Bridget Playfer Waselby Oliver Bishop was the first person falsely convicted and executed as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. She is also the fourth great grandmother of both Nathaniel Henry Felt and his first wife, Eliza Ann Preston (See the Felt & Bridget Bishop Family Tree). Bridget has been greatly misunderstood because of a historical mistake in her identity. It is important to set the record straight by writing her history in as much accurate detail as possible for her descendants. We owe a great debt to David Greene, who unearthed the errors in Bridget’s history and published his findings in 1981 in The American Genealogist. Robert Anderson of Salt Lake City continued Greene’s research, uncovering records of Bridget’s first marriage which he published in TAG in 1989. Thanks to Jonathan Felt and Helen Wilcox for their help and encouragement with this project. Thanks especially to the librarians at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for their willing help with the research.For those who want to read more extensively about Bridget and the Witch trials, most of the books referenced can now be accessed on the internet.
The Felt & Bridget Bishop Connection
The first Felt in America, George Felt, landed in Charleston, near Boston, in 1638. A few years later he settled on Casco Bay in Maine, then the American frontier. George was a founding father of North Yarmouth, Maine (Rowe, 1937). Felt’s Falls, the site of George’s mill, can still be located on the coast of Maine using Rowe’s map and a detailed map of the coast. In the 1600’s Felt’s Falls must have been a roaring river to have powered a mill, but it is now only a shallow stream surrounded by luxury homes.
Nathaniel Henry Felt is descended from George’s oldest son, also named George. George Junior was killed by Native Americans in King Phillip’s War in 1675. The war erupted in part due to misunderstandings between the Native Americans and English colonists based on cultural differences. For example, George Felt and others had purchased land from the local tribes on Casco Bay, but this had a different meaning to the two parties. To the settlers it meant ownership. To the natives it meant access. The concept ofownership by one person was completely foreign to the Indians, and they expected to continue their livelihood of hunting and fishing on the land as they had for hundreds of years. As English settlers crowded them out of their hunting and fishing grounds and brought diseases that killed them by the thousands, the tribes in the region began attacking the settlers.
After the war ended, George Senior and his wife were too feeble to survive on the frontier. They resettled in Malden, Massachusetts, a village near Salem, along with George Junior’s wife, Phillipa, and her six fatherless children. For biographies of George Felt and his descendants see The Felt Genealogy (Morris, 1893).
George, Jr and Phillpa’s son Jonathan moved to Salem in 1690 at age 23 and was living there during the witch trials. Jonathan’s grandson, David married Bridget Bishop’s great-great granddaughter, Susanna Beckett. It was in Salem that David and Susanna’s grandson, Nathaniel Henry Felt and his wife Eliza Ann, converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1843.
Bridget Bishop made history on June 10, 1692, as the first hanging victim of the witch hysteria. Her story has been overly sensationalized in written accounts of the events and also in the way she is portrayed in many venues in Salem today. At the time of her death, Bridget was married to her third husband, Edward Bishop and was living in Salem town. Even during her trial she was confused with Sarah Bishop, the wife of another Edward Bishop, of Salem Village (Green, 1981). It is uncertain if the two Edwards were related. Sarah and her husband ran an illegal tavern where she “did entertain people in her house at unseasonable hours in the night to keep drinking and playing at shuffleboard, whereby discord did arise in other families, and young people were in danger to be corrupted (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1974, p.49 Salem Witchcraft).”
When Sarah’s scandalous behavior was attributed to Bridget, who wore a “red paragon bodice,” and had her own troubles with the law, Bridget was catapulted into the written histories of the witch trials and the popular imagination as the ultimate scarlet woman in Puritan society (Rosenthal, 1993). Sarah and Edward Bishop of the tavern were also arrested for witchcraft, but escaped from jail in September 1692.
This fictionalized Bridget was described by Giles Corey in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s play of 1868, Giles Corey of the Salem Farm (Act II Scene I):
Poor soul! I’ve known her forty year or more.
She was the widow Wasselby, and then
She married Oliver, and Bishop next.
She’s had three husbands. I remember well
My games of shovel-board at Bishop’s tavern
In the old merry days, and she so gay
With her red paragon bodice and her ribbons!
