My mother claimed to see demons lurking in corners, hiding behind TV anchors’ smiles, sitting on cashiers’ shoulders. The devil’s minions were always hovering, she said, waiting to leap the second you gave them an opening, which was easy to do. Letting a stranger touch your head, listening to rock music, or falling asleep with the TV on were just a few of the things that would leave you exposed. You might already be possessed by spirits, in fact, and not even know it.
Maybe this is why the Salem witch trials — the stories of women drowned for their alleged allegiance to Satan — have always been a particular source of fascination for me, and why I was so sucked into Kathleen Kent’s wonderful first novel, The Heretic’s Daughter. I’ll be posting a conversation with Kent in the next week or two, so keep an eye out for that.
Reading the book prompted me to delve further into the life of Mary Bliss Parsons, my own 9th great-grandmother, who, long before the Salem trials, beat witchcraft charges — twice. (Longtime readers may recall that the Parsons family isn’t exactly overjoyed to have me as a cousin.)
Joseph Cornet Parsons, Mary’s husband, moved his family to Northampton, Massachusetts, because his wife couldn’t get along with the people of Springfield. She was beautiful and opinionated, with a “harsh,” “often accusatory” manner, and she was given to “fits” that incited Joseph to lock her in the basement. According to the authors of Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England,
She and her husband were frequently and notoriously at odds with one another. During part of their time at Springfield he had sought to confine her to their house. (Otherwise, he said, “she would go out in the night … and when she went out a woman went with her and came in with her.”) When this tactic failed, he locked her in the basement. It was then, she claimed later on, that she had first encountered her “spirits.” There was at least one quite public episode — again at Springfield — that amounted to a family free-for-all. Joseph was “beating one of his little children, for losing its shoe,” when Mary came running “to save it, because she had beaten it before as she said.” Whereupon Joseph thrust her away, and the two of them continued to struggle until he “had in a sort beaten [her].”
Witchcraft accusations surfaced against Goody Parsons shortly after the family moved to Northampton. Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy — Ebenezer, her fifth child — and the following year a neighbor’s newborn died. Sarah Bridgman, the grieving mother, claimed Mary had cursed the baby.
Joseph tried to spare the family’s good(?) name by going on the offensive. No stranger to the courtroom, he initiated a defamation suit against Sarah Bridgman, the neighbor who started the rumors after her own baby died. This was a tricky approach. While the “immediate outcome of these actions was usually favorable to the plaintiff,” the “long-range effects were mixed.”
Sure enough, Joseph prevailed at trial, but suspicion and ill-feeling roiled until new witchcraft claims landed Mary in court again 18 years later. This time she was the defendant. Most of the evidence from the trial has been lost, but the indictment remains:
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.
Ultimately the jury acquitted Mary, but her case is seen as a precursor to the Salem Witch Hysteria of 1692.
On a personal level, what interests me most is the way Mary’s behavior and the suspicion against her have echoed down through my mother’s line, from mere nonconformism to madness, the seeing of “spirits,” and the accusations of Devil Worship. When I was a child, the Presbyterians and Baptists all but called Mom a Satanist as they showed us the door.
The legacy of loudmouthed, intractable women might run back generations in the other direction, too. By all accounts Mary’s mother Margaret was prickly and litigious. The image at the top of this post is a reportedly a transcription of Margaret’s testimony in Mary’s slander trial.