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Tuesday’s Tip: Mary (Bliss) Parsons- Which Witch??

Painting that many attribute as Mary Bliss Parsons, but it is not. No known images exist of her. Unknown source.
Painting that many attribute as Mary (Bliss) Parsons, but it is not. No known images exist of her. Unknown source.

McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)

Tuesday’s Tip: Be careful with names.

Even when the occupation or another trait seems to “fit,”

do an ‘exhaustive search’ to make sure you have the correct ancestor.

 

Initial research on Mary Parsons as an ancestor provided confusing results.

Two women with the name of Mary Parsons lived in two of the same towns during the same time period. That is challenging enough, but during the early research, I knew that “our” ancestor had been accused as a witch. That was not enough to distinguish one from the other, however- both of these Marys had been accused as witches! WOW!- so were they the same person?

No.

The key to this problem was to find the maiden names of the women- not always easy to do, especially in very early records. For women, looking at their children is also a clue. Well, sometimes children can be a clue, however the same few names were often used, children died young, etc. But the number of children, their birth years, and names, can be tidbits that might also prove helpful to differentiate two people, or prove they are the same.

In our case, the children helped but maiden names were the definitive way to show they were indeed two different women.

Mary (Lewis) Parsons, wife of Hugh Parsons, lived in Springfield, Hamden, Massachusetts at the same time as Mary (Bliss) Parsons, our ancestor. We have posted extensively about both families in our series on Mary (Bliss) Parsons. Once we found the maiden names of “Lewis” and “Bliss” it was fairly easy to distinguish between the two women. Additionally, Mary (Lewis) was older and had fewer children than “our” Mary (Bliss) Parsons.

Interestingly, though, some additional research shows that “Lewis” was NOT the maiden name of the wife of Hugh Parsons. I have never seen this mentioned in any of the scholarship on the two families, however.

How do I know that? It’s that BSOS- “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome,” where one has to look at just one more piece of evidence… though at least this one did not take me far from the original focus.

American Ancestors, the website of the New England Historic & Genealogical Society (NEHGS), has a database with the papers of John Winthrop, Deputy Governor of Massachusetts. In a letter from William Pynchon in Springfield to Winthrop, dated 15 September 1645, Pynchon states:

I wrote to you… about one Mary Lewis the wife of Lewis a papist. [a Catholic- something abhorred by the Puritans.] she hath been aboue [about] 7y[ears] seperated from her husband, and is perswaded by others that she may marry by the lawes of England: she is easely perswaded to that bec[ause] she liues [lives] vnder [under] temptations of desyer [desire] of mariage and I vunderstand [understand] lately that she is falen into a league of amity [a “friendly” relationship] with a bricke maker of our Towne…

This “bricke maker of our Towne” was none other than Hugh Parsons.

Thus “Lewis” was the married name of Mary, from her first marriage. Some researchers do note that she was deserted by her first husband (the “papist”), but none that I have found note her maiden name; I have not found it either.

Gov. Winthrop must have approved the “league of amity,” as the marriage of Mary and Hugh is is recorded in the Springfield, Massachusetts Vol. 1, page 20 of “Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850” on AmericanAncestors.org. It is written as:

Hugh Parsons & mary Lewis joyned in m[torn] 8 mon. 27 day 1645.

Researchers have therefore assumed that Mary’s maiden name was Lewis. But it most likely was not, as can be deduced from Pynchon’s letter stating she had married a man named Lewis. Of course, her maiden name could have been ‘Lewis’ and she married a man named ‘Lewis’- such things did happen, but it was less likely. Either way, technically, her name should be genealogically written as “Mary ( __ ) [Lewis] Parsons.”

So another tip: don’t assume!

 

Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. See resources listed in previous posts about Mary (Bliss) Parsons, Parts 1-4 beginning with:

    No Ghoulies, No Ghosties, But a Witch? Yep. Part 1“–http://heritageramblings.net/2015/10/31/no-ghoulies-no-ghosties-but-a-witch-yep-part-1/

    “Wedding Wednesday: Mary Parsons and Ebenezer Bridgman”http://heritageramblings.net/2015/12/23/wedding-wednesday-mary-parsons-and-ebenezer-bridgman/

  2. Gov. John Winthrop Papers, Vol. 1-5, 1557 to 1649. (Online database. AmericanAncestors.org. New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2016.) Originally published as: Winthrop Papers.Boston: Masssachuestts Historical Society, 1929 -. Vol. 5, page 45.

  3. Massachusetts Vital Records to 1850 (Online Database: AmericanAncestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2001-2016).