Ah, Bridget Bishop always was a Witch!
They’ll little help her now,–her caps and ribbons,
And her red paragon bodice and her plumes,
With which she flaunted in the Meeting-house!
When next she goes there, it will be for trial.
Bridget’s unsavory reputation is perpetuated in Salem today where the witch trials are big business for tourism. Some for-profit venues capitalize on Bridget’s notorious reputation. For example, the Salem Wax Museum features a buxom wax figure of Bridget all in red being arrested as she serves alcohol in the tavern. It has the caption: “Lusty Bridget Bishop is arrested. She was the first to hang.” Bridget is also said to haunt the Lyceum Bar and Grill that is on the site of her orchard. The restaurant is located in the Lyceum, an important historical building. It was there that Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call to nearby Boston. Staff of the bar and grill claim to have seen Bridget on the balcony, and report that she has rearranged place settings and turned lights on and off (personal conversation).
On a more positive note, Bridget has her own play in Salem, performed by The Gordon College drama department, “Cry Innocent”. It is an accurate and sensitively portrayed dramatic reenactment of her trial.
The audience participates as the jury and decides her fate. It is a bit surprising that present day audiences often convict her all over again of being a witch. Maybe there is a bit of witch hysteria in all of us.
The real Bridget Bishop was a colorful and controversial enough character without the illegal tavern and shuffleboard. She apparently drew attention for her trademark red paragon bodice and for being married three times. She had been punished by the Strict Puritan courts for public fights with her second husband, Thomas Oliver. She was arrested, but not convicted of witchcraft 12 years before the witch hysteria. But, this doesn’t tell the whole story of Bridget. She was also a mother and grandmother. She had property and financial means at a time most women had no independence. Both Thomas and her third husband Edward were men of status in Salem.
Grandma Bridget Bishop was clearly not the most upstanding citizen of Salem, but she stands shoulder to shoulder with other more reputable victims of the witch trials like Rebecca Nurse, an 80 something matriarch of the community and church. Despite immense and ongoing pressure to confess, they proclaimed their innocence to the end and were executed. Perversely, those who made a false confession to being a witch were seen as repentant and were allowed to live. They were then made to endure a process of “rehabilitation”. Bridget stands with those who died for the truth.
Bridget’s Early History
Very few details are known about Bridget’s early life. She was likely born in the 1630’s if she married in her mid-twenties, the typical age for women in 17th century England (Woods & Hinde, 1985). The following information was discovered in the parish records of St. Mary in the Marsh, Norwich, county Norfolk, England (Anderson, 1989):
“Samuel Waselby & Bridget Playfer were married April 13, 1660”
“1663 Benjamin the son of Samuel Waselby & Bridget his wife was baptized October 6th.”
(For photos and a description of the Norwich cathedral see http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/norwichmarymarsh/norwichmarymarsh.htm)
Then in 1665, Bridget was on her own in Boston giving birth to a baby daughter:
“Mary of Samuel Deceased and Bridget Wesselbee late of Norwich in England born Jan 10”
(Boston, Record Commisioners’s Report 9 :98).
According to Anderson (1989):
“No record was found to tell whether Samuel Waselby died in England or New England. . . Also no further record has been found of Samuel and Bridget’s two children. Likewise no earlier record of Bridget has been found.”
Genealogical research can be difficult because of variations of spelling of names. Waselby has been spelled “Wasselby, Wasselbe, Wesselbee, etc” in existing records. Many errors are also made because of the difficulty of reading old records: Bridget was sealed to Samuel under the name Bridget “Hayfer” instead of “Playfer” through the LDS Church extraction program before the Felt’s ever knew of her connection to them. Because there is no further record of Benjamin or Mary, in England or New England it is likely they died as infants or children.
Being a young widow alone in a strange land, with or without children, must have been frightening for Bridget. Women were dependent on men for survival, as there were very few options for them to support themselves. By 1666, Bridget had married again and had settled into the Puritan community of Salem. She would have been around 30 years old.
