A Witch in the Woodshed

My ancestors came early to America. I always assumed it meant they were in trouble in the Old Country. Turns out, at least one of them ran into serious trouble in the New World as well.

My 13th great-grandmother, Sarah Cloyce, was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

The whole debacle started in bitter February when Betty Parris, daughter of the pastor, was stricken with a fit. She contorted in pain, dived under furniture and complained of fever. Some scholars have suggested she ingested ergot (LSD is an ergot derivative) from moldy rye bread, which accounts for those symptoms along with hallucinations.

The illness seemed inexplicable and with poor economic conditions and a war with the Indians raging a mere 70 miles away, perhaps it was unavoidable that the people suspected the Devil had a hand in striking their pastor’s daughter. When a couple of Betty’s friends began displaying the same bizarre behavior, the slave woman Tituba baked what she called a “witch cake” and fed it to a dog, ostensibly to cure the girl. But the specter of witchcraft was raised and the search for the Devil’s familiars was on.

Tituba and two others were accused of consorting with the Evil One. When Tituba realized the only way to save herself was to confess, she did so with gusto and imagination. It leant credence to the idea that Salem was under spiritual attack. More teens joined the original afflicted ones and reported being tormented by “spectral forms” of other women in the village. More were arrested.

According to the records, my ancestor Sarah Cloyce neglected church after her sister Rebecca Nurse was accused. During the March 20 service, Ann Putnam, one of the afflicted girls and daughter of a prominent family, suddenly shouted, “Look where Goodwife Cloyce sits on the beam suckling her yellow bird between her fingers!” Evidently, the more strange the claim the girls made, the more it was believed.

On April 3rd, Sarah came to church, but left when the sermon topic was on recognizing who had the Devil in them. The wind caught the door as she departed, and it seemed as if she’d slammed the door on the House of God. Perhaps she did. If my sister was wrongly imprisoned, I’d be angry too.

On April 4th, a complaint was sworn against Sarah. A warrant was issued on the 8th. On April 11, 1692, she appeared before the magistrate and was clapped in hand and leg irons. Along with John and Elizabeth Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, Martha Corey and Dorcas Good (who was only 4 years old), she was sent to a Boston prison that very night.

In all, over 50 people were accused of witchcraft, some no doubt because their accusers stood to gain control of their land if they were convicted. 19 people were hanged, including Sarah Cloyce’s 2 sisters–Rebecca Nurse and Mary Eastly. In Rebecca’s case, she was initially pronounced not guilty, but the judge ordered the jury to deliberate again. It returned with the guilty verdict the court wanted. 4 people died in prison awaiting trial and Giles Cory was crushed to death for refusing to stand trial.

On January 3, 1693, Sarah’s charges were dropped because her arrest was based on “spectral” evidence, which was no longer admitted in court, though it had been used to convict others. Her husband Peter paid the prison fees to secure her release. Not surprisingly, they moved away from Salem and she spent the next 10 years trying to clear her sisters’ names. In 1710, a court awarded Sarah Cloyce 3 gold crowns (a gold coin each worth about a 1/4 of a pound or 5 shillings) as compensation for her loss.

Amazingly enough, she returned to Salem to collect them.

In 1957, the Massachusetts General Court resolved “that no disgrace or cause for distress” be borne by descendants of accused witches. Well, thank you, Captain Obvious. The disgrace is on the gang of teenaged girls who stirred a town to madness and the adults, who for their own reasons, allowed themselves to be swayed.

In case you haven’t guessed, history is a passion of mine. Finding my personal connection to this tragedy in my 13th great grandmother made it more horrifyingly real for me. I’d like to think we’ve progressed as people beyond this sort of mass hysteria, but I suspect bloodlust and malicious intent is still alive and well.

Which means as a writer I should rejoice, because it means I’ll never be without a villain. Unfortunately, I can only make sure he/she doesn’t win in my fiction.


Mia’s debut Brava historical romance TOUCH OF A THIEF hits the shelves next May! Visit www.miamarlowe.com for a peek at her Victorian world of magic, passion and deception. You can also connect with Mia on Twitter and Facebook! And be sure to stop by her blog and say hi! She loves to visit with readers and other writers.

So now it’s your turn. Are there any witches, accused or real, in your family tree?

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