  4. Newer usage in genealogy includes using brackets around previous married names, in addition to the convention of parentheses around maiden names.
  5. Reading colonial writing is not as hard as it seems- if stumped, say the words out loud, as they were often spelled as they were said, and with whatever accent was used. Also note that sometimes “v” and “u” were used interchangeably as in ‘vnderstand.’ Additionally, an “f” was often used as an “s,” especially if it was a double “s” in the word, as in “difmifsed” for “dismissed.”

 

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Family history is meant to be shared, but the original content of this site may NOT be used for any commercial purposes unless explicit written permission is received from both the blog owner and author. Blogs or websites with ads and/or any income-generating components are included under “commercial purposes,” as are the large genealogy database websites. Sites that republish original HeritageRamblings.net content as their own are in violation of copyright as well, and use of full content is not permitted. 
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Wedding Wednesday: Mary Parsons and Ebenezer Bridgman

Title page of the first edition of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, 1597. Wikimedia, public domain in USA.(Click to enlarge.)
Title page of the first edition of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, 1597. Wikimedia, public domain in USA.(Click to enlarge.)

McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)

The Romeo & Juliet story has been passed down through the centuries in various forms, and has been lived in real life by many. Think back, if you will, to four previous posts detailing the bitter feud between the families of Mary (Bliss) Parsons and Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman. Sarah accused Mary of being a witch as far back as the 1650s. The feud had gone on even before that time, but could there be two people in the future who would mend those fences, as Romeo and Juliet did for the Montagues and Capulets??

One of the children of Mary (Bliss) Parsons- the accused witch- and her husband Cornet Joseph Parsons was John Parsons (1650-1728). He married Sarah Clarke (1659-1728) and a daughter was born in Northampton, Massachusetts on 5 July 1681 that they named after her paternal grandmother. Although she probably did not remember her grandfather Joseph, who died in 1683, young Mary probably would have known her grandmother well as she was 31 years old in 1712 when Mary (Bliss) Parsons passed away while living in Springfield.

Family Tree of Mary Parsons. (Click to enlarge.)
Family Tree of Mary Parsons. (Click to enlarge.)

Meanwhile, Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman- the witch accuser- and her husband, James Bridgman, had only one son (and three daughters), out of eight children born to them who survived into adulthood. (This was part of the jealousy between Sarah and Mary (Bliss) Parsons- Mary had 9 children survive out of the 13 she had, 5 of them sons.) Their son John Bridgman chose Mary Sheldon (1654-1728) as his wife, and they had at least 11 children, possibly 14 per some sources; of these, Ebenezer Bridgman (1685-1760) is of interest to our story today.

Family Tree of Ebenezer Bridgman. (Click to enlarge.)
Family Tree of Ebenezer Bridgman. (Click to enlarge.)

Ebenezer Bridgman was born in Northampton too, still a very small hamlet on the frontier in February 1685. He likely saw young Mary Parsons on the street, in the fields, and in the meeting house. All the witch stories would probably have been heard by every family member, young or old. It would be so interesting to have a glimpse of their thoughts, and how they reconciled their business within the town, with neighbors, and possibly with members of the feuding family!

What parts did young Mary Parsons and Ebenezer Bridgman play in the local gossip that swirled through Northampton in 1702, when Mary (Bliss) Parsons was again called a witch? Young Peletiah Glover, another of Mary’s grandchildren, was told that his mother was half a witch and his grandmother a full witch who had killed several people. Did young Mary rush to protect her cousin? Did Ebenezer stay out of it, or try to shield Peletiah and the Parsons family from the mean words of some of the townspeople? There is no way to know the details of what happened 213 years ago, unfortunately.

One day in 1709, however, the feud came to an end as the walls between families tumbled down:

14 June 1709- Ebenezer Bridgman and Mary Parson, Marriages, Massachusetts Town & Vital Records, Northampton, page 110.
14 June 1709- Ebenezer Bridgman and Mary Parson, Marriages, Massachusetts Town & Vital Records, Northampton, page 110. (Note second line; click to enlarge.)

Had the families known there was flirting going on instead of feuding?

Was there a big row when the young people stated their intentions?

(Although Puritans generally married at a slightly higher average age than the rest of the population, Mary was 27 and Ebenezer 24 at their nuptials- she was a bit older than usual, and was older than Ebenezer, too.)

Did everyone show up at the civil service for the marriage? Even Mary (Bliss) Parsons?

(Puritans did not believe in the church sanctifying a marriage- they felt it was a civil contract.)

Did the families pitch in together to help the newlyweds begin their new home?

All great questions to ponder, but sadly that is all we can do, as there has been nothing found to tell us more- no letters, diaries, etc. When telling the Mary (Bliss) Parsons witchcraft story, many historians do not even include the fact of a later unifying marriage between grandchildren of the feuding families.