The Puritans in New England
“Puritan” is the name given to different groups of religious reformers in England beginning in the early 16th century. Some left England for religious freedom, like the pilgrims. Others, like those who settled Salem, came to America hoping to build a more pure religious society. At the time Bridget lived in Norwich, England it was a hotbed of Puritanism. In 1643 a Puritan mob stormed the Norwich cathedral and destroyed all the catholic symbols (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishop_of_Norwich). However, it isn’t known how involved Bridget or any of her three husbands were in the Puritan movement if at all. The residents of New England like the residents of Old England and Europe believed in witches. They attributed unexplained events, illnesses, and deaths to witchcraft. Prominent Puritan ministers of the day, particularly Cotton Mather , wrote and preached extensively about the evils of witchcraft and how to identify witches. Laws against witchcraft, methods for proving its practice, and capital punishment were imported from England (Hill, 2000).
Practicing witchcraft was considered a great offence against God’s laws and the laws of the land because the Puritans believed witches made a compact with the devil in exchange for using his power to bewitch and hurt innocent neighbors. Roach (2002) explains it this way:
“Witches (they knew) were basically envious, resented their neighbors’ successes, and enjoyed their misfortunes. Consequently, witches pilfered supplies at a distance or spoiled them from spite. They maimed, maddened, or killed livestock. They hurt or killed people by sudden disaster or slow illness.”
It was believed that witches could bewitch others in person, pretending to be good neighbors by caring for the sick, etc, or as a spirit or specter. It was believed witches could change shape themselves or use evil spirits or imps in animal shape to do their work. They supposedly tried to get innocent neighbors to make a pact with the Devil by threatening them harm if they didn’t sign his book (Roach, 2002).
Bridget in Salem, 1666 to 1692
Bridget married Thomas Oliver on July 26, 1666. Thomas had immigrated from Norwich in 1637, at the age of 36, with his first wife, Mary and their sons Thomas and John (Hotten, 1874 p. 295). They had a daughter Mary in Salem (Anderson, 1989). By the time he married Bridget he was a widower with three grown children, most likely 30 to 40 years her senior. It isn’t known if they met in England or in Massachusetts, as there is evidence that Thomas spent time in Norwich after he immigrated (Anderson, 1989). Bridget and Thomas had one child, a daughter named Christian who was born on May 8, 1667 (Green, 1981).
The court records of Salem indicate that Bridget and Thomas had a tumultuous marriage and that Thomas beat Bridget. In January 1669, Bridget and Thomas were sentenced to pay a fine or be whipped ten stripes for fighting in public. A witness reported that Bridget’s face was bloody at one time and black and blue at other times and that Thomas complained that Bridget had hit him (Greene). In Puritan New England there was apparently no sympathy for a woman who was the victim of spousal abuse. Instead she was looked down on as being morally corrupt. The fact that Bridget refused to be subservient to Thomas and fought back was another black mark against her in Puritan society (Karlsen, 1987 & Reis, 1995 in Rickert, 2003).
Charges were brought against Bridget and Thomas again in 1677:
“Bridget, wife of Thomas Olliver, . . .for calling her husband many opprobrious names, as old rogue and old devil, on Lord’s days; she was ordered to stand with her husband, back to back on about an hour with a paper fastened to each of their foreheads, upon which their offence should be fairly written” (Greene, 1981).
Thomas Oliver died without a will prior to April 24, 1679, the date Bridget was appointed the administrator of his estate (Green, 1981). The next year a neighbor accused Bridget of being a witch and she was arrested, though not convicted. He claimed she appeared to him as a specter (or evil spirit) and pinched him, and that she bewitched his horses and caused him mysterious pain. It was also rumored that she had bewitched her first two husbands to death. About the charges Rosenthal (1993, p. 83) writes:
“Whether [the accuser] had a hallucination or invented the image of Bridget as a shape we will never know. What can be determined, however is that the accusation against her came after her husband had recently died without leaving a will, a situation that Carol Karlsen has demonstrated left New England women vulnerable to charges of witchcraft.”
Bridget’s final brush with the law before 1692 came in 1687 when a neighbor accused her of stealing brass. It was his word against hers. This neighbor would later testify against her in her witchcraft trial (Greene, 1981).
