“Mary Chase felt a funny turn in her stomach. It was an egg yolk, they said, that Tituba had swirled in the water to tell the girls’ fortunes. And that was where the strangeness had begun, in the kitchen of Tituba, the slave of the Reverend Samuel Parris in the village of Salem.” ~ Beyond The Burning Time by Kathryn Lasky
Sometimes ill-favoured and bad-tempered, usually sharp-tongued – they were people who scared the living daylights out of ordinary folk because of their headstrong independance, or aroused envy because of their hypnotic aura. Their personal powers seemed to come from the devil. People called them witches.
And what did these witches have in common? They were women. Women who used all their wits and wiles to survive in an often-times hostile world. Desperately unhappy housewives, young women and girls, a little eccentric maybe, usually poor, but hunted down and tortured by the law, even put to death. Their greatest crime being born female.
Officially accused of witchcraft there happened to be other reasons why these women were singled out for persecution. Some really did have more wits and wiles than their neighbours. Some had more intelligence. Some had special talents or skills that made them “different” or “dangerous”. Some, like Martha Carrier, were simply a burden and a nuisance to those around them. Over three hundred years ago one way to get rid of a person who annoyed you was to call her a witch.
Nowadays most people don’t believe in witchcraft. They know there are sensible reasons why crops fail or sickness strikes. And yet…and yet…fringe elements in society know they don’t even have to hang ‘em high anymore…just push the car into the Rideau Canal and be done with it.
Centuries ago people blamed bad luck and unexpected troubles on the devil and demons and witches. It was impossible to destroy Satan, they thought, but you could hunt down the witches, who were human beings.
In the American colonies if a woman was “different” she was likely to be singled out as a witch. Bridget Bishop was too liberated to suit the puritans of Salem Village. Long before they tried her as a witch, they disapproved of her red dresses and the noisy tavern she ran on Ipswich Road. Another “sorceress” from Salem made herself unpopular by snatching the town’s most eligible bachelor away from several other girls.
The case I’ve profiled happened a long time ago, in 1692. But it wouldn’t do to look down our noses at our ancestors for being superstitious. There are still “witch hunts” happening today whenever governments, corporate concerns, and dictators look around for human scapegoats to blame for their troubles. There are still the “demons” of prejudice, ignorance, and apathy that make one group persecute another.
The people in the following scenario are real people, and what happened to them is a matter of record. Some of the conversations have been dramatized. All dialogue, however, is based as closely as possible upon known facts.
The Bridget Bishop Story
Like a wild animal, Abigail Hobbes haunted the woods near Salem Village. At night, when most Puritan girls were safely shut behind doors, Abigail went where she wished, careless of her personal safety. Sometimes in the daytime she would appear in someone’s doorway, demanding food. If it was refused, she would make faces and threaten to put a curse on the house.
“Your cows will go dry. Your hens will not lay eggs,” she would hiss. “Take care you don’t cross me. You know I am a witch.”
No one in Salem Village was afraid of the girl, but almost everyone was sorry for her parents. The Hobbes’ were hardworking and God-fearing folk. They didn’t deserve a crazy daughter like Abigail.
“Someone ought to do something about that girl,” the housewives told each other. Goody Sibley, who liked to tend to other people’s business, decided to try. She cornered Abigail.
“You should go home and make yourself tidy,” said Goody Sibley. “You know your behaviour grieves your mother. How is it that you run about the woods and sleep there at night? Aren’t you fearful?”
Abigail laughed shrilly. “I’m not afraid of anything. The Old Boy takes care of me. He owns me, body and soul.”
Goody Sibley clicked her tongue. She knew that by the “Old Boy”, Abigail meant the devil. “Have a care, girl. Such talk will get you into trouble.”
By now the confrontation had attracted the attention of two other women. One of them was Lydia Nichols. With her friend, Goody Chubb, she rushed to lend Goody Sibley moral support.
“Shame on you, Abigail!” said Lydia. “You should be run out of the colony, but for your poor mother.”