Our ‘witch’ Mary would have bounced her grand-daughter Mary’s little babe Elizabeth Bridgman on her knee, and sung to the child the old lullabies Mary had heard as a child herself in England. Mary was in her mid-eighties by this time, and somewhat reduced in function and confused; her sons had needed to take over her financial affairs. Still, what thoughts might have gone through her mind, knowing that this precious great-granddaughter on her knee had the blood of the late Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman flowing through her rosy red cheeks? Were her thoughts of how the blood of the two families was now forever mixed, the family branches forever intertwined, after all the anguish of her own life? Did Mary think it was a sweet reconciliation, or did she gloat in the victory of her long life and so many children, grandchildren, and another great-grandchild to carry on her blood, while Sarah was already long gone, and had so few?

Elizabeth Bridgman was the first of four children to be born to Mary and Ebenezer Bridgman, but the only one who could have been held by her great-grandmother- Mary (Bliss) Parsons died in January of 1712. She would have been able to see her granddaughter big with a second child, however, as Joseph Bridgman was born two months later, in March. Mary (Parsons) Bridgman then carried on her own grandmother’s tradition of twins- Mary (Bliss) Parsons had at least one set of twins, likely two.  The Bridgman twins Ebenezer and Mary were born 10 July 1714. Little Ebenezer would only live four months; we have no further information as to whether or not his sister Mary survived to adulthood.

Maybe the feud had been mellowing for quite some time, and the Bridgman family had softened. After all was said and done (in court and out), the new Bridgman family named two of their children after Mary (Parsons) Bridgman’s grandparents, the founders of the Parsons line in America: Joseph and Mary.

 

Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. See our four previous posts about the Mary (Bliss) Parsons slander and witchcraft trials in Northampton, Springfield, and Boston, Massachusetts by starting with, “No Ghoulies, No Ghosties, But a Witch? Yep.”
    http://heritageramblings.net/2015/10/31/no-ghoulies-no-ghosties-but-a-witch-yep-part-1/
  2. Please see Part 3 of the above for the largest list of references for these posts.
  3. Mary (Bliss) Parsons- “The Witchcraft Trial-” http://ccbit.cs.umass.edu/parsons/hnmockup/witchcrafttrial.html
  4. Genealogy of the Bridgman family, descendants of James Bridgman,1636-1894, by Burt Nichols Bridgman and Joseph Clark Bridgman, 1894-  https://archive.org/stream/genealogyofbridg00brid#page/n0/mode/2up
  5. I doubt that Puritans frequently went to plays- not an industrious activity, although as time went on in the Americas, the younger generations of the faith were not as devout as their parents. Even if they had not seen the play Romeo & Juliet, they may have read or heard of it. Wonder if Mary Parsons and Ebenezer Bridgman felt the connection or parallels, but with hopefully better results in mind than in the play?

 

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Family history is meant to be shared, but the original content of this site may NOT be used for any commercial purposes unless explicit written permission is received from both the blog owner and author. Blogs or websites with ads and/or any income-generating components are included under “commercial purposes,” as are the large genealogy database websites. Sites that republish original HeritageRamblings.net content as their own are in violation of copyright as well, and use of full content is not permitted.
 
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No Ghoulies, No Ghosties, But a Witch? Yep. Part 4

"View from Long Hill looking up the river" by George H. Ireland, stereoscope card, via Wikimedia, public domain. (Click to enlarge.)
“View from Long Hill looking up the river,” Springfield, Massachusetts, by George H. Ireland, stereoscope card, via Wikimedia, public domain. (Click to enlarge.)

McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)

Mary (Bliss) Parsons and her husband Joseph Parsons remained in Boston for some time after her witchcraft trial in 1675, as Joseph owned warehouses there and had business in town. It would surely have been a good break from those who had accused Mary but lived so close by in Northampton. Although the jury that acquitted Mary was made up of ‘regular’ men from the Boston area, many felt that having so many well-to-do members of society and friends of the Parsons family involved in the trial had ‘bought’ Mary her favorable results.

The son of Joseph and Mary, Ebenezer Parsons, had been the first white child born in Northampton on 1 May 1655. This was just before the son of  Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman, one of Mary’s primary accusers, was born- yet another reason for Sarah to be envious of Mary. Ebenezer was only 20 years old when he marched off to Northfield after Indians had attacked a number of English settlements during King Philip’s War. (See note below.)

Indians Attacking a Garrison House from an old wood Engraving. This is likely a depiction of the attack on the Haynes Garrison, Sudbury, April 21,1676. via Wikimedia, public domain.
Indians Attacking a Garrison House from an old wood Engraving. This is likely a depiction of the attack on the Haynes Garrison, Sudbury, April 21,1676.(Unrelated to this family, but similar.) via Wikimedia, public domain.

