In May, 1649, Sarah Edwards’ cow began producing strangely colored milk. Usually, the heifer gave 6 pints per milking, but it had begun to yield only 2, and of an odd saffron color at that. The cow didn’t seem to be sick otherwise, yet the milk continued to change colors. Edwards’ husband consulted William Pynchon—the founder, leader, and general overlord of the town of Springfield, Massachusetts—who agreed that “such a sudden change could not come from a natural cause.”
In 17th century New England, as with Europe and elsewhere, anything for which there was no obvious and immediate natural cause was suspected to be the work of witches (as people had thought for centuries). In this case, that suspicion soon fell on the town’s brickmaker, Hugh Parsons. Before the Edwards’ cow’s milk began to change colors, Parsons had been at their farm asking for milk as repayment of an earlier debt, but Sarah had had none to spare, and sent him away thirsty.
And by May of 1649, there was already a great deal of suspicion about Hugh Parsons and his wife, Mary. Hugh and Mary Parsons were not like the other settlers in Springfield. While Mary labored to appear to be a dutiful housewife, she was prone to depression and mood swings as well as delusions that might fit with present-day diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia or postpartum depression. Hugh was the town’s only brickmaker, a vital member of the community. (Before his arrival, houses had been built with wood chimneys, an obvious fire hazard.) But, essential as he was, he wasn’t well liked; he had developed a reputation as a “frightening, unpredictable neighbor,” according to historian Malcolm Gaskill, and it was this reputation, along with his oddly affectless response to his own young son’s death, that would lead to accusations that he and his wife were witches in league with the devil.
Gaskill’s The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World tells the story of Hugh and Mary Parsons, and how they came to be accused of witchcraft in Springfield in June of 1651. Gaskill chronicles in lucid detail the events of the years leading up to the Parsons’ trials, when the tensions of this small town intensified until they ultimately took shape in this form. The event that took place in Salem in 1692 was by no means the only witch trial New England saw during this century. In addition to the Parsons’ story, there was Margaret Jones, a midwife who’d been hanged in Boston Common for witchcraft on June 15, 1648, and the three people hanged in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1663—Rebecca Greensmith, her husband, Nathaniel, and a third, Mary Barnes.
These were tragic miscarriages of justice, of course, and the idea that they happened because towns used accusations of witchery to deal with marginalized women who had more or less power than they should is now familiar. But Gaskill’s story about Springfield is a bit different: For one, of course, Hugh Parsons was a man. More importantly, Gaskill argues that for Colonial New England, witchcraft “was not some wild superstition but a serious expression of disorder embedded in politics, religion, and law.” Ultimately, this is a story about historical change. Despite the fact that witchcraft accusations had existed for centuries in Europe, Gaskill notes that the vast majority of witchcraft persecutions on the continent and in the New World happened between the mid–16th century and the mid–17th century, a time not just of superstition but also rapid modernization, “when every aspect of political, religious, and economic existence was in turmoil throughout the Western world.” While his narrative sometimes gets swamped by the minutiae of Puritan theology and a broad cast of characters, Gaskill nonetheless tells a gripping, at times terrifying story about the legal and social function of witches, and how easy it was for women and men, once accused, to have their lives destroyed—or in some cases lose them altogether—as communities looked for ways to mediate and make sense of this turmoil.
For New England Puritans, Satan was presumed to be everywhere, always waiting. All God had to do was to withdraw his protection, and Satan’s emissary would slide into a person (usually via an imp or other familiar), seizing on human weakness and vanity. But Satan rarely acted alone. Far more likely he would work through intermediaries: witches. Ordinary men and women who’d strayed and made covenants with the devil became his minions on Earth, and the chief cause of misfortune in day-to-day New England.
