Working With the Devil’s Tools – The 1692 Merrimack Valley Witch Hunt
Some say the Salem witch hunt started in Haverhill when Roger Toothaker boasted that he’d taught his daughter, Martha Emerson, how to kill a witch. At that time, nearly everyone of European ancestry in the Colonies believed in witches. In 1692, Puritans saw evidence of a devil’s conspiracy in sinking ships, Native American raids, epidemics, religious discord, rising crime and failures of government.
Fifty-seven Merrimack Valley residents, 6 to 85 years of age, were arrested for the capital crime of witchcraft. Five were hanged, three perished in prison, and two dogs were executed as witches’ familiars.
Trials and executions took place in Salem, the county seat. No lawyer was provided for the accused, who was considered guilty until proved innocent. Prisoners were charged room and board, along with fees for the rental of chains, shackles and blankets.
Andover experienced the highest number of arrests, plus the most children imprisoned and the most children to confess. Seventeen were arrested after a touch test — blindfolded suspects were led to two girls known for their ability to identify witches.
Fortune teller Samuel Wardwell of Andover paid the ultimate price for “playing with the devil’s tools.” His method was to study a subject’s hand, stare at the ground, then lift his head to reveal their future. With his family incarcerated, Wardwell confessed, recanted, and quickly found himself back in court. He went to the gallows on Sept. 22.
Billerica’s Mary Allen Toothaker signed her name in blood on bark because Satan promised her protection from indigenous people. Convicted, she was eventually released, only to die in a massacre by Native Americans.
Rebecca Blake Eames of Boxford was certain Satan prevented her suicide. The devil appeared to her as a colt, then a rat, vowing “her adultery would never be discovered.” In her petition, Eames insisted her confession was a mistake.
Who was accused?
• Women without male protection, and the indigent
Puritans considered poverty evidence that one was “out of God’s favor.”
Margaret Stephenson Scott was Rowley’s only victim. Widowed 21 years, she and her children were forced to beg.
Tongues in Reading wagged that Lydia Dustin and her relatives were witches. Folks threw stones at the house, chanting “old crooked-back witch and your company of witches!” Dustin denied all charges, insisting God would not condone such treatment of poor widows. Exonerated, the 80-year-old was set to be freed, but unable to raise money to pay her prison fees, she died in jail.
Mary Towne Easty’s mother was rumored to be a when she was taken into custody in Topsfield. Accusers were unsure of her guilt and she was released, then re-arrested. Although 100 petitioners attested to her innocence, Easty was doomed. Before her Sept. 22 execution, she wrote a statement pleading for an end to the trials so “no more innocent blood be shed.”
Andover’s Ann Foster denied that her daughter and granddaughter practiced “black arts,” though she confessed to bewitching a hog, infecting a boy with smallpox, and riding a pole to witch gatherings. Foster died in prison while awaiting the noose.
• Women who refused to stay in their place
Martha Allen Carrier’s sharp tongue was notorious. She refused to depart Andover after being warned out “for spreading smallpox with wicked carelessness.” At her trial, accusers envisioned 13 ghosts, the number of smallpox deaths. Following an argument over boundaries, Carrier was accused of causing a neighbor’s gruesome sores. Her nephew’s war wound only healed after her arrest. Four of Carrier’s children testified that she made them witches. Hanged on Aug. 19, she was remembered as “a rampant hag who aspired to become “Queen of Hell.”
• A repeat target
Susannah North Martin of Amesbury was accused of witchcraft three times. The death of Martin’s husband plunged her into poverty and, for the next 30 years, misfortunes inevitably were blamed on her. When Martin was ushered into court, her accusers were “tortured, wasted, and tormented,” and she mocked them. Her malevolence forced John Allen’s oxen to drown off Plum Island and wash up on Salisbury Beach. Her sorcery was claimed to have killed one man’s cows and oxen 23 years earlier. She flung cats through windows to “gnaw at neighbors” and “sorely afflicted Jarvis Ring at night in his bed by laying upon him so he could neither move nor speak.” Martin went to the gallows July 19.
Topsfield’s Sarah Averill Wildes was previously in court on witchcraft charges and publicly whipped for fornication. Married to a prosperous farmer by 1692, she was ostracized for “dressing above her station.” Neighbors claimed she used witchcraft to win her way. Elizabeth Symonds said Wildes threatened her after her brothers borrowed a scythe. When they’d tried moving a cartload of hay cut with that scythe, the oxen refused to budge. Then, “startled by a strange dog,” the oxen stampeded, dumping the hay into water. Sarah Wildes was executed July 19.
Many of those convicted survived
Manacles did not prevent Haverhill’s Mary Green from escaping twice. Recaptured the first time, she bribed her jailer and made it home to Haverhill.
Married to a leading Salisbury citizen, Mary Perkins Bradbury was a subject of envy. People claimed she could turn herself into a blue boar, raise storms at sea, and sink ships. Her execution was delayed after 115 witnesses testified on her behalf. Bradbury’s husband bribed the turnkey, hiding in Maine until the trials ended.
Martha Sparks of Chelmsford spent a year in jail for “committing Divers Acts of witchcraft,” before her father offered 200 pounds and ‘Goods, Chattells Lands or Tennements’ whereby she may return home to her poor children.”
Andover’s Abigail Dane Faulkner was convicted but received a stay of execution by “pleading her belly.” Pregnant women were not executed should the child be among “God’s Elect.” Faulkner’s daughters informed judges that their mother made them witches, and other family members testified against her. The petition she submitted to Governor Phips resulted in release.
The trials weren’t supported by everyone
Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill quit the bench after the first execution.
Andover’s magistrate, Dudley Bradstreet, who also served Boxford, West Haverhill and Rowley, issued 48 warrants, then refused to sign another. He and his family were immediately accused and fled to New Hampshire.
Francis Dane, Andover’s 72-year-old minister, led the Merrimack Valley resistance, though 26 members of his extended family were accused. Dane’s petitions to the governor and court resulted in prison releases and helped end what he called, “Our Sin of Ignorance.”
This period in our history continues to resonate today. In July, state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, inspired by the work of North Andover middle school civics teacher Carrie LaPierre and her students, introduced a bill that would exonerate Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who lived in what is now North Andover.
In her testimony to the state Senate, DiZoglio noted, “It is widely known that 19 people were convicted of witchcraft and hanged that year. What is less well known is that there were 11 others who were convicted but were never executed. … Starting in 1702, those who had been convicted but not executed started petitioning to have their convictions overturned. By the end of 1711, all of them had been exonerated except one — Elizabeth Johnson. Why she was not exonerated is unclear but no action was ever taken on her behalf by the General Assembly or the courts. Possibly because she was neither a wife nor a mother, she was not considered worthy of having her name cleared.”
DiZoglio went on to state, “Massachusetts has much in its history to be proud of. But like every state, Massachusetts has its dark chapters and the witch hunt of 1692 is one of them.”