In the year 1692, the communities north of the city of Boston were wracked by suspicion and fear. It all began in a parsonage in Salem Village (now Danvers) with the whisper of witchcraft. By the time it had closed, nearly 200 people had been accused. Fourteen women and six men had been executed; many more had died as the direct result. The surrounding countryside from Marblehead to Wenham, from Piscataqua, Maine, to Boston had been terrorized. Among the accused were several women from our town.
The unfortunate victims of the 1692 witchcraft panic were not the first to be executed for that offense. British law had made witchcraft a capital offense in 1542; the law was strengthened in 1604. In the British colonies in America, between 1647 and 1663, no fewer than 79 persons were accused of witchcraft; thirty-three were tried and fifteen were found guilty and hanged. The 1692 panic, however, would become an infamous example of a community consumed with fear.
It all began in the Salem Village parsonage where the daughter of the Reverend Mr. Parris and her friends whiled away winter afternoons listening to the stories of Mr. Parris’ house slave, Tituba. Tituba had been raised in Barbados where voodoo and tales of the occult world were a part of the culture. The young girls sat spellbound; Tituba’s fame grew, and the circle of girls grew larger. Despite their fascination with the stories, the girls felt enormous guilt. Their theology told them the dangers of dallying with the devil, but yet they continued to gather and to listen, transfixed. It was inevitable that one of them would crack with the strain. In January of 1692, 9-year old Betty Parris began exhibiting strange behavior, twisting and gyrating and contorting her body. While the worried family tried to find an answer to her maladies, her 11-year old cousin Abigail’s behavior began to mimic Betty’s. Within the month, all of the rest of the girls, terrified and guilty, seemed similarly afflicted. When the doctor could find no physical reason for the malady, it was decided that there must be a supernatural reason. It must have been caused by a witch.
By March of 1692, the girls, under the intense questioning of Mr. Parris, began accusing members of the community of witchcraft. By the end of April, 28 persons had been charged; another 39 were accused in May. The overwhelming majority of those named were women over forty. Many of them were widows.
Accusations of Local Women
In our town, the first to be named was Lydia Dustin. Goodwife Dustin was a very old woman; she had been admitted as a member of the congregation here in 1648. Her husband Josiah had died in 1671. She lived on the southeast corner of the ‘Great Pond,’ as Quannapowitt was then called, between the present day Salem and Lawrence streets. The Dustins had been a fairly prosperous family with six children: one boy, Joseph, and five girls, the youngest of whom, Sarah, was a spinster and living with her mother in 1692.
There is some evidence that Goodwife Dustin was not universally liked; in the subsequent testimony it was revealed that she had been thought of as a witch in the community for over thirty years. On April 30, she and George Burroughs, a minister from Wells, Maine, were complained against. She was taken into custody and bundled off to a Boston jail. Among the complaints against her were ‘strange accidents falling out’ after she had muttered phrases like ‘God would not prosper those who wronged the widow.’ The warrant against her cited “high suspition (sic) of severall acts of witchcraft done or committed upon the Bodys of Mary Walcott, Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis & Abigail Williams, all of Salem Village.”
The fact that the Salem girls were the accusers was not unusual. Subsequent to the Salem outbreak, the girls were in demand to consult in other towns, where they accused hosts of people. Goodwife Dustin was soon joined in jail by her youngest daughter Sarah, who was accused by Elizabeth Weston of our town of ‘malicious Sorcery.’ In mid June, they were transferred to the Middlesex County jail in Cambridge.
The list of suspects grows
Belief in the guilt of Lydia Dustin was so strong that soon her granddaughter, Elizabeth Colson was also accused. Elizabeth was not to be taken easily; she fled to Suffolk County where she was finally apprehended after a second summons was sworn out for her arrest. Elizabeth, age 16, would find herself in a Cambridge jail on September 24th.
While the hunt for Elizabeth continued, more local women were accused. On May 31, Sarah Rice was summoned to the court in Salem Village and was subsequently jailed. Soon after, prominent members of the community here were beginning to make accusations. Mary Marshall, the sister of Major Jeremiah Swain, accused three local women: Mary Colson, Jane Lilley and Mary Taylor. Forty-two year old Mary Colson was the daughter of Lydia Dustin, and the widow of a former schoolmaster. Mary would join her sister Sarah, her mother, and, soon, her daughter Elizabeth in jail.
Jane Lilley was the widow of the schoolmaster in the present-day Reading. Mary Taylor was the wife of Seabred Taylor whose homestead was located around the present day Prospect Street and Summit Avenue. By the time Mary Colson, Jane Lilley and Mary Taylor were apprehended, the prisons were full of suspected witches. But in the month of June, some of these ‘witches’ began to be executed.
As executions begin, local women face their accusers
One can only imagine the terror the accused women felt as the executions continued through July and August while their own trials began. In dramatic testimony, several of the women found themselves accused of some culpability in the deaths of two prominent members of the community, while one of their accusers fell on the floor ‘in fitts.’ Although most of the accused Redding women steadfastly maintained their innocence, Mary Taylor, terrified and under intense questioning, eventually confessed, perhaps hoping that a confession, and repentance, might eventually free her.
As hangings continued in Salem in September, the light of reason began to break through the courts, and the witchcraft furor began to fade. In late October, Sarah Rice was released after a petition entered by her husband.
As 1693 dawned, Mary Colson and Jane Lilley were bound over for trial; Mary Taylor was indicted as a “Destable Witch Against the peace of o’r Sov’r Lord and Lady the King & Queen.”
In late January, the Superior Court in Charlestown heard cases against Jane Lilley, Mary Colson, Sarah Cole, Sarah Dustin, Elizabeth Colson and Lydia Dustin.
An eyewitness at Lydia’s trial saw testimony against her being given by as many as 30 witnesses. An onlooker remarked that more evidence was present against Lydia Dustin than against any of those who had been tried in Salem. The judge at her trial conceded that ‘if ever there were a witch in the world, it were she.’
The hysteria subsides
But the tide had turned in the witchcraft trials. Every single person tried in Cambridge in January was acquitted. There was, however, a catch. According to Massachusetts law in the seventeenth century, prisoners were responsible for paying for their food and lodging through their incarceration. Only those who could find someone to pay their bills could be released. After their trials, Lydia Dustin, Sarah Dustin, Elizabeth Colson were re-committed to Cambridge prison. Lydia Dustin died in prison on March 8h, making her one of the victims of the witchcraft hysteria; a sick old woman, acquitted of her supposed crimes, who should have spent her last days at her home instead of in a Cambridge prison.
On April 25th, 1693, the Superior Court sat in Boston. Every single person brought to trial was acquitted. On the same date the official verdicts in the trials of the Redding women were released: every single one, with the exception of Mary Taylor, was acquitted. On May 9th, the Court met for the last time, and pardoned all of the confessed witches.
In 1697, the Massachusetts General Court set aside a day of public fasting to atone for the events of 1692.