McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)
Since this is Friday the 13th, we will continue exploring our ‘ supernatural’ ancestor Mary (Bliss) Parsons of our McMurray line through the Burnells.
Accusations of witchcraft endured by Mary (Bliss) Parsons were described in parts 1 & 2 of this series, both in Springfield and Northampton, Massachusetts. Her ultimate imprisonment, trial, and acquittal in Boston in 1674-5 was also discussed. Incidents of Mary’s ‘bewitching,’ however, had started long before these cases, and led her neighbors to the always-lingering thoughts that she had a pact with the devil, despite being cleared of witchcraft legally.
(There were a number of cases in which an accused witch was acquitted of the crime, but the court actually stated that the person was likely a witch despite lack of admissible evidence. There is no record of that for Mary, but it demonstrates that legality and ‘reality’ were not always the same in cases of witchcraft.)
Sometime back in the 1640s while living in Springfield, Massachusetts, Goody Parsons had an argument with the blind man in town. Shortly thereafter, the man’s daughter began to have fits. Rumors may have circulated then about Mary practicing witchcraft and causing the fits in retaliation, but specific records do not exist today. This incident was entered as evidence, however, years later in the previously- discussed 1656 slander trial of Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman, brought by Mary’s husband Joseph Parsons. Sarah was found guilty at that trial, but rumors of Mary’s witchcraft persisted.
Interestingly, in Springfield at that same time, there was another Mary Parsons living just 10 houses away. (There were only 42 homes in Springfield about 1651.) This was Mary (Lewis) Parsons, wife of Hugh Parsons. (No relation that we know of.) Abandoned by her first husband, Mary had married Hugh, a brick-maker and wood sawyer. Like many of the colonists, Hugh Parsons was a fairly argumentative and contentious person, but probably mores than the norm- he was in court on a regular basis both as plaintiff and defendant. This Mary bore 3 children, but two of them died very young. Despondent, grief-stricken, and possibly dealing with postpartum blues or likely some type of mental illness (or all of these), Mary gossiped that a Springfield newcomer, the widow Marshfield, was a witch. Goody Marshfield countered with a suit for legal slander on 30 May 1649- reputation was incredibly important to our Puritan ancestors. Mary was found guilty, and her sentence was “to be well whipped on the morrow after lecture with 20 lashes…” or pay 3 pounds to Mrs. Marshfield “for and towards the reparation of her good name.” Mary’s husband paid “the heavy Amount with twenty-four Bushels of Indian Corn, and twenty Shillings in Money.”
Not long after this incident, not-our-ancestor Mary’s husband Hugh Parsons decided to not complete the bricks for the Rev. George Moxon’s chimney despite their previous agreement, as the price of materials had increased over his original bid. He ‘had words’ with the reverend, who insisted he complete the bargain as originally agreed, although accounts differ as to what was said; “I’ll be even with him” was what one witness heard from Hugh. That very same week, two Moxon daughters were taken ill with fits (some sources say they died, some just say “succumbed to fits”- the word ‘succumbed’ can be used to mean failed to resist OR actually died from something), and Hugh’s wife Mary was accused of causing the fits through her witchcraft. Interestingly, Mary (Bliss) Parsons, our ancestor, as well as some additional children, also began having fits at that time. One witness claimed “as Mr. Moxon’s children acted, so did Mary Parsons- just all one.” Their fits were such that they all had to be “carried out of the meeting, it being the Sabbath day.” Generally, few adults had these fits, and as Mary was 29 years old (if born in 1620 per some references; others state she was b. 1628, so she would have been just 21), married, and a mother, the townspeople thought her fits suspicious.
The records and scholarship are confusing for this time. John Demos, in Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, page 270, states that Mary Bliss Parsons had given birth to twins that summer of 1649, but they died shortly after birth. Other references list twins as being born later, and some do not include twins at all. A majority of sources (but not Demos) state that Mary and Joseph Parsons had a son named Benjamin who was born in January, 1649 and died in April or June, 1649; that timeline most likely would not have allowed for twins in the summer, unless she had become pregnant right after the birth of Benjamin- unlikely as she would have been nursing him- or the twins were born premature. (Double-dating was also used at this time due to calendar changes, so that adds another bit of confusion- which year was it??)
Whichever scenario is true, poor Mary would have likely had raging hormones from pregnancy, possibly mind-altering postpartum blues from a January and/or summer birthing, plus the grief of losing a 4-6 month old son- and twins, if she did indeed birth them that summer. Her father died that next February (1650), so he may have been ill that previous year, and Mary would have been worried about losing him. In addition to her “fits,” our Mary roamed about the countryside, even at night, alone and in a disturbed, sometimes distressed, and usually distracted manner. It was claimed that she could walk through water without getting wet, after some men saw her and followed, themselves getting wet at least to the knees. Joseph Parsons locked his wife in the house, and sometimes in the cellar, but she was always able to ‘magically’ find the hidden key and get out. She said she had to fight evil spirits when in the cellar, and her husband claimed she “would go out in the night…a woman went with her and came in with her.” Of course, there was no such other woman in the house, so it was assumed to be a supernatural being.
