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My Salem Ancestry – Acrimony and Persecution

Rebecca Nurse

Do you have a colorful ancestry? Three of my eight great-grandaunts were accused of witchcraft. It isn’t exactly what one is looking for in one’s ancestral history. But it is colorful. Most people want to find they are related to kings. Instead, I found witches -or rather, women who were accused of witchcraft- the famous Towne sisters. All three were accused of witchcraft, two were hanged but one escaped.

Of course, neither Sarah Towne Bridges Cloyce, who escaped the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials, nor her two sisters, Rebecca Nurse Towne and Mary Easty Towne, who were executed, were any more witches than you or I. They just happened to live in a town caught up in madness as wild as if one lived on the dark side of Oz. Except this was real. Rebecca Nurse was hanged for witchcraft on July 19th, 1692, and Mary Easty was hanged later that fall on September 22, 1692 (Hill, The Salem Witch Trials Reader xv). Sarah alone escaped the madness.

But what was the source of this madness? Various theories have been discussed. According to  Mary Jane Alexander in her Los Angeles Times article, “Family History Proves Bewitching to Descendants of Salem Witches,” the truth is probably more complex than hysterical teenagers or hallucinations brought on by ergot- tainted, moldy bread. That image is National Lampoonish movie madness – albeit with Puritan clothes. She blames family rivalries and acrimonious land disputes. And all of these theories – or some of them- may have led in varying degrees to the Salem witch trials. But has any historian discussed a cultural background of xenophobia against Native American Indians as a possible root of the madness?

One of the famous preachers of the day, Samuel Parris, preached a sermon laying a large part of the blame on a church member, Mary Sibley, who asked an Indian named John to make a “witch cake” (123).  Hill paraphrases Elaine G. Breslaw from her book Tituba: Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies stating that Breslaw argues that the Puritans were predisposed to believe that Indians willingly participated in devil worship (303). She further contends that Breslaw makes the case that despite many incorrect references to Tituba as an African, there is no evidence of her having any African ancestry; on the other hand, there is ample evidence that she was referred to as Indian along with her husband at the time ofthe Salem witch trials. Like her husband, she was an Indian slave from Barbados who lived in the Parris household. When questioned, she made up wild tales and confessed to witchcraft no one could provide evidence for. For what motive? Survival. Those that pointed fingers at others or seemed afflicted seemed to get away.  (300-303). I am sure there was little to no love lost between an Indian slave and her white captors who called her a witch. Remember these were the days of the Indian wars. But why did the Puritans believe her story? They had a predisposition to believe this. Though she was not executed, they believed her story, and it spun a web of fear that went out of control. A fear based on fear of Indians and a false understanding of their beliefs.  Hill says, “That credibility was reinforced ironically by the continued association of native Americans with witchcraft and a refusal to fully integrate Indians into Puritan society” (304). This must have at least contributed to their obsessive fears of “witchcraft.” At the time, the popular belief was that Indians were heathens.

According to a 2004 article, “Salem Witch Trials”, in the Sun Journal, the Indian Wars were a contributing factor, and they believed God was punishing them for not being Christian enough:

For many years historians have asked this; why did this [the Salem witch trials] start in the first place? Many have overlooked an unseen connection in history that the Salem witch trials had with the first and second Indian wars. The connection is this; when Wabonaki Indians in the early 1600′s attacked settlements along the coast, it brought to question how well the settlers could defend their country. It was around this time that the girls started to have fits, believed to be the act of the devil. Since the devil could not do anything without God’s permission, the Salem villagers thought that God was punishing them for not being Christian enough. To show that they were truly Christen (sic), they would kill all of the devil’s sidekicks to show that when attacked by the devil, they would remain true to God and prove their faith. So, you see, without the Indian war, the Salem witch trials could not have happened.

Perhaps. It is an interesting theory. Of course, that does not mean Tituba and John are completely blameless. Tituba and John’s confessions and accusations contributed to the Salem witch trials. But that does not make them witches. They stirred up a lot of trouble in fear of their own fates and accused people left and right. John accused Sara in court. Sara [Towne Bridges Cloyse] famously called him out when he testified she was a witch to the court by saying, “Oh, you are a grievous liar” (Alexander).

How did it turn around so? It is odd. The court called Tituba a witch after the incident of the “witch cake.” But they were not prepared for her powers of storytelling, and she began to point fingers at others. Because the court believed so much in the truth of her testimony that she was a witch, they did not question what else she said or who else she accused (303). Then it all fell apart like in Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” “Things fall apart/ the centre cannot hold.”

At the center of their belief in her testimony was that an Indian is a heathen. Until recently, this belief had not completely gone away- if it has now. Have you heard the song, “Witch Doctor”? This song was performed by Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. and released in 1958 by Liberty Records under the name David Seville. It was released in 1958. Witch doctor was a slur for an Indian who was doing healing with plants and herbs- properly known among his people as a “medicine man (or woman).”  The first few lines poke fun of such an Indian:

I told the witch doctor I was in love with you.

I told the witch doctor, and he told me what to do.

He said, “Ooh eee ooh ah ah ting tang

Walla walla bing bang…”

This slur has been in use for some time though it actually meant the reverse- an aboriginal healer working to protect against witchcraft. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the first use of the term “witch doctor” to refer to African shamans (i.e. medicine men) was in 1836 in a book by Robert Montgomery Martin (1803–1868). But evidently the idea that they were wicked and evil has been around for a lot longer.

So how did Sarah escape this madness? At first she did not. She left and slammed the door to the church when the preacher, Samuel Parris, insinuated on an Easter Sunday that her sisters were witches despite the piousness and respect they all had in the community. She was accused shortly thereafter and imprisoned and put in shackles (Hill 123). However, her brother, my ancestor, Jacob, a lawyer, and other friends spirited her away, and “she surviv[ed] the winter in nearby caves,” according to the article “Witch Trials- Victims” on the Miner genealogy website. She and her husband, Peter Cloyse, built their home in a nearby town until she had been declared innocent. Eventually, she returned to receive three gold crowns from the town for the persecution of herself and the persecution and execution of her sisters.

Sarah’s story is depicted, fictionally, as Goody Cloyse in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” However, she is depicted as a witch in this story, and at the end of the story Goodman Brown snatches a young child away from her at the end of the story as if she is Satan himself.  She is also depicted in the movie, “Three Sovereigns for Sarah” with Vanessa Redgrave receiving the coins from Salem.

In conclusion, I am in good company being related to three accused witches! Three presidents- Taft, Ford, and Arthur-are “also descended from one of Salem’s executed witches or their siblings” as well as “Clara Barton, Walt Disney, and Joan Kennedy” (Alexander). But it is no wonder that this has all been hidden until recent times. It was not until 1957 that “the General Court of Massachusetts resolve[d] that ‘”no disgrace or cause for distress’” be borne by descendants of witch-trial victims.” This was close to the time we were still listening to “The Witch Doctor” on the radio.

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