My Dad and I have always been interested in the history of our family and thanks to today’s technology and web sites like Ancestry.com, we have the world at our fingertips just waiting for us to uncover the lives our family. We have been able to trace as far back as the 1400’s! There have been some fascinating finds along the way, that explain some of the more “interesting” people in my family. Interesting finds like my great-great grandparents being introduced by the famous James Butler Hicock. You may know him as the gun-slinging vigilante, Wild Bill Hicock, but he was a good friend of my2X Grandfather. This is a story I will most assuredly tell here in the near future. But one of the most interesting people is my 9th great-aunt, Mary Parsons. They story of her life has really stuck with me. Never hear of Mary Parsons? Name not familiar? She was the first woman to be accused and tried as a witch in 1654.
Mary was born in Gloucestershire, England around 1625. At the age of 8 her parents, Puritan colonists, decided to move to the British colonies in America. A few years later, when Mary was 11 or twelve, they settled in the small settlement of Hartford, Connecticut. In Hartford, she matured and grew into womanhood at a time when women were considered less intelligent than male children and were not allowed to speak in church.
At the age of 21, she married a successful merchant, Joseph Parsons and immediately improved her financial standing setting her apart from her neighors. Eight years into their marriage, they packed up and moved their family to moved to Northampton where she and Joseph Parsons were one of the founding families.
Apparently, Mary’s new found wealth and social standing went to her head. Neighbors recalled Mary as being “possessed of great beauty and talents, but … not very amiable … exclusive in the choice of her associates, and … of haughty manners.” Many of Mary’s neighbors found her to be in possession of quite an attitude.
One such neighbor, Sarah Bridgeman, found Mary to be quite the thorn in her side. Sarah displayed outright jealously of Mary. Mary had 11 healthy children where Sarah had lost several children. The Bridgeman’s financial status was failing where the Parsons continued to increase. There were many disagreements between the families, especially between Sarah and Mary.
Soon, Sarah began to spread rumors that Mary was a witch and responsible for a whole host of problems she and her family were suffering. At a time when superstition and the belief that all bad things were caused by the devil, this did not bode well for Mary. Sarah began telling anyone who would listen that Mary had threatened her son and that she was a witch. After any disagreement or quarrel between Mary Parsons and any member of the Bridgeman family, a mysterious fatal disease would befall some horse, cow, or pig, belonging to the Bridgeman family and, as the disease could not be explained in any other way, it must be the result of Mary’s witchy revenge. Sarah even went so far as to claim that her 11 year old son saw her sitting on a shelf in his bedroom and wherever she walked, a black mouse followed her, implying that the mouse was the devil’s minion.
Sarah told others that back in Springfield, where the Parsons lived immediately after their marriage, that Mary had caused a blind man’s daughter to have “fits” after they had an argument. Trouble was following Mary no matter where she went.
In 1656, after the rumors continued, Joseph Parsons finally had enough of the harassment and sued Sarah Bridgeman for slander on behalf of his wife. He was hoping this would stop the accusations and harassment that Mary was having to endure. After hearing testimony, Sarah Bridgeman was found guilty of slander and her husband was required to pay a fine and Sarah was ordered to make a public statement denying her rumors.
Decades before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, Mary was again brought to trial for witchcraft by Sara Bridgeman. In 1674, Mary Bartlett, Sarah Bridgeman’s daughter died suddenly and inexplicably. Always suspecting Mary of witchcraft, Sarah leveled her accusations again at Mary and she as brought before the town council. Mary’s body was inspected for “witch’s marks” which would prove that she was a witch. Nothing was found, but evidence was gathered, people interviewed and finally, one year later, the local magistrates decided this case was out of their jurisdiction and sent Mary and her case to the Court of Assistants in Boston. On March 2, 1675, Mary was delivered to Boston and indicted on the charges of witchcraft. Mary was then tossed into prison “until such time as her trial commenced.”
Ten weeks later, her trial was finally called. Sitting in the Court of Assistants was an imposing roster: The governor, the deputy-governor, and a dozen magistrates, but her life or death fate rested in the hands of 12 men from the Boston area. Finally, he indictment was read, “Mary Parsons, the wife of Joseph Parsons…being instigated by the Devil, hath…entered into familiarity with the Devil, and committed several acts of witchcraft on the person or persons of one or more.” Then the evidence was read. The tensions in that room must have been great. I can’t imagine the feeling she must have had at that moment. The mother of 11, sitting there listening to the absurd accusations leveled against her, looking out at her accuser Sarah Bridgeman, and knowing that she was lying. Finally, after hearing all depositions and evidence, the Court found Mary not guilty and she was discharged.
The Parson’s returned to life in Northampton but suspicions and rumors continued. I’m positive that when Mary walked down the street, people crossed to the other side for fear that she may hex them. She was most likely harassed and Joseph’s merchant business suffered. Soon the family moved back to Springfield trying to outrun the rumors and the Bridgeman’s. Mary lived out her life in Springfield with her many children, some of whom ended up being important men of the day. Unfortunately, the rumors never really died and Mary was always under suspicion by neighbors.
Mary’s life was one of hardship and strife, but could she have brought some of this upon herself? Once she married Joseph, did she become “haughty.” acting like she was better than her neighbors? We will never know, but she is the inspiration to my new book I am currently plotting and researching! It will be a middle grades novel and I have plans for several sequels. Join me in my adventure to bring the history of Mary Bliss to life and into the present.
If you are interested in more information about Mary Bliss, the University of Massachusetts has a great web site devoted to her