A Real Life Fairy Tale: The Springfield Witch-Hunt

Malcolm Gaskill

The author of a new book on witch-trials of 17th century America describes the atmosphere of the time.
Examination of a Witch (1853), by T. H. Matteson
Home » Articles » A Real Life Fairy Tale: The Springfield Witch-Hunt

The Springfield Witch-Hunt

Like most books, The Ruin of All Witches took years to research and write, but all along I’d thought of it as a real-life fairy tale. At the time I began working on it, I was reading Philip Pullman’s masterly retelling of Grimms’ tales to my children and was struck by similarities with the lives that English and Welsh colonists made for themselves on the 17th century New England frontier. There were rushing rivers and dark forests, humble homesteads and troubled families, spectres in the shadows and disturbing dreams. These real people from history also surrendered to temptation, playing out fantasies of acquisition and enrichment, and faced moral dilemmas of existential gravity. Tolkien rightly insisted that fairy tales should be set in an enchanted realm – but the world inhabited by the colonists, both physical and metaphysical, was enchanted. They believed unquestioningly in God’s love and the devil’s malice, and in divine and diabolic intervention in daily life. Their faith and fear, moreover, took solid form in the figure of the witch.

The Salem witch-trials.

The 20,000 odd people who left the British Isles for New England – many more went to more southerly colonies – were attracted by the availability of land where they could farm and raise families. But many were also trying to cast off old lives blighted by family feuds, failed relationships, dislike of royal rule and orthodox religion, as well as a lack of economic opportunity. Some also felt they had left the devil behind them, especially in the later 1630s when he seemed busy stoking the tensions between crown and parliament that in 1642 would explode into civil war. Within a generation, however, it became apparent that God’s New Israelites in their Promised Land might already be straying from the path of righteousness. Demand for land outstripped supply, as it did at home, and competition bred conflict between neighbours.

Back in the old world, mere belief in witchcraft was not enough to cause witch-trials. You also needed bad blood: brooding resentments, suspicions of malicious intent, failings of charity, private disputes and public confrontations – sometimes bubbling away for years. Contrary to myth, it was quite difficult to prosecute someone for witchcraft, and even harder to get a conviction. About three-quarters of indicted suspects were acquitted. So, although there had been permanent settlements in New England since the 1620s, it was not until the later 1640s that witch-trials started to appear there. Unfortunately, the colonists’ intention to remake the familiar old world in the new had not excluded the toxic social environments where witchcraft accusations flourished. On the contrary, growing prosperity and economic complexity had recreated the perfect conditions for the kind of community friction that was essential for witch-trials.

In many ways, Springfield, Massachusetts gathered all the conditions for a perfect storm. It was a largely enclosed society, precariously dependent on the harvest, at the mercy of flood and frost, crop-withering pests, epidemic disease and often hostile Native Americans. Men wanted more and more land, and it set them at odds with neighbouring colonies and each other. Settlers saw the hand of the devil (through whom a vengeful God punished them for their sins), in calamities big and small. By 1647 rumours of witchcraft began circulating, having spread from further down the Connecticut Valley, from Boston and its surrounding townships, and even from England, where there was a devastating witch-hunt in the mid-1640s (the subject of my book, Witchfinders: A 17th century English Tragedy). And the law, represented locally by Springfield’s magistrate and founding father, William Pynchon, was open to the idea that witches were near and could be brought to justice.

At the centre of the Springfield witch-hunt lies the tragedy of Hugh and Mary Parsons. Mary emigrated to New England from Wales, abandoning an unhappy life, and in 1645 met Hugh, a taciturn brickmaker, who Pynchon had drafted into the town to meet the demand for sturdy, fireproof chimneys. They married and settled in the southern portion of the town and worked hard to build a household. They had three children. But things quickly went awry, partly because of Mary’s mental illness (possibly an extreme form of post-natal depression), but mostly because of Hugh’s rebarbative character. At home and abroad, he seemed permanently discontented, moody, touchy and threatening. His brick deals curdled, generating fear and frustration among his customers, who were eager for chimneys yet unable to take their custom elsewhere. As things started going wrong in the town, from domestic trifles, such as vanishing tools and burst puddings, to graver matters of seizures, hallucinations and deaths, notably among children, so the belief hardened that Hugh and Mary Parsons might be to blame. Were these ordinary people in league with Satan? Was their cover as humble householders not perfect? Suspicions didn’t automatically result in a witch-trial, however; they simmered away like a poisonous brew in a fairy-tale cauldron, until such time as it surged up and boiled over.

The historian Marina Warner has described fairy tales as ‘connective tissue between a mythological past and the present realities’ – a kind of symbolic psychic key to who we are as human beings, our most ancient origins and our true nature. Angela Carter identified something similar in the fairy tales on which she based her nightmarish collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979). Violent desire and the propensity to know terror are latent in everyone yet mostly remain suppressed or otherwise confined. In Springfield in 1651, however, these elemental forces were unleashed. Moreover, the meta-reality of allegory and metaphor on the one hand, and tangible lived reality on the other, were not merely connected but thrust together in a single stream of experience, with ghastly consequences for the family at the eye of the storm.

Fantasy and mythology, legend and fiction, are powerful cultural devices because they take us outside our quotidian selves, peeking beneath life’s mundane surface for a glimpse of deeper meanings – a kind of folk Freudianism. But history has a part to play, too. True stories of the supernatural, like documented cases of witchcraft accusation and demonic possession, transport us to a time not so very long ago when our inner lives were porous to cosmic influences and where we felt our deepest, darkest emotions being manipulated in perplexing, disturbing ways. And just as fairy tales and horror stories often involve metamorphosis – witches turning into hares is a classic example – so all history is about change. Famous transitions in politics and society, religion and culture, were usually experienced, by some people at least, as agonizing transformations.

The witch-hunt in Springfield, like virtually every other recorded witch-hunt, deserves to be seen less as an eruption of superstitious, persecuting madness from the pre-Enlightenment age, and more as evidence of a drawn-out rite of passage between communitarian self-sufficiency and a more grasping kind of agrarian capitalism. The accusations against Hugh and Mary Parsons may well have been part of a malicious vendetta, but they were in their own way also birth pangs of the modern world.

Malcolm Gaskill is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. His latest book is The Ruin of All Witches: Life & Death in the New World.

Aspects of History Issue 13 is out now.