This week’s theme is “strong women”. Although I undoubtedly come from a long line of strong females, the one that I gravitated to for this topic is my 10th great grandmother, Susannah North Martin, who was hanged as a witch in 1692 as part of the Salem witch outbreak.
Susannah North Martin was born in England about 1621, the daughter of Richard and Joan Bartram North. Susannah was living in Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1646 when she married widower, blacksmith George Martin, with whom she would have eight children. Later, they came to live in the new town of Amesbury, Mass.
Susannah was accused of being a witch on several different occasions; first in 1661, and later in 1669. At the same time as the first accusations Susannah and her husband were involved in a series of legal battles over her inheritance. In 1668 her father, Richard North, died leaving two daughters, a granddaughter and his second wife to share his sizable estate. To the dismay of Susannah and her sister, they received only a tiny portion while the bulk of the estate passed to his second wife, who died soon after her husband. Susannah’s stepmother left the majority of North’s estate to his granddaughter, continuing the exclusion of Susannah and her sister, who pursued a series of appeals, all of which were unsuccessful.
After the death of her husband in 1686, Susannah was left a widow, which in Puritanical New England meant that she was defenseless and destitute. When the Salem witch hysteria broke out in 1692, it was inevitable that she was again accused. By this time her neighbors were so upset with her because she was outspoken, she had a temper and she did not care what people thought of her, something that would not have been socially acceptable at that time. (sound familiar?)
Rev. Cotton Mather recorded some of her trial:
“[Magistrate] (to the afflicted girls): Do you know this Woman?
[Abigail Williams]: It is Goody Martin she hath hurt me often.
Others by fits were hindered from speaking. Eliz: Hubbard said she hath not been hurt by her. John Indian said he hath not seen her Mercy Lewes pointed to her & fell into a little fit. Ann Putman threw her Glove in a fit at her. The examinant laught.
[Magistrate] (To Martin): What do you laugh at it?
[Martin]: Well I may at such folly.
[Magistrate]: Is this folly? The hurt of these persons.
[Martin]: I never hurt man woman or child.
[Mercy Lewes]: She hath hurt me a great many times, & pulls me down
Then Martin laughed again
[Mary Walcott]: This woman hath hurt me a great many times.
Susan Sheldon also accused her of afflicting her.
[Magistrate] (To Martin): What do you say to this?
[Martin]: I have no hand in Witchcraft.
[Magistrate]: What did you do? Did not you give your consent?
[Martin]: No, never in my life.
[Magistrate]: What ails this people?
[Martin]: I do not know.
[Magistrate]: But w’t do you think?
[Martin]: I do not desire to spend my judgm’t upon it.
[Magistrate]: Do not you think they are Bewitcht?
[Martin]: No. I do not think they are
[Magistrate]: Tell me your thoughts about them.
[Martin]:Why my thoughts are my own, when they are in, but when they are out they are anothers.”
Despite the lack of evidence against her, Susannah was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged at Gallows Hill on July 19 along with Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes.
I agree with historian Carol Karlsen, who interpreted the Salem outbreak in socio-economic terms. Karlsen postulated that accused witches were not only poor, disagreeable old women, but also women of social and economic standing within their community. Karlsen believed there was a correlation between witchcraft accusations and aberrations in the traditional line of property transmission. She notes that property, particularly land, typically went to the male relatives after the death of a parent. And with Susannah’s numerous challenges to her father’s will and subsequent court battles, she was targeted as a threat by being a “strong woman”.
In 1711, the Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution clearing the names of the convicted witches and offered financial restitution to their descendents. Susannah Martin’s family did not wish to be named in the law and did not seek restitution. In 1957, the Massachusetts legislature formally apologized to the victims of the Salem Witch Trials but did not specifically mention any of the victims by name. Finally, in 2001, the Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution officially exonerating five of the victims not mentioned in the previous resolutions: Susannah Martin, Bridget Bishop, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd and Margaret Scott.
My mother recently went to Salem, MA and paid homage to our ancestress – I’m glad that women’s rights have come a long way since 1692, but I think we can always look to the past for inspiration to continue the struggle for equality and equitable treatment under the law.
Karlsen, C. F. (1987). The devil in the shape of a woman: Witchcraft in colonial New England [Google eBook].
Salem Witch Trials. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://salem.lib.virginia.edu
Goss, K. (2008). The Salem Witch Trials: a Reference Guide [Google eBook].
Massachusetts Clears 5 From Salem Witch Trials – NYTimes.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/02/us/massachusetts-clears-5-from-salem-witch-trials.html
17th Century Documents & Books. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/17docs.html