Hysteria of 1692 leads ancestor to gallows
When I learned [in 1996] that a Salem witch was my first American ancestor, I was thrilled — an emotion more Halloweenish, initially, than appreciative of an infamous history.
“Cool!” said my friends. “A martyr.”
I could finally explain why we weren’t in the book, “Famous Families of Massachusetts.”
A pioneer family clearing land in 1655, beginning what should have been a dynasty, was struck down in 1692 when Martha Carrier was hanged. No wonder we never knew her story. What descendant, until my generation, could embrace a witch as matriarch?
I was tempted, at first, to attribute all kinds of family traits and failures to her fate — lack of position, distrust of authority, no money — on that warm summer morning when Martha rode a cart through mocking crowds, spoke her innocence one last time and climbed a ladder to the rope. Here was a victim worth hiding behind.
But in Salem I found Martha still bold and defiant, a heroine to anyone reading through remarkably preserved documents.
“We know Martha well,” said a librarian at the Peabody-Essex Museum, who pulled out John Hathorne’s first interrogation of Martha, taken in longhand by Rev. Parris.
“Abigail Williams, who hurts you?” Hathorne asked.
“Goody Carrier of Andover.”
“Susan Sheldon, who hurts you?”
“Goody Carrier, she bites me, pinches me, tells me she would cut my throat if I did not sign her book.”
Turning to Martha, Hathorne asks, “What do you say to this you are charged with?”
“I have not done it,” she said.
After 300 years the drama leaps from pen strokes. The girls writhed and screamed while Martha cried out:
“It is false. You lie. I am wronged. It is a shameful thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits.”
Parris wrote furiously:
“All the afflicted fell into most intolerable outcries and agonies…Mercy Lewis in a violent fit was well upon (Martha) grasping her arm. The tortures of the afflicted was so great (Martha) was ordered away to be bound hand and foot. As soon as she was well bound they all had strange and sudden ease.”
I found myself in the courtroom with her, “stung to desperation,” as witch trial historian Charles Upham later put it. “The examination of Martha Carrier must have been one of the most striking scenes of the whole drama of the witchcraft proceedings…Then and there, they were witnessing the great struggle between the kingdoms of God and of the Evil One.”
Martha wasn’t a witch, of course, but she was taken for one because she stood out. She’d committed fornication, a sin and crime, bearing son Richard three months after her marriage to Thomas, a Welshman immigrant 20 years her senior.
She was also quarrelsome. Four neighbor men testified that after she threatened them they developed pus-filled sores and they lost cows, afflictions that stopped once she was jailed. In 1690 Martha was accused of bringing smallpox to Andover, which killed many in her family. Town leaders ordered her not to enter church or homes. At her trial, she was accused of killing 13 (a reference, no doubt, to the smallpox), flying on brooms, killing livestock, inflicting disease, baptizing her children in the name of the devil, wanting to be queen of hell, and torturing the accusing girls as they faced her.
Among the documents are depositions from four of her children, ages 8 to 18, jailed as witches, who agreed their mother was a witch, 8-year-old Sarah telling Hathorne a black cat told her so. The eldest boys, Richard, 18, and Andrew, 15, confessed only after ropes were tied between necks and heels, their bodies bowed backward “till the blood was ready to come out of their noses.” Still, Martha would not confess and so died.
Her children, shamed by the hanging, filled with grief that they’d called their mother a witch, left for Connecticut with their father, Thomas, to start over, clearing land in what is now Colchester and Marlborough. Richard married a scarlet woman with a baby out of wedlock, unsure who the father was. Thomas Jr. married a woman from another accused-witch family. As many as three generations later in my genealogy, witch-tainted families were hanging together.
The elder Thomas, a 7-foot-4 giant who lived to be 109, whose own oral history claims he beheaded Charles I, returned to Massachusetts in 1711 to plead for redress. By then, official opinion had turned. The jury said it had been misled. One judge and one of the girls asked forgiveness. Pathetic scraps of arithmetic in the museum show Thomas figuring: 50 shillings for the sheriff, and 4 pounds, 16 shillings for jail time for Martha and the kids, plus food. Martha’s pardon came with a payment: 7 pounds, 6 shillings.
Except for their wills, Martha’s husband and sons left no written states of mind, no coming to terms as the Hathorne/Hawthorne line did. Rather, silence, that carried to this day.
The three boys died well-to-do with farms and hundreds of pounds of “moveable estate” to pass to children and grandchildren. Andrew had a slave, valued at 480 pounds, to whom he granted “liberty” to choose which child would be his new master. They died in old age, God fearing, awaiting resurrection, without a word of what they’d suffered.
Richard left his farm to son Amos, who somehow lost it. Amos’ probate reads like buzzards on a body – “insolvent” – the lawyers and lenders picking away, his widow left with 4 pounds. His is the one grave, besides Martha’s, that cannot be found. From there it goes, schoolteacher, farmer, doctor, a drunk, then my grandfather who dropped out of school to support his mother.
Reading genealogies, testimony, walking the route to the gallows and graveyards, I was filled not with revenge but a sense of resilience. From the worst possible beginning the family moved on, soldiers, scholar and, yes, a distance cousin, son of a son of a son of Andrew, who perfected air conditioning and started a business called Carrier.
But even as I followed the men who carried the name, I heard the woman who carried the burden. Martha’s torment left our women — all women — butterflies trapped in New England jars. Martha was still shouting, beware the witch-hunt, be it against women, gays, Christians, militiamen, liberals, tree-huggers [Today, I’d include Muslims, Gypsies, Homeless, you name it].
At the Salem garden commemorating the trials, where her name is inscribed in a stone by a maple tree, I sat with that thought in the rain. Three hundred years after Martha Carrier, I know where my family name stands.
(c) Denver Post Dec. 29 1996