Throwback Thursday: When a Northampton Woman Was Saved from the Gallows
The Salem Witch Trials are undoubtedly an embarrassing low point in New England’s history, but witchcraft hysteria wasn’t confined to just one town.
Suspicions were rampant across the region, including the newly formed town of Northampton. In the 1650s, Hartford natives Mary Bliss Parsons and her husband Joseph moved into town from Springfield. Soon after, Joseph rose high in town rankings, becoming a successful merchant and serving as a selectman. The Parsons also opened the first tavern in town, meaning the family was well-known and well-informed in goings-on. Things seemed to be going well for a while—until the witchcraft accusations were made.
Apparently another couple, named the Bridgmans, also hailed from Hartford and moved to Northampton from Springfield. While they seemed to have much in common, the two couples were not friendly. Sarah and James Bridgman feuded with the Parsons.
Both Mary Parsons and Sarah Bridgman gave birth after moving to Northampton. Mary’s son was the first English child born in the town. Soon after, Sarah’s son was born, but he died two weeks later. That’s when the first witchcraft accusations were made—Sarah claimed that Mary’s witchcraft was the cause of her son’s death. Then John Parsons took the Bridgmans to court for slander. (A wealth of court records ensure that Mary’s story is well-documented.) His case was heard in Cambridge in October 1656.
People from town testified both for and against Mary. One man claimed that after a brief argument with Mary, he found his cow in the yard “ready to die.” The cow died two weeks later. However, three women also came forward to say that Sarah Bridgman’s baby “was sick as soon as it was born.” By the end, the Parsons were victorious. In turn, Sarah Bridgman paid a fine as reparation.
Mary Parsons’s reputation as a witch never really left. About 20 years later, the witchcraft accusations returned. The Bridgman’s daughter, who was also named Mary, died unexpectedly, and Mary Parsons was suspected to be involved. According to MassMoments.org, Mary Bridgman’s husband Samuel wrote that he strongly suspected that his wife died “by means of some evil instrument.” So another court case ensued.
It began in September 1674 when testimony was heard from friends and family in Hampshire County Court. In December, Mary Parsons was searched for signs of “witch marks” on her body. It’s unclear whether the search turned up anything (or what, exactly, might qualify as a witch mark), but afterward, the Hampshire County Court passed the case to the Court of Assistants in Boston. There, she was “presented” to the jury in March, and then waited in prison until her trial in May.
But 341 years ago, on May 13, 1675, Mary Parsons was acquitted by a 12-member jury. It’s speculated that her influential husband played a role in the decision, as he conducted business with one of the jury members. Since many people in Northampton weren’t keen to welcome Mary back, the couple stayed in Boston for a few years before heading home.
Mary’s reputation as a witch followed her for the rest of her life. Witchcraft suspicions were only just beginning—a short 17 years later, the Salem witch hysteria would begin.