Abigail laughed again, deep in her throat. “I care nothing for what you say,” she sneered. “I have seen the devil and made a bargain with him. I know others in this village who made the same bargain.”
“Who?” demanded the shocked Goody Sibley.
“Ask Bridget Bishop.” Abigail scampered away, heading for the woods again. “Ask Bridget Bishop,” she called over her shoulder.
The three women looked at each other, their mouths drawn down disapprovingly. In their opinion, Bridget Bishop was a scandal. Puritan women were expected to wear dark, somber colours, but Bridget wore red dresses. Her bodice was tightly laced to show off her neat, shapely waist – and the laces were also brightly coloured: blue, bright yellow, green.
It was not only Bridget’s clothes, but the way she earned her living that bothered the women of Salem. Bridget kept two taverns, one in Salem Town, and one on the road to the town of Beverly. Neighbours often complained that young men hung about these places at all hours of the night, playing shuffleboard and keeping decent folks awake with their loud talk and laughter and singing. Bridget herself had a way of laughing too loudly and too often. She was said to have a “smooth, flattering manner,” Lydia recalled sourly.
There was another thing that made people talk about Bridget Bishop, and it had to do with witchcraft. Some years earlier, in 1679, she had been tried in Beverly, accused of causing the death of Goodwife Eunice Trask “by spells”.
Bridget’s trouble with Goody Trask arose from those late hours at the tavern. The loud shouts and laughter of the shuffleboard players had kept the neighbourhood awake for several nights in a row, and finally it was too much for Goody Trask. She stormed into the tavern, grabbed the game pieces, and threw them in the fire. Then she ordered the customers to leave.
Looking sheepish, they did so, but Goody Trask stayed on. She had some things to say to Bridget, and said them in a shrill voice for over an hour. “Disgrace!” “Ungodly!” “Shameful!” were some of the words that rang out clearly in the night air.
On the next Sunday, Bridget came forward to receive the Sacrament in church. Goody trask shoved her aside. “She is not fit for this honour,” shouted the old woman.
Bridget said nothing. Perhaps her meakness made Goody Trask ashamed of herself. Some days later, she came to the tavern to apologize to Bridget. “The fault was mine,” Bridget said graciously. “Let us be friends.” And from then on, they seemed to be.
But Goody Trask grew mentally disturbed as she got older. She was often loud and boisterous in church, and would rush about, disturbing the congregation. Her antics were always followed by periods of deep depression. She would beg forgiveness, and weep and pray. But more and more she came to realize she could not control her outbursts. Filled with remorse, the old woman killed herself one day with a pair of scissors.
But some people thought Bridget had used spells to cause Goody Trask to take her own life. They claimed Bridget’s friendship with the lonely woman was only a false front. Underneath, they said, Bridget nursed a deep grudge and planned revenge. So Bridget was tried for using “supernatural means” to bring about Goody Trask’s death.
Things might have gone badly for her if it hadn’t been for her clergyman, John Hale. He came forward to point out that Goody Trask was of unsound mind, as everyone knew who had witnessed her wild behaviour at services. In his opinion, she had put an end to her own life, and Bridget could not be blamed.
Hale’s testimony carried a lot of weight, and Bridget was set free.
Now here was Abigail Hobbes, in 1691-92, naming Bridget Bishop as a witch, and bringing back memories of that earlier trial.
“Bridget Bishop…” said Lydia thoughtfully. “I always wondered if the jury made a mistake. The Reverend Hale thinks good of everyone. There was always talk Bridget bewitched her first husband to death.”
Goody Sibley said nothing. She was thinking that it wouldn’t do to pay too much attention to the words of a girl who was plainly out of her head. Abigail Hobbes was ignorant, filthy, and a nuisance to everyone. She was determined to get attention at any cost. But that did not make her a witch, no matter how she went around boasting about her contract with Lucifer.
In the minds of the three women, the name of Bridget Bishop lingered. Where there was so much smoke about a person, there must be some fire.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen of Reverend Samuel Parris, minister to Salem Village, things were happening that spelled deep trouble for Bridget.
