Archive for the ‘Historic Essex County’ Category:
Visitors whose ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials often ask us to point their investigations in the right direction. There are online ancestry resources, document transcripts and historic narratives that can provide clues and details of their families’ lives.
Research uncovers so many captivating human stories. In this case Peter helps a descendent of Sarah Basset:
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By Peter Murphy
Sarah Hood Bassett was born in August of 1657 in Lynn, Essex County, Massachusetts to Richard Hood and Mary Newhall. In her eighteenth year, on October 25, 1675 she married William Bassett, Jr., who was the brother of Elizabeth Bassett Proctor, wife of John Proctor. Both John and Elizabeth Proctor were accused and tried for witchcraft; John was hanged on August 19th, 1692, whereas Elizabeth escaped persecution due to her pregnancy. Their daughter, Sarah Proctor, was also accused of witchcraft at age 16 on the same day as her aunt Sarah Bassett. Thomas Putnam and John Putnam, Jr. issued this complaint on May 21, 1692, exactly one month after the examination of Mary Warren (John and Elizabeth Proctor’s hired girl) who claimed Elizabeth Proctor administered an ointment to her which she received from “Mrs. Bassits of Linn.”
Only two days after the Putnam’s complaint against Sarah Basset she was brought to jail in Boston on May 23, 1692, where she remained until her release on December 3, 1692. One month after her release another indictment was issued for afflicting Mary Walcott, but was returned “ignoramus,” meaning the charges were ignored due to lack of evidence.
Not long after the ordeal was over, Sarah gave birth to a daughter whom she named Deliverance as an ode to her freedom. Sarah Bassett died at age 64 in 1721.
While no burial record exists, I have theorized that she may be buried in the Western Burial Ground in Lynn, Massachusetts. This was the only operational burial ground in the town at the time of her death with the exception of a Lynnfield burial ground opened in 1720, but where the oldest inscription dates only back to 1723. Further evidence that may lend itself to my hypothesis is the fact that Lynn’s Western Burial Ground contains 19th Century graves sporting Sarah’s married name – Bassett – and her mother’s maiden name – Newhall.
Ancestry.com Connection between Proctor and Nurse Families
New England Historic Genealogical Society Hunting for Salem “Witches” in Your Family Tree
Records of the Salem Witch Hunt , Bernard Rosenthal General Editor
The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, Marilynne K. Roach
We have the privilege of working closely with historian Marilynne Roach on many projects. She answers nuanced questions about the Salem witch trials, helping our staff interpret the underpinnings of the events, and is a perpetual inspiration in understanding what can be learned from Essex County’s 1692 experience.
If you don’t yet own a copy of The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, now is your chance to get one of 20 remaining signed copies of the book.
In our shop or online, while supplies last!
First let’s get a working definition.
US Legal.com :
“Spectral evidence refers to a witness testimony that the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream at the time the accused person’s physical body was at another location. It was accepted in the courts during the Salem Witch Trials. The evidence was accepted on the basis that the devil and his minions were powerful enough to send their spirits, or specters, to pure, religious people in order to lead them astray.
In spectral evidence, the admission of victims’ conjectures is governed only by the limits of their fears and imaginations, whether or not objectively proven facts are forthcoming to justify them. [State v. Dustin, 122 N.H. 544, 551 (N.H. 1982)].”
We know that the Court of Oyer and Terminer, formed in June 1692 for the purpose of hearing cases awaiting in Boston’s jails backlogged while the Charter with England was being hammered out, recognized spectral evidence despite that it was not in keeping with generally accepted procedure of the time. In Law and People in Colonial America Peter Charles Hoffer offers this characterization (p. 41):
“The result of having laymen on the high-court benches might be…swift and sensible justice. Massachusetts superior Court justices, such as Samuel Sewall, were deeply moral men, concerned about the quality of their performance. Sewall was typical of the best lay judges – well traveled, well schooled, much respected, and experienced in colonial government and in hearing and deciding lawsuits, if not learned in the law. In the Salem witchcraft tirals of 1692 the judges, including Sewall, departed from current, learned, English practice, and did so with tragic consequences.
