A Letter from Kathleen Kent
Martha Carrier, my grandmother back nine generations, was hanged as a witch in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. Called the "Queen of Hell" by Cotton Mather, Martha was unyielding in her refusal to confess and went to her death rather than join the accused men and women who did so and were spared.
I've read countless historical sources about the trials, including the transcripts that captured verbatim Martha's defiance to the court. But it was the stories of my mother and my maternal grand parents that defined more clearly the courageand obstinacy that set the Carriers apart.
All the Carrier tales I heard as a child were enthralling. The children made bows and arrows and practiced shooting objects off each other's heads. Their cow was fed pumpkins so she would give golden milk. Martha's husband Thomas was, according to local gossip, a soldier for Cromwell and the executioner of King Charles I of England. Thomas was over seven feet tall and, when he died at 109, two coffins had to be fitted together to bury him.
Sarah is the central character of The Heretic's Daughter, and Martha did have a daughter with that name. She was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft along with her three brothers and spent months in captivity in a crowded cellar prison. It's my hope that weaving my family legends into the fictional narrative will bring an authenticity to the story of their tremendous bravery and fortitude.
A brief history of the Salem witch trials
The Salem witch trials of 1692 were a unique and tragic part of American history. The trials and executions, which took place in Salem Village, included nearly 150 men and women arrested from many different villages in Massachusetts. The accused came from such towns as Andover, Topsfield, Beverly, and as far away as Wells, in what is now the state of Maine. Ultimately 19 men and women were hanged, and one man pressed to death with stones because he would not testify, either to his guilt or his innocence. The witch hysteria, and the ensuing legal actions, took a little more than a year from January 1692 to May of 1693, and yet the fascination with the Salem "witches" has never diminished.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the trials was the reliance by the court magistrates on "Spectral Evidence", said to be the manifestation of Satan's Invisible World seen only by the afflicted, accusing girls. It was the testimony of these young women which was accepted and written into the court transcripts; the original documents held for posterity in such institutions as the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston.
Many of the accused, to save themselves from death, pled guilty to consorting with the Devil and so were only imprisoned. The men and women who held fast to their innocence were all condemned to be hanged. Martha Carrier, one of the 19 accused witches who was hanged, not only professed her innocence, but harshly admonished her judges for allowing the words of a few hysterical girls determine such a cruel fate for so many. It is a common misunderstanding that the Salem witches were burned, but no witches in the Colonies were ever killed at the stake as they were in Europe, as the British courts considered a burning death too cruel. But to the Puritans who had forsworn themselves to being in league with Satan, this false self-testimony meant eternal damnation.
The imprisonment of mostly women and children took place in some of the most appalling conditions ever seen by the Colonial judicial system. Upon release from jail, many of the accused were never compensated for their expenditures for provisions such as food and water, as well as for the very shackles and heavy chains that confined them. With a few exceptions, such as the grave memorial of Rebecca Nurse, there are no known grave sites for most of the executed witches, as they were tossed into shallow open pits after being hanged.
There have been many different theories as to the cause of such a terrifying outcry by young women, ranging in age from 11 to 20, accusing their neighbors and friends of witchcraft; ergot poisoninig, encephalitis, and, more reasonably, conflict brought about by land disputes, disagreements over fundamental religious practices and the dread of attacks and capture by the indigenous native tribes. Whatever the confluence of causes, it is the mystifying social drama of family against family, friend against neighbor, that still haunts us and echoes today through the current events of religious intolerance, superstition and the fear of the "Other."
The men and women hanged by the Court of Oyer & Terminer 1692:
Sept 19: Giles Corey
For further reading on the Salem witch trials, the author recommends:
This article is used with the permission of Hachette Book Group and Kathleen Kent. All rights reserved. More at The Heretic's Daughter website.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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