Mary (Bliss) Parsons and her family moved to Northampton in 1654, but the shadows of the devil and witchcraft accusations followed her, as we have seen. Next, our last installment of Mary (Bliss) Parsons and her ‘supernatural’ life. It didn’t end after her witchcraft trial.
NOTE: Listed below are the majority of sources used in researching Mary (Bliss) Parsons for ALL of the posts in this series.
Notes, Sources, and References:
- “Goody” was a title of the time and a shortened version of “Goodwife,” with “Goodman” used for males. These terms were given to those in the middle and lower classes. A person of higher status would be given the title, “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
- Mary (Lewis) Parsons killed her child and was indicted for murder and witchcraft. She was found not guilty of witchcraft, but guilty of murder, and was sentenced to execution. She most probably died in jail prior to being hung. She had also accused her husband, Hugh Parsons, of witchcraft over the years, and he too was tried and acquitted.
- There are two novels written by descendants of Mary Bliss Parsons that may be of interest. Silencing the Women: The Witch Trials of Mary Bliss Parsons by Kathy-Ann Becker was excellent, and maintained the historical facts while adding a good narrative flow. My Enemy’s Tears: The Witch of Northampton by Karen Vorbeck Williams is another that looks good, although I have not yet read it.
- The Strong Witch Society: The Diary of Mary Bliss Parsons by DH Parsons is another book written by a descendant, and part of a trilogy. It would be wise to read the description of this book and his other two carefully if you are planning to order, as there is more than history going on in this series.
- Mary Parsons of Springfield, part of Women in the Valley at https://pvhn2.wordpress.com/1600-2/mary-parsons-of-springfield/
- “The Goody Parsons Witchcraft Case” at http://ccbit.cs.umass.edu/parsons/hnmockup/has an excellent overview of Mary’s life including a good timeline that integrates a lot of the players and incidents in Mary’s life.
- An interesting poem by Margaret Atwood details her supposed-ancestor’s hanging as a witch and her survival. “Half-hanged Mary” is about Mary Webster who was accused of witchcraft in Hadley, Massachusetts in 1684. She was acquitted, but later attacked and lynched by a gang of her neighbors. She hung from the tree all night, and when they returned to cut down her corpse, they found that she was still alive. Of course, for any who had doubted before, her survival proved that she was a witch. She lived a number of years after the incident, but likely was an outcast in her community. There is no evidence that Mary Webster had children, so she would not have descendants today, but the poem has much of interest for those trying to understand the witchcraft hysteria. http://www.emerycsd.org/webpages/dcarter/salem.cfm?subpage=1143672
- Witch Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England. A Documentary History 1638–1693, edited by David D. Hall, 2nd Edition, Duke University Press Books, 2005. Includes (partial) trial transcriptions, etc.
- “The Early Parsons Families of the Connecticut River Valley” by Gerald James Parsons. Part 1: Vol. 148, pp. 215- 238; Part 2: p335-360; Vol. 149: Part 3- pp53-72. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Boston, MA: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1847-. (Online database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2013.)
- A Place Called Paradise. Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts 1654-2004. Edited by Kerry W. Buckley, Historic Northampton Museum & Education Center/ University of Massachusetts Press. Chapter 3 is “Hard Thoughts and Jealousies” by John Putnam Demos, from his excellent, very comprehensive book Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, New York, 1982.
- The History of Northampton, Massachusetts from its settlement in 1654, by James Russell Trumbell and Seth Pomeroy, 1898. (Seth Pomeroy is a very distant cousin too.) Available on Internet Archive- https://archive.org/stream/historyofnortham00trum#page/n11/mode/2up
- Cornet Joseph Parsons one of the founders of Springfield and Northampton, Massachusetts, by Henry M. Burt, Garden City, 1898. https://archive.org/stream/cornetjosephpar00parsgoog#page/n10/mode/2up
- Parsons Family. Descendants of Cornet Joseph Parsons Springfield 1636- Northampton 1655, by Henry Parsons, New Haven, 1912.
- Genealogy of the Bliss family in America, from about the year 1550-1880, by Bliss, John Homer, b. 1832, 1881. https://archive.org/stream/genealogyofbliss00blis#page/n3/mode/2up
- Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England by John Demos, 2nd ed., 2004. Updated volume- an excellent book on all facets of witchcraft by one of the premier scholars in the field.
- Annals of Witchcraft in New England, and Elsewhere in the United States, from Their First Settlement: Drawn Up from Unpublished and Other Well Authenticated Records of the Alleged Operations of Witches and Their Instigator, the Devil, by Samuel Gardner Drake. W.E. Woodward, 1869. GoogleBooks, p. 72.
- An excellent family history website has a wonderful and well-researched history of Springfield: http://josfamilyhistory.com/locations/springfield-ma.htm (Main website is http://josfamilyhistory.com; the Sheldon page link at the bottom no longer works.)
Please contact us if you would like higher resolution images. Click to enlarge images.We would love to read your thoughts and comments about this post (see form below), and thank you for your time! All comments are moderated, however, due to the high intelligence and persistence of spammers/hackers who really should be putting their smarts to use for the public good instead of spamming our little blog.