Witches accomplished two goals for Puritan culture—one metaphysical, one social. Their existence provided explanations for anything that went wrong, from weird yellow cow milk to children’s deaths. In a world ruled by a benevolent, omnipotent God, calamity threatened to undermine the entire edifice; the existence of witches provided a means of explaining such disasters without threatening the overall order. Yet because such misfortunes came not directly from Satan but were instead mediated by humans, fear of witchcraft was also a means of regulating social behavior. If misfortune had to have a human actor in some form, community members had to be constantly vigilant and ready to say something when they saw something.
Often, those who failed to fit the social order and were accused of witchcraft were women: usually old, unmarried, or widowed, otherwise existing on the edges of a patriarchal system. But Hugh Parsons’ story demonstrates how much wider the net could be cast. Hugh and Mary fought regularly and publicly, in ways that suggested the husband was incapable of controlling his own household. Hugh, his neighbors reasoned, could control neither his wife nor his own temper. Cantankerous and mercurial, he was angry in a way that didn’t befit a good Christian man. As Gaskill explains, Parsons’ often unjustified rage was viewed as:
[bq]a feminine thing, which Satan nurtured into malice, revenge and civil war. By yielding to his passion, it was said, a man unmanned himself, opening his heart to the evils he feared most. Exactly this, people concluded, had happened to Hugh. It was anger that eroded the relationship with his wife and community, from which no man could be parted and still prosper.[/bq]
As whispers and rumors swirled around the Parsons, they were hit by tragedy; their infant son fell sick and died. Hugh was out working at the time of his death and had to be told by a neighbor. Rather than rush home to comfort his wife, he went to the house of a neighbor, George Colton. Seemingly dispassionate, Parsons told Colton and Colton’s wife, “I hear my child is dead. But I will cut a pipe of tobacco first before I go home.”
Once he was formally accused and tried for witchcraft, this lack of obvious emotion upon hearing of the death of his child would be the chief piece of evidence used against Hugh Parsons. It was difficult to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt something as ephemeral as the bewitching of a cow or any of the other supposed hexes Parsons had been accused of. But here, plain as day, was evidence there was something not right about Hugh Parsons. The people of Springfield could not imagine that there might be other ways of experiencing a tragic loss. Failing to perform grief in a way that his Springfield neighbors could recognize made it clear to all that he was in league with Satan.
Once they were formally accused in Springfield, nearly the entire town—led by Pynchon, who sought to shore up his own religious reputation by rooting out this diabolical thorn in his town—turned on Hugh and his wife. But the actual trials took place in Boston, and here, things fell apart. For one, Springfield’s eyewitnesses, by and large, did not travel to Boston for the trials: Their accusations were read aloud as signed affidavits, and these gripping accounts of witchery lost their sting when read aloud in monotone by Boston’s judges. Mary was tried for bewitching her neighbors and acquitted for lack of evidence, but then, in a strange turn of events, confessed to the second charge leveled against her: causing the death of her third child, Joshua, who, like his brother Samuel, had also died in infancy. It’s unclear why she did this, though Gaskill suggests it may have been the result of extreme postpartum depression. Certainly, the years of opprobrium, estrangement, and accusation had taken their toll. Perhaps Mary was simply tired of it all; perhaps she just wanted out. Sentenced to death, she instead died in prison. Hugh’s own trial ended in acquittal—he wouldn’t confess, and the evidence against him wasn’t deemed strong enough. He and the couple’s surviving daughter left Springfield. His life had been spared; it was ruined, nonetheless.
The story of Springfield in 1649–51, in other words, is a story of how a community uses superstition to give a name to their unease about their own members—and how that superstition can become a way of restoring an order that’s perceived to be necessary. Hugh and Mary Parsons became a means not just of explaining all things strange in Springfield but also a way of reaffirming what was and wasn’t acceptable behavior in the face of tribulation. Gaskill adds a new insight to this interpretation: As New England society grew more complex, the work required of witches to explain new and arising tensions became harder and harder.
