...in 1675, a Boston jury reached a verdict in the case of Mary Bliss Parsons of Northampton: they found her not guilty of witchcraft. In seventeenth-century New England, virtually everyone believed in witches. Hundreds of individuals faced charges of practicing witchcraft. They were women, or sometimes men, who had "signed the Devil's Book" and were working on his behalf. Their wickedness was blamed for calamities ranging from ailing animals to the death of infant children. While most of the accused never went to trial or were, like Mary Parsons, acquitted, not everyone was so lucky. Six Massachusetts women were hanged as witches in the years before the infamous Salem witch trials, which claimed 24 innocent lives.
Colonial Massachusetts has a well-deserved reputation as a litigious culture; fortunately it was also a record-keeping one. County courthouses are full of 300 year-old documents depositions, trial transcripts, judges' orders that allow historians to reconstruct the stories of the people accused of witchcraft. One of the best documented, and most unusual, is the case of Mary Bliss Parsons of Northampton.
Mary Bliss and Joseph Parsons married in Hartford in 1646. After several years in Springfield, the Parsons family, which now included three children, moved to Northampton, a brand new settlement some 20 miles up the Connecticut River.
Joseph Parsons soon became one of Northampton's leading citizens. A successful merchant, he served as a selectman and on the committee to build the first meetinghouse. Since the Parsons also owned the first tavern in town, they were right in the thick of things.
Another couple, Sarah and James Bridgman, followed a similar route but had a very different experience than the Parsons. They also wed in Hartford, moved to Springfield, and then onto Northampton, where a feud developed between the two families.
Soon after arriving in Northampton, Mary Parsons gave birth to a son, the first English child born in the town. That same month, Sarah Bridgman had a baby boy. When he died two weeks later, she claimed it was the result of Mary's witchcraft. Rumors began to swirl about the town. Joseph Parsons decided to go on the offensive. He charged James Bridgman with slander for spreading rumors about Mary Parsons's alleged witchcraft.
Even though juries usually sided with the plaintiff in such cases, Joseph Parsons was taking a risk by bringing rumors to the attention of officials. Authorities might decide there was merit to the accusations, and the plaintiff could suddenly find herself the defendant.
The case was heard at the Magistrates' Court in Cambridge in October 1656; 33 depositions were given. Almost half of Northampton's 32 households sent a witness; a few others came from Springfield.
Sarah Bridgman related her tale of how in May 1654 she heard a "great blow on the door" and immediately sensed a change in her newborn. Then she saw "two women pass by the door with white clothes on their heads." The women disappeared, and Bridgman concluded her son would die because "there [was] wickedness in the place."
Such testimony was the norm in witch trials. An argument took place, and when something went awry later, people attributed the problem to witchcraft. One Northampton woman testified that the yarn she had spun for Mary Parsons ended up full of knots. Since the yarn the woman spun for others had no knots, she concluded that Mary's witchcraft was the cause. Another woman blamed Mary Parson when her daughter fell ill shortly after she had refused to let the girl work for Parsons. One man stated that the day after "some discontent[ed] words passed" between himself and Mary Parsons, he found his cow in the yard "ready to die," which it did two weeks later.
A number of people testified in Mary Parsons's defense. Three women described Sarah Bridgman's baby as "sick as soon as it was born." A neighbor stated that the cow in question had died of "water in the belly." The court ruled in favor of the Parsons. The Bridgmans were given the choice of paying a fine or making a public apology. They paid the fine.
The feud and Mary Parsons's ordeal resumed 18 years later, in 1674, when the Bridgmans' son-in-law filed a new complaint. He "strongly suspect[ed] that [his wife] died by some unusuall meanes, viz, by means of some evell Instrument." The instrument he had in mind was Mary Bliss Parsons.
On January 5, 1675, the county magistrates summoned Mary to appear before them. Women searched her body for "witch's teats," unexplained (to seventeenth-century eyes) protrusions where "imps" were said to suck. The record is silent as to what they did or did not find, but in March the Court of Assistants in Boston sent Mary Parsons to prison to await trial. The records from this trial do not survive, but we know that on May 13, 1675, a jury found her not guilty.
The Parsons returned to Northampton, but in 1679 or 1680, they moved back to Springfield, perhaps to escape the rumors that continued to dog them. Mary Bliss Parsons was in her mid-80s when she died in 1712.
Although Mary Parsons occupied a far more secure social position than almost all of the other women charged with witchcraft in early New England after all, she was the wife of one of the richest, most respected men in western Massachusetts her experience fit the norm in other ways. Middle-aged women were the most likely to be accused of witchcraft. The issues of jealousy, personal animosity, and family feuds that were so evident in her case would fuel the Salem witch hysteria of 1692 as well.
The horror that began in Salem Village (present day Danvers) and spread to almost every town in Essex county saw women, children, and men, including the former minister of Salem Village, hauled before magistrates. At one point some 170 accused witches were being held in jails in Ipswich, Salem, Boston, and Cambridge. Between June and September of 1692, authorities hanged 19 people and pressed one to death; four more died in prison, awaiting trial. In 1693 the madness ended. There would be no more convictions and executions for witchcraft in New England, although it would be another century before the belief in witches lost its hold on the people of the region.
A Delusion of Satan, by Frances Hill (Da Capo Press, 1997).
Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, by John Putman Demos (Oxford University Press, 1982).
"The Goody Parsons Witchcraft Case: A Journey to Seventeenth-Century Northampton." Available online.