Lizzie Borden Took an Ax…

 

Gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

Gave her father forty one.

Or did she?

Infamous might-be ax murderer Lizzie Borden was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in their own home, injuring them with (maybe not forty) but so many bloody hatchet whacks their faces were unrecognizable.

The story had all the elements of Gothic intrigue. A wealthy family. A miserly widower. An evil stepmother. Two secluded, spinster daughters. A family enmeshed in bickering and resentment. A gory murder and the trial of the century. Read on to find out about the real Lizzie Borden, a mind boggling tale and a murder mystery that continues to baffle experts to this day.

Lizzie Andrew Borden was born on this day, July 19, 1860, in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her parents were Sarah Anthony and Andrew Jackson Borden. Lizzie had one older sister, Emma, born in 1851. Lizzie attended the Morgan Street School. After graduating, she became a Sunday school teacher, a secretary of the local Christian Endeavor Society and a member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. (The real Lizzie was yet to be revealed…)

Lizzie’s life was hardly a whirlwind of adventure. And this just may have been the environment that led her to crack.

Evil Stepmother, Frugal Father

Andrew Borden’s first wife Sarah died in 1863 when Lizzie was just three years old. Two years later Andrew remarried a woman named Abby Durfee Gray. Since Lizzie was so young, Abby should have been her main maternal figure. But Lizzie and her sister Emma never liked Abby very much. They called her “Mrs. Borden” rather than “mother”, and didn’t even eat their meals with her. Lizzie believed that Abby had married her father for his wealth.

Andrew Borden was indeed a wealthy man. But with the way he lived, no one would know it. He came from modest beginnings and eventually made a fortune in real estate and textile mills. He was also president of the Union Savings Bank and a director of the Durfee Safe Deposit and Trust Co. The guy was loaded. At the time of his death in 1892, Borden’s estate was valued at $300,000  — the equivalent of $9 million in today’s money!

Despite his vast wealth, Andrew was a notorious miser. Picture Ebenezer Scrooge, holed gloves, scant coals on the fire, watery tea.

The house the family lived in was small and shabby. It had no electricity or indoor plumbing. It was located in a modest part of town, far from the Fall River elite, who lived in a ritzy district known as “The Hill”.

Sisters Lizzie and Emma longed for a life on The Hill. Debutante balls, champagne, glitzy dancing, diamond brooches. But no. Because of their father’s frugality, these luxuries were denied them.

In addition to Lizzie hating her stepmother, other tensions were growing within the family. Miser Andrew had bestowed generous gifts of real estate to various members of Abby’s family. For example, he had given a house to Abby’s sister. In retaliation, Emma and Lizzie had demanded property of their own. They purchased a house from their father for one dollar. A few weeks later they sold it back to him for $5,000 —  the equivalent to $142,000 in today’s money. A pretty good deal 🙂

And money wasn’t the only issue. Lizzie was a devout animal lover.  She had recently built a roost in the barn for stray pigeons. Andrew decided they were a nuisance, so he took a hatchet and sliced up the birds. (Yes, a hatchet. You will see a theme emerging here…) Needless to say, Lizzie was devastated.

The Bordens were NOT a happy family.

By July, 1892, a family argument prompted both sisters to take vacations. When Lizzie returned, she was not eager to go back to her father’s house, and even stayed a few days in a hotel before returning. Emma remained on vacation for an extended time and was therefore (lucky for her) not home during the time of the murders.

In Cold Blood

The Borden murders occurred on August 4, 1892.

It started out like any other morning. The family had breakfast.

The Bordens employed a live-in maid named Bridget Sullivan, whom they called Maggie. A relative named John Morse, Lizzie’s uncle, had come for a visit. The only people in the house that day were Lizzie, Andrew, Abby, Maggie and John. At around 8:30 am John left and went to town to buy a pair of oxen. (Can you imagine going to town to buy oxen? But I digress 🙂 )

At a little after 9 am, Andrew went out for his daily morning walk. At sometime between 9 and 10 am, Abby went upstairs to do housework in the guest room. The making of that bed would be her last. By 10:30 am Abby was dead.

