Nearly 20 years ago we moved to the small Ohio township where we still live. We were taken aback to find we weren’t entirely welcome. Soon after settling in I was told by several neighbors I should remove our Halloween decorations, since that marked me as being on the side of Satan. I was also informed I should take down my sign supporting the local library levy, because the library allowed children access to that bastion of evil — the Internet. A few weeks later, simply admitting we weren’t the correct brand of born again Christian resulted in a de facto death threat.
But we hung in there. We planted fruit and nut trees, along with raspberries, asparagus, and other perennials. We built barns and fenced pastures. We intend to live here until we’re so damn old that we can’t feed livestock or preserve our harvest or take a daily walk. If nothing else, we’re resilient.
Still, it’s not always easy.
Here’s one example. A few years ago, our regular postal carrier actually asked me if we were devil worshipers. He was apparently alarmed by a large outdoor mosaic I’d made out of broken dishes and other memorabilia left to me after my mother died. He perceived the crescent moon shape, a shape we all see every month in the sky above our lovely planet, as somehow malevolent. I was too surprised by the question to answer him.
But, of course, I have no concept of what it’s really like to be perceived as a dangerous influence.
An ancestor of mine paid for that with her life.
My cousin Becky recently dug through all sorts of records to complete a family history. She confirmed stories we heard when we were growing up, that we were descendants of a woman convicted and executed in 1692 during the infamous Salem witch trials.
My sister and I remember being told that this woman had been exonerated after her death so that her children could again attend church. We were wrong. She wasn’t officially exonerated until 2001.
Margaret Stephenson Scott was one of the last women hung for the crime of witchcraft in this country. Unlike depictions in popular books and shows about the Salem witch trials, she wasn’t young and pretty. She was elderly. A victim of class structure. A victim of other people’s guilt. A victim of a rigid us-versus them culture. Another victim in a long history of women who were slaughtered for being different.
Margaret was born in England around 1615 and came to the colonies with her parents as a child. She grew up to marry an indentured man, Benjamin Scott, in 1642. They moved to Rowley, Massachusetts in 1651 and Benjamin was declared a freeman in 1664. Of their seven children, only three survived to adulthood. Margaret’s husband died when she was 56, leaving her nearly penniless. Still, she survived on what he left her for nearly 21 years. By the time she was 77 years old, she was reduced to begging to survive.
She asked wealthy townsman Thomas Nelson for wood in payment for a debt he owned her. He refused to pay, and claimed his cows acted strangely afterwards, with one of them perishing. He blamed Margaret. She asked another wealthy townsman, Jonathan Burbank, if she might glean corn from his field. He refused, although his wife gave Margaret some corn. Later when his oxen refused to move, Burbank accused Margaret of bewitching them. Historians call this “refusal guilt syndrome.” When people of means refuse to help those in need, they feel guilty, and deal with their guilt by aggressively vilifying the person who caused such feelings.
A teenaged servant formally accused Margaret of sorcery after what may have been years of rumors.
Margaret was convicted on the basis of spectral evidence ( the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to a witness in a dream) and maleficium evidence (misfortune to one’s property or health blamed on someone who was a nuisance in society). She fit the profile of women accused of witchcraft in New England; loss of children, low stature in the community, and poverty.
Margaret was the only person from Rowley, Massachusetts to be accused of witchcraft. She maintained her innocence throughout her imprisonment and trial. She was found guilty on September 17, 1692 and hanged five days later — in the last group of people to be executed for this crime.
William Phips, newly appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, overruled and disbanded the court soon after, perhaps because his own wife had been accused of consorting with the devil. He ordered that courts disregard spectral evidence, pardoned several people sentenced to die for witchcraft, and released over 100 people awaiting trial.