Spring Season of the Witch
Practitioners of “witchcraft” have been with humanity for millennia.
In brief (and at its simplest) they adhere to Nature’s ways, following seasonal changes and celebrating accordingly, and paying deference to elements of Nature. Their views are earth-centric and holistic in the sense that Nature’s machinations are interwoven, with each life force and life energy on the planet acting upon others. The worshipping aspects include veneration of a multitude of deities (or “spirits”), mostly female Earth goddesses.
The term later applied to such earth-influenced worshippers—“pagan”—was a pejorative one created by early Christians. And other polytheistic religious people (such as the Egyptians of antiquity, the ancient Greeks, and ancient Romans) had no such term and had no equivalent word. It was created by Christians specifically to denigrate cultures with multiple godheads. [In modern times, the raging ignorant often misapply the term to Muslims—Islamic people are not pagans, they are monotheists, just like Jews and Christians.]
As part of early “pagan” suppression, Christian missionaries often tried to eradicate vestiges of paganism, whether through building churches on the sites of pagan shrines or by subverting pagan rituals (linking Christmas with the “pagan” Winter Solstice celebration, for example).
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1630 by 1,000 of England’s Puritans (a decade after the Mayflower’s miniscule party of Puritans—the “Pilgrims”—set foot ashore in what became Plymouth, Massachusetts). The Colony—what would become Charlestown (part of Boston)—was a theocratic society established on the Charles River.
Perceived “paganism” in such a theocracy was an intolerable societal issue; being a pagan who practiced witchcraft was the ultimate heresy, a crime, and meant death for the accused since it was popularly believed witches had made pacts with Satan and had rejected the Christian god of the Puritans. It was the rejection of their god that was the perceived heresy, the most heinous of acts. Furthermore, a mistranslation of an Old Testament biblical passage, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18) meant such people were to be ferreted out and annihilated. [In the oldest known versions, scholars tend to support that the passage was a condemnation of fortune tellers, not witches, and it was transliteration that led to the currently popular interpretation.]
Margaret Jones, one of The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s earliest settlers and a midwife, was the first example made by The Colony’s religious-based governing body that it would not tolerate even the merest whiff of magic or witchcraft within its ranks. Her death by hanging in 1648 predated the rampant, blind hysteria of the infamous Salem Witch Trials by slightly more than four decades, thus making her an unenviable “first” among many later to come.
Women with some practice at “birthing” (either by helping their mothers give birth to siblings or through their own parturition) were called upon to lend a hand when a woman’s time came to be delivered of a newborn. These “midwives” also had knowledge of folk medicines, herbs and other natural remedies that could do many things.
It is in their rudimentary medical knowledge that midwives were suspect. Some of their concoctions were used to ease labor pains—such pain relief flew in the face of fundamentalist Christians. Since they believed the literal words of The Holy Bible—starting with Eve, women were supposed to bear children in agonies of pain—anything done to relieve such misery was contrary to their god’s wishes. Therefore, providing a woman with an artificial means of easing her sufferings was a sin, and against Yahweh’s will. [And it is interesting to note that when the earliest anesthetics were developed—ether and later chloroform—both were purposefully withheld from use on women in labor, citing the biblical dictum of women having to suffer in child-bearing. It was only in the 1850s that a medically administered anesthetic for birthing was allowed, and this to Queen Victoria during the delivery of her last two children. Thus, a monarch was allowed to deliver painlessly while the rest of womankind suffered.]
Furthermore—and this was perhaps considered more heinous—midwives had knowledge of and access to abortifacients, natural and/or chemically concocted remedies used to get rid of the unborn.
It wasn’t the “moral” issue of abortion—the stand that it is a form of murder—that was called into play. Since women were considered chattel any unborn child in her womb was likewise considered belonging to a husband. Because midwives could provide “services” to relieve a woman of a pregnancy—often clandestinely without the potential father’s knowledge—she was, in effect, stealing from that man, depriving him of property. And British law at the time dealt very harshly with those who committed crimes against property (execution was on the books for something as simple as stealing a loaf of bread).
As with many things whose mechanics were not clearly understood by clerical types and fundamentalists the “mysterious” midwife, while grudgingly acknowledged as perhaps filling a societal need, was almost always viewed with a jaundiced eye.