Ebenezer was killed on 8 September 1675 during the fight with the Indians per some recent sources; older historical sources state the date of his death as Thursday, Sept. 2, 1675. This being just after his mother Mary’s acquittal in her witchcraft trial, those who had worked to bring her to trial said,

“Behold, though human judges may be bought off, God’s vengeance neither turns aside nor slumbers.”

The neighbors assumed that the loss of her beloved son was punishment for Mary’s pact with the devil.

Despite the continued rumors, Mary and Joseph Parsons did return to their home and family in Northampton, likely before 1678/9.

Their story continues…

On 7 March 1679, another of our Burnell ancestors (not related to the Bliss or Parsons families), John Stebbins of Northampton, died suddenly and mysteriously. An examination of the body showed, “warmth and heate in his body that dead persons are not usual to have” and that his neck had the same flexibility of that of a living person, so rigor mortis had not completely set in. His body had “several hundred of spots” that seemed as if “they had been shott with small shott.” When these spots were scraped, there were holes under them. A second examination was reported to a court of inquest: he had bruises that had not been there during the previous examination, and “the body somewhat more cold yn before, his joints were more limber.”

John Stebbins owned a sawmill, and although some (now) think his death was caused by runaway logs, some of the townspeople then thought his death was due to witchcraft.

How does this pertain to Mary (Bliss) Parsons?  Well, we know that she had been accused of witchcraft more than once. Second, she was back in Northampton, thus near where John Stebbins died. But even more damning was the fact that the wife of the late John Stebbins was Abigail (Bartlett) Stebbins. Does that Bartlett maiden name sound familiar? Yep- Abigail was the sister of Samuel Bartlett, the husband/widower of Mary (Bridgman) Bartlett, that Mary was accused of killing through witchcraft in the 1675 Boston trial. It was the death of Mary (Bridgman) Bartlett’s young sibling that caused the first case of slander, against her mother, Mary (Lyman) Bridgman, to be brought by Joseph Parsons in defense of his wife Mary. (Yes, we almost need a detailed roadmap- so many Marys, and same last names to untangle. Maybe we just need infographics rather than narrative posts??)

Samuel Bartlett seemed to be the community’s ‘witch finder’ and he brought in testimony to the inquest concerning the death of John Stebbins. There is no record existing today that Mary (Bliss) Parsons was accused of the death through witchcraft, but some historians believe she was the target of such rumors, especially with the bad feelings between her family and the Bartletts/Bridgmans continuing through the years.

The court of inquest rendered a verdict that did not directly charge anyone with witchcraft, but at least half of the twelve male jurors believed that witchcraft had been involved. Evidence was then sent to the Boston Court of Assistants, but unfortunately that information has not survived either. There was no further action taken, however.

They had had enough- Mary and Joseph moved their household back downriver to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1679 or 1680. Springfield had been attacked and burned during King Philip’s War, so maybe it was a sort of fresh start for them.) Their son Samuel Parsons remained in the family home in Northampton.

Joseph Parsons, Sr., died in 1683 and Mary, like her mother, Margaret (Hullins) Bliss, began a long widowhood.

But it was not completely over.

Twenty-two years after moving back to Springfield, in 1702 Peletiah Glover, a prominent Springfield merchant who possessed much wealth, went to court to indict the slave woman Betty Negro for “bad language striking his son Peletiah.” The 14-year old Peletiah testified to the court that the slave had claimed that his grandmother “had killed two persons over the river, and had killed Mrs. Pynchon and half-killed the Colonel, and that his mother was half a witch.”

Can you guess how this relates to our study of witchcraft in Springfield and Northampton, Massachusetts? Yep, it ‘relates’ because these people were relatives- Peletiah Jr.’s mother was Hannah (Parsons) Glover, the daughter of Mary (Bliss) Parsons. So young Peletiah’s grandmother was Mary, a full-blooded witch per the assumptions of townspeople, and thus his mother was “half a witch.”

Mary was not taken to court for this- her friends and relatives likely helped her out in this respect. One Joseph Parsons was a man of great prominence in Northampton and one of the Justices of the Peace who presided over the case; he was also the son of Mary and Joseph, thus also the elder Peletiah’s brother-in-law and uncle of the younger Peletiah. The other Justice was John Pynchon, a frequent business partner to Cornet Joseph Parsons (Sr.). John Pynchon had also testified for Mary years before in the slander trial and was involved in her witchcraft trial.

The slave Betty “owned it she had so said.” (Interestingly, one ‘Tom Negro’ testified against Betty Negro.)