According to the forensic investigation, Abby was first struck on the side of the head with a hatchet. Her ear was cut, which caused her to turn and fall face down on the floor. The killer then struck her seventeen times in the back of her head.

Meanwhile, Andrew returned from his walk. He had trouble with his key at the door and Maggie came to let him in. The door was jammed and Maggie uttered a curse word as she opened it. She later claimed she heard Lizzie laughing at this, her voice coming from the top of the stairs. (This was significant because anyone upstairs would have presumably been near Abby’s body.) Lizzie, however, denied it. She claimed to have chatted briefly with her father. She also claimed she had removed Andrew’s boots and helped him into his slippers before he lay down on the sofa for a nap.

Interestingly, the photos from the scene of the crime show a dead Andrew with his boots still on.

Maggie was in her room on the third-floor. At approximately 11:10 am she heard Lizzie call from downstairs, “Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Andrew had been struck in the head eleven times with a hatchet. His face was so bludgeoned it was nearly unrecognizable.

Actual police photo. See the shoes.

Somebody called the police. Detectives and a forensics expert were called in. Andrew’s still-bleeding wounds suggested a very recent attack.  It was estimated he died at approximately 11:00 am. Upstairs, Abby’s body was already cold.

Trial of the Century

Reporters swarmed in. News spread through town and crowds began to gather around the Borden house. People walked off their jobs to check out the scene. This was the most exciting event of their lives! Nothing like this had ever happened before in Fall River. People were also terrified that the murderer was still on the loose.

Lizzie was a prime suspect. Of the other household members, John Morse had an alibi and Emma was out of town. Maggie was briefly considered, but she was not a likely candidate because she had no motive. Lizzie, on the other hand, stood to gain financially from her parents’ deaths.

The idea of Lizzie being accused of ax murder was a shock to the townspeople. Polite Victorian society could not fathom the idea of a woman wielding an ax. It was simply too unladylike. They could not picture it. So therefore, the townspeople maintained Lizzie’s innocence from the beginning and never flinched.

At the inquest, Lizzie gave conflicting and confusing testimony. She tripped up her story, claiming to be in different places – – in the kitchen reading a magazine, in the garage searching for tackle, in the orchard eating pears. Finally the judge had enough. Lizzie was arrested for the murder of her parents and thrown in jail.  (To be fair, it should be noted that doctors had prescribed doses of morphine to Lizzie at this time, to help her cope with the horrible situation. The confusing testimony was given under the influence of heavy drugs.)  When the case finally went to trial, the press called it “the trial of the century”.

Lizzie herself did not testify in court, saying only, “I am innocent. I leave it to my counsel to speak for me.”

Plenty of evidence was stacked against her. For one thing, it was reported that she’d tried to burn a dress a week after the murders. Presumably the dress was stained with blood. A friend, Alice Russell, testified that the dress had been stained with paint, not blood. There was also a report that Lizzie had tried to buy poison just days before the murder. (Her parents had also become sick, presumably with food poisoning, during those days.) And then there was the matter of the murder weapon. A hatchet head, detached from its handle, was found in the cellar. Miraculously, no blood stained clothes were ever found in the house, despite the fact that these crimes were a literal blood bath.

As it turned out, the jury was sympathetic. The evidence presented was not considered “direct enough” to convict her.  Lizzie was acquitted on June 20, 1893. She had spent ten months in jail.

Bright Young Things

After the trial, Lizzie and Emma inherited their father’s fortune. (It was nine million bucks, remember?)  They immediately bought a fourteen room mansion in (you guessed it) the prestigious neighborhood of The Hill. The house was a magnificent palace, full of summer and winter bedrooms, crystal chandeliers and lavish furniture. The girls had finally achieved their dream.

You would think the story ends here and the Borden sisters lived happily ever after, right? But NO!

Lizzie was no shrinking violet, and now that she had money she did as she pleased. Her ‘notorious’ activities did not sit well with the polite society of Fall River. And what exactly were those activities? Well… prepare to be shocked!