And it is likely that suspicious attitude is what led to the execution of The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first “witch” several decades before the horror of the Salem pogrom.
The birth date of Margaret Jones (and “Jones” was her married name) is not known. However, a man believed to have been her husband (before they met and married) named Thomas Joanes [sic] of Elzing had booked passage from Yarmouth in England for the New England colonies. The “Elzing” referred to is unclear (there is a locality in France of that name—perhaps this man was French by birth). His age in his 1637 booking was given as 25. From that, a birth year of around 1612 can be surmised. As men and women tended to marry partners of around the same age as themselves, with the female normally being a few years younger, it is a reasonable conclusion to believe Margaret was born around, or perhaps a few years after, 1612. And so, at the time of her execution she was likely only in her early to mid 30s. [A birth year, unconfirmed, of 1613 was uncovered. Thus, she would have been 34 or 35 when she died.]
Biographical data is sparse, but Margaret—living with her husband Thomas in The Massachusetts Bay Colony—was practicing as a midwife and as a lay physician as well. Later court records tend to support she was a headstrong and fiercely independent spirit, doing as she saw fit for her “patients” and caring little about public opinion about her methods. She used a holistic approach with natural herbs, emetics, and poultices in her chosen avocation.
Sometime in the first quarter of the year 1648 she got into a quarrel with some of her neighbors. The nature of the dispute is uncertain, and it may have boiled down to nothing more than Margaret’s perceived combative personality. In the wake of this dispute, some “mischief” befell some of the livestock (unknown if chickens, hogs, or cows) of those neighbors with whom she’d argued. [It is also not known if this “mischief” took the form of the animals going lame, suffering from diseases, dying, or merely escaping their pens.]
And it was from this coincidental “mischief” involving neighbors’ livestock that a charge of witchcraft was brought against her.
At that time it only took one complaint from one person to formally start the machinery of injustice operating. The complaint didn’t have to be anything other than a loose, unfounded allegation (and in many cases were usually only brought by malicious neighbors wanting to cause trouble for others). In Margaret’s case, it was simply a circumstantial matter: “We had an argument with Goodwife Jones; she must have put a hex on us!”
Though witches had been “hunted” for centuries in Europe (in fits and starts dependent upon the political climate) it wasn’t until the appearance of an English opportunist named Matthew Hopkins that “witch finding” became a cottage industry for some. And, though he operated as England’s self-styled “Witchfinder General” for only a 14-month period between 1644 and 1646, he grew fabulously wealthy during his short tenure by charging communities exorbitant fees for his services and through the confiscation of property of accused persons he claimed were witches.
He was also directly responsible for the deaths of at least 300 women, more than had been executed for “witchcraft” in the entire previous one hundred years.
Hopkins had likely been born around 1620. He was a young man in his early 20s when he took up his avocation as England’s “Witchfinder General”. [The title was one he made up: he had received no such honorific from England’s government.] He had inherited a small sum, 100 marks (an odd currency to be bequeathed, but it was worth close to $1000 US today). He took that money and joined as an apprentice with another swindler, John Stearne (a landowner and, therefore, leisured enough to embark on such a venture, out-of-pocket to start).
The pair traveled with a complement of assistants in the counties near Hopkins’ home. They came up with formalized testing methods to determine is a person were, indeed, a witch. And while the results of their investigations were deadly serious (and no laughing matter), the “logic” used by witch finders is best illustrated in this satirical segment from 1975’s comedy classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
“Tests” devised were myriad and ridiculous. Since it was popularly believed witches had signed pacts with the Devil it was expected that they would have otherworldly “familiars” that hung around them (such as imps of varying descriptions, bizarre animals, etc.). These familiars would suckle blood from the witch much as a nursing child does at a mother’s breast, and the place where this suckling occurred was termed a “witch’s teat”.
Women’s bodies were searched thoroughly (most often, but not always, by other women in the witch hunter’s party). Oftentimes all their bodily hair was shaved off in an effort to find this vital clue of witchery. Suppurating boils, any sty, skin tags, warts, or any other superficial skin eruptions might all be construed as the “witch’s teat”. Therefore, it was evidence the person was a witch.
