Witches in Your Family Tree

This is the time of year for ghosts, goblins, and other such superstitions. However, perhaps it is also a time to pause and reflect on the horrors of those who suffered in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. The witches of Salem and nearby towns probably have hundreds of thousands of present-day descendants. If you have ancestry from early Essex County, Massachusetts, you have an excellent chance of finding a connection to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Circa 1692, The trial of George Jacobs for witchcraft at the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

Salem, Massachusetts, and the surrounding towns in Essex County were amongst the first settled in this country. Most of the towns were established prior to 1640. By the time of the witchcraft trials of 1692, a complete legal system of courts and clerks was well established. Records were written, and many of them have been preserved. Even if your ancestors are not among those accused, it is quite possible that you can find them mentioned as witnesses, those who gave depositions, or perhaps even those who served on a jury.

The reasons for the witchcraft hysteria have been debated for centuries. One modern theory involves ergot of rye, a plant disease that is caused by a fungus, Claviceps purpurea. Anyone who eats bread made with ergot-infected rye can exhibit symptoms of muscle spasms, tremors, and writhing. This may be accompanied by hallucinations. Such afflictions can indicate poisoning by ergot, or “ergotism.” Modern science has documented likely cases of ergotism in the Dark Ages, but the cause was only proposed in 1670 by a French physician, and outbreaks in the 20th century have shed much more light on both symptoms and their cause.

We know much about the lives of the Puritan inhabitants of Essex County in 1692. We know that they were mostly illiterate, and almost all citizens were intensely religious. In their simple lives, they were afraid of the darkness and of many things in this world that they did not understand. They were convinced that the Devil walked amongst them every night and that he had many disciples. This fear was reinforced by the sermons delivered by Reverend Samuel Parris most every Sunday. If the citizens of Salem and nearby towns did exhibit muscle spasms, tremors, writhing and hallucinations, one cannot be surprised that their neighbors felt the victims were indeed possessed by the Devil himself.

Ergot of Rye occurs in hot, humid weather. Warm, rainy springs and summers promote heavier than usual fungus infestation of rye. The pattern of the weather in 1691 and 1692 is apparent from brief comments in the diary of Samuel Sewall of Salem. Early rains and warm weather in the spring progressed to a hot and stormy summer in 1691, perfect conditions for creating hallucinogenic bread in the fall and winter of 1691, well into the spring and possibly very early summer of 1692, before the new crop of rye was harvested. Sewall recorded that there was a drought in 1692; thus, no contamination of the grain would be expected that year.

You can read a detailed explanation of ergotism and the possibilities of its
occurrence in Salem in an article by Linnda R. Caporael at http://www.physics.smu.edu/scalise/P3333fa07/Ulcers/ergotism.html. There is no proof available today that ergot of rye was the cause of the Salem Witch Trials. It does, however, provide an intriguing possibility.

The whole series of episodes began in December 1691 and into January, a time when the people of Salem would be eating bread made from the summer’s rye harvest, rye that had time to become infected with ergot. Two girls – Betty Parris, daughter of minister Samuel Parris, and his niece Abigail Williams – began exhibiting strange behavior. Soon a number of other young girls were also exhibiting the same symptoms. Several historians have suggested that perhaps the girls were simply playing childish games.

Physicians called in to examine the girls could find no explanation for their illness. In February one doctor suggested the girls might be bewitched. A neighbor had Parris’s Barbados slave, Tituba, concoct a “witch cake” in order to determine if witchcraft was present. Shortly thereafter, the girls made an accusation of witchcraft against Tituba and two elderly women of general ill repute in Salem Village, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn. The three women were taken into custody on 29 February 1692. The afflictions of the girls did not cease, and in March they accused Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Both of these women were well respected in the village and were covenanting members of the church. Further accusations by the children followed. By June the hunt for “witches” expanded beyond Salem to Andover, Ipswich, Gloucester, and other nearby towns.

The accused witches were tried and most of them found guilty, using logic that sounds silly today. However, to the ill-educated citizens of Salem, these were “facts.” Contrary to some stories, none of the witches of Salem were ever burned at the stake. With one exception, all were hanged at a public gallows. The one exception is poor Giles Cory, a church-going member of the community, who was pressed to death with large stones.

The last hangings occurred in September of 1692, and by May of 1693 all accused witches still imprisoned were released. It is interesting to note that the reported drought of 1692 would have meant the elimination of ergot of rye by September, the time of the last execution.

The final count of witchcraft victims was twenty executed and more than a hundred imprisoned. (One died in prison.) In addition, many others fled into exile or hiding places, their homes were broken up, their estates were ruined, and their families were left in desolation. All of this was caused by the leaders in the communities: the magistrates and ministers.

