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When Witches Said neither “Trick” nor “Treat”

By Daniel Hubbard | October 31, 2010

Now that my Star Wars and Harry Potter characters have gathered their last preHalloween harvest of candy corn and caramels and are fast asleep, I find my mind turning to a time when ghosts, goblins and witches were a much more serious business than my children’s Halloween costumes or a snaggletoothed grin on a jack-o-lantern. It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the state of mind and spirit in which the Puritans of New England lived. The imagery of a Puritan gravestone is recognizable and yet so very alien, so very far away.

Sometimes I think about genealogical societies that I’d like to start. One would be called “The Torch and Pitchfork Society” and be open to people who have an ancestor who faced accusations of evil that today seem fantastical. The kind of accusations that in a Gothic novel would bring out the villagers with their torches and farm implements. Though without the star power of the Salem Trials, as a descendant of the “Widow Marshfield,” I will claim a charter membership in “The Torch and Pitchfork Society.”

Accusations

Here are the accusations made by Mary Parsons and the story of where they led. They were entered into the court records of Springfield, Massachusetts in March of 1649/50 when they were recalled  by John Mathews and his wife:

a widdow woman that now lived in Springefeild and that she had lived in Windsor and that she had 3 children and that one of them was married and at last she said it was the widdow Marshfeld.   The said John Mathewes answered her that he beleaved no such thing of her: but thereuppon said he Mary Parsons replied you need not Speak so much for Goody Marshfeild for I am sure (said she) she hath envied every womans child in the end till her owne daughter had a child and then said she their [the Parsons’] child died and their Cow died: and I am persuaded said she they were bewitched: and she said moreover it was reported to her by one in Towne that she was suspected to be a witch when she lived in Windsor and that it was publikely knowen that the divill followed her house in Windsor and for aught I know[,] said she[,] followes her here.

Goodwife Mathewes saith uppon oath that when Goody Parsons came to her house she said to her [“] I wonder what is become of the half pound of woll.[”] Goody Parsons said that she could not tell except the witch had witcht it away: [“] I wonder[,”] said I [, “] that you talke so much of a witch doe you think there is any witch in Towne[?”] [T]hen said shee, [“]and she came into my house while the wooll was a cardinge[”]:[“] who is it[?”] said I: she said that An Stebbinge had tould her in Mr. Smiths Chamber that she was suspected to be a witch in Windsor and that there were divers stronge lightes seene of late in the meddow that were never seene before the widdow Marshfeild came to Towne and that she did grudge at other women that had Children because her daughter had none and about that tyme (namely of her grudging) the child died and the cow died.

Accusations of witchcraft were often hardest on widows because they lacked husbands to protect them in the courts. The widow Marshfield was also a midwife and because much of what was believed about witchcraft was rooted in questions of fertility, a widowed midwife with an apparently infertile daughter was clearly in a very bad position once a finger was pointed. Yet it was Mary Parsons who was brought before the magistrates and found guilty of slander.

That trial could not stop the darkness of suspicion from descending. Perhaps Mary’s mind had became unhinged by the strain of the slander trial, perhaps it was her publicly troubled marriage that caused her mind itself to become troubled. A subtle but growing sense of darkness and evil began to take root in Springfield. After Mary’s husband, Hugh, had a falling out with the minister and threatened to get even with him, the minister’s daughters began to have inexplicable fits. Other people who had interactions with Hugh complained of cutting pains and strange occurrences involving things becoming sliced. An investigation of Hugh began and during an examination came news that his youngest child had died.

Confessions

Soon thereafter Mary confessed to being both a witch and the murderess of her child. She also accused her husband of witchcraft. She told stories of his unexplained absences at night and how their house filled with strange sounds in the minutes leading up to his return. She related how he would burst in, extinguish the fire, rip the covers from the bed and wildly throw peas about the room. She told how he would babble oddly in his sleep and wake speaking of wrestling with the Devil. She told of going out with him late at night to skulk about a neighbor’s lot, transforming back and forth between their human forms and the form of cats.

She and Hugh were sent to Boston for trial. Mary was so weak that it was feared that she would die and so her trial was rushed. She was found innocent of witchcraft but even so, that very day, the General Court of Massachusetts proclaimed an official day of humiliation and one of the reasons was that “Satan prevails amongst us in respect of witchcrafts.”  She may have been found innocent of being a witch but the court found her guilty of infanticide. She disappeared from the court records soon thereafter and is assumed to have faded and died in prison almost immediately after her trials.

Hugh waited a year in jail before his trial and it was found that he had “familiar and wicked converse with the divill, and hath used diverse divillish practises, or witchcrafts.” Though sentenced to death, there was a catch. His wife and main accuser had been dead for a year. Springfield was far from Boston and so many of the villagers only submitted written depositions. The General Court found that though convicted and sentenced to die, the written accusations were not sufficient to carry out the execution or even to find him guilty. His sentence was overturned and Hugh Parsons lived out his days without ever setting foot in Springfield again.

Happy Halloween…

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