2 Mar 2013:
While continuing my research into accused witches in New England, I discovered additional resources1. It appears that Mrs. Rachel Fuller, wife of John Fuller of Hampton, CT, may replace Lydia “witch” Gilbert (still looking for maiden name confirmation that she might have been a Lathrop), on my list of possible ancestors who were accused of sorcery and witchcraft in New England. Once again, the research continues, and I follow the paths redrawn for me by this additional resource. However, I remain compelled to correct and/or redact earlier writings as new information becomes available. I would never want inaccuracy or incomplete stories left untold because I didn’t take time to update my work.
The following blog, the first of at least two, looks at Witches and Witchcraft during the 15th Century–a period most commonly known as The Salem Witchcraft Trials. The second blog planned will focus on our family’s very own Lydia “witch” Lathrop Gilbert.
I lifted the article below directly from The Tuscaloosa News – Sunday, August 15, 1993, written by: Jane Alexander of The Associated Press, to frame the history around the topic and to show that witches and witchcraft continue to be of interest and concern today.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The descendants of the accused witches in Salem, Mass., 300 years ago include three former presidents and such disparate people as Clara Barton, Walt Disney, and Joan Kennedy. Now comes along a couple that only recently found out that their unborn child belongs in that company.
NEW YORK–I’m going to have my first child any day now. Girl or boy? My husband and I haven’t tried to find out. We’re more concerned about which ancestors the baby might take after. Will the child be curious or quiet? Tall or short? Witch or warlock?
Well, we’re not really concerned to tell the truth, but I will admit that I was astonished to discover that not long ago 300-year-old witch skeletons hung–literally–from my husband’s family tree.
Unbeknown to him and the rest of his immediate family, his ninth great grandmother, Sarah Towne Bridges Cloyce, and her two sisters, were accused of witchcraft in 1692 in Salem, Mass. Although Sarah escaped the noose, her sisters, Rebecca and Mary, were hanged.
Sarah’s name was buried in the family records as Sarah Towne, who married Edmund Bridges, Jr. in 1660. But after Edmund’s death in 1680, she married the widower Peter Cloyce. Only when reading accounts of the trials during last year’s tricentennial did it dawn on me that Sarah Cloyce, accused witch, was the same woman as Sarah Towne Bridges, esteemed ancestor.
Ed’s line of descendancy from Sarah is contained in the family history, “The Paddock Heritage,” which was self-published by some of his relatives in 1985.
It’s not surprising that Sarah’s story was lost. Only in 1957 did the General Court of Massachusetts resolve “that no disgrace nor cause for disgrace” be borne by descendants of witch-trial victims.
Over the centuries, many families have indeed felt disgrace and distress.
New England author Enders Robinson calls the witch trials “the grimmest of stories and one in which my father believed plunged the family into ignominy, and was best “forgotten.” His sixth great grandfather, Samuel Wardwell, was hanged from a locust tree the same day as Ed’s Aunt, Mary Towne Estey.
Three presidents–Taft, Ford, and Arthur–also are descended from one of Salem’s 20 executed witches or their siblings. So are Clara Barton, Walt Disney and Joan Kennedy. And, of course, our descendant in-the-making.
During the Salem hysteria, being related to an accused witch, was enough to cast doubt on one’s own innocence. Ed’s Sarah was likely singled out because her older sister had been accused.
So were they witches? No. The Towne sisters were devout Puritans. Then why were they accused? Theories range from the simplistic–boredom–to the bizarre–hallucinations brought on by eating moldy bread. The truth is likely more complex: a combination of family rivalries, fights over property, and grabs for power.
Rebecca Towne Nurse and Mary Estey were among 13 women, six men, and two dogs hanged as witches. Another 80-year-old man, Giles Corey, was tortured under a pile of stones as townspeople tried to force him to enter a plea. His only answer before being crushed to death was immortalized in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. “More weight,” he said. Eight more accused witches died in jail.
Only those who did not confess to witchcraft were considered dangerous. Those who admitted to guilt were not treated as harshly, particularly if they conjure up names of other “witches.” Those who refused to say they consorted with the evil were imprisoned, usually in irons, often tortured, and sometimes executed.
“They lost their lives because they commited the error of truth,” said Enders Robinson, author of “The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692.”
Rebecca, Mary, and Sarah were daughters of English-born William and Joanna Blessing-Towne. They moved their family to the settlement with the hopeful name of Salem, from the Hebrew word for peace.
It was there nearly 50 years later that their daughters would be tested.
“What sin has God found me unrepented of, that he could lay such an afflicition on me in my old age?” asked Rebecca. The 70-year-old matriarch was nearly deaf, was taken from her sickbed on March 24, 1692, and arrested for witchcraft.
Local children said her “specter” tormented them. She was condemned, brought in chains into the First Church in Salem and–most horrific to the God fearing woman she was–excommunicated by unanimous vote. Rebecca was hanged on Gallows Hill on July 19, 1692.
Meanwhile, Mary and Sarah also had been jailed. Mary would not enter a false confession. “I dare not belie my own soul.” Mary was hanged, along with seven others, on a cold and rainy Thursday, September 22.
Sarah was spared. Though kept in irons for nearly a year, she fought back against her accusers. Upon hearing testimony of John Indian, one of the minister’s servants that she was a witch, she snapped in court: “Oh! you are a grievous liar.”
Eventually the political winds shifted, Sarah was freed on January 23, 1693, and spent 10 years before her death trying to clear her sisters’ names. A movie version of her battle, “Three Sovereigns for Sarah,” stars Vanessa Redgrave.
Today, Towne descendants have a 442-member family association. It features a quarterly newsletter, “About Towne;” coffee mugs; “Remember Rebecca” T-shirts; annual reunions, and the determination not to let history be forgotten.
Some descendants of witch-trial players would rather it be forgotten. The fact that Magistrate John Hathorne wore the robes of chief witch hunter haunted his great-great grandson, who altered his own last name to distance himself. In his essay “The Custom-House,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of his ancestors: “I, as their representative, hereby take shame on myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them may now and henceforth be removed.”
Five of the 20 who were executed had no known children or grandchildren. They leave only a legacy of refusing to betray their beliefs. I hope our child were inherit that, along with a drop of Sarah’s blood and bear Towne proudly as a middle name.–End of Article.
1Samuel Gardner Drake, Annals of Witchcraft in New England (Boston:W. Elliott Woodward, 1869), pgs. 150-156.