Witchcraft accusations in the 17th century were often motivated by economics than religious beliefs or superstition. When a woman was left with a desirable farm or business after the passing of her husband, witchcraft charges from envious neighbors or business competitors sometimes followed. The punitive fines and room and board prison costs were a real moneymaker for the colonial governments, and other costs could be satisfied by selling off farm animals, household goods, or the property, or partially relieved by the accused prisoners working at forced labor.
|1647 book by Matthew Hopkins, the |
self-titled Witchfinder General.
Today, you’ll meet two women who were caught in the witchcraft hysteria that was never far from the thoughts of English subjects, from the publication of King James’s book Daemonologie in 1597, through the 300 or more women who were tried, tortured, and executed by the Witchfinder General of eastern England in the 1640s, to the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials of the 1690s.
The superstition of witchcraft manifested itself in both England and America in the 1640s and 1650s.
In 1654, the ship Charity left England for Virginia. The First Anglo-Dutch War had concluded with a treaty early in the year, but piracy and privateering (piracy licensed by government) continued on the American coasts and the Caribbean. Part of the cargo on that voyage was a shipment of carbines (short-barrel muskets that didn’t shoot much further than 100 yards), according to the state papers of John Thurloe, the English secretary of state and the spymaster.
The Charity’s voyage that should have taken eight to ten weeks was stormy, and the ship was forced to fight high seas and adverse winds for longer than expected. Two or three weeks before the vessel entered Chesapeake Bay, the sailors whispered that a witch was on board, and it was she who was attracting the wrath of God. Their gaze rested upon a passenger, Mrs. Mary Lee, a petite, aged widow traveling without escort. (“Aged” could mean anyone older than 40.)
England, after civil wars, political upheaval, the Anglo-Dutch conflict, and the resulting economic depressions, was now in Mary Lee’s rear-view mirror, and she planned to start a new life in Virginia. If she had children, they may have died of epidemic disease or war. But in 1654, she was alone in the world.
|Searching a woman for witch's marks.|
On this late winter or spring voyage, the sailors demanded that John Bosworth, the Charity’s master, should test Mrs. Lee for witchcraft. The captain at first refused to consent to an interrogation, saying he would put her off the ship at Bermuda, but crosswinds prevented that detour, the ship grew more leaky by the day, and the sailors continued to clamor.
After consulting with passengers Henry Corbin, a 25-year-old emigrant, and Robert Chipson, a merchant, Bosworth yielded to the crew’s demand. (Why did the master of the ship consult with passengers?) The sailors affirmed that Mrs. Lee’s deportment suggested she was a witch. Two seamen, without permission, stripped the elderly woman’s body of all the layers of clothing and modesty that the 17th century afforded, and searched for moles, skin tags—anything that might be a nipple for nursing an imp—and declared they had found witch marks.
During the cold, stormy night, she was left fastened to the capstan, probably naked, and in the morning light it was reported that the marks "for the most part were shrunk into the body." Henry Corbin, a young man from Warwickshire who was not a minister or magistrate, was pressed to interrogate her, and at last, the terrified woman confessed she was a witch.
The crew begged the captain to execute Mrs. Lee, but he retreated to his cabin in the roundhouse. They pressed him again, and he said to do what they would, and went back to his cabin. The crew then hanged her, and “when life was extinct,” said the record, they tossed her body in the sea. Was Mrs. Lee’s death from strangling? She was petite, and probably not heavy enough to fall in the noose and break her neck. She had no friends to pull on her feet to hasten her end.
One might wonder what became of Mary Lee’s possessions, building supplies, furniture, and a year’s worth of foodstuffs to get started in her Virginia plantation life. John Bosworth obviously had no control over his seamen, and feared mutiny. The Charity’s crew may have divided Mrs. Lee’s goods amongst themselves and sold them at the port, or pitched them overboard with her body.
In 1656, Richard Bellingham, an MP in Lincolnshire before he emigrated to New England, a magistrate in Boston, as well as Massachusetts Bay Colony’s former governor and now deputy governor, was strangely silent regarding the witch trial of his sister, Mrs. Ann Hibbins.
