Certain shadows from the Dark Ages still cast a gloom over the New World in the seventeenth century, and it is not strange their malign influences should have fallen upon the little settlement of Springfield. The belief in witchcraft had prevailed throughout the world from the earliest times, and in even the most enlightened countries of Europe, the lives of thousands upon thousands of innocent persons had been sacrificed to the delusion. With the Puritan settlers this belief came to New England, but during the first sixty or seventy years of our history there were only a few isolated cases that found their way into court. Some forty years before the terrible outbreak of 1692, at Salem Village, Springfield had what was practically its sole visitation of the witchcraft craze. It came under strange and sad circumstances, only a part of which are disclosed by the record, but enough appears to make a distressing story, in which the alleged killing of an infant child by its insane mother is the central event.
Hugh Parsons, a sawyer and bricklayer, and Mary his wife, were the unfortunate principals in the sad case. They were married at Springfield October 27, 1645, her name before marriage being Mary Lewis. Three children were born to them: Hannah, b. August 7, 1646; Samuel, b. June 8, 1648, d. about the last of September, 1649; and Joshua, b. October 26, 1650, and said to have been killed by his mother March 4, 1651. Parsons seems to have been a roughspoken fellow, quick to engage in a quarrel, and both he and his wife appear to have shared the general belief in witches. Some trouble occurred in 1649 between them on the one hand and Reice Bedortha and his wife Blanche on the other, in which the Widow Marshfield, who nursed Mrs. Bedortha in confinement, took part. The result was a suit by Mrs. Marshfield against the Parsonses for slander, she alleging that Mary Parsons had called her a witch. Mr. Pynchon, as magistrate, found Mary guilty, and sentenced her to receive twenty lashes or pay £3 damages, which amount was paid in 24 bushels of Indian corn. This affair, together with other troubles, apparently affected Mary Parsons's health, and finally her mind gave way. Hugh fell under the suspicion of witchcraft, and the most absurd and childish stories were told of him. In February, 1651, Hugh and Mary Parsons were arraigned before Mr. Pynchon upon formal charges of witchcraft. The special complaints against Mary were the bewitching of Martha and Rebecca Moxon, children of the minister, while her husband was accused of practicing devilish arts upon perhaps a dozen persons. The records are not altogether satisfactory as to details, but it appears that the examination of Hugh Parsons was adjourned from time to time, beginning February 27, and ending about April 7, some of the witnesses giving their testimony. His wife was one of his accusers.
The testimony heard by the magistrate was nonsensical in the extreme, but no more so than such as was received in England in all seriousness by so great a judge as Sir Matthew Hale about this period. Here are some specimens of it: Hannah Lankton several times found the pudding cut from end to end when she took it from the bag, and on one such occasion Hugh Parsons came to her door about an hour after. He did not satisfactorily explain his errand to the court, which thereupon infers "that the spirit that bewitched the pudding brought him thither."
Thomas Miller joked Parsons about the pudding while eating dinner in the woods with a number of men engaged in lumbering. Parsons said nothing, but a few minutes later, when the men resumed work, Miller cut his leg.
Blanche Bedortha, having had some words with Parsons suffered from unusual cutting pains after her next confinement. Parsons had trouble with Mr. Moxon about making bricks for the latter's chimneys, and threatened to "be even with him." The same week Mr. Moxon's children began to have fits. Then there were stories of bewitched cows, a strange disappearance of an ox tongue from a boiling kettle, and other queer doings about town. For one and all of these there was but one explanation,--the devilish doings of Hugh Parsons. Mrs. Parsons also complained of rough treatment at her husband's hands, and of his frequent absences from home. There was evidence that he was at Longmeadow at the time of the death of his child Samuel, and that he received the news with no display of natural grief.
On March 4, 1651, before Hugh's examination was concluded, occurred the death of his youngest child, Joshua, an infant five months old. Mary at some time during March declared herself a witch, telling of her own misdoings in words which demonstrated her insanity, and either at the same time or later confessed to the murder of her baby. She was sent to Boston for trial, as was her husband at the close of his long examination. Mary Parsons was dangerously ill at the sitting of the General Court in May, but was tried on the 13th upon an indictment for witchcraft and was acquitted. To the charge of murder she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. She was reprieved until May 29, and from the absence of any record of further action it is believed that she died in prison before that date.
The full record of Mary Parsons's case, as found in the Records of the General Court is as follows:--
"The Court understanding that Mary Parsons now in prison, accused for a witch, is likely through weakness to dye before trial if it be deferred, doe order, that on the morrow, by eight of the clock in the morning, she be brought before and tried by, the Generall Court, the rather that Mr. Pynchon may he present to give his testimony in the case."
--(This paragraph appears under date of 8d., 3mo., 1651,)
"May 13, 1651,--Mary Parsons, wife of Hugh Parsons, of Springfield, being committed to the prison for suspition of witchcraft, as also for murdering her oune child, was this day called forth and indicted for witchcraft: by the name of Mary Parsons you are heere before the Generall Court chargded in the name of this comon-wealth, that not having the feare of God before your eyes nor in your hart, being seduced by the divill, and yielding to his malitious motion, about the end of February last, at Springfield, to have familiarity, or consulted with a familiar spirit, making a covenant with him, and have used diverse divillish practises by witchcraft, to the hurt of the persons of Martha and Rebeckah Moxon, against the word of God, and the laws of this jurisdiction, long since made and published. To which indictment she pleaded not guilty: all evidences brought in against her being heard and examined, the Court found the evidences were not sufficient to prove hir a witch, and therefore she was cleared in that respect,"
"At the same time she was indicted for murdering her child, by the name of Mary Parsons: You are here before the Generall Court, chardged in the name of this comon-wealth, that not having the feare of God before your eyes nor in your harte, being seduced by the divill, and yielding to his instigations and the wickedness of your owne harte about the beginning of March last, in Springfield, in or neere your owne howse, did willfully and most wickedly murder your owne child, against the word of God, and the lawes of this jurisdiction long since made and published. To which she acknowledged herself guilty,"
"The Court finding hir guilty of murder by her own confession, &c., proceeded to judgment: You shall be carried from this place to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, and there hang till you be dead."