Another thing believed about the “teat” was that it was impervious to pain (hence the origin of the cliché, “Cold as a witch’s teat”). To check this “fact” once a potential “teat” was found witch finders employed the services of a “witch pricker”; acknowledging a victim’s feminine modesty these were usually female members of the witch-hunting staff. The pricker’s job was to stick a suspect area with a needle or other sharp object—if the victim didn’t respond with a pain reflex, then the area tested was “cold” and thus a witch’s teat; the carrier of that skin affliction was claimed to be a witch. [And it became clear that many prickers, at the behest of their witch-finder employers, might intentionally use blunted instruments, thus ensuring the victim felt only pressure but no pain. A charge of witchcraft was then inevitable.]
Considering the atrocious state of personal hygiene during the 17th Century it is almost certain most people had scabrous splotches or pimples or other blemishes on them—any of these could be perceived as the “witch’s teat”. [Another almost certain interest in examining women accused of witchcraft was purely prurient—the male witch finders had opportunities to intimately handle hundreds of women’s bodies and were no doubt titillated by the experience. Some suspects may have even been raped or blatantly coerced into sexual intercourse: “If you let me, I’ll say you’re not a witch, and let you go free.”]
Those who sank were declared innocent, but of course many drowned in this manner making the point moot. [This practice actually got Hopkins and others into trouble. Thanks to many deaths of innocent people by drowning a law was passed in 1645 banning it.]
While the techniques here are not the only ones employed, most involved some form of coercion (sleep deprivation, continued interrogation and accusations, etc.). Many people falsely confessed and were hanged. Others, refusing to confess, were tried based on hearsay and the findings of the witch hunters as evidence. Almost all were invariably found “guilty” and executed.
Hopkins and Stearne, while certainly zealots in their crusade against witches, used their positions for personal gain. And it was lucrative indeed—Hopkins demanded funds enough for the upkeep of three horses (a very dear price for the peasant villages he exploited) plus other related traveling expenses (meals, lodging, etc.). His “professional” service fees, too, were so hefty that some locales had to levy a special tax on its citizens to cover the costs of his “work” in ridding their towns of witches. These ranged upward from â¤26 (in 1645; that sum is the equivalent of over $5000 US today). And any witch convicted of the offense forfeited any and all property.
The tide turned on Hopkins and his ilk, though; it became obvious he was creating “witches” solely for the lucre generated. It was clear over time he and Stearne were only in it for the money and nothing more.
He saw the shape of things to come and elected to take his ill-gotten gains and retire (around the age of 26 or so) in 1646. He published a book on his experiences and methods in 1647; he died at his home of tubercular complications the same year. [A legend arose later that Hopkins himself was tried as a witch and executed—this is untrue, only a myth.]
Goodwife Jones on Trial
Matthew Hopkins, during his brief reign of terror in England, had created something akin to a guidebook for witch hunters.
The prescribed tests and protocols Hopkins followed were taken up by those in Windsor, Connecticut, in the prosecution of the first “witch” ever executed in America, Alse Young (in May 1647, about a year before Margaret Jones’ travails). The Massachusetts Bay Colony in their dealings with Margaret Jones, in turn, applied Hopkins’ methods as the Windsor people had done to Alse.
Specifically, Margaret was a witch, according to her accusers, for the following reasons (all of which can be readily and easily explained away as nonsense):
1. “That she was found to have such a malignant touch, as many persons, men, women, and children, whom she stroked or touched with any affection or displeasure, or etc. [sic], were taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains or sickness.” [This is borne of pure lies and/or hysteria as would be seen decades later in the Salem Witch Trials with people claiming fits, etc., that had no organic cause other than suggestibility and/or malice toward the accused, subconsciously or otherwise doing something to aid in and hasten prosecution. Another thing to keep in mind is that Margaret was acting as a lay physician in the community. There can be no doubt that she went from sick person to sick person without practicing any sort of simple prophylaxis such as washing her hands. She could visit someone seriously ill, and then go on to look in on someone with only a mild complaint; that person, of course, could contract whatever disease Margaret brought with her on her hands. Much like Typhoid Mary, she may have inadvertently spread illnesses in her wake.]