After the death of Thomas, Bridget again remarried, this time to Edward Bishop, sometime during 1685-87. Nothing is known about Edward except that he was a Sawyer, who “got out boards and joists, beams and timber from of all kinds, from logs,” a high ranking profession in the important shipbuilding industry of 17th century Massachusetts (Upham, p 191). In 1686, Bridget’s daughter Christian was married to Thomas Mason and her granddaughter, Susanna was born in 1687.
As previously noted, Bridget was apparently known to her neighbors in Salem by her signature red paragon bodice. The original reference is from one of the men who testified in her pre-trial examination in 1692 that she appeared to him as a specter:
“s’d Bishop came in her Red paragon Bodys and the rest of her cloathing that she then usually did ware, and I knowing of her well also the garb she did use to goe in.did clearely & plainely know her” http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/BoySal1R.xml?div_id=n13
Another accuser said, “ Oliver brought me apair of sleeves to dye & after that Sundry peeces of lace Some of w’ch were Soe Short that I could not judge them fit for any uce.” These two references are apparently the source of Uphams description:
“She is described as wearing ‘a black cap and a black hat, and a red paragon bodice,’ bordered and looped with different colors. This would appear to have been rather a showy costume for the times. Her freedom from the austerity of Puritan manners, and disregard of conventional decorum in her conversation and conduct, brought her into disrepute; and the tongue of gossip was generally loosened against her “(Upham, p. 192).
Because this paragraph follows the assertion that Bridget was the owner of the illegal tavern its accuracy cannot be determined. It is unclear whether Bridget’s contemporaries objected to her bodice as being too showy or if Upham and others just assumed that they did. It could have simply been her trademark. Sources conflict about the color of Puritan clothing. Many say they tended to wear browns. But other sources say that It is a myth that the Puritans frowned on colorful clothing: “The association of the Puritans with drab colors is wrong. They especially liked the colors red and blue.” (http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/BoySal1R.xml?div_id=n13)
If Bridget’s red paragon bodice was considered inappropriate dress by her neighbors, it may have had to do with the belief that only the higher classes could wear certain colors or types of clothing. “Paragon” was a plain or embroidered fabric used for everyday clothes by country folk in colonial times (Earle, 1894), so it must have been the color or the lacings she used that were objectionable:
“To try to maintain traditional social distinctions, Massachusetts Bay colony in 1651 adopted a sumptuary law, which spelled out which persons could wear certain articles of clothing and jewelry.” (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=677)
Whether or not her appearance was an issue, the notoriety Bridget gained because of her feisty temperament, brushes with the law, reputation of being a witch, and her three marriages made her a ready target as the witch hysteria began brewing in January 1692. She was likely between 55 and 60 years of age at the time (Rosenthal, 1993).
The Salem Witch Hysteria
In early accounts of the witch trials the historians of Salem were understandably touchy about the witch trials, including Nathaniel Henry Felt’s first cousin, the prominent writer and minister Joseph Barlow Felt. In his Annals of Salem (1845, p. 475) he began his account of the witch trials with this defense.
“When our ancestors came to New England, it was a common belief with them, as well as with their countrymen, whom they left behind, that witchcraft was a crime and could be detected by appropriate evidence. Such a belief was not more indicative their mental weakness, than of that justly attributable to all civilized Europe.”
He goes on to say people had been tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft throughout the New England colonies which proves “our fathers of that day [are not] indictable for more than an ordinary share of superstition and folly.. .That the intelligence and character of our population could have suffered nothing in comparison with those of inhabitants in any other equal section of our country should silence every such charge.”
Translated, Reverend Felt complains that Salem does not deserve its bad reputation for hanging innocent people for witchcraft, defending the “intelligence and character” of the inhabitants of 17th century Salem as no worse than anywhere else in New England. He calls the witch hysteria, “the great development,” seeming to minimize the tragedy. However, later in his narrative he refers to Bridget Bishop as “the first who fell a victim in this appalling drama.” (Felt, p. 478).