The court record for 9 January 1702 states:

“We find her very culpable for her base tongue and words as aforesaid…We sentence said Betty to be well whipped on the naked body by the constable with ten lashes well laid on: which was performed accordingly by constable Thomas Bliss…”

The last name of Thomas Bliss who carried out the sentence is of course, familiar too: the constable was the son of the brother of Mary’ (Bliss) Parsons, thus her nephew.

Mary died at about age 85 in 1712. She was unwell and confused enough that her sons Joseph and John Parsons took over her estate the year before she died.

Mary was lucky- six women were executed for witchcraft in Massachusetts even before the Salem witch trials of 1692, when 20 persons were executed (19 hanged, 1 pressed to death) and four died in prison while awaiting trial.

Witches could be a good community scapegoat for ills which could not yet be explained by science or disease, and claiming someone was a witch was sometimes the next step in an argument or long-standing feud. There are theories about ergot (a fungus) in the rye that was a dietary staple and could cause hallucinations and the ‘fits’ so often seen in victims of witchcraft. (The ergot would affect a smaller body, like that of a young girl, faster than that of an adult, possibly explaining why young women/girls were those primarily with ‘fits.’)

Sociologists have also postulated that witchcraft accusations take up the time of the people when they are in a lull with fighting enemies or the weather for survival, and act as a safety valve for human dissension.

Whatever our 21st century take is on witchcraft, it was a real fear for our ancestors- no matter if they were accused or accuser. The story of Mary (Bliss) Parsons illustrates that well.

 

Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. Also known as Metacom’s War, ‘King Philip’ was the English name of the warrior Metacom/Metacomet. King Philip’s War was between the English colonists who had some Native American allies, vs. the other natives of New England, mostly Wampanoags and Narragansetts. Within less than a year, the population of the colonies were decimated, including a loss of at least 10% of the men of fighting age. More than half of the towns were attacked  with twelve burned to the ground, and the economy of the colonies was almost ruined with the loss of livestock, crops, and goods. Many English residents had been carried off by the natives and carried into Canada, sometimes sold as slaves. The war lasted from 1675-1678. England provided very little support for the colonists during the war, thus they banded together, resulting in a colonial identity separate from English subjects. This was just the first alienation of colonists that would result in a much bigger separation 100 years later. For more of this history see the very excellent book, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson, Vintage, 2001, or his shorter version (293 pages vs. 912), The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War, Penguin, 2006. (A companion to the PBS documentary The War That Made America: The Story of the French and Indian War, 2006, available on DVD.)
  2. See resources in Part 3.

 

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Family history is meant to be shared, but the original content of this site may NOT be used for any commercial purposes unless explicit written permission is received from both the blog owner and author. Blogs or websites with ads and/or any income-generating components are included under “commercial purposes,” as are the large genealogy database websites. Sites that republish original HeritageRamblings.net content as their own are in violation of copyright as well, and use of full content is not permitted.
 
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No Ghoulies, No Ghosties, But a Witch? Yep. Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series No Ghoulies, No Ghosties, But a Witch? Yep.
"Don't text and fly." Unknown source but all over the internet. Very clever.
“Don’t text and fly.” Unknown source but all over the internet. Very clever. Photos give us a lot of clues- for instance, the family that lives here probably has teenagers. ;D And there are just no images of Mary Bliss Parsons.

McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)

If you haven’t completely overdosed on sugar and chocolate from Halloween, you may remember that we have our own accused witch in the family tree.

Hopefully not in the above kind of tree.

Let’s return to our own Mary (Bliss) Parsons…

Rumors about Mary continued to ‘fly’ in Northampton and Springfield despite her winning the slander case against Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman. Life, however, seemed to go on with townspeople trading with each other despite the fear of evil in the neighborhood. This is one of the most curious things about a ‘witch’ in the community- despite the animosity of the accusations, the accused witch and her family were generally still able to do business in town, work for others, sell their crops or other goods, etc. The interdependence of a small frontier community always had to come first.

Eighteen years passed without significant incident, but bad feelings and nasty rumors continued concerning Mary and witchcraft. Joseph and Mary had more healthy children, prospered, as had most of their adult children as well. Mary’s mother, Margaret (Hullins) Bliss, along with Mary’s brothers, had also become successful after their move to Northampton after the death of Thomas Bliss, Mary’s father.

The bad luck of Sarah and James Bridgman continued, however. James had not moved up in the community economically, socially, or politically. Their married daughter, Mary (Bridgman) Bartlett died at about age 22 in August of 1674. The young mother had been healthy and then died suddenly, with no apparent illness. James Bridgman and his son-in-law Samuel Bartlett later testified that, “she came to her end by some unlawful and unnatural means.” They thought her death had been, “by means of some evil instrument.” The men appeared in the county court and requested inquiry into the matter. Mary (Bliss) Parsons knew the gossip, so decided to appear in court of her own accord, “desiring to clear herself of such an execrable crime.” The local magistrates did listen to Mary and evidence given, but deferred any decision until their next meeting, which was to be in November. Very little of the court records survive, but the second hearing was deferred until 5 January 1675.