The Parris kitchen was full of village girls, listening to Tituba, the Parris slave, tell of West Indies magic. It was the most fun they had had in their lives. But their pleasure was tinged with guilt and fear. Listening to such stories, telling fortunes, practicing voodoo, and conjuring with eggs and scissors – such Caribbean activities were taboo in a Puritan community. If they were found out, what would they do? Who would they blame to shift punishment from themselves?
When these girls began to name this neighbour and that one as witches, Bridget’s name wasn’t long in coming up. Abigail Hobbes was arrested, and freely confessed that she served the devil. Her frightened mother was also dragged off to jail. To save her skin, she also confessed. Both women named Bridget as a sister witch.
Bridget was used to her neighbours’ resentment, but even she was surprised to hear what they had to say against her. She was supposed to have appeared in one man’s room in the middle of the night, even though the doors were bolted. Then she had vanished in a puff of smoke. She had caused horses to go lame, dogs to go mad, wheels to come off wagons.
It was all beyond belief, yet here was Justice Hathorne asking her, “Why are you a witch?”
“I don’t know what a witch is,” said Bridget, rolling her eyes to scorn. That was a bad thing to do. Instantly, the Afflicted Girls all went rigid and rolled their eyes. Surely that was proof that Bridget had an evil power to make the girls do her will.
“Does it not trouble you to see these innocent children tormented so?” demanded the justice.
“It troubles me to hear you call them innocent,” snapped Bridget. She was ordered off to await trial in prison.
Not long after that, Abigail Hobbes had her day in court. She was enjoying herself. Here at last every eye was fixed upon her. She made the most of it, telling how she had gone to meetings with nine other witches in the Parris pasture. She even said she had killed young boys and girls at the devil’s order.
“Who were these children?” asked the magistrate.
Abigail said she didn’t know. She had never seen them before.
The Afflicted Girls interrupted. Would the justice please show Abigail mercy? She was pitiful and they were sorry for her. Perhaps she might sit with them in court and point out other witches.
The justices did not care for this idea. Abigail had confessed, so she would not hang. But they thought she would be less of a distraction if she was locked up in jail.
When Bridget came to trial on June 2, 1692, she still wore her red finery. It was dirty and bedraggled now, but she still held her head high. The sight of her seemed to annoy men like Justice Stoughton and Cotton Mather. Did she think the devil would save her? Stoughton would accept only evidence against her. Mather pointed out there was no point in wasting time proving she was a witch – “this being evident to all beholders.”
“The devil is with her, whispering in her ear!” shrieked the Afflicted Girls.
The guards who brought her into court also had a strange tale to tell. On the way from the jail, they said she had “cast a glance” at the meeting house. Then a loud clatter was heard. When the guards rushed inside the meeting house to see what damage her glance had done, they found a board had been ripped off a wall and flung into another part of the room.
Men like William Stacy, Richard Conan, and Jack Louden testified that Bridget had magically come to their chambers and disturbed their sleep. Sometimes, according to Jack Louden, she appeared “in her own shape”, and sometimes in the shape of a black pig. He told the enthralled crowd that once she came with “the body of a monkey, the feet of a rooster, and the face of a man.” He could not explain how he knew it was Bridget behind the disguise.
William Stacy said he prayed when this happened to him, and Bridget vanished. But then his child got sick and died. Bridget must have caused this death by witchcraft.
A weaver and dyer named Samuel Shattuck said that Bridget had brought him some bodice laces to dye for her. But the laces were “too small to be of human use.” However, he added, they were just right for a doll – a witch’s doll.
Shattuck thought Bridget might have used just such a doll to cause his son’s illness. He told how the boy had suffered from fits, as if he were bewitched. A neighbour suggested that Shattuck should take the boy to Bridget and let him scratch her face. It was believed that if a victim drew blood from a witch’s face, it would break her spell.
But when Shattuck tried this remedy, Bridget fought back. She wouldn’t let the boy scratch her. Instead, she scratched him.