It would be interesting to know if either he or Nathaniel Henry knew they were descendants of Bridget. Charles Upham, a prominent Senator from Massachusetts, who published his book Salem Witchcraft, during the lifetime of both Joseph and Nathaniel records: “The descendants of Bridget Bishop are very numerous in Salem; embracing some of our oldest and most respectable families, and branching widely from them (p. 267).” He traces the genealogy down to Susannah Becket’s marriage to David Felt.
Records show that between 1638 and 1691, more than 120 individuals were suspected of witchcraft resulting in 83 trials and 11 to 17 executions. All but one or two of those executed were women, although one-fourth of the accused were men (Roach, 2002). So Rev. Felt is technically correct in his defense, but the people of Salem victimized and killed many more people in one year than all New Englanders had done in the previous 53 years.
The Beginnings of the Witch Hunt
The Salem witch hunt began in January of 1692 when the daughter and niece of Reverend Parris of the Salem Village church began exhibiting “blasphemous screaming, convulsive seizures, trance-like states and mysterious spells” (Salem Witchcraft Papers, http://www.salemweb.com/memorial/chronology.shtml). When they could find no physical cause for the symptoms, Reverend Parris and the attending physicians concluded that the girls were being afflicted by the devil.
When pressed to identify who was bewitching them, the girls named Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave, and two other women as witches. The women were arrested. The fits and seizures spread to other girls in the village, including Ann Putnam. Tituba confessed to being a witch under pressure from Reverend Parris and named other witches. Tituba later recanted, saying she had confessed to save her life. (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/database/article_display.cfm?HHID=678).
After Tituba’s confession the number of accusers and accused grew exponentially. The girls claimed the accused witches visited them as specters, demanding they sign the devil’s book, confessing to their evildeeds and pinching them. Others of the accused also confessed under pressure and corroborated the girls’ claims. See http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/transcripts.htm for a detailed account of the witch trials, and the compiled Witchcraft Papers. Those initially accused were “women whose behavior or economic circumstances were somehow disturbing to the social order and conventions of the time.” Some like Bridget had previously been accused of witchcraft. But soon “faithful churchgoers and people of high standing in the community” were denounced as witches (http://www.salemweb.com/memorial/chronology.shtml).
The accused were examined by the magistrate in the village hall in the presence of the accusers and people of the village before being bound over for trial. The young accusers went into hysterics as the accused were brought in, swooning and having fits, and claiming to be tortured by the specters of the accused. The adults in the courtroom readily accepted this as evidence of witchcraft.
On April 16, Mercy Lewis, a maid to the Putnam’s, accused Bridget Bishop of being a witch, and other young men and women joined in. Bridget was arrested on April 18, the indictment reading that she was the cause of Mercy being “hurt Tortured Afflicted Pined, Consumed, wasted: & tormented ag’t the Peace of our said Sovereigne Lord.” http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/BoySal1R.xml?div_id=n13 She was imprisoned with the other accused witches.
Since witchcraft was a capital offense the accused were taken to the Boston jail, almost a day’s journey from Salem. Prisons were intended to hold prisoners only for a short time, but some of the accused witches spent up to a year there. The prisons of the day were “hot in the summer and cold in the winter, infested with lice, and stank at all times of dung and tobacco” (Roach, 2002, p.35). A visiting Englishman called them the “suburbs of hell.” The accused witches were chained with shackles around their ankles. What added insult to injury was that the accused were charged for their prison stay, more than they could earn, and were charged extra for blankets, etc. Records showed that Bridget was charged 7 British pounds by the jailer in Boston (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 1976a, Vol 2, p. 61). They were also charged for transportation from Boston to Salem for their examinations and trials.
One of the first accused was Sarah Good, who had been reduced to begging on the street because of debts from a previous marriage that she and her husband couldn’t pay. The accusers also named her four-yearold daughter Dorcas as a witch, saying her specter had pinched and bit them. She was chained with her pregnant mother in the same room with pirates, prisoners of war, thieves, etc. (Roach, 2002). When questioned by the judge, Dorcas confessed to being a witch and implicated her mother. The people of Salem seemed determined to believe imaginative fantasies or lies of young children and to disbelieve the honest protestations of innocence of the accused. Adults like Martha Corey who challenged the truthfulness of the accusations soon found themselves among the accused.