  • Lizzie changed her name to Lizbeth. Unheard of! It was only acceptable for girls to change their names if they were married! The townspeople gasped, ogled, wagged fingers and disapproved.
  • Lizbeth decided to put a name on her mansion as well. She named it “Maplecroft” and had the name engraved in the porch.

Unheard of! This was a flamboyant, shameless display of wealth and definitely NOT to be tolerated! (Ax murder your parents? Fine. But name a mansion? Oh no, that will not do!)

  • And finally, the pièce de résistance! Lizzie started hanging around with (wait for it…) THEATER PEOPLE! Lizzie loved the theater. She attended often and made friends with actors and actresses. They were, of course, considered the dregs of society. Lizzie took to entertaining them, throwing lavish parties at Maplecroft.

That was it! The last straw. Even her own sister Emma abandoned her, moving out of the house in 1905. The two never spoke to one another again. (True story!) 

Lizzie ‘Lizbeth’ Borden died on June 1, 1927 of pneumonia, at the ripe old age of sixty-seven. We shall never know whether or not she actually committed the murders, but she sure had a hell of a life. What do YOU think?

Happy Birthday Lizzie! You were slick, wicked and uncompromising.

 

 

 

 

Empress Matilda: Treacherous Teen and Warrior Woman

 

Ah those Medieval queens! They really had it rough — often serving as pawns in games of marriage, forced to breed like cattle, and fighting endless battles in their quests for a bit of recognition.

Consider Empress Matilda of England. Born on this day, February 7, 1102, Matilda led a chaotic life. But no one could call her irresponsible.

Matilda was part of a powerful blood line, daughter of Henry I of England and granddaughter of William of Normandy — aka “William the Conqueror”.

Almost as soon as she was out of the cradle, Matilda became a vehicle for marriage. She was betrothed at age 8 to Henry V, King of the Romans. Her father considered this an advantageous marriage, as Matilda would be uniting with a prestigious family line. She traveled to Germany where she was put under the custody of Bruno, Archbishop of Trier. Matilda was then educated in German language and customs, and declared Queen of the Romans. At the tender age of 12 she was married.

To make matters even more shocking, Henry was sixteen years older than her. So yes, we are talking about a 12 year old girl married to a  28 year old man.

Apparently, that sort of thing was normal in those days.

By age 14, Matilda was already running her own royal household, dealing with political conflict in Europe, sponsoring royal grants, conducting ceremonies and staking her claim as Empress of the Holy Roman Empire.

Things did not go well for Henry and Matilda. It seems Henry was a bit of a tyrant, constantly jailing his chancellors and subjects. This led to rebellions. Eventually, Pope Paschal II excommunicated Henry from the church of Rome. Henry and Matilda, however, were not so willing to take their punishment. They countered Paschal by marching over the Alps and arriving in Italy with their armies. Paschal ran away.  His envoy, Antipope Gregory VIII, now under military pressure, agreed to crown Henry and Matilda at Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Weirdly, although Henry and Matilda were married for eleven years until he died in 1125, they never produced any children.  This barren status was bad for Matilda. She was now a widow at age 23. With no offspring, she could never exercise a role as an imperial regent. This left her with two choices; either marry again or become a nun.

Meanwhile, back in England, trouble was brewing.

Matilda’s father Henry I, King of England, had only two legitimate children; Matilda and her brother William. (Ironically, Henry actually fathered 22 illegitimate children! But only William and Matilda had a claim to the throne.)

In 1120, William died in a shipwreck. This left Matilda as the only heir to the crown.

King Henry I still had hopes of bearing another legitimate son. His first wife had died, but he remarried. His plan failed and he sired no more children. Of course, the big dilemma now was finding another husband for Matilda.

Her father decided the best match for her would be Geoffrey of Anjou. This alliance would strengthen relations between England and Normandy. However, there were a few problems. Geoffrey was only 13 years old. Perhaps Matilda, having been exploited herself, was not keen on taking a child husband.