There were no trained lawyers on the bench, but all believed that there was a devil and that he contracted secretly with men and women to do his evil work in the colony. Thus, at least in theory, witches had the power to leave their bodies and in spectral form assault their victims.”
The following passage from another of Hoffer’s works the Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History is further clarifying (page 78-79):
Mather fretted, “Our neighbors at Salem are blown up after a sort, with an infernal gunpowder, under the floor.” What could that mean? To us the reference may be obscure, but to his fellow Puritans the implication was obvious. In 1605 a band of Roman Catholics, driven to despair by King James’s persecution of their faith, tried to blow up the English houses of Parliament. The plan was discovered at the last minute, and the conspirators were executed, but the “gunpowder plot” became a symbol among Protestants of the danger Roman Catholicism posed to English Protestantism. In 1689 Parliament drove James II, a Roman Catholic, from the throne of England and replaced him with a Dutch Protestant, William of Orange, and James’s daughter, Mary, William’s wife. They were to rule jointly. A war followed in which Protestants battled Roman Catholics at home and abroad. This was the war that brought the Indians and their French Roman Catholic allies to the doorstep of Salem. Thus the Puritans saw Roman Catholicism as a continuing and powerful threat to Protestantism in England and the survival of Puritanism in New England. They also believed that Roman Catholic priests were in league with the Devil. Reports of priests and Indians worshiping the Devil before they attacked Massachusetts towns regularly made the rounds of the colony.
But the problem of spectral evidence remained, for the only ones who could see the witches in their spectral form, and thus say who it was that caused their pain, were the accusers themselves. Here Mather could find no answers in his library. He must leave it and enter the world of ordinary people. No abstract theory or abstruse theology could dictate commonly accepted contemporary notions of the truth of testimony.”
Even while most people had misgivings about the validity and use of supernatural proof, Cotton Mather cited a precedent from 1664 wherein Mathew Hale asserts that such evidence is suitable in cases of necessity. Mather interprets “in particular, the political crisis of the colony and the terrors of war. War against the Devil and war against the popish French and their Indian allies were the same in his mind.” (Ibid., p. 89)
Image, “The soul-killing witches that deform the body” shared from University of Virginia SWT Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.
Caption: “The soul-killing witches that deform the body,” Shaks.
Description: The image shows two witches stirring a steaming cauldron; it was published in a 1828 edition of Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World. In the background a witch rides on a broomstick, brandishing a snake in her hand; to the left, spectral images fly out of the boiling cauldron; and a cat leaps into the scene from the right. References to cat familiars, flying witches, and spectral images are common features of the court records of the Salem witch trials.
Source: Frontispiece, The Wonders of the Invisible World Displayed, by Robert Calef. New Edition. Boston: T. Bedlington, 1828. Image by permission of the University of Virginia Library, Special Collections. © The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2003.
Boyer, Paul and Nissenbaum, Stephen. Salem Possessed.
Demos, John. Entertaining Satan.
Hall, David. Witch Hunting in 17th Century New England
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft in Salem.
Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan.
Hill, Frances. The Salem Witch Trials Reader.
Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witch Trials, A Legal History.
Karlsen, Carol. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman.
Mappen, Marc. Witches and Historians.
Norton, Mary Beth. In The Devil’s Snare.
Richardson, Katherine. The Salem Witch Trials.
Roach, Marilynne. The Salem Witch Trials, A Day by Day Chronicle.
Robinson, Enders. The Devil Discovered.
Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story.
Starkey, Marion. The Devil in Massachusetts.
Rosenthal, Bernard, ed. Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt
Boyer, Paul and Nissenbaum, Stephen. Salem Village Witchcraft.
Trask, Richard, ed. The Devil Hath Been Raised.
Breslaw, Elaine. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem.
Demos, John. The Enemy Within
Hill, Frances. Hunting for Witches, A Visitor’s Guide.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible.
Tapley, Charles. Rebecca Nurse, Saint but Witch Victim.
Roach, Marilynne. Gallows and Graves.
Russell, Jeffrey. A History of Witchcraft.
Weisman, Richard. Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in
17th Century New England.
