Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The crimes of my ancestor

This is NOT Mary Bliss Parsons, but a woman of the era
One thing I found fascinating when researching my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons: learning what her “crimes” were.

In 1600s Springfield, Massachusetts, Mary began having spells while in church, at the same time that the minister’s children underwent the same fits. She was a grown woman with four children of her own at this point. Here’s what’s strange: another woman named Mary Lewis Parsons was accused of causing those fits. The two similarly-named women were not related.

Mary Bliss Parsons actually had to be carried out of Sabbath meeting along with those children. How dearly I would love to know what exactly was meant by “fits”—one description from later testimony was, “Shee would looke fearfully somtymes as if shee saw something & then bow downe her head, as others did on theire fits about that time.”

Mary cried out a warning that witches would creep under someone’s bed.  She struggled so hard in those church fits that it took two men to restrain her. It was said that Mary’s fits arose out of being locked in her own cellar by her husband, where she was tormented by spirits that would not leave her alone.

A neighbor testified that Mary told her she had gone to the river to wash clothes, and there spirits appeared to her in the shape of dolls. Whether this was hallucinated “truth” or a neighbor’s yarns, I feel anguish on her behalf if such terrifying visions presented themselves.

Three years later, Mary and her family moved to nearby Northampton, which her husband and others had purchased from the Native Americans for 200 yards of wampum (shells on strings), ten coats and a few trinkets. She had several more children.

In Northampton, Mary became viewed as not just a victim of witchcraft, but the source of it. When 11-year-old John Bridgman went into the woods to chase down the family cows, a force struck him on the back of the head. A while later, he stumbled and put his knee out of joint. The surgeon treated him once he had made his way home, but he was in agony for a month. In the early hours one morning, he cried out, waking his parents. He said Goody Parsons was trying to pull off his knee and was sitting, visible only to him, on the shelf.

(Goody is short for goodwife, a less prestigious version of “Mrs.”)

John was not the only one to point a finger at Mary. She was said to make spun yarn diminish in volume (clearly a bicker over reimbursement for cottage work); accused of making a cow die, an ox die and even a sow; and said to have the ability to go into water and come out dry. Another accusation that makes one worry for her domestic situation with her husband: she could always find the house key even when he hid it against her. Locked in the basement, locked out of (or in?) the house… Even without witchcraft, Mary’s life seemed full of trouble.

The most chilling accusation came from a woman besieged by bad luck. Sarah Bridgman, the mother of John whose knee had been so grieviously injured in the woods, had lost three newborns in succession. She blamed Mary for the death of baby James.

It’s one thing to make an ox die from rattlesnake bite on its tongue; quite another to cause a child to die. The stakes were suddenly much higher for Mary.

Talk was dangerous, and so to address the situation before it became worse, Mary’s husband filed a slander suit against Sarah Bridgman for calling his wife a witch. Dozens of people testified in this suit, and Mary’s husband won. Sarah was found guilty of slander and forced to either publicly apologize to Mary or pay a £10 fine (unknown which she chose).

Eighteen years later, Mary was again accused by the Bridgman family, this time of using witchcraft to murder Mary Bridgman Bartlett, Sarah’s grown and married daughter. Sarah was long dead by this time. Mary spent three months in a grim dirt-floored prison in Boston awaiting the trial where she was acquitted.

Mary lived a long life, dying in 1712 at the age of about 85. She had outlived her husband by 30 years. She escaped execution as a witch, but it is certain that gossip and suspicion must have followed her all her days.

My novel The Witch’s Trinity is set in medieval Germany where researchers say some villages burned a witch every three or four years over hundreds of years, as just a matter of course. There were even two villages where the women had been so systematically executed that only one remained. Can you imagine being that one woman left standing?

I chose to write about a character who was accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law, and was not completely certain she wasn’t a witch. While in the course of writing the book, I first learned about Mary Bliss Parsons. It seemed an extraordinary coincidence that I only learned of my witchcraft lineage while writing a book on the topic.

I dedicated my book to her, because her story was so compelling and unfair and clearly illustrated how much she was a victim of her time.

My novel contains an Afterword about Mary, with more details about her life and neighbors’ testimony against her. If you are interested in googling Mary, please be sure to use her entire name (Mary Bliss Parsons) to avoid confusion with Mary Lewis Parsons.

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P.S. In looking for an image to accompany this post, I learned Mary Bliss Parsons has her own Facebook page. The web/world is so odd.....

P.P.S. I ended up using an image that is often identified as being a painting of Mary Bliss Parsons but is most definitely not her. I blogged about it in the past:

P.P.P.S. I'm participating in a Twitterchat tonight under the hashtag #HistoricalFix with bestselling authors Katherine Howe and Cat Winter. It takes place 5:30-6:30 PST (8:30-9:30 ET) October 20, 2015. Lots of questions and giveaways: join us.

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