Bridget’s Examination, Trial and Execution
On April 19 Bridget Bishop was examined by John Hathorne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great great grandfather. Amidst the drama in the courtroom Bridget was initially calm and deferent:
“As soon as she came near all fell into fits (meaning the girls)
Hathorne: Bridget Byshop, You are now brought before Authority to Give acco. of what witchcrafts you are conversant in
Bridget: I take all this people (turning her head & eyes about) to witness that I am clear [or innocent].
H: Hath this woman hurt you speaking to the afflicted.
Eliz: Hubbard Ann Putman, Abigail Williams & Mercy Lewes affirmed she had hurt them.
H: You are here accused by 4.or.5. for hurting them, what do you say to it,
B. I never saw these persons before, nor I never was in this place before.”
( See http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/BoySal1R.xml?div_id=n13 for a complete transcript of all surviving documents related to Bridget’s arrest and trial)
Bridget was telling the truth. She lived in Salem town and her accusers lived in Salem village. Apparently because the girls accused her of appearing to them as a specter it wasn’t necessary for the girls to have ever seen her in person. Spectral evidence was a very tough allegation to prove or disprove. Rosenthal (1993) points out that the girls could have known Bridget only by reputation. It is possible that the rumors about Bridget’s earlier arrest for being a witch resurfaced during the witch hysteria and were overheard by the girls, who then targeted her.
Bridget continued to affirm her innocence with such statements as “I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is. I am as innocent as a baby.” But as the girls repeatedly mimicked her head and eye movements and Hathorne continued trying to trap her into a confession, she became increasingly frustrated and angry. She finally snapped back, “I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it,” a not- so- veiled threat.
Neighbors of Bridget from Salem town testified against her, describing incidents of witchcraft they claimed to have witnessed. They accused her of hurting animals; making one child sick and bewitching a baby to death; appearing to them as her specter to hurt and paralyze them; and making money she’d paid them disappear. One neighbor said he recognized her spirit because it was wearing the red bodice she typically wore. Another neighbor said he had found poppets or dolls used for magic, with pins stuck into them, in the walls of her house while repairing it.
A special court was convened to try the accused witches and on June 2, Bridget was the first person tried. The Salem court house where her trial was held was across the street from her house and orchard (Upham, 1867). On the morning of her trial, Bridget and others of the accused were forced to undergo degrading physical exams for witches’ teats on their bodies where it was said that witches would suckle demonic imps. It was reported that Bridget had such a mark, but that when she was examined a second time it had disappeared, evidence that it was a witch’s mark.
The transcripts of the witch trials did not survive, but Cotton Mather, a close friend of the chief judge, documented Bridget’s trial in “The Wonders of the Invisible World,” ( 1693). Mather described how a piece of wood came loose from the meeting house as Bridget walked by and stated that this was evidence she was a witch. Her young accusers went into fits when she came into the courtroom as they had during her examination. Mather’s assessment of the girls’ histrionics was that “there was little Occasion to prove the Witchcraft, it being Evident and Notorious to all Beholders” (p. 67).
One of the accused who had confessed to being a witch testified that Bridget’s specter whipped her with iron rods to force her to sign the Devil’s book and that she saw Bridget at a meeting of witches where she partook of a the Devil’s sacrament. Her neighbors repeated their accusations.
Bridget was convicted and sentenced to death mostly on “spectral evidence,” a departure from previous witchcraft trials in New England and England. Rosenthal comments:
“The case against Bridget Bishop would serve as a model in cases where the accused did not confess. First the afflicted would make their accusations, which would be denied even as the accusers claimed that the accused tortured them in the presence of the court. One or more confessors would subsequently validate the claim of witchcraft; then various members of the community, with testimony that had no bearing on the actual indictments, would join in by telling of past witchcraft by the accused. The way to the gallows for Bridget Bishop would be the way for others.” (P. 75)
The path along which Bridget was taken in a cart to the gallows went down Essex Street, where the Felt house and business still stand. Starkey (1969, p. 156) describes:
“On June 10, 1692, High Sheriff George Corwin took [Bridget Bishop] to the top of Gallows Hill and hanged her alone from the branches of a great oak tree. Now the honest men of Salem could sleep in peace, sure that the Shape of Bridget would trouble them no more.”
