May 28, 2012

Margaret Jones, the Witch of Charlestown


The 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem are the most famous of their kind in New England, but the unfortunate men and women who died in Salem weren't the first to be executed as witches in Massachusetts. That claim to fame belongs to Margaret Jones.

With her husband Thomas, Margaret was one of the earliest settlers in Charlestown (now part of Boston but at the time a separate town). Margaret was an herbalist and midwife who treated her sick neighbors with various teas and concoctions.

People who have the power to heal also have the power to harm, and eventually some of Margaret's patients began to murmur against her. They claimed she said if they refused to buy her medicines they would never get well. I suppose you can take this two ways. Obviously, if your doctor is prescribing something you should take it if you want your condition to improve. On the other hand, if you believe in witchcraft, you might think your doctor is bewitching you just so she can keep selling you medicine...

 Soon her neighbors began to openly accuse Margaret of witchcraft, claiming she

"was found to have such a malignant Touch, as many persons were taken with Deafness, or Vomiting, or other violent Pains or Sickness."

Margaret was arrested and accused of witchcraft. It was widely believed at the time that witches suckled their familiar spirits through strange "witch teats", which could be located anywhere on their body. It was also believed that these spirits needed to feed frequently, and would come to the witch for sustenance even if the witch was imprisoned.

The authorities assigned a guard to watch Margaret while she was in jail to see if her familiar appeared. It did. The guard claimed he saw her suckle a small child in her locked cell. When he opened the cell door to confront her the child disappeared. Clearly, she was a witch.

Margaret was executed by hanging on June 15, 1648. She protested her innocence until the very end, and denounced her accusers and the judges.

"The same Day and Hour she was executed, there was a very great Tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many Trees, etc. "

This was further taken as proof that she had indeed been a witch.

The law at that time required spouses of accused witches to also be arrested. Thomas tried to escape Boston by booking passage on a ship leaving the city, but the ship had trouble keeping its balance even though the weather was calm. When the crew realized that Jones was Margaret's husband they handed him over to the authorities. The ship righted itself after he was removed from the ship. It's not clear what happened to Thomas, but it doesn't seem that he was executed.

As with all the witchcraft trials, it's both interesting and upsetting to see how the belief in witchcraft colored people's perceptions. A sick person who doesn't get better? Must be witchcraft. A storm in Connecticut? Witchcraft. A rocking ship? Witchcraft. It was almost impossible to argue against it. 

I got most of this information from Rosemary Ellen Guiley's Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, and also from Wikipedia.

2 comments:

Brad Shur said...

Hey Peter,
I'm a big fan of your work, I couldn't find your email address anywhere on the page, so this seems like the best way to hopefully get your attention.

I'm the artist in residence at Puppet Showplace Theatre. I'm currently working on a new show based on folklore and I'd love to buy you lunch and pick your brain for stories and sources. If you read this, you can contact me at Bshur@puppetshowplace.org

Peter M said...

Hi Brad,

Thanks for the comment and for being a fan!I will email you offline. It sounds interesting.

Peter