2. “She practising physic, and her medicines being such things as, by her own confession, were harmless,—as anise-seed, liquors, etc.,—yet had extraordinary violent effects.” [Since “purging” was an approved “medical” treatment of its day, many of Margaret’s preparations were, no doubt, used to meet that goal of inducing vomiting as a means of curing someone of some ailment. No harm apparently befell anyone who endured these potions other than violent regurgitations which was what should have been expected.]
3. “She would use to tell such as would not make use of her physic, that they would never be healed; and accordingly their diseases and hurts continued, with relapse against the ordinary course, and beyond the apprehension of all physicians and surgeons.” [This is what all doctors have told all patients throughout the millennia: “Take this, and do thus-and-such; otherwise you won’t recover.” After making a diagnosis the doctor comes up with a protocol to follow. It is part of medical science. If the patient refuses the treatment it can be expected he/she would not get better.]
4. “Some things which she foretold came to pass accordingly; other things she would tell of, as secret speeches, etc., which she had no ordinary means to come to the knowledge of.” [This is oblique—did she predict it would rain on a certain day and, lo-and-behold, it rained? Furthermore, in The Colony there was no such thing as “secret speeches”: thanks to gossipy, Puritan busybodies, everybody knew everybody else’s business in such a tight-knit community whether the keeper of what he or she believed was a secret knew it or not. This allegation is meaningless on its face and absurd.]
More damning, though, was the discovery of not one but two witch’s teats on Margaret. And the search of her body, considering the location of their discovery, had to be humiliating for her. According to the record:
“She had, upon search, an apparent teat in her secret parts as fresh as if it had been newly sucked; and after it had been scanned, upon a forced search, that was withered, and another began on the opposite side.”
The use of the hushed term “in her secret parts” is a vital clue. A small blemish was found either in her labial folds or on her perineum. This splotch was stuck with a needle—it released its sebaceous material and dried up. Because another similar pimple or subcutaneous eruption was noted “on the other side”, this tends to indicate these were found on or near her labia. Margaret would, then, have had to endure what was tantamount to a rough gynecological exam.
Keep in mind the almost total lack of hygiene of the times. Many people actually believed too much bathing, especially immersing the whole body in water too frequently, could lead to illness and death. [Science proved the exact opposite is true—it is a lack of cleanliness that breeds disease and which allows minor health problems to malinger.]
To indicate just how scorned bathing was, a 17th Century woman had proudly recorded the fact that she had had two “tub baths” (total, bodily immersion bathing) in her lifetime. The first time was on her wedding day. The next, and last, time was after the birth of her first child. Her use of the term “first” indicates there were other children that followed, meaning she had the later ick of child birth stuck to her “secret parts” until Nature took care of it. And, finally, only prostitutes of those days washed their vaginas routinely—“good” women, apparently not being prostitutes and being faithful to their husbands, had no need to wash “down there”.
So, given the state of hygienic affairs, it should come as no surprise that Margaret—a married woman who presumably did not wash her pudendum with any degree of regularity, if at all—may have had a small eruption or two in her genital area. Yeast infections and other disorders associated with personal filth conjoined with a warm, moist environment were normative. The women who examined her probably had similar ones, too, but since no one was looking at them it was concluded Margaret was the witch.
"We Never Sleep"
Thomas Jones, as Margaret’s husband and obviously intimately connected to her, was also taken in. The couple was incarcerated; “watching”, a method employed by Matthew Hopkins, was ordered. A court transcript records:
“This court beinge desireows that the same course which hath ben taken in England for the discovery of witches, by watchinge, may also be taken here with the witch now in question, & therefore doe order that a strict watch be set about her every night, & that her husband be confined in a private roome, & watched also.”
The “watching” entailed locking the accused away and having someone sit and observe them for a period. Any signs of witchcraft noted during that time were reported and used as evidence.
On April 16, an official was designated to “watch” the captive Margaret and her hapless husband. Magically, and as pre-disposed to believe, something mysterious did, indeed, happen:
“In the prison, in the clear day-light, there was seen in her arms, she sitting on the floor, and her clothes up, etc., a little child, which ran from her into another room, and the officer following it, it was vanished.”
