Merrimack Valley’s first documented murder had ties to Salem witchcraft. Hanna Foster, whose 1667 marriage to Hugh Stone was tainted with trouble, lived in a time when harmony in the household was mandatory. The Andover carpenter apparently never got along with his mother-in-law, Ann Foster, and the dysfunctional family threatened the entire Puritan community with God’s wrath.
On April 20, 1689, Goodman Stone slit Hanna’s throat during a dispute over selling a piece of land. Cotton Mather published his account of the case in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702):
“… As they walked together one evening, Hugh Stone, upon a quarrel with his wife, barbarously reached a stroke at her throat with his sharp knife and fetched away the soul of her who had made him the father of several children and would have brought yet another to him if she lived a few weeks longer on earth. The wretched man was too soon surprised by neighbors to deny facts so pleaded guilty. …”
Puritans believed no one should enter eternity without preparation, so ministers regularly counseled condemned felons, urging repentance. Hangings, called “publick spectacles,” were generally staged in natural amphitheaters to accommodate the most spectators. Vendors hawked refreshments, and parents brought children for learning experiences. Gallows speeches were highly anticipated and often published, since malefactors near death were expected to impart important messages.
Hugh Stone proved a crowd-pleaser. He claimed he hadn’t broken ALL Ten Commandments, though his accompanying cleric disagreed: “You have broken them all in your mind a thousand times!”
“’Twas contention in my family led me to commit murder,” Stone confessed. He’d “been careful about religion, but upon contention with my wife, I left off the ways of God and you see what I am come to. … I have cause to cry out and be ashamed because under strong drink I gave way to passion and practiced wickedness on that dear woman whom I should have taken contentment in. Obey your parents, be servants to your masters. … If you become distempered with drink, you take up wicked ways, opening a gate to sin leading to bigger sins.”
Before the noose tightened around his neck, Hugh Stone delivered a slanderous account against his mother-in-law. This curse would be remembered when Ann Foster was accused of witchcraft. The 72-year-old widow was dragged into court four times, where she revealed the exact number of witches on the loose: “305, who would ruin this place and set up the Devil’s Kingdom.”
Since witchcraft was thought to be handed down from mother to daughter, the authorities were delighted to also have Foster’s daughter and teenage granddaughter in custody.
“Oh Grandmother, why did you give me to the devil? You have been a very wicked woman in your time!”
Goody Foster claimed Satan had appeared to her in the shape of a bird: “It came white and vanished away black; had two legs, great eyes, and sat upon the table.” The bird told her if she served Satan, she would enjoy prosperity. “Many things were promised by that bird,” Goody Foster said, “but were never performed.”
Yes, she’d ridden a pole to witch meetings carrying bread and cheese in her pocket … “but high in the air above tree-tops, the stick broke.” She fell to the ground and her knee “troubled her since.” She confessed bewitching John Lovejoy’s hog and causing other deaths by fashioning poppets out of rags, then sticking pins in them to make folks suffer.
On Dec. 3, 1692, following 21 weeks in chains, Ann Foster died in Salem prison while awaiting her trip to the gallows.