In January more depositions were taken, and the court called Mary “to speak for herself.” Mary asserted her own innocence and continued, saying she was clear of the crime. The court records stated that she added,  “the righteous God knew her innocency- with whom she had left her cause.” For a woman of that time, standing up in court to magistrates and the community was impressive, but Mary had the courage to do so. The young widower, Samuel Bartlett, was also in court this time, and provided the magistrates with testimonies, “many and various, some of them being demonstrations of witchcraft, and others sorely reflecting upon Mary Parsons as being guilty that way.”

Winter in New York- similar to that in Massachusetts. William Rickarby Miller [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Winter in New York- similar to that in Massachusetts.
William Rickarby Miller [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The county court decided to invest in more inquiry, although they had determined that the case should go on to a higher court, in Boston. Because it was winter in New England, and there was quite a distance for all those involved to travel to Boston, the court ordered her person to be examined by “Soberdized, Chast women” who would “make Diligent Search upon ye body of Mary Parsons, whether any marks of witch craft might appear.” These marks could include a mole or birth mark, an anatomical deformity, or even a bruise or insect bite- it was believed that any of these types of ‘witch marks’ would prove that Mary had a ‘familar’ (a devil or spirit that could take various shapes, often as a cat) and therefore truly a witch. This report (which has not survived) along with the case documents was sent to Boston. Mary Bliss Parsons now was in the fearful position of being officially the defendant, accused of murder via her witchcraft.

Interestingly, most likely at the same proceeding, there had been testimony that Mary’s 24 year old unmarried son John Parsons had a part in his mother’s witchcraft, or that he was a witch himself- the specifics are just not available. Few men were prosecuted as witches, and the court decided there was not, “any such weight whereby he should be prosecuted on suspicion of witchcraft.”

Mary was taken to Boston on 2 March 1675,  stood before a Grand Jury, and was indicted on charges of witchcraft. Additionally, she was to be imprisoned in Boston for ten weeks while awaiting trial. Mary’s incarceration, being well-to-do, would not have been quite as miserable as for the lower classes in jail, but it surely was a horrible two and a half months after her comparative life of luxury. In those days, a family had to bring in or pay for meals, clothing, bedding,- even water for the prisoner. Mary’s family could easily afford her meals and warm clothes for a still-cold March and April in Boston, and probably paid for a larger cell that she could have to herself. Joseph owned warehouses in Boston so he had a place to stay and could conduct business, and visit his wife regularly. Still, being jailed and with a trial for witchcraft looming, it must have been a terrible and frightening experience.

"Marched from jail for the last time," fictional character Dulcibel Burton, illustration, Dulcibel : A tale of old Salem, by Henry Peterson, Philadelphia : John C. Winston, 1907, painting by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) via Wikimedia Commons; public domain.
“Marched from jail for the last time,” fictional character Dulcibel Burton, illustration, Dulcibel : A tale of old Salem, by Henry Peterson, Philadelphia : John C. Winston, 1907, painting by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) via Wikimedia Commons; public domain. Hopefully it was not this dramatic for Mary as she was taken to the courtroom, but she likely was thinking it could end up this way if she was found guilty of witchcraft.

The official charge was read at Mary’s trial on 13 May 1675: “Mary Parsons, the wife of Joseph Parsons, …being instigated by the Devil, hath entered into familiarity with the Devil, and committed several acts of witchcraft on the person or persons of one or more.” Mary was standing at the bar as she listened to the charge, raised her hand, and stated that she was not guilty. Although the court was filled with the elite of the colony including the governor, indicating Mary’s social rank and her husband’s connections, it was a jury of twelve men from the local area who decided her fate. Mary spoke on her own behalf, and part of the minimal records remaining state simply, on 13 May 1675: “The jury brought in their verdict. They found her not guilty. And so she was discharged.”

As had been the case before, although Mary (Bliss) Parsons had been legally cleared of witchcraft, the stigma of evil did not leave her. We will explore more about her life in upcoming posts, including more instances in which “hard thoughts and jealousies” affected her life.