She had little choice in the matter. The couple were married on June 17, 1128.  The newlyweds reportedly did not like each other very much. Matilda tried to get out of the union, leaving Normandy a several times. But Geoffrey always managed to force her back. Eventually, despite the fact that they were mismatched, they did have children. Their first son, Henry (yes another Henry!)  was born in 1133.

King Henry I reportedly was delighted with his grandson Henry. King Henry I died in 1135. This brought about the precarious question of who would take the throne. Although Matilda should have been the legitimate heir, a man known as Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, and one of old Henry’s favorite nephews, staked his claim.  Henry’s subjects had previously pledged themselves to Matilda, but many reneged on their pledge and followed Stephen. A woman had never ruled England before, and people did not take kindly to the idea.  They apparently preferred a British male king to a female ruler with a foreign husband.

Matilda, however, was not willing to give up. She had supporters — including Robert of Gloucester and King David I of Scotland. They attempted to overthrow Stephen with armies from Normandy.  So began the 19-year civil war known as The Anarchy.

Between 1138 and 1141, feuds between Matilda and Stephen put the country in chaos. In 1141, Matilda captured and imprisoned her cousin. She then began to make arrangements for her own coronation. However, it seems she still was unpopular with the people. Reportedly, Matilda imposed several taxes and placed sanctions upon her would-be subjects.  The people revolted. Growing animosity weakened Matilda’s claims. Then, Stephen’s wife (ironically, also named Matilda!) counter attacked with her own army.

Side note: Yes, I am wondering why they insisted upon naming everyone Matilda and Henry.

  • Henry I had at least one illegitimate daughter named Matilda.
  •  Stephen’s wife was named Matilda.
  • The Empress Matilda’s mother was also Matilda, aka Matilda of Scotland.
  • Eight rulers of England were named Henry.
  • Five rulers of France were named Henry.
  • Four rulers of Castile were named Henry.
  • Six Holy Roman Emperors were named Henry.
  • Seventeen Dukes of Bavaria were named Henry.

To be fair, I assume it had something to do with beliefs in the influence of names. The name Henry actually means “power” or “ruler”.  Matilda means “mighty in battle.” Appropriate! 🙂

Queen Matilda (Stephen’s wife) eventually defeated Empress Matilda. Empress Matilda was forced to release her cousin from prison. Stephen was officially crowned King of England in 1141.

Although Empress Matilda attempted more war strategies, setting up forces at Devizes Castle and attempting to oust Stephen for several more years, she was ultimately unsuccessful. She returned to Normandy in 1148. Her husband Geoffrey died in 1151. After Geoffrey’s death, Matilda ruled Anjou. She also set about trying to establish her son Henry as King of England.

Young Henry brought his armies to England with the intention of overthrowing Stephen.

Ironically, Henry somehow became Stephen’s “adopted son” and successor! When Stephen died in 1154, Henry took the throne as King Henry II. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, another powerful Medieval Queen.

Empress Matilda lived to the ripe old age of 65, probably a record for women of her day. She died on September 11, 1167. In yet another sad, ironic twist, her tomb stone only identifies her as “Daughter of King Henry, wife of King Henry and mother of King Henry.”  (I guess they leave us to figure it out — Henry I of England, Henry V of Rome and Henry II of England, respectively.)

At any rate, Matilda remains a significant historical figure. Her battle with Stephen had a profound effect on politics of the time. Perhaps Matilda even paved the way for the many powerful queens that were eventually to rule England — Mary, Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II.

Happy Birthday Empress Matilda! You put up a good fight.

 

 

 

Fearsome Females: A Tale of Two Pirates

 

They were two notorious cross-dressers who moved easily in the circles of men. Known as tough-talking, hard-drinking, immoral cutthroats, they were sexually promiscuous, hot tempered, sly and stealthy. They were often more ruthless than the men they sailed with.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read were swashbucklers who ventured boldly onto the high seas — a place where females were often banned. They helped usher in what was known as the “Golden Age of Piracy”.

On this day, November 28, 1720, Anne and Mary were both convicted of pirate crimes and sentenced to death. Both also managed to escape execution while the men of their crew swung from the gallows. They cleverly utilized both biology and feminine instinct. Together, they challenged the long standing sailors’ notion that women aboard ship are bad luck…

“Disguise, Thou Art a Wickedness.”

