December 06, 2020

Mary Webster, the Half-Hanged Witch of Hadley

Here's something interesting I just learned: Margaret Atwood was inspired by to write her famous novel The Handmaid's Tale by the story of a 17th century Massachusetts woman accused of witchcraft. That woman was Mary Webster.

Mary Webster lived in Hadley, Massachusetts. Like many women accused of witchcraft, Mary was older, poor, and cantankerous. Her neighbors in Hadley blamed her for many of their misfortunes. For example, they believed that she caused animals to misbehave when they passed by her house:

Teams passing to and from the meadow went by her door, and she so bewitched some cattle and horses that they stopped, and ran back, and could not be driven by her house. In such cases, the teamsters used to go into the house and whip or threaten her, and she would then let the teams pass. She once turned over a load of hay near her house, and the driver went in and was about to chastise her, when she turned the load back again. (Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, 1863)

People also said she caused weird phenomena to occur inside their homes:

She entered a house, and had such influence upon an infant on the bed or in the cradle, that it was raised to the chamber floor and fell back again, three times, and no visible hand touched it. There is a story that at another house, a hen came down chimney and got scalded in a pot, and it was soon found that Mary Webster was suffering from a scald. (Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, 1863)

You'll note that her neighbors in Hadley felt empowered to inflict violence on her when their animals misbehaved. They acted as vigilantes, but in 1683 Mary was formally accused of witchcraft and sent to Boston for a legal trial. Witnesses testified that she had "familiarity with the Devil," who came to her in the shape of a large black cat. They also testified that she suckled imps with her blood so they would do her bidding. The Boston magistrates did not find the evidence convincing and acquitted her. Mary Webster was freed and sent back to Hadley.

Italian woodcut from 1520.

The next year, in 1684, one of Hadley's most prominent citizens became gravely ill. Philip Smith was a church deacon, a lieutenant in the militia, and a representative to the Massachusetts General Court, the colony's legislative body. Philip's body was wracked with great pain, like he was being stabbed with hundreds of pins, and as a a pious man he at first  endured his illness as divine suffering inflicted from God. As the pain worsened he grew delirious, though, and eventually claimed that Mary Webster was bewitching him. He had been one of the officials responsible for sending her to Boston and they had exchange angry words upon her return to Hadley. 

Philip Smith's family began to notice strange things in their home after he named Mary as his tormentor. The house was often filled with an unnatural musky smell, as if a large unseen animal was hiding inside. Perhaps the smell came from the invisible creature, roughly the size of a cat, that could be seen roaming underneath Philip Smith's bedcovers while he tried to sleep. Or perhaps the odor was sent by Mary Webster herself - Philip said he could see her specter hovering by his bedside. 

A group of young men decided to take matters into their own hands (once again). But this time they did more than whip Mary. On a cold snowy night they dragged her from her house and hanged her from a tree. Eventually they cut her down. Miraculously she was still alive, so the vigilantes buried her body in the snow and fled. 

Mary Webster survived her hanging and being left for dead in the snow. She lived until 1696 and died at the age of seventy. Philip Smith succumbed to his illness shortly after Mary's hanging. The vigilantes apparently escaped punishment. 

It's a grim story about mob violence being inflicted on a social outcast. Now let's jump ahead three centuries. Canadian author Margaret Atwood was researching her ancestry when she learned about Mary Webster. Atwood at first planned to write a novel about Mary's life but eventually changed her plans. Instead she wrote The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which is dedicated to Mary Webster. You can certainly see how the violence, religious persecution, and misogyny that Mary experienced informed Atwood's novel and the ensuing TV show. 

It would be nice if Atwood eventually wrote a novel set in 17th century Massachusetts about Mary Webster, although I realize the research could be daunting. Still, it might just be too grim for me to read.

3 comments:

Joe Citro said...

Good story! Thank gawd these days we are far less superstitious.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks Joe! Let's hope we stay less superstitious too!

Brooks Payne said...

Interesting, evidently accusations of witchcraft were not uncommon but convictions and executions didn't really begin until Salem (1692-93). The Puritans believed ‘disturbing’ witches – beating or restraining them – prevented them from casting spells. I guess that makes sense, until you stop disturbing them, and then they cast their spells! Cotton Mather who's buried on Copp's Hill was a chief instigator in her persecution. Always a good read here, Perer, makes me do a little research. Thank you!