The Witch Trial, My Great…Great Grandmother

Witch Hill

“Witch Hill” or “The Salem Martyr” painting by Thomas Slatterwhite Noble, 1869, Collection of the New York Historical Society

The 1659 witchcraft arrest warrant for Mrs. Winifred Holman of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the widow of William Holman, and her daughter Mary was quite explicit and quite serious, since the penalty if proven quilty was hanging.

“To the Constable of Cambridge, you are requested forthwith to apprehend the persons Widow Holman and her daughter Mary and immediately bring them before the county court now sitting in Charlestown, to be examined on several accusations presented on suspicion of witchcraft, you are forthwith to bring them away and not suffer them one with another after the knowledge of this warrant and heretofore you are not to fail at your peril. It will be convenient that you charge some person to bring away the maid first [the daughter], and then you may acquaint the mother also with the warrant respecting her.”
Dated February 1659. Thomas Danforth R [Source: Family History]

Although the infamous Salem Witch Trials took place between February 1692 and May 1693, Massachusetts was executing witches as early as 1647.

Her accuser was a neighbor, John Gibson, Sr., and there were some roots of bitterness between them.

“Gibson’s daughter, Mrs. Charles Stearns, had two extraordinary fits, which she never had the like of before. Mary Holman asked why she did not get some help for them and she answered that she could not tell what to do, for she had used means by physicians and could have no help. ‘Then’, said Mary, ‘my mother can help you if you will but put yourself into her hands. She will undertake to cure you with the blessings of God.'” [Source: Family History]

Big mistake, since it fit the contemporary definition of witchcraft. If God’s blessing worked, the so-called touch test would provide the needed evidence to prove one is a witch.

“If the accused witch touched the victim while the victim was having a fit, and the fit then stopped, that meant the accused was the person who had afflicted the person.” [Source: Wikipedia: Salem Witch Trials, Touch Test]

The Recorder of the Court, after many long trials, appended the following memorandum:

“John Gibson, Jr. acknowledged in court that whereas he is legally convicted of a slanderous speech concerning Mary Holman, he is heartily sorry for his evil, thereby committed against God and the wrong did to the same Mary Holman, and her friends and doth crave forgiveness of the said Mary Holman of the trespass.” [Source: Family History]

It seems the son, Jr. recanted, not the father, Sr., who made the original accusation.

So why was Widow Holman acquitted after several trials? Beside Gibson, Jr. recanting, it may have been that Mrs. Charles Stearns had another fit. If so, she was not cured by the Widow and hence the Widow did not afflict her in the first place and therefore was not a witch.

It was a good thing Widow Holman did not go to trial during the time of the Salem trials. Accused witch’s trials were the same day as the arrest or the next day, they were always found guilty, and hung the next day. Mrs. Stearns would not have had time to have another fit, nor Gibson, Jr. have time to recant.

Neither was accused of witchcraft again, but the Salem trials were still in the future, after their deaths.

Her daughter Mary never married and died in 1673 at the age of 43.

The mother died in peace, 16 October 1671 at the age of 74.

So how am I related to an accused witch? Through my maternal grandmother, Abagail Young. I have traced the genealogy back to Joshua Sawyer Holman, 1794-1846. but have three or four more generations of work to do to connect him to Colonial America and Jeremiah Holman.

I am very grateful to my cousin, Elaine Knight, who compiled a family history from many sources that would otherwise be lost to me. Some other stories may appear in the future.

Another story told over coffee and biscotti during our morning talks.