Anne Bonny was the illegitimate daughter of an Irish attorney named James Cormac, and his housemaid Mary Brennan. She was born in County Cork in 1698. Because her birth caused scandal and disgrace, her father left his family, taking baby Anne to live with him in London.

To avoid the further “scandal” of living with a little girl, Cormac reportedly began dressing his young daughter as a boy. (A scheme which probably taught Anne that girls had much to be ashamed of…)

Eventually Cormac took Anne and her mother to the Americas where they lived in the colony of North Carolina.

Mary Read was also taught cross-dressing as a young child. Mary was born in England in 1685. She, too, was an illegitimate child, the daughter of a sailor’s wife. The sailor had gone off to sea, abandoning the family. Mary had a half brother. He was the sailor’s legitimate child, and her mother, having been left penniless, was receiving money to raise the boy from his paternal grandmother. However, this boy died. Mary’s mother — not wanting to end her cash flow —  then began dressing Mary in boy’s clothes and passing her off as the brother. (A scheme which probably taught Mary that a boy was worth more than a girl…)

Rebel Rebel

Anne was described as “red-haired and pretty.” She was strong willed and became a rebellious teenager. Increasingly defiant, she eventually married John Bonny, a penniless sailor, against her father’s wishes. Cormac disowned her. The couple then moved to what is now Nassau, in the Bahamas, which was then considered a sanctuary for English pirates.

Anne quickly got bored with her unambitious husband. She took to hanging out in taverns and seducing the local pirates. There she met the edgy and flamboyant swashbuckler John Rackam, known as “Calico Jack” (so named for his loud clothing!)

The two became lovers and ran away together. Anne became a member of Calico Jack’s crew — still cross-dressing as a man. It is said that the other pirates never realized Anne was a woman until years later when she became pregnant with Jack’s child.

Meanwhile, back in England, Mary Read also continued her cross-dressing. She found out she could quickly get work as a boy and took several jobs. She soon began living as a full fledged man called “Mark”.  Mary/Mark was so convincing she was actually given a position in the British Navy!  She proved herself a worthy soldier, fighting in the Nine Years War.

But then, Mary fell in love with a Flemish soldier. They married, and for a while, Mary lived as a woman. She was a respectable wife. The couple bought and operated an inn in The Netherlands.

However, Mary’s husband died and the business went belly up. Desperate for work, Mary once again resumed her identity as a man and took to the high seas. But during peacetime, there was little chance for jobs in the military. It was then she decided to become a pirate, and (you guessed it!) took up with the boisterous and belligerent crew of Captain Calico Jack.

A Walk on the Wild Side

When Mary came aboard ship, it is said that the promiscuous Anne, thinking Mary was a man, almost immediately fell in love with “him.”

Anne then bared her own breasts, revealing herself as a woman. Mary must have thought the facade was fun — or perhaps she just had too much too lose in her true identity.  She kept up the ruse for a while, but when a jealous Calico Jack entered her bedchamber and threatened to slice her throat, Mary also revealed herself as a woman. This apparently subdued Jack’s envy.

What went on between the three of them after that is anyone’s guess, but by 1720, both women were pregnant.

The women had many adventures together. They were both feared and revered. In the book Black Barty; Bartholomew Roberts and His Pirate Crew 1718-1723, one victim  named Dorothy Thomas, left a description of Anne and Mary:

“They wore men’s jackets, and long trousers, and handkerchiefs tied about their heads: and … each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands and they cursed and swore at the men to murder her me. Yet I knew they were women, from the largeness of their breasts.”

On November 15, 1720,  Calico Jack’s ship was captured.

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum!

One night, having taken port in Negril Point, off the coast of Jamaica, Calico Jack and his scurvy knaves decided to have a celebration. They hosted a rum party with another crew of English pirates. Apparently, all of them were pretty drunk and had no clue of their fate when pirate hunter Captain Jonathon Barnett sneaked in the harbor. Barnett took the pirate ship by surprise, disabling it with a rampage of fire. Jack and his men ran to the hold and hid for the duration of the battle — too inebriated to fight back.