Aronson, Marc. Witch-Hunt (young adult)
Duble,Kathleen. The Sacrifice (grades 5-8)
Jackson, Shirley. The Witchcraft of Salem Village (grades 5-6)
Rinaldi, Ann. A Break with Charity. Fiction (grades 6-8)
Stern, Steven. Witchcraft in Salem . (grades 4-6)
Yolen, Jane. The Salem Witch Trials, An Unsolved Mystery
“A Map of Salem Village & Vicinity in 1692”
This map shows Salem Village, primary location of the Salem
witch trials history, as it looked in 1692. Sites of houses and public
buildings are noted. The map is drawn by Marilynne Roach, a
Salem witch trials expert.
“Three Sovereigns for Sarah”
A partly fictional account of the trials focusing on the three
Towne sisters, two of whom were hanged. The production
was filmed at locations connected with the trials. 2 1/2 hrs
“Days of Judgment: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692”
A film designed for school and home viewing that answers
many of the questions raised by the trials. 1 hour
The 1995 film version of Arthur Miller’s play. Screen play by the author.
Filmed on location in Essex County. 2 hours
During the last months of each year our visitation shifts from October crowds to January trickles. Our staff gladly take the quieter winters to catch up on pleasure reading, so we decided to host a book club or two this season.
The only rule for the book club was simply that we weren’t going to cover anything we’d “normally” read (i.e. Salem witch trials related.)
Our first selection for the Salem Witch Museum Breakfast (Book) Club comes from Floor Manager Jay Menice. A section of Gloucester, Massachusetts has been a fascination for him since Elyssa East published Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, a non-fiction examination of the mysterious history surrounding this some-say-enchanted place and a brutal crime set there.
Those of us who appreciate local authors have certainly encountered at least one title by Anita Diamant (the Red Tent, Good Harbor, et.al.), so we’re balancing the book club medley by including a work of historical fiction. The Last Days of Dogtown portrays life in this early American mythical community of witches, widows, orphans and spinsters.
In mid-January we’ll host a continental breakfast and book club discussion comparing and contrasting these two renditions of Dogtown. If you’d like to join us, please email Stacy at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
On Friday during a Skype in the Classroom “virtual museum tour,” a student at Oliver Street School in Newark, New Jersey – whose class is studying Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – asked what happened to the real Abigail Williams after the trials.
While Wikipedia can offer information on a wide array of subjects, there is no reason to accept the undocumented assertion that Abigail fled after the trials, becoming a prostitute. Reliable Salem witch trials scholars are unable to give detail about her last years with any certainty, but Marilynne Roach says in The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, “…Abigail Williams, haunted to the end, apparently died before the end of 1697, if not sooner, no older than seventeen.” (page 518)
Even though Abigail played a major role as an accuser at the beginning of the trials, especially in March, April, and May, she gave her last testimony on June 3rd 1692. There is no historical documentation suggesting why Abigail virtually disappeared from the court hearings. In addition, there are no records indicating what happened to Abigail after the events of 1692. It is suggested that she never married and died a single woman, but without any evidence we will never be quite certain.
From The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History, by Peter Charles Hoffer
Chapter 9, The Scoffers, pages 108-110:
John Proctor and George Burroughs were brought to trial on charges of witchcraft on August 2, 1692. Despite their spirited defense, they were condemned to die. The sentence was carried out on August 19, both men insisting to the end that the court was unfair to them.
The Puritans of eastern Massachusetts were no more authoritarian in their views or ways than any comparable group of English men and women. New England ministers and magistrates demanded the respect and obedience that any English pastor or justice of the peace could reasonably expect at home. But in the midst of the witchcraft crisis, challenges to authority took on more sinister shape. Critics of church and state cracked the wall of piety, allowing the sinuous Evil One to enter God’s land. Indeed, cynicism and criticism were seen by some as evidence that a scoffer had already made a pact with the Devil. Tavern keeper John Proctor and minister George Burroughs were two of these scoffers, and they paid for their attitude with their lives.
