17TH CENTURY WITCH IN HADLEY



For inquiries contact Libby Klekowski

Alexandra Kent of Hadley, MA and Syracuse University wrote to me with the following request: "I'm from Hadley and I have heard rumors that a witch once lived in Hadley a LONG time ago. Is this true and if so, what happened to her (was she burned or thrown into the Connecticut River)?" I looked into the matter and the following excerpt from Sylvester Judd's History of Hadley (1905), pp. 228-231, addresses the subject of the witch of Hadley.

"The most notable witch in Hampshire county was Mary Webster, the wife of William Webster of Hadley. Her maiden name was Mary Reeve, and they were married in 1670, when he was 53 years old, and she probably some years younger. 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. Mary Webster'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. When they began to call her a witch, and to abuse her, she perhaps thought with the "Witch of Edmonton," in the old play, who said, "Tis all one, to be a witch, as to be accounted one." Many stories of the sorceries by which she disturbed the people of Hadley have been lost, but a few traditions have been preserved: --
Teams passing to and from the meadow went by her door, and she so bewitched some cattle and horses that they stopped, and ran back and could not be driven by her house. In such cases the teamsters used to go into the house and whip or threaten to whip her, and she would then let the team pass. She once turned over a load of hay near her house, and the driver went in and was about to chastise her, when she turned the load back again. She entered a house, and had such influence upon an infant on the bed or in the cradle, that it was raised to the chamber floor and fell back again, three times, and no visible hand touched it. There is a story that at another house, a hen came down chimney and got scalded in a pot, and it was soon found that Mary Webster was suffering from a scald. ...
Mary Webster appeared before the county court at Northampton, March 27, 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, and having been in examination before the worshipful Mr. Tilton, and many testimonies brought in against her, or that did seem to centre upon her, relating to such a thing; and the worshipful Mr. Tilton aforesaid binding her to appear at this court, and having examined her yet further, and the testimonies aforenamed, look upon her case, a matter belonging to the Court of Assistants to judge of, and therefore have ordered said Mary Webster to be, by the first convenient opportunity, sent to Boston gaol and committed there as a prisoner, to be further examined there as aforesaid, and the clerk is to gather up all the evidences and fit them to be sent down by the worshipful Mr. Tilton, to our honored governor, that he may communicate them to the magistrates, as he shall judge meet, or further order prosecution of said matters.

She was sent down to Boston in April, 1683, and the Court of Assistants was held at Boston, May 22d; Gov. Bradstreet, Deputy Gov. Danforth and nine Assistants being present. The record of the court follows: --
Mary Webster, wife of William Webster of Hadley, being sent down upon suspicion of witchcraft and committed to prison, in order to her trial, was brought to the bar. The grand-jury being impannelled, they, on perusal of the evidences, returned that they did indict Mary Webster, wife to William Webster of Hadley, 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.
At the Assistant's Court, Sept. 4, 1683, Mary Webster, wife to William Webster of Hadley, having been presented for suspicion of witchcraft, etc. by a grand-jury in Boston on the 22d of May last, and left to further trial, was now called and brought to the bar, and was indicted by the name of Mary Webster. ... 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.

This acquittal must have elated Mary Webster, and disappointed many of the people of Hadley, whose numerous written testimonies, drawn up with care, had failed to convince a Boston jury, that she was a witch. Sometime after this trial, the power of this enchantress was supposed to be exerted upon Lieut. Philip Smith, who died on the 10th of January, 1685. The following details are from Cotton Mather's Magnalia [pp. 454-455]:--

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. 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.
About the beginning of January, 1684-5, he began to be very valetudinarious. He shewed such weanedness 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 an 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.
In his distresses he exclaimed much upon the woman aforesaid, and others, as being seen by him in the room. 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. 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. Several trying to lean on the bed's head, tho' the sick man lay wholly still, the bed would shake so as to knock their heads uncomfortably. Mr. Smith dies: 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.
Thus he remained from Saturday morning, about sunrise, till Sabbath-day in the afternoon; when 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: and a New England winter does not want for cold. But 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.

This was the end of so good a man.
The "disturbing" of Mary Webster by the Hadley young men, is thus related by Hutchinson [p. 14]: - "While he [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."

Mary Webster did indeed survive. She lived for another eleven years, after she was hung up and buried in the snow, to the ripe old age of seventy or so, and died in peace in 1696.

Why were the citizens of Hadley so sure Mary Webster was a witch? In the 17th century the concept of a "natural" death from disease was unthought of. If someone died from unexplainable causes, the culprit must be the Devil. The Protestant Reformation implicitly accepted the idea that all the supernatural forces of evil that plagued everyday life were due to the Devil, working through his familiars, witches. Having assumed that witches were responsible for any unexplained event, the public was always on the look out for the presence of the Devil in their community.

References:

Judd, S. 1905. History of Hadley. H. R. Hunting, Springfield.

Mappen, M. 1980. Witches & Historians. Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company,

Huntingdon, N.Y.

Mayo, L. S. 1936. The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay by

Thomas Hutchinson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Mather, C. 1967. Magnalia Christi Americana. Vol. II, Russell & Russell, New York.