Anne and Mary. however, did not give up! They stayed on deck, battling to the end, firing their pistols and swinging their cutlasses.

According to one legend, Mary was so disgusted with the men that at one point she stopped fighting, peered over the entrance of the hold and yelled, “If there’s a man among ye, ye’ll come up and fight like the man ye are to be!” No one responded. Mary then fired a shot down into the hold, killing one of them.

Eventually Barnett’s forces took over. The women knew they had to surrender. The entire crew were imprisoned.

Calico Jack was scheduled to be executed by hanging on November 18. His final request was to see Anne. Upon her visit to his cell, she had only one thing to say to him:

“If you had fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.”

Ten days later, on November 28, she and Mary stood trial at the Admiralty Court in St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica. Both of them were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. BUT — remember I said they were both pregnant by this time? It turned out to be their saving grace — also known as “pleading the belly.” Executions for pregnant women were always postponed until the child was born.

Sadly, Mary died of a fever in prison. She was buried on April 28, 1721 at Saint Catherine’s Church in Jamaica.

As for Anne, there is no record of her release, execution, or death. It is suspected she may have escaped and returned to Nassau. In his 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, author Charles Johnson wrote:

“She was continued in Prison, to the Time of her lying in, and afterwards reprieved from Time to Time; but what is become of her since, we cannot tell; only this we know, that she was not executed.”

Not bad for a gender bending bastard who managed to outlive Captain Jack, as well as leave a swashbuckling legacy behind her! 🙂

 

 

March 1692: The Salem Witch Trials

 

March is International Women’s History Month. It also marks the beginning of the Salem Witch Trials. Since this disturbing event in American history was centered largely around women, I thought it might be fun to explore the specifics!

Witch Trials continue to fascinate and puzzle historians. Witchcraft hysteria ran rampant throughout Europe in the 15th – 17th centuries, and carried over to the American colonies, solely driven by religious beliefs and outrageous superstition. But there was much more to the Salem Witch Trials than overactive imaginations…

Don’t Have a Hissy Fit!  But They Did…

In the winter of 1692, in Salem Village, nine year old Betty Parris and her eleven year old cousin Abigail Williams  began to have uncontrollable fits. The girls would scream, run around and throw things. They claimed they were being hit and attacked by some unknown presence. Luckily, Betty’s father Samuel Parris happened to be a Puritan Reverend and he had a perfect explanation: the Devil was afoot in New England.

Puritans had a strong belief in the Devil. He walked among men, unseen. He needed to get his bidding done, so he would recruit humans. Sometimes he chose men, but mostly he chose women — as they were weak, vulnerable and easily persuaded. You know. Like Eve.  Old Scratch would bring his book to sign – and it had to be signed in blood.  Once the transaction was complete, a woman gave away her soul and body, leaving the Devil to do with them as he pleased.

As Betty and Abigail continued to have their incurable fits, doctors were brought in. After several weeks, no one could diagnose the problem, but finally the girls blurted out that it was, in fact, the witchy spirit of Tituba, the family slave, who had been harming them.

There was a thing called ‘spectral evidence’ which became very important during the witchcraft trials. Any accuser could claim that the specter or spirit of a witch was harming them, and that claim was taken seriously.  It was not even necessary that another person actually see the specter.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a girl named Anne Putnam was experiencing the same kinds of fits. She claimed the witches attacking her were two women – the neighborhood beggars – one Sarah Goode, and one Sarah Osborne.

Sarah Osborne was what Puritans would call a ‘loose woman’. She had lived with a man out of wedlock and did not attend church services. Osborne was elderly and also known to be argumentative.  Sarah Goode was married with a young daughter, but even her own husband suspected she was a witch. Both women were poor.

So, the first women accused were a slave and two social rejects. But the accusations didn’t stop there. They would go on to reach epic proportions. In order to understand the mentality of the trials, it is necessary to look at the outlying events which took place simultaneously.