The history of early Massachusetts was filled with remonstrances of religious and political dissenters. Some dissenters, like Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson early in the century, were exiled for disputing the leading ministers’ self-proclaimed monopoly on conscience. Others, like Samuel Gorton and Robert Child, were muzzled when they protested against the government. The Quakers were persecuted and driven from the colony. When a few of their number returned and persisted in their preaching, they were hanged. By 1692 the English Act of Toleration had forced Massachusetts authorities to allow Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers to live and worship in the towns, but toleration was limited and grudging. Proctor was associated with a small group of Quakers in Essex County, and Burroughs, though ordained a minister in conventional Puritan fashion, had veered toward the Baptist faith.
Proctor came under suspicion early in April, perhaps even earlier. A friend of his overheard one of the girls saying that they “must have sport,” and that is why they turned their sights on the Proctors. By the end of the crisis, nine immediate family members, including the Proctors’ three oldest children and Elizabeth’s Bassett kin, had all been arrested. Most readers will know the family from Arthur Miller’s moving dramatic recreation of their case in The Crucible. Miller read historical accounts but intentionally changed details. He made Proctor younger and more attractive than he was at the time of the trials and invented an adulterous relationship between Proctor and Abigail Williams, whose age he changed from eleven to seventeen years. In real life Proctor may or may not have had relationships out of wedlock, but they were not what he was accused of doing. Instead, it was the usual chorus of girls seeing Proctor’s specter and feeling his pinching and punching.
The girls knew that he and his wife were vulnerable, for Proctor’s wife and her kin were closely tied to Quakers. More important, perhaps, was the fact that the Proctors were almost certainly openly contemptuous of the proceedings. At Ingersoll’s tavern, jest became a forerunner of real accusation. William Rayment, perhaps in drink(for there was a kind of tavern culture at Ingersoll’s, as in most of the colonial watering holes, where common people could joke, toast, fight, gamble and escape their betters’ indignation), told Ingeroll’s wife that he had heard Elizabeth Proctor would soon be examined. Not so, replied Goody Ingersoll, or she would have heard of it. Ingersoll was one of the semiofficial complaint makers, and he surely would have known and told his wife. But Rayment’s companions were not so reticent – or so well informed. Some of the accusers were there as well and began to clamor, “there good proctor, there goody proctor,” [sic] and Goodwife Ingersoll had to silence them. The mockers then made jest of what had been, but moments before, the very sort of performance that was sending people to jail.
The first accusations fell not on Elizabeth Proctor alone, as some historians have written, but on both John and Elizabeth. He did not come to her examination unbidden and come under fire for his loyalty, as the common story reports, but had already been denounced by Abigail and Ann Putnam Jr. a week before the official inquiry into the couple convened. He and his wife were arrested and brought to a hearing in Salem, not the Village, on April 11. There Corwin and Hathorne were joined by Deputy Governor Thomas Danforth and councilor Samuel Sewall. Sewall had just returned from England and no doubt was curious to see what was going on in Salem. He had long been a judge on the Court of Assistant and probably had more than an inkling that Phips would ask him to sit on the court to hear Proctor’s case.
To read more about John Proctor’s legal proceedings, please read Peter Charles Hoffer’s The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History.
Today’s installment of learning about the Salem witchcraft trials hanging victims of August 19, 1692 addresses the story of George Jacobs, Sr. through the eyes of comtemporary, local historian, David Goss:
Now the afflicted children were not only accusing women, they began to single out and accuse adult males as well. By May 1692, the girls had targeted some of the more prominent males in the Salem Village community, among them George Jacobs, Sr. Jacobs was a prosperous farmer who had lived in the Salem Farms area between Salem Town and Salem Village for thirty-five years. He was arrested on May 10, 1692. Simultaneously, his son George, Jr., his daughter-in-law Rebecca, and granddaughter Margaret were also accused. Four days after his arrest, he was brought before magistrate John Hathorne for questioning.
Initially Jacobs took the afflicted girls and their accusations too lightly, until he was confronted by his maidservant, Elizabeth Churchill, who testified that he had tempted her to sign the Devil’s Book. Mary Walcott, one of the afflicted children, also maintained that Jacobs had tempted her to sign the Devil’s Book, and threatened her with physical harm if she refused. Despite Jacobs’ alleged threats, both girls claimed to have resisted him.