Note the irony of the last sentence. The “honest” man who testified that Bridget’s specter bewitched a baby to death confessed on his deathbed that he had lied (Rosenthal, 1993, p 60).
The End of the Witch Hysteria
After Bridget’s hanging, 19 more of the accused were executed for practicing witchcraft before the end of September, 1692. Upham (p. 267) says of the hanging victims:
“They were undoubtedly all thrown into pits dug among the rocks, on the spot, and hastily covered by the officers having in charge the details of the executions. There were no prayers over their graves, except those uttered by themselves in their last moments.”
The hangings only stopped when the hysteria grew so out of control that the Salem girls began denouncing prominent people of Massachusetts, including the wife of the governor of Massachusetts. The governor then put a stop to the witch trials by disbanding the Salem Witch court. By that time over 400 people had been falsely accused of witchcraft throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Even after the hangings were stopped many of the accused were kept in prison until May of 1693.
Dorcas Good’s mother Sarah gave birth in prison and the baby died there. Little Dorcas was witness to this and then saw her mother carted off to be hanged. She wasn’t released from prison until December of 1692, nine months after her arrest. Her father later reported that she had “lost her wits” from the experience, saying that Dorcas “being chained in the dungeon was so hardly used and terrified that she hath ever since been very chargeable, having little or no reason to govern herself” (Roach, p. 570). Others of the accused died from prison fever. The assets of many were seized by their jailers which ruined their families financially. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_ACCT.HTM
Over time public consensus in Salem grew to recognize that the witch trials of 1692 were a great injustice. Families of many of the convicted witches petitioned the courts for their convictions to be overturned and for monetary compensation. The petition was granted in 1711. None of Bridget’s descendants came forward. Others convicted in 1692 were cleared by a bill in Massachusetts legislature in 1957 that had taken years to get passed (Rosenthal, 1993). In 1992, the 300th anniversary of the witch hysteria the cities of Salem and Danvers (formerly Salem Village) dedicated monuments to the victims of the witch trials. See photos on http://www.salemweb.com/guide/witches.shtml . But it wasn’t until October 31, 2001 that the acting governor of Massachusetts, Jane Swift, signed a law that formally pardoned Bridget Bishop and the other four the remaining victims. (http://salemwitchmuseum.com/education/)
Theories about the Witch Hysteria
Modern researchers have proposed many theories to explain the Salem witch hunt. Some historians have tied the fear of witchcraft in 17th century New Englanders to fear of attack by Native Americans. The colonists believed that the natives practiced witchcraft and that any practice of witchcraft in a community could weaken their God-given strength to protect themselves from attack (Kences, 1984 in Hill, 2000).
Another theory is that the young girls’ strange symptoms were caused by ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus that has been known to contaminate rye in New England (Carporael, 1976 in Hill). With no known medical explanation for their illness, the doctors and preachers attributed it to witchcraft. Certainly much of the explosion of accusations and courtroom antics can be attributed to the attention the girls were receiving.
Other scholars point to power and revenge as an underlying motive (Boyer and Nissenbaum, in Hill). Anne Putnam, age 12 in 1692, was one of the most persistent and vicious of the accusing girls. She was instrumental in the conviction and execution of some of her family’s rivals for power in Salem Village, including Rebecca Nurse and her sister. In 1706, at the age of 24, Anne stood up in church in Salem Village while the pastor read her written confession. It read:
“I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence. . . that I, then being in my childhood, should . . .be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I . . .believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me. . . I have been instrumental . . .to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood. . .I did it not out of any anger, malice or ill-will to any person. . but what I did was ignorantly” (Hill, 2003).
Ann concluded her confession by begging forgiveness of the Nurse family, many of whom were in attendance, and of God. She died 13 years later, having never married. Cotton Mather never admitted that he could have been at fault in promoting the conviction and execution of the accused and he railed against those who criticized his role in the proceedings(Rosenthal, 1995).