This same child-spirit, allegedly, had been seen previously in two other places with which Margaret had some connection, either as a neighbor or as an attending caregiver. A young female claimed that upon seeing this entity she fell ill, and Margaret helped cure the woman. The implication is that perhaps Margaret was causing illness through this malevolent “familiar” and then coming in to rescue the afflicted, presumably for some form of recompense. In the other alleged instance of the sighting, nothing untoward happened just that the entity was seen in a place Margaret had visited once.
With that final piece of “evidence” in place, that of the familiar’s visitation, Margaret went to trial.
Court is Adjourned
All of the allegations, most of which consisted of “spectral evidence” (meaning people could testify about purported supernatural things they allegedly saw or heard and have it carry the same weight as real, physical evidence) were baseless. As outlined above every act and consequence had a rational explanation. But Margaret apparently had truly riled her neighbors with her quarreling; the easiest way to get rid of someone not considered pleasant was by levying the charge of witchcraft.
Margaret Jones denied being a witch, and a trial was required. This was nothing but a formality, really, as all involved already had their minds made up about her.
Margaret, per British Common Law, was not required to take the stand in her defense. However, she did not sit quietly on the sidelines, either:
“. . . her Behaviour at her Trials was very intemperate, lying notoriously, and railing upon the Jury and Witnesses, &c.”
Her “lying notoriously” was almost certainly her shouting out that she was innocent or that what some particular witness claimed was untrue; she should have railed at the witnesses since nothing brought forth was verifiable or concrete. And she was entitled to chastise the jury since they were participants in this travesty, with the power to issue a verdict that would positively or negatively affect her life.
As expected, Margaret Jones was found guilty of witchcraft. On the day of her execution, a boy, John Hale, visited her in her cell along with some other neighbors of Margaret’s who were inclined to try to help her. Hale was a respectful lad, destined for the clergy. [He grew up to be the Rev. Hale whose own wife would be accused of witchcraft during the madness of the Salem Witch Trials.]
The adult visitors talked with Margaret for a bit while the 12-year-old boy listened. In discussions with her he understood she was there because of other neighbors’ complaints.
She was begged to confess and repent (thinking, naïvely, that it might save her from the gallows). One of the adults asked if perhaps this punishment wasn’t being brought down upon her by Providence for some other infraction: hadn’t she been guilty of stealing many years ago? [Apparently, Margaret’s stealing something once was known locally—as stated earlier, in that community no one could keep a secret about anything.]
John Hale, as an adult, recorded in a book on the subject of witchcraft that Margaret admitted she had stolen something “ . . . but it was long since, and she had repented of it, and there was Grace enough in Christ to pardon that long agoe; but as for Witchcraft she was wholly free from it . . .”
Margaret Jones, still proclaiming her innocence, was hanged from an elm tree in Charlestown on June 15, 1648; the boy, John Hale, attended her execution. And as with her behavior at her trial she did not go quietly into that gentle night. The record notes, following the entry about her courtroom outbursts:
“. . . and railing upon the Jury and Witnesses, &c. and in the like Distemper she died.”
From this it can be inferred she castigated her executioner, her accusers, the parish, and anyone else associated with her demise.
A truly foolish and absurd footnote was appended to the record of her hanging, as if it were somehow meaningful:
“The same Day and Hour she was executed, there was a very great Tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many Trees, &c.”
So what? Anywhere in the world at any given moment of any given day one can find high winds that blow and tear down trees. What could possibly be the link between Margaret and her conviction as a witch? Connecticut’s border is about 60 miles (around 96 km) from Charlestown in a straight line to its nearest corner. This wasn’t even close to where she was hanged.
If, on the other hand, a huge storm had blown up right there in Charlestown as she was hanged, that might have been something to ponder.
This detail about a Connecticut storm is meaningless and superfluous but typical of the ignorant mindset of the era. It also, perhaps, was meant as a balm to the consciences of those involved in prosecuting and executing her: “See, we were right! She was a witch—a big storm blew up in Connecticut!”
Meanwhile, Thomas Jones—having been found not complicit with Margaret’s alleged “witchcraft”—was freed from prison.
But, public opinion was such he was not allowed to live peaceably. Continual harassment was “so insufferable that his Means of Living were cut off . . .” (it isn’t specifically cited anywhere what his trade was).