 

Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. Witch Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England. A Documentary History 1638–1693, edited by David D. Hall, 2nd Edition, Duke University Press Books, 2005.
  2. “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.)
  3. 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.
  4. The History of Northampton, Massachusetts from its settlement in 1654,

    by Trumbull, James Russell, (1825-1899); Pomeroy, Seth, (1706-1777), 1898. (Seth Pomeroy is a very distant cousin too.)  Available on Internet Archive- https://archive.org/stream/historyofnortham00trum#page/n11/mode/2up

  5. 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
  6. Parsons Family. Descendants of Cornet Joseph Parsons Springfield 1636- Northampton 1655, by Henry Parsons, New Haven, 1912.
  7. Genealogy of the Bliss family in America, from about the year 1550-1880by Bliss, John Homer, b. 1832, 1881. https://archive.org/stream/genealogyofbliss00blis#page/n3/mode/2up

 

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No Ghoulies, No Ghosties, But a Witch? Yep. Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series No Ghoulies, No Ghosties, But a Witch? Yep.
Painting that many attribute as Mary Bliss Parsons, but it is not. No known images exist of her. Unknown source.
Painting that many attribute as Mary Bliss Parsons, but it is not. No known images exist of her. Unknown source.

McMurray Family, Burnell Family (Click for Family Tree)

Well, sort of.

Ghoulies and ghosties are fun Halloween fantasies, and witches would be too if there had not been real women- and some men too- who were accused of witchcraft in the very early years of our country. Some would be convicted and executed, as in the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of 1691-2. However, the Salem hysteria was predated by even earlier accusations and trials- and in places where our ancestors lived.

In fact, if you are a McMurray or Burnell,

one of our ancestors was accused, and tried, as a witch.

Really.

(Did Grandma tell this family story?? Likely, she did not even know of it.)

And to make the story even better, apparently another family line was quite involved, but not in a good way. (New England was a small place in the 1600s.)

Mary Bliss was born in England about 1628, a time when witches and Satan populated the world in Puritan minds, and those of other religious persuasions as well. Even literate people felt these entities were very real, and just waiting to harm them or their crops, livestock, homes, property, and family; for illiterate people, the fantastical was even more acceptable. Just imagine the darkness of New England in the winter, being in a small home with little light from handmade candles and the fireplace, possibly a woman alone with many children to protect while her husband was out hunting for days or traveling for trade. Add the damp cold and mist, the forest nearby with animals and natives rustling about and howling, and a Halloween setting was in place- but this occurred every day of the colonists’ lives. Fear of the physical and the spiritual reigned.

Mary Bliss’ family migrated from Olde England to New England when she was about eight. She married Joseph Parsons in Hartford, Connecticut, and then they moved to Springfield for several years and had a few children. As Northampton, Massachusetts began to be settled in 1654, Joseph and Mary Bliss Parsons moved their household out into the wilderness. Joseph was quite successful in both towns, and they had one of the nicer homes and better furniture than many of their neighbors. They eventually had eleven children who survived into adulthood- thus were more successful in myriad ways as compared to many of their neighbors.

Mary Bliss Parsons was apparently something of a contentious person- not unusual for the times in men, but as a woman, her haughty and strong mannerisms and ways of dealing with people caused problems, and engendered gossip. The family’s constant rise economically, socially, and politically made Mary the envy of some of her neighbors, and enemies to others. Joseph apparently was contentious as well, and very litigious- both traits common in successful businessmen, then as now.

One of their Northampton neighbors, Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman, accused Mary of causing the death of her two-week old son through the use of witchcraft. Sarah and her husband James Bridgman had followed a similar life-path as the Parsons had with their migrations, including being born in England, then migrating to Springfield, Massachusetts, and then Northampton after the Parsons family had moved there. James had not done as well as Joseph, however, and Sarah’s children frequently died young.

A feud seemed to have developed between the families, especially after an earlier incident in Springfield in which the Bridgman’s older son had been tending their cows in the swamp, when he received a ‘great blow to the head.’ He stumbled and injured his knee. The knee had been set but was painful and did not heal properly. One day the child screamed that Mary Parsons was pulling his leg off. He said he saw her on the shelf on the wall, and then she disappeared, with a black mouse following her. This could only be caused by supernatural evil, and Sarah spread malicious gossip around Springfield in those years. Once the Bridgmans moved to Northampton, the gossip continued, even escalated. Sarah Bridgman (and others) definitely claimed that Mary Parsons was a witch. Many felt that Mary’s witchcraft was how the family did so well for themselves.

To stop the rumors, Mary’s husband Joseph Parsons filed a lawsuit against Sarah Bridgman citing slander. (Women, of course, could not file a lawsuit at that time- their husband had to do any legal work needed.) Joseph and Mary were taking a risky path with the lawsuit, as it might draw greater than normal attention by the authorities if they felt the rumors were true, and Mary could end up having to defend herself from the accusation witchcraft.