“And ever since,” said Shattuck, “the child has grievous fits, acting so strange that he must be bewitched. The doctors say he is under the evil hand of witchcraft.” Bridget’s evil hand, of course.
Bridget looked around the court for Reverend Hale. He had helped her once, would he help her now? But John Hale’s face was grim and set. Now he believed in the Afflicted Girls, not in Bridget.
Now William Stacy was telling the court how he had once admired and liked her. She had visited him often in 1678, when he lay ill with smallpox. She gave him odd jobs when he got well and needed to make a living. But he said that when she paid him, a strange thing happened.
“I had gone only a few steps from her, and the money vanished.”
He remembered that Bridget said people were gossiping about her, and begged him to pay no attention to them. “She brought me corn to grind because others said she was a witch. They wouldn’t grind it for her.”
A witness told how Bridget had “overlooked” Samuel Gray’s baby, and the baby had died a week later. Samuel accused Bridget of causing the child’s death. Everyone in court knew that later when Gray himself was dying, he confessed he had been of “unsound mind”, and begged Bridget to forgive him. But Justice Stoughton would not let Gray’s confession be put down on the record.
Looking dazed and ill, Goody Hobbes was brought into court in chains. She claimed Bridget’s “Shape” had appeared in her cell and beaten her with iron rods. Why? “Because I did confess I was a witch.”
But it was the dolls that sealed Bridget’s fate. She had hired two men to knock down a wall “in the house she formerly lived in.” Behind the wall, the men said they found witch’s dolls made of rags and hog bristles, and stuck full of headless pins.
“How do you explain these dolls?” asked Justice Hathorne.
Bridget seemed to give up. “I have no explanation that is reasonable,” she answered wearily.
At the last minute, two character witnesses begged to be heard. they were Bridget’s stepson, Edward, and his wife. They called the Afflicted Girls liars.
“Bridget is not one to harm anyone,” Edward stated. His words were drowned out as the girls began to scream. No one in court wanted to hear them anyway.
Justice Stoughton delivered the sentence of death. He told Bridget the sheriff would “take you to the place of execution, and there you be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
The place of execution was Gallows Hill, a stony ridge crowned by a few old trees. A creaking cart brought Bridget there on June 10, 1692. She was met by a large crowd. They watched while she was lifted from the cart and stood on a ladder, leaning against one of the taller trees. A noose was dropped around her neck, and someone kicked the ladder away.
The crowd straggled home, but they would be back. Bridget was only the first of 19 people to die in the Salem witchcraft panic.
The tragedy that unfolded in Salem probably originated in the childish fantasies of a group of little girls and was carried to its deadly climax by what would now be called false accusation syndrome. It was largely these Afflicted Girls, who, inflamed by the terrors of Calvinism as their immature minds understood it, found relief for their tensions in an emotional orgy which engulfed not only Salem but the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The result was by no means the most sensational example of witchhunt and/or mob hysteria on record.
Another reason for the Salem trials might lie in the self-serving sexist concepts of religious fervor. Like modern-day corporations, New World Catholicism in 1692 was still heavily influenced by outside interest groups, in this case the Vatican. The one characteristic shared by all Puritans (or corporations) is that the primary relationship of individual members is to the company and not to society at large.
In Salem the Puritans were spiritually linked with both the Jesuit Order and the medieval craft guilds. Therefore, community elders in Salem, responding quickly to the theological SOS, easily felt compelled to waive a woman’s rights with the corporate mandate of institutionalized religion. Thus, the Puritanical faith superseded the role of pure democracy. In their own relationship with the outside world, corporations deal whenever possible with other corporations, not with individuals.
A third cause in why 19 people were hung at Gallows Hill could be traced back to the absence of a well-defined jury at Salem Courthouse. Law books offer guidance. Facts in various forms present illustrations, anecdotal and otherwise. The jury then considers the best possible truth. Their backroom labours are a good example of humanist balance, which explains why the profession of lawyers and judges in the past twenty-five years are constantly reducing the types of cases and conditions in which juries can be used.