Blame it on Politics

In 1692’s bleak winter, Salem Village was in bad shape. Fields were frozen and people were starving. Indians, wolves and other wild animals were a constant threat. To make matters worse, the territories of North America were engaged in a civil war.

In 1689, English rulers William and Mary had started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as ‘King William’s War’, or ‘The Second Indian War’, it ravaged regions of  what is now upstate New York, Massachusetts, Nova Scotia and Quebec. Homeless  refugees traipsed into the county of Essex and, specifically, into Salem Village.

The displaced people created a strain on Salem Village’s resources. The harsh terrain of New England had never been very fruitful, and there was only so much firewood and food to go around. Hunger, cold and poverty were rampant. In addition to all this trouble, the village’s two most prominent families – the Putnams and the Porters – were engaged in a power struggle.

Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity

The Putnam family had always been powerful in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  This stemmed from an English land grant given to their grandfather, way back in 1640.  The Putmans were farmers.  But in the rising change of fortune, new and lucrative opportunities were coming from the busy colony seaport. Commerce and trade, not farming, would be the business of the future.  The Putnams were losing their stronghold. The Porter family – up and coming sea merchants – were the ‘new money’ in Salem Village.

In what was perhaps a desperate attempt to use religion to gain back his influence, Thomas Putnam enlisted the services of Reverend Samuel Parris.

The Reverend Parris had not always been a reverend. He was, in fact, a struggling salesman who had lived most of his life in Barbados. He came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and took to the pulpit only after his business ventures had failed miserably.  He brought with him his wife, his daughter Betty, his niece Abigail Williams and two slaves – Tituba and John Indian.

Reverend Parris was not popular. People thought he was greedy. For example, one law was imposed requiring villagers to give up their firewood as a new taxation plan that gave the wood to the Reverend. His sermons were guilt inducing, full of fire and brimstone. He strongly warned of dealings with the Devil. Many folk opted to attend a different church in Salem Town, rather than sit through Parris’ sermons. The influential Porters went to church in Salem Town.

It was as though there were two separate cities, and two separate philosophies. Salem Village was ‘Putnam-land’ –  backwater, bumpkin, farm-bound and superstitious.  Salem Town was ‘Porter territory’ – progressive, sophisticated, merchant-driven and logical.

Lizzie and Joseph: Forbidden Love

The story gets better!

Thomas Putnam had a half brother named Joseph. Joseph was the product of his father’s second marriage to one Mary Veren. When the father died in 1686, he left a good deal of his land holdings to young Joseph. Thomas and his brother Edmund were jealous, to say the least. They challenged their father’s will in court, but to no avail. Young Joseph Putman was known as the wealthiest man in Salem Village. And who did Joseph fall in love with? You guessed it – a Porter!

Seventeen year old Lizzie was the pride of the Porter family. Her father Israel was fond of Joseph, and also eager to wed his daughter to a rich landholder.

Twenty one year old Joseph married Lizzie on April 21, 1690. Needless to say, the wedding was much frowned upon by his half brothers. Thomas Putnam now stood to lose even more of his dwindling wealth and power.

Not coincidentally, the girls that made the first witchcraft accusations all had some tie to  Thomas Putnam.  These were: Betty (the Reverend’s daughter) Abigail (the Reverend’s niece) Anne Putman Jr. (Thomas’ daughter) Anne Putnam Sr. (Thomas’ wife) and Mary Walcott (Thomas’ niece).

Similarly, many of the accused had some tie to the Porter family.  These were: Rebecca Nurse, Giles and Martha Corey,  John and Elizabeth Proctor, and George Burroughs — all neighbors and associates of the Porters.  John Proctor and Giles Corey were landholders who sat in at town council meetings and were likely to cast votes to favor Israel Porter. (Of course, once accused of witchcraft, one’s land went forfeit and they no longer held that position… ) George Burroughs had been the Reverend of the church in Salem Town.

‘Fess Up!

