the good , the bad, the beautiful, the not so beautiful, the oppressed, founding fathers–leaders, dignitaries, kings, princes, princesses; scholars, ministers, musicians, and even one alleged witch in Winston-Salem, 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.   But it still is fun to claim a witch in our family)  (Hmmm…I wonder if I get my self determination from her?) Excerpt from:  Hunting for Witches in the Family Tree By Kimberly Powell, About.com Guide…

Witchcraft in Europe & Colonial America

Talk of witches often brings the famous Salem Witch Trials to mind, but punishment for practicing witchcraft was not unique to colonial Massachusetts. A strong fear of witchcraft was prevalent in 15th century Europe where strict laws against witchcraft were put into effect. It is estimated that around 1,000 people were hanged as witches in England over a 200-year period. The last documented case of an individual found guilty of the crime of witchcraft was Jane Wenham, Woman of Walkern, in 1712. She was reprieved. The largest group of convicted witches in England were nine Lancashire witches sent to the gallows in 1612, and nineteen witches hanged at Chelmsford in 1645. Between 1610 and 1840, it is estimated that over 26,000 accused witches were burned at the stake in Germany. Between three and five thousand witches were executed in 16th and 17th century Scotland. The anti-witchcraft sentiment that had been growing in England and Europe undoubtedly had an impact on the Puritans in America, ultimately leading to the witch craze and subsequent Salem Witch Trials I hope you will enjoy reading my blogs and provide feedback on topics and discussions. Happy Blogging and Reading!