In April 1694 Edward Bishop was made the legal guardian of six-year-old Susanna Mason, Bridget’s granddaughter. Her mother, Christian, had died before November 1, 1693, the date her father, Thomas Mason remarried (Greene, 1981). His second wife was also the daughter-in-law of an executed witch (Greene). Whether Christian died before or after Bridget is unknown. It isn’t known why Thomas did not raise Susannah himself. He had at least one child with his second wife (Greene). What we do know is that Susanna grew up to marry into the Beckett family, a prominent shipbuilding family of Salem despite losing her grandmother and mother so tragically at such a young age. The Beckett house still stands next to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables in Salem. In an interesting twist, Jonathan Felt’s first cousin, Joshua, married Anne Walcott, the younger sister of Mary Walcott, one of Bridget’s accusers.
How can Bridget’s history be summed up? Longfellow’s Giles Corey, who refused to enter a plea in his witchcraft trial and was pressed to death, says of Bridget (Act II Scene II):
“A melancholy end! Who would have thought That Bridget Bishop e’er would come to this? Accused, convicted, and condemned to death For Witchcraft! And so good a woman too!”
But perhaps Caroline Upham’s epitaph to Bridget, published in 1891, is the most appropriate:
“This vigorous, practical person, indifferent to public opinion, does not seem to have been planned by nature for a martyr; but circumstances made her so, and her crown maybe just as bright as those worn by her gentler sisters” (Rosenthal,1995,p. 81)
Caroline was Charles Upham’s daughter-in-law. Rosenthal adds that for many nineteenth-century writers like Caroline Upham the gallows of accused witches were a kind of Calvary. One thing that is crystal clear about our feisty and colorful Grandma Bridget: She was a survivor. She had lost her husband Samuel and possibly her first two babies immigrating to America. She survived spousal abuse, the death of Thomas, and her first arrest for witchcraft and then remarried again before she died as an innocent victim of the Salem Witch hunt. Bridget Bishop may be an unlikely heroine, but her descendants can be proud to have her as an ancestor —one who died for the truth. It is possible that her strong and feisty spirit came down the generations to Nathaniel Henry and Eliza Ann, giving them the courage to leave their ancestral home to gather with the Saints.
Bridget Bishop Timeline
1630’s to ‘40’s: Bridget’s birth, Presumably in Norwich, Norfolk County, England
Apr 13, 1660 Norwich: Marriage of Bridget Playfer to Samuel Wasselby
Oct 6, 1663 Norwich: Baptism of Bridget and Samuel’s baby son Benjamin
Jan 10, 1665 Boston: Birth of Mary, daughter of Bridget and Samuel . Samuel was already deceased.
Jul 26, 1666 Salem: Marriage of Bridget to Thomas Oliver
May 8, 1667 Salem: Birth of Christian Oliver daughter of Bridget and Thomas
Jan, 1669: Bridget and Thomas fined/whipped for fighting with each other: Bridget’s face bruised and bloody
Nov, 1677: Bridget and Thomas sentenced to stand in the public market place, gagged.
Apr 4, 1679: Thomas died by this date
Dec 25, 1679: Bridget charged with witchcraft the first time
1685-7: Marriage of Bridget and Edward Bishop, Sawyer
Mar, 1687: Bridget arrested for stealing a piece of brass
Aug 23, 1687: Birth of Susanna Mason, daughter of Christian Oliver and Thomas Mason,granddaughter of Bridget
Jan 20, 1692 Salem Village: Young girls begin exhibiting strange behaviors: seizures, trancelike states, and mysterious spells
Feb, 1692: Pressured to identify the source of their affliction, the girls name three women aswitches. The women are arrested.
April 18-19, 1692 Salem Village: Bridget arrested and examined for witchcraft
June 2, 1692 Salem: Bridget is the first accused witch to go on trial
June 10, 1692 Gallows Hill, Salem: Bridget is the first hanging victim of the Salem Witch trials.
Nov 1, 1693: Christian died by this date; Thomas remarried
Apr 11, 1694: Edward Bishop given guardianship of Susanna Mason, Bridget’s granddaughter
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