25 October 2013

Witchcraft and Sorcery: Portrait of a Salem Witch

I was knocking about my in-laws house when I discovered a book:  Witch’s Breed:  The Pierce-Nichols Family of Salem by Susan Nichols Pulsifer.   Being from Connecticut, as I am, you hear a lot about witches.   They are part of the lore and history of the region. “Giles Corey of the Salem Farms,” a play by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was published in the late 19th century.   Corey was “pressed” to death for being in league with the Devil.   According to legend, his ghost appeared whenever a disaster would strike the town of Salem.  Arthur Miller’s masterpiece “The Crucible” (published in 1952) was a standard of New England High School productions.   In 1956, Ann Petry’s young adult read Tituba of Salem Village came out.   
            And yet, all the years of my childhood and well into my adulthood, I had never met a descendant of the infamous trials—that is, until I turned the cover of Witch’s Breed to read the following inscription:  “For my dear great-nephew … who is the direct descendant through his mother’s family (sic) Susanna Martin of Massachusetts…”  It was then I realized that not only was I living among a witch’s descendants, but I had married into the family.  My husband must have known this from an early age as, in what was obviously the work of a child, he had penned his own dedication:  “Thank you Aunt Susan for the book and the writing in the book too.”
            The name Susanna Martin didn’t ring any bells, which made me more than curious.  How had I, having grown up in New England, never heard of this woman?  Who was she exactly?  Where had she come from?  What was her role in the Salem Witchcraft Trials?  Naturally, I asked my husband, who explained to me that her unfortunate circumstances stemmed from the fact that she was an elderly widow and she may have been a Quaker.  The Puritan persecution of Quakers in the colonies is historically documented.  Once, he said, he’d gone to the Salem courthouse to read the transcripts of her trial, and came away convinced that she, like so many others, was innocence of any wrong-doing—never mind the ridiculous accusation of witchcraft.   The entire tragedy could be explained in terms of the vulnerable social position of women; the fact that Susanna owned valuable land; and the greed of her neighbors.  From the way he spoke of her, I could tell that he thought her intelligent, decent, and outspoken.  He respected her both as a human being and as a martyr.  In a horrible miscarriage of justice, she had been found guilty of witchcraft and hanged.
Salem witch trials, source: WikiCommons
  Of course, I was fascinated.  Susan Nichols Pulsifer—poet, genealogist, world traveler—came up often in family discussions.  She was brilliant and intrepid, by all accounts, and my mother-in-law was obviously very fond of her.  I wished I had met her.  But I had her book. I turned the pages in search of Susanna.  On page 29, she is depicted before the magistrates, denying that she had ever had any hand in witchcraft.  The magistrate asks if she knows what “ails thefe people.”  Susanna’s responses are straightforward:  “I do not know.”  “No, I do not think they are [bewitched].”  “I desire to lead my life according to the word of God.”  “If I were such a person [referring to her accusers] I would tell the truth.” 
            Although Susanna was unknown to me, I was well versed in the dreary evidence that allegedly proved allegiance to the dark lord.  Cakes made of hair, blood, urine; dolls stuck with pins; fits (most likely seizures); unseemly behavior (a broad category); the ability to transport oneself;  cause disease by a mere look;  refusal to recite Scripture.  In Susanna’s case, she was subjected to particular humiliation while incarcerated:  she was stripped in an effort to find what was known as the Devil’s “teat.”  Although no such growth was found on her body, it was entered in court transcripts that her breasts were unusually full at certain times of day and flaccid at others—which led her jailors to believe that she had suckled the Devil.  The ignorance of the female body and its function made women a target for superstition of all kinds, and Susanna suffered for it.
            The allegations that led to her eventual hanging in 1692 were preceded by two accusations brought against her:  the first, she had strangled to death an infant she had born out of wedlock, and her second child was also a bastard.  Her husband, alive at the time, defended his wife and she was acquitted.  But the stigma attached to her didn’t go away so easily.  Other stories circulated:  crops failing, animals doing her evil bidding, and her habit of verbally threatening people who displeased her.
            None of this impressed me.   It was disheartening to think that so many women throughout history had to suffer the same fate.  I was intrigued by one detail of the case that seemed out of the ordinary:  Susanna was described as always attractive and clean.  Indeed, one of her neighbors testified that she had walked to her house during mud season and arrived without so much as a stain on her.  Teasingly, I said to my husband:  “Perhaps she was guilty after all.”  To which he responded something to the effect:  No, she wasn’t, and to suggest anything of the sort is stupid and cruel.
            And he was right.  There was nothing to laugh about.  Susanna had a difficult life, spoke out in her own defense, and died a gruesome death.  I would not speak lightly of her again. 

Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.