Innocents on Trial
The Merrimack Valley’s Role in the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692.
When most people think of the infamous witch trials of 1692, Salem, Mass., comes to mind. Yet Merrimack Valley towns and people played significant roles in the story. In 1692, mass hysteria overcame reason and common sense, resulting in 57 people from the Merrimack Valley being accused of witchcraft, including residents of Andover, Haverhill, Chelmsford, Boxford, Billerica, Amesbury and Salisbury, according to the website SalemWitchTrials.com. Seven Merrimack Valley residents died, five from hanging and two in prison.
What caused such madness? Puritans, whose laws and customs prevailed at the time, believed in and feared the power of both Satan and witches. Many people were superstitious, and when illness or tragedy struck, they often assigned blame. Some believed a neighbor’s curse could cause a husband’s death from smallpox, a miscarriage or a lame horse. But as historians have often pointed out, it likely wasn’t a coincidence that several people who brought charges against supposed witches were involved in land disputes, congregational power plays or other misunderstandings with the accused.
Some accused witches were members of leading families in their communities. Others were relative newcomers to the area. Once accused, supposed witches were assumed guilty, denied legal counsel, and forced to pay for their room and board while in prison.
Betty Parris, Abigail Williams and Mary Wolcott, the young Salem girls whose initial accusations and bizarre behavior resulted in the execution of several Salem residents as witches, were sometimes brought to Andover to prove witchcraft by “the touch test.” According to “The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Volume 3,” edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (1977), several of the accused described the test thusly: “We were blindfolded, and our hands were laid upon the afflicted persons, they being in their fits and falling into their fits at our coming into their presence, as they said. Some led us and laid our hands upon them, and then they said they were well and that we were guilty of afflicting them.”
In 1669, Susannah Martin of Amesbury was one of the first people in the Merrimack Valley to be accused of witchcraft. Charges were eventually dismissed. When Essex County went wild with “witch hysteria” in 1692, Martin was accused again. After an interrogation by Puritan minister Cotton Mather, the widow was found guilty and hanged. A stone marker on North Martin Road in Amesbury states: “Here stood the house of Susannah Martin. An honest, hardworking Christian woman accused of being a witch and executed at Salem, July 19, 1692. She will be missed! A Martyr of Superstition. T.I.A. 1894.”
A long-standing quarrel about land boundaries resulted in three women from the same family being accused as witches. Eventually, Rebecca Nurse of Salem Village was executed, and charges against her sister, Sarah Cloyce, were dismissed. The Salem girls claimed that the third sister, Topsfield resident Mary Easty, afflicted them with suffering. Easty, a farmer’s wife and mother of 11, spent time in prison, was released, arrested again and hung. She never wavered in her innocence: “I will say it, if it were my last time, I am clear of this sin,” she is quoted as saying.
In Andover, which in the 17th century included today’s North Andover and South Lawrence, 42 people were accused of witchcraft. Almost half of those arrested were under the age of 20, and many were under 10, including Rebecca Wardwell, who wasn’t even a year old when she was accused and imprisoned with her mother.
Suspected male witches ranged in age from 10 to 64. Many of the accused from Andover were related, and most of the town’s prominent families were represented on the accused list: Osgood, Parker, Johnson, Barker, Faulkner, Frye and Foster. Historians now believe that squabbles over control of Andover’s North Parish may have led to accusations against 10 members of the family of the Rev. Francis Dane, a leader in the community.
Boxford author Kathleen Benner Duble discovered that she was related to the Danes and wrote her young adult novel, “The Sacrifice” (Thorndike Press, 2007), from the point of view of her ancestor, Abigail Faulkner, who was 10 when she was accused of witchcraft along with her mother and sister.
“Like my [ancestor],” Duble says, “most of the children told the court that their parents had taught them to practice witchcraft. This accusation bought their freedom, while their parents were imprisoned instead. What parent would not encourage their beloved child to accuse them in order to set the child free? This was how I decided to approach the story … the love [Abigail] had for her mother, and the battle her grandfather fought to free them both.” Abigail’s mother was convicted, but she was pregnant at the time, which merited a stay of execution. She eventually was pardoned and released from prison.
Martha Carrier, another accused witch from Andover, was the daughter of a town founder. She was described by Mather as “not unlikely to make enemies, plain and outspoken in speech, of remarkable strength of mind, a keen sense of justice and a sharp tongue.” Those qualities did not endear her to neighbors, who blamed her for an outbreak of smallpox. Her angry remarks to neighbor Benjamin Abbott about a land dispute led to his accusation that she had bewitched him. According to the book “Witchcraft in Salem Village in 1692” by William S. Nevins (Salem Press, 1916), Abbot complained that Carrier had caused, “a swelling in my foot” and “a payne in my side” from which he was “ecksidiengly tormented.”
Carrier’s children were tortured until they admitted they were witches, but only Martha Carrier was executed, even though she maintained her innocence until the end, saying, “It is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits.”
Mary Osgood of Andover believed she had been accused because she was “a stranger ever to the seemly goodwives of Andover.” Referencing the things with which she had been charged, Osgood wrote, “A rhyme, a poppet, a cat, a spray of white bloom — these be harmless, simple things; nay, they be brave and goodly things; and I will not bear false witness against them, nor make of them a devil’s byword.” Although convicted of witchcraft, Osgood was not executed.
Dane was one of the first voices of reason in Andover, questioning the methods by which confessions were obtained, and working to release children from prison. He petitioned William Phips, the royal governor of Massachusetts, to release the Andover witches, and by autumn 1692, the frenzy that had gripped the Merrimack Valley abated. Whether residents had lost loved ones to execution, stood accused of crimes they did not commit, or simply lived through a time of fear and mistrust, no one remained unchanged.
Rest in peace Merrimack Valley residents Martha Carrier, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Susannah Martin, Margaret Scott, Roger Toothaker and Ann Foster.
( Illustration at top of this page by Jim Roldan )
Further Reading About the Witch Trials:
“The Sacrifice” by Kathleen Benner Duble, Thorndike Press, 2007.
“Death in Salem: The Private Lives Behind the 1692 Witch Hunt” by Diane E. Foulds, Globe Pequot, 2012.
“The Wolves of Andover” and “The Heretic’s Daughter” by Kathleen Kent, Reagan Arthur Books, 2012.
“Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall” by Eve LaPlante, HarperOne, 2007.