The end of this week marks a tragic anniversary in the Salem witch trial history. On August 19th, five people were put to death by hanging: George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, John Proctor and John Willard. Historians have various perspectives on individuals involved in the events. In Salem Possessed, Boyer and Nissenbaum attempt to make sense of the intricate social connections between accused and accusers. Below I’ve transcribed the section describing the context in which John Willard found himself accused of witchcraft.
From Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
Boyer & Nissenbaum, pages 195-198
It was sometime before 1690 that John Willard married Margaret Knight of Salem Village. Willard’s origins, like those of most of the other witches we have investigated, are frustratingly obscure. Circumstantial evidence links him to Major Simon Willard, one of the most prominent Massachusetts land speculators, town founders, and politicians of the mid-seventeenth century: for a time during his youth John Willard lived in Lancaster, where Major Willard owned a trading post (indeed, it was to Lancaster that he fled when accused of witchcraft in 1692); in the 1680’s, moreover, he resided with his wife in Groton, a town founded by Simon Willard; and he was frequently associated, in his land dealings in both communities, with men known to be Simon Willard’s sons. But published family histories have suppressed all reference to the man, and the best efforts of local historians and genealogists have failed to establish his precise connection with Simon Willard. If he was a relative – perhaps even a son? – of this rich and prominent man, he was an obscure and somehow ill-favored one.
Willard was not only an outsider to Salem Village but a newcomer to the Wilkins family, of which his wife was a third-generation member. This large and self-contained clan, including the seven children of old Bray Wilkins, together with numerous grandchildren, constituted almost a village unto itself on “Will’s Hill” in the extreme western part of Salem Village. The story of John Willard becomes comprehensible only when seen as a chapter in the story of the Wilkins family.
The Wilkinses, in their remote corner of Salem Village, had good reason to be chary of outsiders. Although they were devoting themselves exclusively to farming by the 1690’s, there had been a time when Bray Wilkins and his sons, like John and Nathaniel Putnam, had entertained visions of profitable involvement in the commercial and mercantile life of Salem Town. But (in a fiasco similar to that of the abortive Putnam iron-works) those visions had proven illusory. In 1658 Bray Wilkins, then living in Lynn, had joined with a tailor named John Gingell to purchase, on credit, a 700-acre tract of land around Will’s Hill. (the seller was Richard Bellingham, a Massachusetts politician and former governor who had received the land from the General Court in 1639 but never developed it.) Putting up houses and moving their families to this isolated region, Wilkins and Gingell soon began logging and timer-processing operations, converting the dense stands of oak and cedar into boards, shingles, marine supplies, and barrel staves. These they transported to Salem Town and sold to George Corwin, a leading merchant of the day. At first they prospered, with an annual production – as one of Bray Wilkins’ sons boasted to a friend in town – as high as 20,000 barrel staves and 6,000 feet of boards. But in terms of profitability, the operation was from the first a marginal one. Indeed, in 1661, Bray Wilkins – otherwise a notably upright man – was forced to steal some hay to feed the oxen with which he transported his timer to Salem Town. When Bray was brought to court, his defense was that he had been “in great want of hay, and knew not what shift to make.” His enterprise suffered a severe setback in the winter of 1664-65 when his house burned down.
Under such circumstances, Wilkins and Gingell found themselves unable to keep up with their mortgage payments, and in 1664 they returned to Bellingham two-thirds of the land they had been attempting to purchase. But even a reduced mortgage burden proved too heavy, and in June 1666, after Bellingham (once again governor of the colony) won a foreclosure action in county court, his lawyers began to seize the stock of shingles and other goods belonging to the hapless entrepreneurs. Bray Wilkins ultimately managed to pay off the mortgage and to hang on to his land, but his commercial dream had proven to be jus that and nothing more. By the 1680’s Bray and his sons had lapsed into the prosaic role of subsistence farmers on marginal land. As a family, the Wilkinses ranked near the bottom in the average per-capita Salem Village taxes assessed in the 1680’s and 1690’s. While not precisely impoverished, the family which in mid-century had launched itself with such hope upon the commercial seas found itself a generation later in very modest circumstances indeed.
For the Wilkins family, as for the Putnams, only the land itself had proven trustworthy, and the survival of Salem Village as a stable agricultural community was particularly important to them. Not surprisingly, the Wilkinses were second only to the Putnams in the extent and intensity of their support of the Salem Village autonomy movement. Bray Wilkins signed the various petitions of the 1660’s looking toward Village independence and (with Nathaniel Putnam) he led the 1679 effort to force the Reverend James Bayley from the Village. Between 1689 and 1691, eight men and women of the Wilkins family joined the Salem Village church, and in 1695 no fewer than eleven Wilkins signatures, including those of the eighty-five-year-old Bray and his wife, appeared on the pro-Parris petition. Only three Wilkinses are to be found on the anti-Parris petition: one of Bray’s younger sons, Thomas, together with Thomas’s wife and daughter. For reasons we cannot now recover (but possibly connected with his marriage to a niece of Rebecca Nurse), Thomas Wilkins had not joined in the family’s accusations against John Willard, and shortly after the witchcraft outbreak he had emerged as one of the four “dissenting brethren” who led the anti-Parris movement from within the church. Later, when Bray Wilkins died (having chosen his “loving friend” Thomas Putnam, Jr., as co-overseer of his estate) he virtually disinherited his turncoat of a son.
The decision of Bray’s granddaughter Margaret Knight to take an outsider for a husband had profound psychological ramifications for this tight-knit and economically marginal family. The seventh member of the third-generation Wilkinses to marry, she was the first to choose a spouse who was not from Salem Village. Her kinfolks’ uneasiness about John Willard must have been intensified when it became clear that he was interested in land speculation as well as in farming. In March 1690, with three partners, he purchased from the widow of George Corwin a large tract of land – “by estimation four or five hundred acres,” as the deed rather vaguely has it, lying just north of the Salem Village line. In the succeeding months, at least two substantial portions of this tract were sold off to new purchasers.
In 1692, The Wilkins family turned with particular ferocity against this outsider with his speculative bent. If Martha Cory and Rebecca Nurse were initially “family witches” in the household of Thomas Putnam, Jr., John Willard played a similar role for the Wilkins clan. The finger of witchcraft was pointed at him by no fewer than ten members of the family. In early May 1692, shortly after John Willard had been named by the afflicted girls, but before he was arrested, seventeen-year-old Daniel Wilkins was felled by a mysterious affliction from which he died the following week. At about the same time old Bray Wilkins was struck by a painful and alarming urinary difficulty. Both afflictions were blamed on John Willard. Not long afterwards, Ann Putnam, Sr., picked up the theme, accusing Willard of having murdered no fewer than thirteen Salem Villagers during his brief residence in the community.
John Willard himself seems to have been genuinely mystified by the intensity of feeling against him. When first accused he came to Bray Wilkins “greatly troubled” and asked this respected church member and family patriarch to pray with him – but the old man refused, pleading a prior engagement. Bray Wilkins had learned, over the years, that you cannot be too cautious in dealing with outsiders.