Day By Day in a Colonial Town

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

An odd and unexplained preface to this case is a court record of 1680 stating that Anne Belding, a sixteen-year-old girl, pleaded guilty to purposes and practices against the body and life of Mary Webster and was fined one pound. And an even stranger postscript is thus told in the words of Cotton Mather: “Mr. Philip Smith, aged about fifty years, deacon of a church in Hadley, and a man of devotion, sanctity and gravity, was … in the winter of 1684 murdered with a hideous witchcraft. He was, by his office, concerned about relieving the indigencies of a wretched woman in the town, who being dissatisfied at some of his just cares about her, expressed herself unto him in such a manner, that he declared himself henceforth apprehensive of receiving mischief at her hands.” Deacon Smith’s fears seemed to be verified when he became “very valetudinarious. … Galley pots of medicine were unaccountably emptied; audible scratchings were made about the bed, when his hands and feet lay wholly still, or were held by others. … Some of the young men of the town being out of their wits at the strange calamities … went to give disturbance to the woman thus complained of; and all the while they were disturbing her, he was at ease, and slept as a weary man. Mr. Smith dies; the jury that viewed his corpse, found a swelling on the breast, his back full of bruises, and several holes that seemed made with awls. … This was the end of a good man.”

“Give disturbance” strikes one as a rather mild way of putting it when we learn from another contemporary that “a number of brisk lads tried an experiment on the old woman. Having dragged her out of the house, they hung her up until she was nearly dead, let her down, rolled her some time in the snow, and at last buried her in it, and there left her; but she survived, and the melancholy man died.”

This was the last of the valley’s witchcraft trials. The old superstitions were dying out, and when a Northampton man accused a neighbor of bewitching him, the magistrate, instead of entering the complaint, is said to have ordered the accuser to be whipped ten stripes on the spot.

How the river towns were settled and governed

HADLEY AND OTHER FRONTIER towns were founded by companies of men, banded together by written agreement to establish new homes in the wilderness. The agreement first had to be approved by the General Court, which appointed a committee to lay out the bounds “that this wilderness may be populated and the main ends of our coming into these parts promoted.” When land had been bought from the Indians, it was divided among the “proprietors,” partly by lot and partly by proportional investment. A main street, often as much as 20 rods (320 feet) wide was fenced for a common grazing ground, and each proprietor received a home lot of eight acres (in the case of Hadley) and some meadowland for crops and grazing.

 

These early settlements were determined to keep themselves select and to exclude “unworthy persons or those liable to become a town charge.” For Hadley it was stipulated in the Articles of Agreement that “no man shall have the liberty to sell any of his land until he shall inhabit and dwell in the town three years; and also to sell it to no person but such as the town shall approve on.” Even visitors were coldly scrutinized. Springfield, for example, ordered in 1642 that “if any man of this Township shall, under the color of friendship or otherwise, intertayne any person or persons here to abide or continue as inmates, or shall subdivide their house lot to intertayne them as tenants for a longer time than one month without the general consent and allowance of the inhabitants, he shall forfeit for the first default twenty shillings.” Inhospitable as this may seem, it was a necessary precaution during the first years when food was scarce and living precarious.