On March 1, 1692, Tituba, Sarah Osborne and Sarah Goode were taken for questioning. Tituba confessed, telling a wild story of how the Devil had recruited her, but now she was repentant and wished forgiveness.  Osborne and Goode insisted upon their innocence. On March 7, the three were jailed in Boston.

Astonishingly, Sarah Goode’s four year old daughter Dorothy was put in jail as a witch also, making her probably the youngest prisoner ever. Months later, the child was released on a 50 pound bond — the equivalent of around $10,000 in today’s money.  Dorothy was referred to in court records as “it” rather than “she”.

Tituba was no fool. Puritan law at the time would allow an accused person freedom ONLY if he or she confessed. Those that would not confess would be hung. (Sarah Goode was later hung and Sarah Osborne died in prison.)

The accusers may have started by singling out the lowest of society, but eventually they made their way up the ladder. On March 19, Abigail accused a woman named Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca was considered a pillar of the community. She was kind, charitable, church-going and flawless. Fear spread like wildfire. If Rebecca could be accused, anyone could.

And anyone was! Before the trials were ended, over two hundred people were accused of witchcraft and jailed. Nineteen were hung, one was pressed to death, and at least four died in the squalid conditions of prison.

The Governor, Sir William Phipps, established a Court of Oyer and Terminer to investigate the allegations. It was presided over by all the top officials: Lieutenant Gov. William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin.

Interesting aside — John Hathorne was an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne of Scarlet Letter fame.

Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name to avoid association with the elder Hathorne, who was the only judge that never apologized for his part in the witch trials.

The accusing girls were at first revered by the community. They had rock-star status, traveling around pointing the finger at anyone they pleased, while onlookers begged to touch their garments.  However, as the accusations accumulated and crept steadily into the elites of society, folks became suspicious. Finally, the girls went too far.

One story claims that an accusation was made against the Governor’s wife, Mary Spencer Phipps.

The Governor adored and cherished his wife. The idea of her being a witch was abominable to him. Plus, by then he may have had his doubts about the accusations — as any reasoning human being would.  At any rate, in October of 1682, Governor Phipps dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer. In November he declared that spectral evidence would no longer be considered valid.  In May of the following year, Phipps pardoned all the remaining accused witches.

Fun Facts:

  • Tituba Indian was, in fact, a Native American Indian. Conquered Wampanoags from New England were often brought to Barbados as slaves. Historians believe Tituba was raised on a Barbados plantation, but was a member of the Wampanoag Tribe.

  • Although Tituba is often associated with voodoo, there is no historical evidence that she had knowledge of it. By her own confessions, any witchcraft she knew was taught to her by English mistresses.
  • Tituba even baked a ‘witch cake’ according to English traditions,  made with urine and rye, then fed to a dog who would reveal the true witches. (This tactic either did not work, or people did not believe the dog.)

  • Elizabeth Proctor was an herbal healer and may have been the only true witch in the bunch. She was pregnant at the time of her arrest and her life was spared, although her husband John was hung.
  • Giles Corey was pressed to death with boulders because he refused to declare himself innocent or guilty. Puritan laws stated that once an accused person acknowledged himself as innocent or guilty, his land would be forfeit. Not wanting to give up his land, Giles stubbornly succumbed to the crushing death, asking only for “More weight.”

  • Giles’ efforts paid off. The Corey land was kept in the family up to the 21st century!
  • Accused victims were made to pay for their own room and board in jail. The fees were collected from any savings they may have had. Freed persons usually left jail penniless, or in debt to the state for their rat infested stay.
  • Having confessed, Tituba was never put to death. However, after being released she was unable to pay her fees and was sold again into slavery.
  • Abigail Williams – portrayed as the ‘Femme Fatale’ of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, was, in fact only eleven years old. Miller recreated her as a seventeen year old who had an affair with John Proctor. Sex sells. The play was a huge hit!

  • Years after the trials, Anne Putnam Jr. admitted that she had lied about the accusations. However, she took no personal responsibility, insisting she had been under the influence of Satan. The Devil made her do it.
  • After the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials, folk finally started to realize how ridiculous Puritanism was.  The religion was abandoned.

Happy Women’s History Month!