For by the mid–17th century, Gaskill argues, Springfield was beset with a multitude of crises beyond simply unexplained misfortune. The founder of the town, Pynchon, was embroiled in scandal as his own theological ideas ran afoul of the mainline Puritan leaders in Boston. His 1650 book, The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, was denounced as heretical and became the first book banned in the New World. Even as he led the accusations against the Parsons, Pynchon himself would have to stand trial for his errant beliefs. And while he was generally a methodical and rational thinker, Pynchon would himself lead the legal persecution of the Parsons. As Gaskill notes, history had already “shown that judicious governors tended to take witch fears more seriously when their own equilibrium was threatened,” a statement as true of Pynchon as anyone.
We think of 17th century Puritan New England as a place of religious intolerance, but in fact it was, Gaskill reminds us, a place of intense theological debate, where the conflict between Puritan factions “was as furious as the war between Protestants and Catholics. Opponents charged each other with diabolic allegiance, and freethinkers were denounced as heretics, which in Massachusetts was a crime akin to idolatry and witchcraft.” Witchcraft accusations throughout New England came not just from stable authorities persecuting marginalized individuals but also from rival factions attempting to assert their dominance over others.
As laid out in The Ruin of All Witches, all of this was connected: 1649, Gaskill writes, “was the year of patriarchal failure, writ large in the disgrace of an English king beheaded for treason. Springfield’s faltering confidence in Pynchon, together with the sordid end of Charles I, in turn inflamed hostile feelings toward the town’s most hopeless patriarch, Hugh Parsons.” Gaskill’s handling of Pynchon’s heresy trial is less successful than his narrative of the Parsons. The exact contours of Puritan theology—and specifically how Pynchon ran afoul of it—feel fuzzy at times, and the parallels between Pynchon and Hugh Parsons don’t always flow smoothly. But what is made abundantly clear is that Pynchon, as both a highly successful entrepreneur and religious iconoclast, caused a great deal of consternation in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, whose leaders were perpetually seeking both material prosperity and religious devotion.
Seventeenth-century New England was a culture based around patriarchal authority and control that was faced, on all fronts, with men unable or unwilling to exercise that control. It was also a culture that wanted plenitude, as a visible sign of God’s favor, yet was wary of men willing to put profits above community (including Pynchon, a successful and at times cutthroat landowner). These conflicting needs and realities created an unstable social community that threatened to collapse this project of a New Eden entirely.
The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
By Malcolm Gaskill. Knopf.
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What was needed to restore order were some witches. Witch accusations flourished in the area in the mid–17th century, Gaskill argues, because the success of the Massachusetts colony began to create its own problems: “The increased size and complexity of the colony bred competition, and with that the envy and hostility that had long been commonplace in England, and which gave witchcraft its destructive energy.” Success brought envy, “the emotion of the witch,” as well as melancholy, a “false conceived want” that led to discontent: “Neighborhood squabbles were not just events happening there on the surface: they were all-consuming inner struggles against diabolic wickedness in the heart.”
The rapidity with which Springfield turned on the Parsons, and the ultimate failure of the legal system to make them effective scapegoats, captures the rapid evolution of New England theology and law at a turning point in the colonies’ history. Rather than merely another dreary account of yet another miscarriage of justice, Gaskill’s book is the story of how the birth pangs of capitalism and rapid industrialization created manifold tensions and societal pressures, as God-fearing Puritans attempted to make sense of how urbanization and wealth were changing their communal dynamics.
It’s convenient to treat Puritan witch panics as the result of nothing other than superstition and hysteria largely directed at old and unmarried women. And while these factors were undoubtedly at play in places like Salem, The Ruin of All Witches helps fill out a more detailed picture of how vital witches were to early American culture. They provided a catchall explanation for unexpected misfortune and antisocial behavior, while resolving the contradictions between religion and capitalism. For when these inherent tensions could not be directly mediated, outside factors became essential. It’s in a climate that this that an unlikable man like Hugh Parsons, attempting to collect on a debt by asking for some milk, could come to be seen as an emissary of Satan.