May 17, 2015

Mary Toothaker and the Devil's Protection

Although it is warm and sunny out I am in the mood for witchcraft stories. Honestly I am always in the mood for witchcraft, but this month is always the busiest period at my day job, and I think I crave tales of the bizarre and supernatural as an antidote.

So here's a story, which is lurid, upsetting, and weirdly ironic. It comes from the Salem witch trials. The more I read about those dark days the more strange stories I find. This particular one is about a woman named Mary Toothaker, a woman whose life was saved by her confession.

Mary Toothaker lived in Billerica with her husband Roger and daughter Martha. Roger had a reputation as a folk-healer and bragged that he could fight witches with magic. When the witch trials broke out he was naturally accused of witchcraft - it's a fine line between white and black magic, after all - and eventually died in jail. In the summer of 1692 Mary was accused of witchcraft as well.

In addition to being accused of tormenting the usual gaggle of afflicted Salem girls, Mary was also accused of bewitching Timothy Swan of Andover. There was bad blood between Swan and Mary's family. In 1687 he had been accused of raping her relative Elizabeth Emerson, holding his arm against her throat so she could not cry out for help. He was acquitted of rape, but the court still ordered him to pay child support for the child Emerson conceived after his assault.

Swan later contracted a mysterious illness (which eventually killed him in 1693). During her trial, Mary Toothaker confessed that she had hurt Swan using witchcraft, and in particular that her specter had "squeezed his throat." An eye for an eye, I suppose. But revenge (according to her confession) was not the sole reason she had become a witch. The Devil had promised her safety.

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1692 Massachusetts consisted primarily of small rural villages. The colony was merely decades old, and its future was uncertain. The biggest threat came from the local Indians, who were allied with the French. Indian raids were a constant concern for English settlers in Massachusetts, and this concern was only magnified in the 1690s when Essex County was flooded with refugees fleeing Indian attacks in Maine. Billerica is now a cute bedroom community, but when Mary Toothaker lived there in the 1600s it was a frontier settlement whose residents feared for their lives.

So when Mary gave herself to the Devil, she asked for safety from Indian attacks for her and her son, a war veteran who had been wounded in a skirmish with Indians. The Devil, who appeared as a man with a dark complexion, agreed. Mary signed away her soul on a piece of birch bark.

At least that's what she confessed. No one who confessed during the Salem trials was executed, so it was the smart thing to do on Mary's part. After hearing her initial testimony the judges sent her to Salem's jail until they determined her sentence.

Two days later, on August 1, 1692, an Indian raiding party attacked Billerica. Most of Mary's neighbors were killed. It's very likely that if she had been home she would have died as well. Several days later the Indians returned and burned down the Toothaker farm, which was unoccupied.

In 1693 Mary was declared innocent of witchcraft and released from jail. She returned to Billerica with her 12 year old daughter Margaret. A few years later, on February 1, 1695 another Indian raiding party attacked Billerica. Mary was killed. Her daughter taken away as a captive and disappeared from the historical records.

I found this story in historian Emerson Baker's new book A Storm of Witchcraft. Baker speculates that Mary may have actually thought herself a witch. Her family did practice magic, and perhaps she thought Timothy Swan's suffering was caused by her own hatred of him. That's hard to determine, but her fear of Indian attacks was shared by most English settlers, and it's interesting that the Devil appeared to her as a dark-skinned man and that she signed a piece of bark rather than the more traditional European style book that is mentioned in other accounts. It makes sense to ally yourself with what you fear. Her confession provides a good window into the mindset of the time.

I don't think there was any unusual supernatural agency at work here, but it's odd that Mary was safest when she was locked up in jail. She got her wish for protection, even if only for a while.

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