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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
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.