Finding your ancestors’ roles during the Salem Witch Trials may not be terribly difficult. Many of the original trial documents are now both in print and online. You might start at some of these:

The University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project at: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/ and Witchcraft Archives at: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/archives/

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law’s Salem Witchcraft Trials – 1692 at: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/salem.htm and An Account of Events in Salem by Douglas Linder at: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_ACCT.HTM and transcriptions of petitions for compensation at: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_PET.HTM

National Geographic’s Salem Witchcraft Hysteria provides historical insight at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/97/salem/

An Internet WITCH-HUNT: Digitizing Salem Village from Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/neh/NehSale.html

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692, A Brief Introduction: http://www.salemweb.com/guide/witches.shtml

The Salem Witchcraft Trials at: http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/The_Great_Republic_By_the_Master_Historians_Vol_I/salemwitc_dh.html

Salem Witchcraft: the Events and Causes of the Salem Witch Trials by Tim Sutter: http://www.salemwitchtrials.com/salemwitchcraft.html

Salem, Massachusetts, was not the only scene of witchcraft trials in North America. However, it is the one whose history is permanently etched in our memories. You may have ancestors who were eyewitnesses to one of the saddest times in American history.


There is even a specialized genealogy group: Associated Daughters of Early American Witches http://www.adeaw.org.

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I discovered by working backwards (as one does!) that I am descended from Deacon Edward Putnam, whose older brother Thomas and daughter Ann were right in the middle of it all as accusers. I am also descended from Mary Woodrow Sibley, one of the accused, and the person who taught slave girl Tituba some rituals.

The whole trial came about as a family feud of sorts (Google “putnam vs. porters”). Thomas Putnam Sr., father of the Edward and Thomas mentioned above, remarried and had one last son, to whom he willed the bulk of his estate. This son (Joseph) married into the rival Porter family. Of course the older sons were resentful of the lost wealth and the witchcraft accusations became a means of revenge against those they felt had wronged them.

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    Joseph Putnam is my 7th Great Grandfather. Thomas’s wife Ann is my 1st cousin 12x removed via her father George Carr who is the brother of my 11th GGF Sir Benjamin Carr. I have a book I found online about the Porter/Putnam “feud” and how it all supposedly stemed from Thomas’s jealousy and anger that the family fortune was left to Joseph and his mother Mary Veren and a land dispute between the Towne’s and the Putnam’s which resulted in Rebecca’s accusation ( Rebecca is my 8th Great Grand Aunt , he sister Mary Estey was my 8th GGM).

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I haven’t read all the sources you cite for the Salem witch trials. However, there’s an interesting article on the subject in the current issue of “Smithsonian” magazine. One important point it brings out is that Tituba was a Native American slave. Over the centuries after the highly documented event itself, commentators changed her identity from Indian to half black to all black. She definitely wasn’t from Barbados. We now get much of our view of the Tituba and the Parris girls from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” and he writes of her as a black slave. The Parris girls had grown up with Tituba; she cared for them when they were children. Whatever her original motives, she was illiterate, but the court records indicate she made a compelling witness. Whether the girls writhed because of ergot poisoning, interpreted as the devil’s work, Tituba’s words struck a very strong cord. I’ve never checked the documents to see if my Essex Co. ancestors had anything to do with the Salem witch trials, so I don’t have any ax to grind here. In Europe in earlier centuries, the same hysteria spread, lasting, as here, for fairly short periods each time. I suppose the ergot rye theory might have accounted for such incidents. But, like in Salem, most of the victims, those who ended up being judicially murdered, were women.


There has been a great deal of publicity and information regarding the Salem Witch Trials, nearly 30 years before there were witch trials in Connecticut. My 9th great-grandmother, Mary Barnes, was executed as a witch.


I also have Salem ancestry — an executed woman (Susannah Martin) and a Philbrick accuser.

The bread theory sounds reasonable. Children would have been more susceptible than adults – both because their bodies are smaller and because adults may have cut down their own rations to see that their children had enough to eat.

Unfortunately, as a society, we haven’t learned anything from the destructiveness of mass hysteria, which we still see exhibited by people in our world today. I don’t think we can blame it on illiteracy. Illiteracy is simply the inability to read and write. It is not the same thing as intelligence.

We should make intelligent, rather than emotional, decisions.


    We have Martins in our family, but they seem to have dropped into Windham County, CT from somewhere in outer space circa 1700. Their spouses mostly trace back to Essex County, MA (Andover area).


The Witch Trials also present a compelling argument against the reliability of information obtained as a result of enhanced interrogation techniques, as those under arrest and subjected to similar techniques in the 1690s were terrified into making very detailed false confessions and then into pointing an accusatory finger at friends and neighbors who were all innocent. The interrogators were already convinced the accused were guilty, making it difficult for them to recognize the truth and predisposing them to believe the lies.