The court was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the higher Magistrate’s Court was required to hear such serious accusations concerning witchcraft. Thirty-three depositions were taken from friends, family, and neighbors in October of 1656, with families from both Northampton and Springfield testifying. Sarah Bridgman told her story that in May two years earlier, as she was with her newborn in her home, “having my child in my lap, there was something that gave a great blow on the door, and at very instant as I apprehended my child changed: and I thought with myself and told my girl I was afraid my child would die.’ She then saw “two women pass by the door with white clothes on their heads” when her girl had seen no one. Sarah then knew her son would die soon because there was “wickedness in the place.” Her son was dead in just two weeks.

Others stated that the rumors were ‘truth,’ not slander, and returned to past ill words and unpleasant interactions with Mary. One neighbor related that Mary complained to her that the yarn she had spun for Mary had knots, as did the second batch she sent to replace it; the spinner related that other persons did not have the same problem with the yarn she had spun for them, so Mary’s witchcraft had likely caused the knots. Mary had asked this same neighbor to let their daughter work for her, but the rumors of witchcraft had already taken hold, and they refused; the daughter became ill shortly thereafter- again, the neighbor testified, evidence of witchcraft. After an argument with Mary about missing yarn, the husband of the spinner found his cow “ready to die” and it did, within two weeks- of course that too would have been caused by Mary’s witchcraft, as revenge for the “discontented words passed” between them. “Hard thoughts and jealousies” abounded concerning Mary Parsons (with ‘jealousies’ at that time meaning accusations, not envy).

Incidents in Springfield from years before were also brought before the court, such as Mary in a ‘fit’ moving through water but not getting wet, Mary walking about at night, sometimes with an unknown woman (thought to be a spirit), or Mary being able to find the key her husband hid from her when he locked her in their house or cellar. (He also beat her in front of others, and their child. They had a stormy relationship.)

Other witnesses, more favorable to Mary, testified that Sarah Bridgman’s baby had been sickly since birth and that the cow died of “water in the belly” rather than some unnatural cause.

Numerous witnesses then recanted their testimony, stating that they had been induced by the Bridgmans to lie or that whatever incident they had related may have had natural causes. Mary was not above reproach in such evidence tampering matters either- she and her husband had influential friends who tried to suppress or alter testimony.

As proving Sarah’s slander was actually the point of the lawsuit, Mary’s mother, Margaret (Hullins) Bliss told the court that she had been told by Sarah Bridgman that “her daughter Parsons was suspected to be a witch.”

Thirty-seven persons in two communities were involved in the trial, with 15 families who lived in Northampton, and 7 from Springfield. It had taken an entire summer to gather all the evidence- it was quite a big event in the two little frontier towns on the edge of wilderness.

That fall the court ruled that Sarah Bridgman had indeed committed slander. Repentance was important to a Puritan community, and Sarah Bridgman was given the choice of a public apology to be done in both Northampton and Springfield, or pay a fine that they really could not afford. The Bridgmans decided to pay the fine instead of backing down, probably to avoid the humiliation.

The trial was over, but suspicions and the troubles of Mary Parsons were not.

 

To be continued…

 

Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. We have the ‘Lyman’ and ‘Bartlett’ accuser’s surnames in the family as well, but this author is just beginning to research those relationships.
  2. There is quite a lot of information online about Mary Bliss Parsons- with 11 children surviving to adulthood, she has a LOT of descendants. Not all is fully accurate,  so reading more scholarly journals and genealogical and other books concerning Mary will be the best sources. Following are just a few of the very many sources consulted for this blog post and those upcoming about Mary.
  3. 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.
  4. The History of Northampton, Massachusetts from its settlement in 1654,

    by Trumbull, James Russell, (1825-1899); Pomeroy, Seth, (1706-1777), 1898. (Seth Pomeroy is a very distant cousin too.)  Available on Internet Archive- https://archive.org/stream/historyofnortham00trum#page/n11/mode/2up

  5. 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
  6. Parsons Family. Descendants of Cornet Joseph Parsons Springfield 1636- Northampton 1655, by Henry Parsons, New Haven, 1912.

(Journals will be added with Part 2.)

 

 

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Original content copyright 2013-2015 by Heritage Ramblings Blog and pmm.

Family history is meant to be shared, but the original content of this site may NOT be used for any commercial purposes unless explicit written permission is received from both the blog owner and author. Blogs or websites with ads and/or any income-generating components are included under “commercial purposes,” as are the large genealogy database websites. Sites that republish original HeritageRamblings.net content as their own are in violation of copyright as well, and use of full content is not permitted.
 
Descendants and researchers MAY download images and posts to share with their families, and use the information on their family trees or in family history books with a small number of reprints. Please make sure to credit and cite the information properly.
 
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