Genealogy can be a fun and interesting pastime. Digging around in the past and exploring the lives of your ancestors can reveal quite a bit. It’s a hobby of sorts. I’m not one to put too much into the whole ancestor worship thing or make claims that the traits of those who lived hundreds of years ago are (or should be) filtered down to me. Otherwise, my being descended from half the medieval royalty of Europe; including Charlemagne, William the Conquerer and others might actually entitle me to my own castle, right? Still, it can be fascinating to investigate the “family gossip.”
To me, one of the more interesting stories in the family tree comes from my ancestors in the early American colonies. My family has been roaming around the “New World” for nearly as long as it was “New” (as opposed to just being called “the world” by all the folks who were here for thousands of years before Europeans “discovered” it). My ancestors were mainly in and around Massachusetts in the 17th century, which put them right in the hotbed of the Witchcraft craze that overtook the good but simple folk in that area in the mid to late 1600’s.
Decades before things began getting really out of hand in the little town of Salem, there were charges of witchcraft leveled by neighbor against neighbor all over Massachusetts, especially in the town of Northampton. This particular story begins with a feud between the Bridgman family and the Parsons family. The two clans had known each other in Springfield and, shortly after the Parsons moved to Northampton in 1654, the Bridgmans followed and the two families become neighbors. In about 1655 or 1656, the Bridgman family suffered the loss of their young son. The loss of a child was a tragedy suffered by many families in those hard times. The boy’s mother, Sarah Bridgman, became convinced that her neighbor, Mary Bliss Parsons (my great-x9 grandmother) had bewitched the young lad and began making accusations of witchcraft. Not to take these charges lying down, great-grandfather Joseph filed a slander lawsuit against Sarah Bridgman. It was a suit he would win, bringing forth ample evidence that Sarah had indeed been going around calling Mary a witch. Sarah Bridgman was ordered to either make a public apology or to pay a fine. In spite of the financial difficulty the Bridgmans were going through at the time, Sarah Bridgman refused to make the apology and opted instead to pay.
Oddly enough, years before the Parsons ever moved to Northampton another woman, who coincidentally was named Mary Lewis Parsons, had also been accused of witchcraft after murdering her own son. Though the charges of witchcraft were dropped, she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Even though there was no relation between the two Marys and they had never known one another, the name association was there and there were many in Northampton who felt that the second Mary Parsons must also be a witch.
As the years went by, the bitterness between the Bridgman and Parsons families remained. The “signs” of witchcraft remained as well, including an ox bitten by a rattlesnake and a calf that got lost in the swamp. Then, in 1674, the Bridgman’s daughter died and that was the final straw. Mary Bliss Parsons was officially charged with maleficium. She was brought before the magistrates where she testified, denying any involvement in witchcraft. She was checked for “witch marks.” She was then taken before the Court of Assistants in Boston and jailed until her trial.
The evidence presented against Mary included the testimony of the son of Goody Bridgman, who claimed that “Mary sits on the shelf” watching them and that she sent her familiar, a small black mouse, to follow them. Mary was accused of having “no fear of God in her eyes” and of having “familiarity with the Devil.” There were also mentions of child abuse, as well as domestic abuse on the part of Joseph, claiming that Mary would have fits and he would lock her up (leading some to believe she may have been epileptic or afflicted with some other disorder). Mary was also accused of having homosexual relations with Goodwife Bartlett. These charges, however, were felt to be hearsay and were dismissed. No other witnesses came forward to accuse Mary of witchcraft, though several did come to her defense. Considering that her husband Joseph was fairly successful by this point, a landowner, and a friend of the judge, John Pynchon (who actually testified on Mary’s behalf), the charges of witchcraft were dropped and Mary was released.
Still, as the saying goes, where there is smoke there is fire. Rumors continued to circulate around Northampton about Mary’s nefarious witcheries and accusations against her continued to fly. Finally, in 1679, the Parsons had had enough and moved back to Springfield. Joseph died in 1683, leaving Mary a wealthy widow. Still, the witch hunt continued and, as late as 1702, there are records of rumors and accusations leveled toward Mary of witchcraft. Mary continued to do well for the rest of her life, building on the fortune left to her by Joseph, though for the rest of her days the charges and rumors of witchcraft followed her, her children and grandchildren.
In spite of her reputation and the animosity of her fellow colonists, Mary Bliss Parsons continued on, outliving many of those who had spread rumors and slandered her name, until she died at the age of 83 on January 29, 1712. Here’s to you, Grandma!