Webster Mary (Reeve)

Mary (Reeve) Webster (about 1620-1698), wife of 10th g-grand uncle

Mary Webster, née Reeve, was a resident of Puritan Hadley, Massachusetts accused of witchcraft in 1684, and acquitted.  Later, she was hanged from a tree by some residents of Hadley.  According to one of several accounts, she was left hanging all night.  It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive and lived for another 14 years.  Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who believed Mary to be her ancestor, made Webster the subject of her poem “Half-Hanged Mary,” and dedicated her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, to her. However, no records exist of her having children.

Mary Reeve (1620 – 1698), wife of 10th g-grand uncle – William Webster (1614 – 1688) – John Webster (1590 – 1661) – Mary Webster (1623 – 1687) – Jonathan Hunt (1637 – 1691) – Mary Hunt (1679 – 1767) – Noah Sheldon (1706 – 1748) – Hannah Sheldon (1742 – 1818) – Phineas King (1761 – 1810) – Henry King (1787 – 1871) – Laura Ann King (1811 – 1882) – Harriet Allen Clarke (1839 – 1898) – Clarence Clark Hamlin (1868 – 1940) – Elizabeth Gunnell Hamlin (1901 – 1982) – Tor Martin Hylbom (1939 – 2009) – Tor Martin (Majerus) Hylbom

 

The following account of Mary Webster is from a talk by Dr. Bridget M. Marshall (Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Lowell), May 2003:

 

Mary (Reeve) Webster’s unfortunate encounters with witchcraft accusations came after those of her Northampton neighbor, Mary (Bliss) Parsons – 1656 (slander), 1674 (accused), 1678/9 (inquest), but before the large-scale events of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The series of events in Webster’s case is unique. In 1683, she was accused of and tried for witchcraft, but was officially acquitted by the court. Like many acquitted witches, Webster’s status as an accused witch was enough of a mark of her witchery, and the year after her acquittal, her neighbors tried to hang her anyway. In the most remarkable twist, the hanging was unsuccessful. And if there was anything that might make people think you were a witch or had a deal with the devil, it was probably not dying, particularly in such a public way. There aren’t a lot of details about the case, but I’ve put together as much information as I could gather on the case, which I will present here for a slice of daily life in Hadley. Witchcraft accusations were actually fairly common during this period in the colonies; every town seems to have had at least one official accusation, and no doubt many more had local legends and suspicions. What was rare was actual convictions and executions, at least until the time of the Salem Trials, when everything changed.

Mary Reeve was the daughter of Thomas Reeve of Springfield; she married William Webster, in 1670 when he was 53 years old (she was probably younger).[1] Available records do not indicate whether the two had any children. According to Sylvester Judd’s 1905 History of Hadley, “they became poor and lived many years in a small house in the middle highway into the meadow, and were sometimes aided by the town”. Also according to Judd, Mary’s “temper, which was not the most placid, was not improved by poverty and neglect, and she used harsh words when offended. Despised and sometimes ill-treated, she was soured with the world, and rendered spiteful towards some of her neighbors; they began to call her a witch, and to abuse her”. Of course, as a history written two hundred years after the events, Judd’s information is based as much on local lore as anything else, which may very well have been tinged with prejudice resulting from the later accusations and events. It is very difficult to know what really happened leading up to the trial and hanging. In any case, it seems clear that the Websters were of the lowest socio-economic class, which, in many readings of witchcraft trials, including those by Steve Nissenbaum and Paul Boyer (Salem Possessed) as well as Carol Karlesen, (Devil in the Shape of a Woman) is a possible factor among the accused throughout New England.

As with most witchcraft cases, there were various odd stories afoot about Mary’s doings. A few traditions have remained, although the sources are not original documents, but local histories:

  • According to some, she bewitched some cattle and horses, so that the animals were unable to be driven past her house. As a result, the drivers would go into the house and beat her, and when they did this, apparently the animals were able to pass.
  • There is also a much-repeated story that she once entered a house and a hen came down chimney and fell into a boiling pot of water. While this is certainly odd, what led to real trouble was the fact that it was soon found that Mary had a scald on her body. While we might assume that she had been splashed by the boiling water, her contemporaries believed it was a sign that she was a witch.

