Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. -James 1:27
When I was about ten years old, my stepmom, eager to share her love of literature, gave me a copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (1959 Newbery Medal winner). It has remained one of my favorite books ever since. Something about the story and its characters has always called to me on a deep level.
Hannah Tupper, one of the book’s main characters, is an elderly Quaker widow who has been ostracized and rumored to be a witch by the Puritan community she lives among. Toward the end of the book, the townspeople, looking for someone to blame for a fever outbreak, come after Hannah, intent on harm. I won’t spoil any more details, but it’s a beautiful book that I highly recommend.
Around the same time I received the book, we went with my stepmom and dad to visit the Salem Witch Museum. I remember standing in a dark room with period-costumed mannequins where a loud speaker told the stories of some of the women and girls who had been killed for supposed witchcraft. All of this talk about “real” witches was new to me.
Several weeks ago I learned something about my family history that helped me understand perhaps why The Witch of Blackbird Pond had struck a chord in my soul. I am a direct descendant of Margaret Stephenson Scott, hanged as a witch in the Salem Witch Trials on September 22, 1692. Margaret Scott was my 9th great-grandmother on my mother’s side.
From what I can piece together from a Google search, Margaret was born in England around 1615. At some point she made her way to Massachusetts where she married Benjamin Scott in 1642. Margaret and Benjamin moved to Cambridge, MA, where she gave birth to four children. In 1651, they moved the family to Rowley, MA, having three more children. Of their children, only three lived to adulthood. When Margaret was 56, her husband Benjamin died, leaving her a poor widow for the following twenty-one years.
Margaret’s many losses, deep enough wounds in an of themselves, made her that much more vulnerable to witchcraft accusations. Historians explain: “Women in New England who had trouble raising children were very vulnerable to witchcraft charges. In fact, only 7 out of the 62 accused female witches in New England prior to 1692 had a considerable number of children” (Source). Being a widow with very little means of support also made her a prime suspect. We read:
The most dangerous aspect of being a widow was the lack of a husband for legal support and influence. . . . Often widows who were over fifty and not wealthy, were unable to find a new spouse and thus were reduced to poverty and begging. By begging, Margaret would expose herself to witchcraft suspicions according to what historian Robin Briggs calls the “refusal guilt syndrome.” This phenomenon occurred when a beggar’s needs were refused causing feelings of guilt and aggression on the refuser’s part. The refuser projected this aggression on the begger and grew suspicious of her (Source).
When the 77-year-old Margaret was accused of witchcraft by a group of wealthy Rowley residents, only Margaret’s son Benjamin remained in town. At the time, Benjamin had six children of his own and couldn’t (or chose not to) offer legal support. Perhaps he also felt there was little hope of saving his mother. One of Margaret’s primary accusers was a prominent Rowley resident named Captain Daniel Wicom who filled many town leadership positions. According to court documents, the residents of Rowley had suspected Margaret of being a witch for as many as twenty years but it was only when Captain Wicom’s daughter “became afflicted by her” that any legal action was taken against her. Whatever Wicom put his mind to was almost certain to succeed, given his stature and influence. To top it all off, a family member of one of Margaret’s accusers was included in the Grand Jury who decided her fate. Margaret had little hope of defense.
Margaret’s execution was among the last in the Salem witch histeria, along with Martha Corey, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Mary Easty, Samuel Wardwell, Wilmott Redd and Mary Parker. My heart ached with both sadness and relief when I learned that just one month after their deaths, “Governor Phips forbade any further arrests and many of the remaining accused were released from jail” (Source).
In 1711, the Massachusetts legislature passed a resolution clearing the names of the convicted witches, offering financial restitution to their descendents. Margaret Scott’s family did not seek restitution. In 1993, the town of Rowley erected a monument to Margaret, calling the witch trials a “delusion.” They dedicated this grassy area to her memory.
When I first discovered that I was a direct descendant of a woman executed as a witch, I sort of laughed and said, “Well that explains a lot about me!” I have often thought it was a good thing I wasn’t living among Puritans in the 1600’s because I would surely have been executed right along with Margaret. I make “potions” and have anti-establishment views about birth and mothering. When it comes to rules that don’t really matter, I like to step out of line. Just a few nights ago I had a dream I was a (good) witch, hanging out with some of my witch friends, when an evil witch started attacking us. Ha. After hearing about it, my older brother asked, “Were you all wearing white things on your heads?” Of course we were. And we were chanting things as well, of course. I choose to break lots of stupid cultural/societal rules. All the time.
The really sad thing is that Margaret had no choice in the rules she broke. She didn’t choose to lose four of her children (perhaps even more to miscarriage). She didn’t choose to become a widow. She didn’t choose to be poor. But nonetheless, she was a “rule-breaker” by virtue of her living what her community deemed an “unacceptable” life. Women weren’t supposed to lose children. Women weren’t supposed to be without a husband. Women weren’t supposed to be a “burden” on their neighbors or “make” them feel guilty for not being charitable.
I wish it were the case that women were no longer suspected of wrongdoing when experiencing the loss of a child. Unfortunately, women are still sometimes under attack or the recipients of shameful comments when the details of their babies’ deaths are unclear or unknown. Someone dear to me has been among those grieving mothers whose wounds were made more difficult by the salt of others’ accusing comments. We may not be hanging any witches on shoddy evidence, but our judgments remain… far too often.
Coming to know Margaret has certainly given me a refresher course in compassion. Thank you, Margaret.