In the face of these and other accusations, Jacobs maintained his innocence. In response to Justice Hathorne’s insistent badgering, he simply responded that concerning witchcraft: “I know not of it, any more than the child that was born tonight.” During his pretrial examination, Justice Corwin asked Jacobs to recite “The Lord’s Prayer.” It was generally believed that no witch could recite it perfectly. The old man, nervous and unlettered, omitted an entire sentence and made several other recitation errors. Knowing his mistake, and fearing the worst, he remarked bravely, “Well, burn me or hang me, I will stand in the truth of Christ.”
What makes the case of George Jacobs, Sr., especially tragic is that his granddaughter Margaret Jacobs, herself a confessed witch, named her grandfather as a co-conspirator along with Constable John Willard and Reverend George Burroughs. When Jacobs Sr. was finally tried for witchcraft in August 1692, Margaret Jacobs was one of nearly a dozen primary witnesses against him. Only after Jacobs’s death sentence was pronounced in court did Margaret have a change of heart and write to the magistrates to retract her testimony and her own confession as a witch. The result of this reversal was that Margaret was moved from the cell of the confessed witches and back to the cell of those awaiting trials and executions. She explained to her grandfather her feelings of regret for the part she had played in condemning him, and he forgave her.
Continuing our look at historians’ view of the five accused witches who were hanged on August 19, 1692, we turn to In the Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton:
From Some Usual and Unusual Suspects, pages 182-183
Prominent among those accused in late May were two sisters, Mary Allen Toothaker of Billerica and Martha Allen Carrier of Andover. Martha Carrier, later termed by Cotton Mather the “Queen of Hell,” eventually became a key figure in the crisis, but Mary Toothaker, probably targeted primarily because of suspicions of her already-jailed husband Roger, aroused less concern. (Indeed, she may not have been arrested until late July, since the existing records in her case date from that period.)
Daughters of a large and prosperous family that settled in Andover before 1662, neither Mary nor Martha married well. Roger Toothaker, though a doctor, had only a small amount of inherited property, and and Thomas Carrier, Martha’s husband, was a young Welshman who fathered her first child before their marriage. Both couples live at first in Billerica. Although Mary and Roger remained there, the Carriers moved back to Andover, probably during the late summer or early fall of 1690. Unfortunately, they appear to have carried New England’s then-raging smallpox epidemic to the town- or at least the selectmen thought they did – and town officials ordered the family quarantined lest through “wicked carelessness” they spread the disease further. But that step came too late. Ultimately, the town’s vital records attributed ten deaths to the devastating illness; the deceased included four of Martha Carrier’s own relatives. Statements by the afflicted and her neighbors showed that gossip laid three additional deaths to her charge as well, and that people in both Billerica and Andover had suspected her of malefic activity for some time.
As had by then become commonplace, the interrogation of Martha Carrier, in front of “spectators Magistrates & others,” revolved around the statements and actions of the afflicted. Williams, Hubbard, Walcott and Warren complained of spectral torments; Putnam Jr. indicated that she had been struck with a pin; Sheldon saw “the black man”; and Lewis’s “violent fit” was cured by a touch test. Goody Carrier denied seeing any “black man,” though some of the afflicted said he was “wispering” [sic] in her ear. “You see you look upon them & they fall down,” observed Hathorne. “It is false the Devil is a liar,” Carrier retorted, and she boldly scolded the magistrate: “it is a shamefull [sic] thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits.”
The afflicted, exhibiting “the most intolerable out-cries & agonies,” alleged that she had “killed 13 at Andover,” claiming they saw “13 Ghosts” in the room. Finally, Samuel Parris recorded, “the Tortures of the afflicted was so great that there was no enduring of it, so that she was ordered away & to be bound hand & foot with all expedition.” As soon as that aim was effected, the afflicted had “strange & sodain ease.” And Parris added on more point that underscored the ongoing shift in power from the justices to the suffering teenagers: “Mary Walcot told the Magistrates that this woman told her she had been a witch this 40 years.” Evidently at the examination itself, Walcott had elicited a confession that Hathorne, Corwin, and Gedney had been powerless to obtain. The role of the afflicted in communicating with the invisible world had assumed such centrality in the legal proceedings that it was even encroaching on the magistrates’ function within the public space of the courtroom.
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.