Eventually, the various stories and Mary’s apparently unpleasant behavior reached a critical mass: Mary was examined on suspicion of witchcraft by the county court magistrates at Northampton on 27 Mar 1683. The following is from the record:

Mary, wife of William Webster of Hadley, being under strong suspicion of having familiarity with the devil, or using witchcraft, [had] many testimonies brought in against her, or that did seem to centre upon her, relating to such a thing;[2]

The courts at Northampton, as they had done in the previous case of Mary Parsons, decided that they were not equipped to handle such a case, so it should be sent to the Court of Assistants in Boston. She was sent to Boston in April 1683, where she waited in jail until the her court date on 22 May 1683. Gov. Bradstreet, Deputy Gov. Danforth and nine Assistants were present. The record of the court follows:

The grand-jury being impannelled, they, on perusal of the evidences, returned that they did indict Mary Webster, [.. . .] for that she, not having the fear of God before her eyes, and being instigated by the devil, hath entered into covenant and had familiarity with him in the shape of a warraneage, [fisher or wild black cat of the woods] and had his imps sucking her, and teats or marks found on her, as in and by several testimonies may appear, contrary to the peace of our sovereign lord, the king, his crown and dignity, the laws of God and of this jurisdiction — The court on their serious consideration of the testimonies, did leave her to further trial.

After the indictment, Mary was returned to jail again to await her trial on 1 Jun1683. The record of this court appearance reads:

Mary Webster [. . . ] was now called and brought to the bar, and was indicted [. . . ] To which indictment she pleaded not guilty, making no exception against any of the jury, leaving herself to be tried by God and the country. The indictment and evidences in the case were read and committed to the jury, and the jury brought in their verdict that they found her — not guilty.[3]

Thus Mary was decreed innocent, although her neighbors were perhaps less than overjoyed to have her return to Hadley. Perhaps in an early example of Western Massachusetts’ discontent with decisions made by Boston, the residents of Hadley clearly disagreed with the Boston court’s verdict.

On 10 Jan 1685, Lieut. Philip Smith died under supposedly mysterious circumstances. Smith was a prominent member of the Hadley community, and had probably had encounters with Webster. Apparently Mary was suspected of having caused the death, and some residents attempted to hang her for it. At this point, the explanations of what happened vary depending on the source. The most detailed information we have comes from Cotton Mather, although it is important to note his particular distance from the events and his own biases. Mather devotes a whole chapter of his 1702 Magnalia Christi Americana[4] to the story of Smith, but from the opening, we know where he stands on the events:

Mr. Philip Smith, aged about fifty years, a son of eminently virtuous parents, a deacon of a church in Hadley, a member of the General Court, a justice in the county Court, a select man for the affairs of the town, a lieutenant of the troop, and which crowns all, a man for devotion, sanctity, gravity, and all that was honest, exceeding exemplary. Such a man was in the winter of the year 1684, murdered with an hideous witchcraft, that filled all those parts of New England, with astonishment.

Obviously Mather is using the case in his ongoing fight against the dark powers that he saw as very much alive and roaming New England. Furthmore, he stresses the high standing – socially and morally – of the victim, Phillip Smith. Mather claims that Webster had it out for Smith because:

He was, by his office concerned about relieving the indigences of a wretched woman in the town; who being dissatisfied at some of his just cares about her, expressed herself unto him in such a manner, that he declared himself thenceforward apprehensive of receiving mischief at her hands.

Thus the class difference between these two figures is stressed, and indeed may have been at issue at the time. Of course, Mather’s disdain for the unnamed Mary Webster is apparent throughout his telling; his focus is on Smith’s story, not Webster’s.

Smith’s illness is described at length, and perhaps most important are Smith’s own suspicions about what has caused it. From Mather’s telling, it is easy to imagine how distraught and suspicious Smith’s family and friends would have been:

About the beginning of January, 1684-5, he began to be very valetudinarious. He shewed such weakness from and weariness of the world, that he knew not (he said) whether he might pray for his continuance here: and such assurance he had of the Divine love unto him, that in raptures he would cry out, Lord, stay thy hand; it is enough, it is more than thy frail servant can bear. But in the midst of these things he still uttered a hard suspicion that the ill woman who had threatened him, had made impressions with inchantments upon him. While he remained yet of a sound mind, he solemnly charged his brother to look well after him. Be sure, (said he) to have a care of me; for you shall see strange things. There shall be a wonder in Hadley! I shall not be dead when it is thought I am! He pressed this charge over and over.

From the description, it is obvious that Smith is suffering in the extreme, and the very visible struggle he endured with his illness no doubt appeared to the Puritan audience as a fight with the devil. Whatever the cause, he suffered fits and delirium, sure to frighten not only him but also his nurses and watchers:

Being become delirious, he had a speech incessant and voluble beyond all imagination, and this in divers tones and sundry voices, and (as was thought) in various languages.

He cried out not only of sore pain, but also of sharp pins, pricking of him: sometimes in his tow, sometimes in his arm, as if there had been hundreds of them. But the people upon search never found any more than one.

Mather explains that some of the witnesses to Smith’s outcries tried to test the theory that Webster was involved in an interesting way:

Some of the young men in the town being out of their wits at the strange calamities thus upon one of their most beloved neighbors, went three or four times to give disturbance unto the woman thus complained of: and all the while they were disturbing of her, he was at ease, and slept as a weary man: yea, these were the only times that they perceived him to take any sleep in all his illness.

