Before Salem: Northampton woman accused of witchcraft

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NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (WWLP) – Before the Salem witch hysteria of the late 17th century, a woman in western Massachusetts was subject to three different witchcraft-related trials.

Mary Bliss Parsons and her husband Joseph Parsons moved to Northampton in 1654 and were one of the wealthiest families in the early colonies. Rumors and accusations of witchcraft, however, plagued Mary for decades.

It all started with a family feud.

“Mary Bliss Parsons had the first recorded birth in Northampton. It was her son Ebenezer in 1655. Sarah Bridgeman had the first recorded death, and it was her child.,” Historic Northampton Research and Education Coordinator Emma Winter Zeig said. “Before her child died, she sort of had a supernatural experience. She was holding the child in her lap and she heard a knocking at the door and she looked out and she saw two women in white that were passing, but her daughter then looked out and said that there were no women there…..So she had seen something sort of spectral, and she said that in that moment her baby changed, and that it became sick and that it died. She believed that Mary Bliss Parsons was responsible for that.”

Emma Winter Zeig, Historic Northampton’s Research and Education Coordinator

The witchcraft accusations started to snowball. She was being blamed for mundane things like causing spun yarn to knot up and more serious things like causing the death of a man’s cow after an argument.

“So it was all these different happenings around town that were creating these different stories around her,” Zeig said.

Mary’s husband Joseph eventually had enough and took Sarah Bridgeman to court for slander. Many people testified against the accused witch. Ultimately, she was acquitted.

“Even though she was acquitted, the suspicions never really went away,” Zeig explained. “[Her son] Ebenezer died in 1675 and people were saying that this was retribution for her having never been punished as a witch.”

More official witchcraft accusations were brought against Mary Bliss Parsons 20 years later. At this point, Sarah Bridgeman and her daughter had passed away.

“She was a young woman so her passing was not entirely expected,” Zeig said. “Sarah Bridgeman’s husband felt that Mary Parsons was involved and pushed his son-in-law to bring witchcraft accusations against Mary Bliss Parsons.”

Mary’s body was examined for witch markings and she was thrown in jail over the course of a formal witchcraft trial in Boston. Again, Mary was acquitted. But this time, instead of returning to Northampton, she and her husband moved to Springfield.

Her reputation preceded her.

“In 1702 an enslaved woman named Betty struck Mary Bliss Parsons’ grandson and she told him, ‘Your grandmother is a witch and she killed three people,’ Zeig said. “So is this definitely something people believed despite her being acquitted, twice.”

WEB EXTRAS: Court documents from Mary Bliss Parsons’ slander and witchcraft trials

By 1711, Zeig said the witchcraft accusations had cooled off, and in what you might call a plot twist, Mary Bliss Parsons’ granddaughter married Sarah Bridgeman’s grandson. 

Mary didn’t leave behind a large written record.

“What we do know is that she suffered from fits,” Zeig explained. “And during a previous witchcraft accusation, she had become so distressed that her husband kept her in the house.”

“…..And once I carried Mary Parsons home to the Long Meadow when she was in her fits, and when she was at home and came to herself she wondered how she came there, and by the way as I carried her behind me I was fain to hold her up upon the horse, and I discerned that she did not understand herself nor where she was, and she would often cry out of the witches and call to Hannah Smith that they might creep under Goodwife Warriner’s bed (from whence I took her to carry her home) or else the witches would kill them, she said, and I have at other times been helping to hold her when she hath been in her fits and have round it as much as two men could do to hold her in her fits.”

This transcript appears in Hall, David D. Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History. Second Edition Boston: Northeastern U P, 1999. pp 110 – 111. Courtesy East Cambridge Archives via UMass.edu

Zeig said Mary was an unusual person to come under suspicion of witchcraft.

“Mary Bliss Parsons was quite well off for the time and in some ways that insulated her from some of the consequences,” Zeig said. “We believe that she was made to be more comfortable in jail and it meant that she already had connections in the legal world when she was tried.”

Mary is buried in Springfield. Much of the Parsons family, however, is buried in the cemetery on Bridge Street in Northampton. A modern tombstone commemorating Mary Bliss Parsons and her relatives is also located at the Bridge Street Cemetery. Sarah Bridgeman and her family are also buried there.

The new Historic Northampton Museum on 46 Bridge Street has more information about the Parsons family and other points in the city’s history. They are open from Wednesday to Sunday 12-4 p.m.

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