An Update of Witches

Sometimes I feel that me writing here is shouting into the Void. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me, and sometimes it does. I enjoy every interaction that my research prompts, especially those from people who are related to the people I mention in my posts. Over the last few months one post especially has caused two specific interactions that I am thankful for, and in turn one of those has created a new family link. So this post is dedicated to Bret and Dori.

The post in question is actually one of my more popular (or at least most visited) posts: Witchy Witchness from way back in 2014 recounts how I am related to two of the accused witches of Salem (one through direct descent) through the Butterfield and Averill lines. But apparently it doesn’t stop there …

I’m rather enjoying my spookier posts (see also 52 Ancestors: Scary Stuff), but if I find a connection to Mary Shelley then I may scream. (Although I do have a rather twisty connection to the Fonda family and Bridget Fonda [11th cousin 3 x removed] did play Mary Shelley in the 1990 film Frankenstein Unbound so …)

But for this we return to the Averill family and my 6 x great-grandfather, Ebeneezer Averill of Topsfield, Massachusetts. He married Mary Towne on 5 April 1748. Although the Towne family had been in Topsfield for several generations, they had moved there from the Salem settlement, and originally the family had come from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, England.

Great Yarmouth Minster (St Nicholas Church)

It was Mary’s 2 x great grandparents, William and Joanna (nee Blessing) Towne, that had made the move from England to the American colony in around 1635. Their first six children (including my ancestor Edmund) were all baptised in Great Yarmouth, but they first appear in America named in the Salem town book in 1640 where William was granted “a little neck of Land right over against his house on the other side of the river“, and then promptly sued his neighbour over a boundary dispute, which he seems to have won.

He would later move from Salem to Topsfield, selling his farm in Salem and acquiring extra land in Topsfield in 1656. It was at this point that he made the possibly dreadful mistake of engaging in another boundary dispute, this time with the powerful Putnam family of Salem. After William’s death, Joanna herself became embroiled in another cross-family dispute, this time with the Gould family. In 1663 the minister of Topsfield was Reverend Thomas Gilbert who had replaced Minister Thomas Perkins, who had been charged with drunkenness and dismissed. However, Gilbert would also be accused of the same and he then appeared in court on 1670 for being “overtaken with drink”.

Joanna sided with Gilbert, appearing in court and testifying in his defense. At this point she was living with her son and daughter-in-law – who was the daughter of the previous minister, Perkins, and also related to the Gould family. Joanna is alleged to have accused Phebe’s mother, the wife of the Minister of being “uncharitable” and dishonest. This set her against the Gould family, and could have contributed to her daughters having her reputation attributed to them, “like mother, like daughter”.

Enough has been written about the Salem Witch Trials that I don’t feel that I need to go in to too much detail, but Rebecca was included in the second ‘tranche’ of accusations in March 1692 – which seemed to have shocked a lot of people as she was considered one of the most pious members of the settlement, and she was 72 years old (although age was immaterial as 4 year old Dorothy Good was put on trial and imprisoned).

A fanciful representation of Rebecca Nurse’s trial from The Witch of Salem, or Credulity Run Mad by John R. Musick

A month later Sarah, Rebecca’s sister, was arrested, with the third sister, Mary, being arrested a week or so after Sarah. Sarah was interrogated in public where she called her accuser a “a grievous liar”. She was transferred to Boston jail, and then to Ipswich jail in June. Somehow (and nobody quite knows how or why) she avoided being indicted by a grand jury and was never sentenced to die. Although in September, her niece Rebecca Towne (sister to my 8 x great-grandfather, Samuel) brought fresh accusations and she was indicted for “for certain detestable arts called witchcraft and sorceries, wickedly, maliciously and feloniously hath used practiced and exercised… in, upon and against one Rebecca Towne of Topsfield…and also for sundry other acts of witchcraft“. Again, she never faced trial and early in 1693 the replacement court (Superior Court of Judicature) dismissed the charges against her. Her and her husband then moved to Boston, but they were instrumental in the village bringing a civil case against the Minister, Samuel Parris, and had him dismissed from their church.

Rebecca was sentenced to death on 19 July 1692, and she and a number of others were hanged the same day on Gallows Hill just outside Salem Town and initially buried in a shallow grave. Legend has it that members of her family, under cover of dark, dug her up and reburied her body at the Nurse homestead on the edge of Salem Village.

Mary was initially imprisoned for two months and then released. However, another accusation was made and she was returned to prison after two days, and retried and condemned to death on 9 September 1692. She was hanged on 22 September (alongside Ann Pudeator).

I don’t believe in witchcraft per se (and certainly not in the way the Puritans did), and I don’t believe that any of the five women I am related to practiced magic, but it certainly does add something to history knowing that my family was there – and that is really one of the more unexpected upsides to Genealogy: historical events become more humanised knowing that your family was involved.

Although I can’t think that Samuel Parris and his cohorts would enjoy (or comprehend) the modern reaction to the Witch Trials …

Salem, MA: October 16, 2020: Visitors wear masks as they walk along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall in Salem, Massachusetts. (Staff photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

4 comments

  1. Hahaha! I am ALWAYS keeping a third eye open for a Holborow connection to any of my lines! I happily greet you as “cousin” if I did! ;-). Sometimes I see a similar name when I am scanning old documents (names lists) and I stop and go – oh, oh…I wonder… LOL

    Liked by 1 person

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