I’ll discuss this “disturbing” of the suspected witch in more detail later, but to continue with the events of Phillip Smith’s illness: There were continuous strange occurrences in the man’s sick room:

  • Gally pots of medicines provided for the sick man, were unaccountably emptied
  • audible scratchings were made about the bed, when his hands and feet lay wholly still, and were held by others.
  • They beheld fire sometimes on the bed; and when the beholders began to discourse of it, it vanished away.
  • Divers people actually felt something often stir in the bed, at a considerable distance from the man: it seemed as big as a cat, but they could never grasp it.

All of these strange incidents, combined with the strange occurrences after his death:

  • the jury that viewed his corpse, found a swelling on one breast, his back full of bruises, and several holes that seemed made with awls.
  • After the opinion of all had pronounced him dead, his countenance continued as lively as if he had been alive; his eyes closed as in a slumber, and his nether jaw not falling down.
  • Although he died on Saturday morning, on Sunday afternoon, “those who took him out of the bed, found him still warm, tho’ the season was as cold as had almost been known in any age”
  • on Monday morning they found the face extremely tumified and discolored. It was black and blue, and fresh blood seemed running down his cheek upon the hairs.
  • Divers noises were also heard in the room where the corpse lay; as the clattering of chairs and stools, whereof no account could be given.

These symptoms would have been very disturbing to anyone, especially the Puritans with their limited understanding of disease and death. In this culture, the only reason one got sick – especially in such a visible and painful way – was because of a punishment from God, or the involvement of the Devil. If bad things were happening to good people, then witchcraft was afoot. Mather ends his discussion of the case with the sentence: “Upon the whole, it appeared unquestionable that witchcraft had brought a period unto the life of so good a man.”

So what exactly did the men do to “disturb” the suspected witch, supposedly giving Smith his only relief from his pain? The practice of beating or restraining a suspected witch to prevent her from further mischief was a popular practice. Similar activities are referred to in the Salem witch trials. In referring to the “disturbing” of Mary Webster, Thomas Hutchinson, in his History of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, describes the incident thus:

While [Philip Smith] lay ill, a number of brisk lads tried an experiment upon the old woman. Having dragged her out of the house, they hung her up until she was near dead, let her down, rolled her sometime in the snow, and at last buried her in it, and there left her; but it happened that she survived, and the melancholy man died.[5]

Mary Webster did indeed survive whatever “disturbance” the men put her through. She lived for another eleven years, and was probably seventy or so when she died in peace in 1696. Thus she would have seen the far more calamitous effects of witchcraft accusation in Salem in 1692. Whether she feared of being accused again, we cannot know, but presumably, escaping the noose once would leave Hadley residents wondering if she could be killed at all.

An interesting footnote to the story seems worthwhile to note here. One of Mary Webster’s descendants is the now well-known Canadian novelist and poet, Margaret Atwood, who wrote a poem, “Half-Hanged Mary,” (1995) about her notorious ancestor, and one of her most popular novels, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), is dedicated to her. The poem has also been made into several stage productions and interpretations. Atwood’s poem is in sections, each chronicling an hour of Mary’s hanging from the tree, beginning at 7 at night and concluding at 8 the next morning. I’ll quote from Atwood’s stanza describing Mary’s cutting down:

 

When they came to harvest my corpse

(open your mouth, close your eyes)

cut my body from the rope,

surprise, surprise:

I was still alive.

 

Tough luck, folks,

I know the law:

you can’t execute me twice

for the same thing. How nice. 

I fell to the clover, breathed it in,

and bared my teeth at them

in a filthy grin.

You can imagine how that went over.

 

Now I only need to look

out at them through my sky-blue eyes.

They see their own ill will

staring them in the forehead

and turn tail.

 

Before, I was not a witch.

But now I am one.

 

_____________________________

[1] Sylvester Judd’s History of Hadley (1905), pp. 228-231.

[2] Hall has a version of it that comes from Drake, Annals of Witchcraft, pages 169 – 170; but I think this might be a better transcript from an original.

[3] Hall lists it as Records of the Court of Assistants, 2, p 233.

[4] [pp. 454-455]

[5] Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) [p. 14]: Hutchinson, Thomas, The history of the Colony of Massachusets-Bay / Thomas Hutchinson. New York : Arno Press, 1972.

 

Works Cited:

  • Atwood, Margaret. “Half-Hanged Mary.” Morning in the Burned House.
  • Judd, S. 1905. History of Hadley. H. R. Hunting, Springfield.
  • Mappen, M. 1980. Witches & Historians. Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, Huntingdon, N.Y.
  • Mather, C. 1967. Magnalia Christi Americana. Vol. II, Russell & Russell, New York.
  • Mayo, L. S. 1936. The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay by Thomas Hutchinson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

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