Jones decided that a fresh start elsewhere was in order. Thirteen days after Margaret’s execution he tried to gain passage on a ship anchored in Boston harbor bound for Barbados. This 300-ton cargo vessel was ironically named Welcome—Thomas Jones, not having the fare, was not welcome and was refused transport.
The 120-tons of ballast on the ship were apparently inadequate or incorrectly distributed; amid the stock on board were 80 horses. Confined to the lower hold, these animals ranged and shifted about, and their great and continually moving weight caused it to list dangerously at times, even though the weather was fair. This went on for about 12 hours while the ship remained in the harbor.
Once members of the ship’s complement learned of the refused passenger’s recent travails (being the husband of an accused witch) the more superstitious among them blamed him for the ship’s incessant rolling. And, having heard Jones had argued with the ship’s captain (most likely over being refused free passage) that, combined with the rumors, led to the conclusion that Welcome would not stop its aberrant behavior until Jones was locked up.
A complaint was brought quickly, and an arrest warrant was issued. It was reported that when one of the sailors saw the constable’s warrant for Jones’ arrest the ship’s roiling lessened. When Jones was taken into custody it was claimed the ship stopped its dangerous pitching about completely. [Of course it did. During the whole period the crew was shifting the ballast around inside—it is obvious they finally hit upon a weight distribution that would keep the ship on an even keel in spite of the agitated fidgeting of 40 tons of horseflesh.]
What became of Thomas Jones after he was taken in again by authorities is unknown. He may have died in prison awaiting another trial (many people did).
"She's a Witch!"
With Alse Young’s hanging in Connecticut in 1647 and now with Margaret Jones’ in 1648 a madness for witch hunting began in America that lasted well into the early 18th Century. From 1648 to 1663 roughly eighty people were accused of witchcraft in New England. Of those, fifteen women and two men (after being probed and otherwise “tested” per Matthew Hopkins’ ridiculous methods) were executed.
The worst purge occurred during the Salem witch hysteria. From May-October 1692 eighteen women were hung and one man was “pressed” to death. In a truly ironic moment, the Court then could not legally try a person unless he or she entered a plea, whether it be “guilty” or “not guilty”. Giles Corey, 70 or 71 years old and accused of witchcraft, flatly refused to do that. Thus, the Court was at an impasse with respect to his prosecution.
Since nothing further could be done with him the Court ordered torture to extract a plea—not a confession; confessions under torture were considered tainted. He was placed prone in a shallow pit in the ground with a board placed on his chest. Stones were added one at a time. This technique, called “pressing”, was horrendous. Corey, no matter how much weight was put on him, still refused to enter a plea.
With breaking ribs and unable to draw a deep breath, he died under the treatment after two days, still stubbornly refusing to officially enter a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty”, only saying “More weight,” each time he was asked for a plea. [And as a side note, because he had not stood trial, his estate was not able to be confiscated by the government or his accusers. This was one of the rare instances where someone accused of witchcraft was able to pass on an inheritance; as a farming landowner, Corey’s was substantial.]
Obviously, over the past few centuries in America witch-hunting has gone the way of the passenger pigeon. It is now perceived rationally for what it was: a superstitious, religiously zealous people persecuting those perceived as perhaps too independent or odd. And many were accused simply because they were disliked.
Margaret Jones, perhaps, may also have been a victim of professional jealousy from other, “educated” physicians—her treatments were, after all, homemade by a self-educated woman. Everyone knew doctors were men! To add further insult her methods and prescriptions were described at the time as mostly efficacious; even the young woman who claimed to have been bewitched by Margaret’s child-ghost familiar admitted Margaret cured her of whatever it was that ailed her after seeing that spirit.
And for those who refused her good advice her predictions of continued ill health were borne out. It does not take a genius to determine that a patient who will not follow doctor’s orders, especially those with clearly good intent, will likely not improve—Margaret would not have been sooth-saying, she merely would have been reinforcing a simple truth.
That was the world of the mid 1600s in America—simply disliking someone could get that person accused of something as absurd as witchcraft and executed. It only took one complainant to do that, though more than one stepped forward in Margaret’s case.
What seems most likely in Margaret Jones’ case is that—while not being an actual witch—she was prosecuted for being something else, something that begins with the letter “b” and rhymes with “witch”.
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