A marginal note states that she was reprieved to the 29th of May.
Hugh Parsons's trial was put off for a year, probably from the difficulty of bringing witnesses to Boston. He was tried at a Court of Assistants May 12, 1652. Besides calling witnesses upon certain facts, the prosecution undertook to use in evidence the written testimony of most of the Springfield witnesses, which had been forwarded to the Bay by Mr. Pynchon; the accusation of the persons supposed to be bewitched were also offered, together with Mary Parsons's confession implicating her husband. The jury returned a remarkably discriminating verdict, declaring that "by the testimony of such as appeared in court" they find so much against the prisoner "as gives them ground not to clear him," but that if the General Court should hold that the written testimony, the "impeachment" or accusation of the alleged victims and the confession of the wife were "authentic testimonies according to law," then the jury find him "guilty of the sin of witchcraft,"
Upon reviewing the case the General Court reversed the verdict and acquitted Parsons. The grounds of their action are not set out, but can readily be inferred from the verdict. The introduction of the depositions of absent witnesses, the hearsay evidence of the wife's confession and the ravings of the afflicted was too gross a violation of the prisoner's rights to be overlooked by a court which undertook to follow the forms of established law, and Parsons's life was saved. Had the court exercised such appelate jurisdiction in the Salem cases, forty years later, the colony would in all probability have been spared the disgrace of the barbarous executions that then took place.
Hugh Parsons never returned to Springfield. John Pynchon sold his lands and effects and sent him the proceeds. He, according to Bond's History of Watertown, went to that place, was married again and died there. The records relating to his case are as follows:--
"October 24, 1651,--It is ordered, that on the second Tuesday in the 3d month next, there shall be a Court of Assistants held at Boston, for the trial of those in prison accused of witchcraft, and that the most material witnesses at Springfield be summoned to the Court of Assistants, to give in their evidence against them accordingly."
May 31, 1652:--
Whereas Hugh Parsons of Springfield, was arrained and tried at a Court of Assistants, held at Boston, 12 of May, 1652, for not having the feare of God before his eyes, but being seduced by the instigation of the divill, in March, 1651, and divers times before and since, at Springfield, as was conceived, had familiar and wicked converse with the divill, and hath used diverse divillish practises, or witchcrafts, to the hurt of diverse persons, as by several witnesses and circumstances appeared and was left by the grand jury for further triall for his life,"
"The jury of trialls found him guilty. The Magistrates not consenting to the verdict of the jury, the cawes came legally to the Generall Court. The Generall Court, after the prisoner was called to the barr for triall of his life, perusing and considering the evidences brought in against the said Hugh Parsons, accused for witchcraft, they judged he was not legally guilty of witchcraft, and so not to dye by law."
Historians who have studied the case of Mary Parsons as narrated in the records have differed in their conclusions as to her guilt and as to whether or not she suffered the death penalty. Some have come to the conclusion that her confession of the murder of her child was only an insane delusion, no more to be relied upon than her self-accusation of familiarity with the devil, or the story which it is recorded she told Constable Thomas Cooper to the effect that she with her husband and two women, all under the spell of witchcraft, had passed a night prowling about Stebbins's lot, being, she said, "sometimes like cats, and sometimes in our own shape." Be that as it may, the townspeople unquestionably believed her guilty. The entry in the town records of deaths, in the handwriting of Henry Burt, sets out that: "Josua Parsons, the sonn of Hugh Parsons, was kild by Mary Parsons his wife, the 4 day of ye 4 mon. 1651." While this does not prove the fact of her guilt, it establishes that it was regarded as sufficiently proved to be made a matter of official record.
Whether the death sentence was carried into effect would seem to be a question of more doubt. She was doubtless just lingering betwen life and death, a mental and physical wreck, at the time of her trial before the General Court. Unfortunately the records of deaths in Boston at that period in question were very imperfect and while her name does not appear therein we can draw no inference one way or the other from its absence. Charles W. Upham, in "Salem Witchcraft," sums up as follows all that we can justly infer as to the outcome of the sad case:-
We are left in doubt as to the fate of Mary Parsons. There is a marginal entry on the records to the effect that she was reprieved to 29th of May. Neither Johnson (author of "Wonder Working Providence") nor Hutchinson (in his "History of Massachusetts Bay") seem to have thought that the sentence was ever carried into effect. It clearly never ought to have been. The woman was in a weak and dying condition, her mind was probably broken down,--the victim of that peculiar kind of mania--partaking of the character of a religious fanaticism and a perversion of ideas--that has often lead to child murder."
No other case of witchcraft attended with serious results was ever brought to trial in Springfield after the Parsons prosecutions. It is not unlikely that the sad results of these cases opened the eyes of the people to the folly of the current belief,--and the Connecticut Valley was too far removed from Boston for the influence of the Puritan clergy to be as effective in the stimulation of witchhunting as it was yet to prove in the tragedies of Salem. We can easily condemn our ancestors for their superstition and folly, yet we should remember that only a few generations separated them from the darkest years of Christendom, and they rather deserve praise for so speedily throwing off under their new conditions the yoke of bondage to fear of supernatural influences.
SOURCE: The First Century of the History of Springfield; The Official Records from 1636 to 1736; With an Historical Review and Biographical Mention of the Founders; by Henry M, Burt; Vol, I; Pages 73-79.
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