Day By Day in a Colonial Town

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Flaunters and witches

IN ORDER THAT MONEY might not be wasted on nonessentials, the General Court passed a law in 1651 forbidding persons whose estate did not exceed two hundred pounds, and those dependent on them, to wear gold or silver lace, gold or silver buttons, bone lace above two shillings a yard, or silk scarves or hoods, under penalty of ten shillings for each offense. The first attempt to enforce this law in Hampshire County (Massachusetts) was made in 1673 when twenty-five wives and five maids were haled into court as “persons of small estate who used to wear silk contrary to law.” Of the thirty only three were fined.

 

In 1676 there was a roundup of the younger set with thirty-eight wives and maids and thirty young men brought into court—the men, “some for wearing silk, and that in a flaunting manner, and others for long hair and other extravagancies.” Only two of the sixty-eight were fined, which seems to have had a discouraging effect upon the officers of the law, as six years later, in a curious reversal, the officials of five towns were brought to court for not arresting such inhabitants of their towns as wore unsuitable and excessive apparel. The battle was over and the younger set had won, but for many years their elders continued to wag their heads over the degeneracy of the age.

Flaunters were bad enough, but witches were even more troublesome. The first was Mary Parsons of Springfield, who was indicted in 1651 for having been seduced by the Devil; for having used “divers” hellish practices on the persons of two children of the Springfield minister; and for having murdered her own child. At her trial in Boston (local courts could not try capital offenses) she pleaded not guilty to witchcraft and was acquitted but she was found guilty of murder and was condemned to death. Her husband, Hugh, was also indicted for witchcraft, largely on the word of his wife, who testified that “sometymes he hath puld of the Bed Clothes and left me naked abed. … Sometimes he hath thrown pease about the Howse and made me pick them up. … Oftentymes in his sleep he makes a gablings Noyse.” Hugh was found guilty by the jury, but the verdict was overruled by the magistrates.

In 1674 another Mary Parsons, this one of Northampton, was accused of familiarity with the Devil and of having caused the death of Mary Bartlett. The accused was a respectable woman and the wife of one of Northampton’s richest citizens, but according to Judd, she was proud and high-spirited to a point that had excited the ill will of her neighbors. At the preliminary hearing she vehemently asserted her innocence, whereupon the magistrate appointed a “jury of soberized, chaste women to make a diligent search upon the body of Mary Parsons, whether any marks of witchcraft might appear.” Suspicious marks were discovered, and she was sent to Boston for trial but there found innocent and discharged.

The Devil's work

THE MOST FAMOUS witch of Hampshire County was Mary Webster of Hadley, a poor old woman who had the unfortunate habit of feuding with her neighbors—the customary background for a charge of witchcraft. Hadley folks told many tales of her devilries. Horses and cattle going by her house stopped and could not be driven past. A load of hay overturned near her home, and when the driver threatened her with his whip, she turned it back again. A hen fell down the chimney of a neighbor’s house and was scalded in the pot, whereupon it was discovered that Mary had just been scalded. Lt. Philip Smith fell strangely ill after she had threatened him. Feeling against her finally grew into such heat that in 1683 she was indicted and sent to Boston for trial, the charge being that “she not having the fear of God before her eyes, and being instigated by the devil, hath entered into a convernent and had familiarity with him in the shape of a warraneage [a fisher or marten] and had his imps sucking her.” She was found not guilty, and the colony paid the costs of her trial, amounting to twenty-three pounds, fifteen shillings, and twopence.