Ann’s husband, William Hibbins, was a merchant and magistrate, and the Bay Colony’s agent in England for two years. Boston’s First Church of Christ censured Ann in 1641 after a dispute with church members, but it seems that William Hibbins’ position and money were enough to protect her from other charges or punishment. He lost £500 (about £35,000-40,000 in today’s value) in a bad investment in 1654, and died thereafter. Apparently, Mrs. Hibbins, after losing her lifestyle of financial ease and social status, became sarcastic and bitter in her relationships.
But now, aged about 51, because of her “censorious, bitter spirit, always quarreling with her neighbors,” she was brought to the Court of Assistants on a charge of witchcraft. As it was done in England, Mrs. Hibbins’ body was searched for witches’ teats, but none were found. Nor were there any puppets or images in her belongings which might have served as “familiars” for evil spirits. The jury condemned her, but the magistrates set the conviction aside.
But the Bostonians wanted her death, and the General Court tried her for witchcraft. Even the Boston First Church ministers, John Wilson and John Norton, supported Mrs. Hibbins. Rev. Norton was heard to say that she “unhappily guessed that two of her persecutors, whom she saw talking in the street, were talking of her, which cost her her life.” Vocalizing her hunch, which turned out to be true, seemed like paranormal knowledge she’d gained from an evil spirit.
After her conviction, Mrs. Hibbins wrote a will for her three adult sons by her first marriage, who were living in England. The appraisal of her estate was about £320 (£25,000+ in today’s value), so she was not destitute.
Edward Hutchinson, one of her will’s executors, wrote that her will and her speech were quite reasonable and there was no evidence against her. There were several other influential members of the Boston church and courts who supported Hibbins. It seemed that the ministers, the magistrates, and leading men of Boston society were on her side.
|Ann Hibbins was hanged not on |
a tree, but on a gallows outside
the fortified gate to Boston.
The General Court records for May 14, 1656 show that:
“The magistrates not receiving the verdict of the jury in Mrs. Hibbins her case, having been on trial for witchcraft, it fell… to the General Court [a superior court, in today’s terms]. Mrs. Ann Hibbins was called forth, appeared at the bar; the indictment against her was read, to which she answered not guilty, and was willing to be tried by God and this Court. The evidences against her were read, the parties witnessing being present, her answers considered on; and the whole Court being met together, by their vote determined that Mrs. Ann Hibbins is guilty of witchcraft, according to the bill of indictment found against her by the jury of life and death.”
Governor John Endecott delivered her sentence, that Ann Hibbins be hanged. She was executed on June 17. There aren’t any records of Deputy Governor Bellingham’s participation or whereabouts in the prosecution and execution of his sister. But he was certainly available to brutally accost the first Quaker missionaries who came to New England a year later.
What did Mary Lee and Ann Hibbins have in common?
For a case of an innocent witch executed for "surfing" on an English river, click HERE.1. They were both widows without the protection of a husband, though Hibbins should have had the assistance of her powerful brother.2. They were accused of being witches by superstitious people. They were both interrogated, and strip-searched for witch marks. Mrs. Lee was subjected to physical agony and sleep deprivation to make her confess. Mrs. Hibbins may have escaped the worst of the physical ordeals—but we don’t know for sure.3. The leaders of their time (Captain Bosworth of the Charity; ministers and magistrates of Boston) seemed more worried about what people thought of them, than their own integrity and stance for justice, against the false accusations and executions of innocent women.4. They were both caught up in a culture of Puritan zeal. Mrs. Lee was leaving the wreckage of an England nearly destroyed by civil war and its aftermath. Mrs. Hibbins lived in a fanatical theocracy that was financially and politically unstable. The General Court under Governor Endecott’s rule had a regular habit of accusing and brutally punishing before they invented and passed a law for the “crime.”
Sources: Virginia Carolorum: the Colony Under the Rule of Charles the First, by Edward Duffield Neill (pub 1886, out of copyright), Massachusetts Archives; History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay by Thomas Hutchinson
Christy K Robinson is the author of two (five-star-reviewed) historical novels and one nonfiction book centered on the mid-17th-century Great Migration from England to New England, the books spotlighting the Quaker martyr Mary Barrett Dyer. Christy’s books may be found at her Dyer blog, http://marybarrettdyer.blogspot.com/p/blog-page.html