USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Salem Witch Trials’
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic

The Witches

Background:

My informant is 52 years old and has lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts for her entire life. Beverly is next to Salem and was part of the original settlement until 1668. She has remained close friends with many of the people she grew up with in town. Many of the children she grew up with still live in town as adults an have also chosen to raise their children there.

Performance:

“We didn’t really tell this story a lot because…well, it’s sad, I guess…but also because I knew Cory back then and I didn’t want to…I don’t know. You knew Mrs. Smith* (gestures to me), she was like the mother of the whole town, really. She did girl scouts, all of that. We’d always play in their stream. The Smiths were descended from Rebecca Nurse, who was one of the witches who was hanged during the trials and stuff. Anyway, you remember, Mrs. Smith had two different colored eyes: one blue, one brown…it might have been kind of scary if she weren’t so nice, but everyone always said that that was one of the signs that she was a witch…or maybe it wasn’t that she was a witch, but that she was descended from one…I’m not sure, but I can’t really imagine anyone thinking she was an actual witch…anyway she had six children, and her youngest was a daughter named Lucy* who was maybe three or four when all of this happened. Lucy had her mom’s eyes: one blue, one brown. I was in high school, so maybe fifteen? It was the winter, and Mrs. Smith was inside cooking while Lucy was watching TV in the other room. She heard a loud bang and when she ran in and saw that Lucy had pulled the TV onto herself and unfortunately she passed away. The very next day the blizzard of ’78 rolled in…it was…just brutal. The worst storm I’ve ever seen. Rumor was, it happened because Lucy died. Funny thing is, when Mrs. Smith died almost forty years later, a red tide rolled in the next day…couldn’t go in the water for almost two weeks. No fishing, nothing. People…well, I don’t think anyone had too many questions after that. Tell that story to anyone who didn’t grow up in Essex County and they’ll just laugh at you but to people here…I mean, how can you not believe it even just a little?”

*To protect the privacy of the family in the story, my informant chose to change the names during her performance. I respected her choice in this transcription.

Thoughts:

This story is interesting because it uses local history and folklore as a scapegoat for natural phenomena. The Smith’s were a direct link to the town’s heritage and their lives became a part of a greater mythology. From the tone of her story, I didn’t get the impression that the Smith’s were personally blamed for either the blizzard or the red tide; rather, the magic itself was to blame. It’s a much more holistic, “natural” magic than the powerful dark magic at the center of Salem Witch legends.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic

Witch Woods

Background:

My informant is 87 years old and has lived in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts for his entire life. He attended a nearby boarding school and Harvard University, where he studied history under famed professor Samuel Eliot Morrison. He has taken a lifelong interest in local history, artwork, and lore. 

For context, Beverly Farms is a small village within the larger city of Beverly. Beverly is adjacent to Salem, and was a part of the original settlement until 1668. Beverly Farms is much more rural than Beverly proper, and is closer to the neighboring town of Manchester-by-the-Sea than it is Salem. With the exception of the Witch Woods story, Beverly Farms has very little folklore or history that relates to the Salem Witch Trials.

Performance:

“My parents weren’t from here so I heard this from the other kids at school. Some of their families have been in town for, oh, I don’t…hundreds of years, I suppose….you know, the Hale’s, the Conant’s, the Cabot’s…Mostly I just heard that the witches were coming to take us from our beds but as we got older the story got more complex…So as you know, back in the 1600’s, Beverly was still a part of Salem. But since it didn’t have a church, it wasn’t quite as inhabited as it was over in Salem…well, everyone knows this part, but people over in Salem got it in their heads that there were witches in town and started hunting them down and killing them. Stoning, hanging, all of that. Soon as the witches realized they were being hunted, most of them…well, most of them were smart enough to get out of there…so they took off in the middle of the night, all of them, and crossed the river to come over here. They ran until they hit the woods and then kept going…all of the way up here, right down on Common Lane. It’s why you get the shivers when you drive down there at night…you know, roll your windows up and such. They’re all still there, you know. All the witches.”

Thoughts:

Growing up in the area, this was a common ghost story in my household. I remember asking if the witches were real and my grandfather telling me that, yes of course they were, and if I knew what was good for me I’d lock my windows at night. Unlike many scary stories told to children, I don’t recall their being any lesson or imperative behind it. This story seemed to be more about local pride than reinforcing or discouraging certain behaviors.

Narrative

A Direct Descendant of a Salem Witchcraft Trial Victim

My informant first heard about his blood relation to a Salem Witchcraft victim when he was about eight or nine years old.  Among stories of being related to pirates in the Mediterranean and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who killed Billy the Kid), my informant’s late grandmother, who was well read in her family history, also informed him that he was related to Samuel Wardwell.

Informant: “Well the story as I know it, or remember from what [my grandmother] told me, is that Samuel Wardwell, who I guess is my great-great-great-great-great grandfather… I don’t really know how many ‘greats,’ but he is my very distant grandfather… He and his wife were accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials.  He was made to confess, I think quite forcibly… and he uh, later recanted his confession.  From what I know, he confessed to save his life – his wife was pregnant with one of my relatives… I don’t know if it was my great-great-great-grandfather or one of his brothers or sisters, but she was pregnant… And because she was pregnant, she wasn’t executed… That’s why I’m here today, because she wasn’t killed.  I also don’t know exactly why Samuel recanted his confession, but I guess that was the reason why he was put to death.  He was hanged for suspected witchcraft in 1692…  I’ve never been there, but he has a gravestone in Massachusetts that’s still there today…”

Interviewer: “How do you know for sure that you’re related to him?  You have so many crazy family stories, how can you be sure that they’re true?”

Informant:  “I look at it like, some of them may not be true…  but I know for sure, that the Wardwell story is true.  My grandmother’s maiden name was Wardwell, and she was told by her family about the Witch Trials…My family came over on the ship after the Mayflower… So they had a lot of time to do a crazy shit…  Oh, and I also remember my grandmother saying that the story of Samuel Wardwell was the influence of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible.’  I can’t be sure that that’s true, but it’s still pretty cool.”

My informant voiced that the some aspects of the Samuel Wardwell story may have been embellished, since the story has been passed down from multiple generations.  He says “The Crucible” influence especially may have be an elaboration, but at the same time, might also be true.  The character of John Proctor in the play follows the same general sequence of events: he and his wife are accused of witchcraft, his wife claims to be pregnant, he confesses so he can live and care for his family, but then retracts his confession rather than admit to witchcraft and is finally hanged at the end of the play.  The two narratives are so similar that it made me think that maybe the story of Samuel Wardwell was altered in order to fit the story in “The Crucible.”  However, I was quickly taken by surprise when I read Court Records of the Salem Witch Trials.  The records report the same basic story that my informant revealed and also add more details about Samuel Wardwell.

 

To learn more about Samuel Wardwell, refer to these sites:

http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ma/county/essex/salemvill/wardwell.htm

http://www.dixfieldcitizennews.net/genealogy/9004.htm

http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people?group.num=all&mbio.num=mb26

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