My husband is descended from Ann Foster, the accused witch who died in prison, and I am descended from Elizabeth (Phelps) Ballard, the woman she was accused of bewitching. Elizabeth Ballard’s husband Joseph was the “witchcraft sheriff” who was instrumental in arresting several of the accused witches. What a heritage!
Ann Foster was a widow at the time, without influential friends, and probably an easy target. After she died, her son had to pay to have her body removed from prison so he could bury her.


    Interesting connection between you two! I am also descended from Ann Foster and her daughter, Mary Lacey, who was also accused and charges dropped when the trials were ended. Ann’s granddaughter also named Mary Lacey was also accused. Both daughter and granddaughter accused Ann. A new book out, “The Witches, Salem 1692”, by Stacy Schiff, states that Ann had a daughter murdered by her husband 3 years earlier, as well as a grandson who was abducted by Indians, scalped and left for dead. There are other theories beyond ergot poisoning. Many books delve into the clashes with Native Indians and anxiety produced because of the times.


I have the opposite. Ensign Joseph Ballard, Sr (Abt 1645 – 1722) was my 9X great uncle. He was responsible for bringing witch trials to Andover. Aunt Elizabeth got sick so naturally it had to be Satan’s fault. He asked the Salem accusers for help. Martha Carrier, Mary Parker, and Samuel Wardwell, were found guilty and hanged. Five others either plead guilty or were convicted but were granted reprieves by Governor William Phips.


Abigail Dean Faulkner accused and survived because of pregnancy; the basis for the character in the Crucible. The Faulkner Gathering celebrates Abigail.


I found my Salem ancestors by using the Relative Finder app (here’s my blog post that describes the process and what I found.) Relative Finder is for anyone to use and connects with your FamilySearch account. (I’m not affiliated; I just thought it was fun!) If you are *not* LDS you can “uncheck” the boxes that bring up LDS church leaders you are related to.


Everyone misses the obvious. The Magistrates and Ministers new full well that these women were innocent of witchcraft. And they abused their power to get exactly what they wanted. Scare everyone into complacency and not to challenge anything they the leaders did. Upset a leader, and all of a sudden you are a witch. Unfortunately some of the women were accused because their husbands went against the leaders.


    I can say with certainty that a judge at Salem was my 5th great-great uncle. As a genealogist you will of course have citations and references to support your statement. I would be most grateful to have sight of them so that I can add your interpretation to my website, for I fear that I must have a biased view of my relatives in seventeenth century New England and I must have been studying different histories to those to which you have access.


    It’s always easy to believe evil of people you already don’t like anyway. It is easy to resolve all doubt against someone you hate. And when things go wrong, it is oh so very easy to point a finger and blame it all on somebody else. Look at today’s news reports. People haven’t changed all that much in the last 300 years.


I know that the theory of ergot poisoning is still alive and well. However, I have read that scientists feel that this is not a viable theory for two reasons. 1) It did not effect all family members eating the same foods, and some children had no symptoms in the same families. 2) Ann Putnam Junior confessed to it being something the girls cooked up to keep the adults from knowing that they had dabbled in the black arts with Tituba. They easily came to blame anyone else because the adults believed them and they had amazing power which was new and thrilling to them.


There’s an account of a modern case of what turned out to be ergot poisoning in 1951 France, in John Fuller’s 1968 book “The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire”. The accounts of the behavior of the affected townspeople are remarkably similar to some of the reports from 1692 Salem (at least, the less-fanciful ones).


Winifred Henchman Holman (my 9X ggmother) and her daughter Mary Holman lived in Cambridge, MA and were accused of witchcraft in 1659. In 1660 Winifred and Mary sued their accusers for defamation. Winfred’s suit was unsuccessful, but Mary Holman won her suit against John Gibson, Jr. The trial generated many interesting and illuminating documents.


Taking up Eastman’s comment re early ancestry from Essex County, I set about matching up my family tree with lists of people involved in the trials. Happily, my association is with Rev. Samuel Willard, who played an important role in halting the witch trials (yay!); he is my 7th g-grand uncle.


Mary Clement Osgood, my 8th g-grandmother, was charged with witchcraft at the Andover Touch Test. She confessed to the crime and was imprisoned for 15 weeks while awaiting trial. She was found not guilty at trial because all evidence against her was “spectral.”


I actually do have an umpteen X great-grandfather who was arrested as an accused witch towards the tail end of this period. He was later released. His name is Captain John Floyd of Rumney Marsh. From his biography: “It was Governor Phipps who liberated 168 people in Salem’s Witch Dungeon who were awaiting the hangmans noose. Captain John Floyd of Chelsea was one of those liberated.”.

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