Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Ancestral Ties To The Salem Witch Trials

In 1760 a plot of land was laid out like this: “Beginning at a beech tree marked, it being the northeast corner, boundary of Samuel Gustin’s land; thence north 11 rods to a beech…” and thus it goes around the perimeter of the property from beech to spruce to the hemlock with stones by it.  Quaint.  And so it was while perusing old Mack family annals (Highland Scots who settled in New England) that we came upon something quite interesting but not nearly as charming–a direct link to the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

According to these records, the first Mack arrival in the New World, John, (born in 1653) emigrated from Inverness and married Sarah Bagley in Boston in 1681. She was the daughter of Orlando (note the name) and Sarah Bagley.  Orlando Bagley was a man of considerable influence in the district, a constable, who apprehended his friend and neighbor, Susannah Martin, for a witch.  Good heavens, we have an ancestor at least partly responsible for the death of this unfortunate woman.

Back to the Macks; an early genealogist says the name wasn’t an abbreviation of some other such as MacDonald or McKenzie, but that they were a family of sufficient importance to have a Coat of Arms in Scotland with a Latin motto indicating they were hard workers and hopeful, of good estates and families, of liberal education, and of large experience, and they were strict Puritans. Seems it was a good enough family name to warrant admission into the upstanding Bagleys who were among the earliest Puritan settlers of Amesbury, Massachusetts.

I discovered more about Orlando Bagley and his ill-fated neighbor, Susanna Martin, at these sites:


Panic spread far and wide with neighbor after neighbor falling under the malignant shadow until “From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over eighty years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft; dozens languished in jail for months (*some of them dying there) without trials until the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts subsided.”

The above quote is from:

Women in that rigidly defined community had no voice or authority, but these girls wielded an almighty power over everyone by simply pointing their fingers.  The power must have gone to their heads, along with the dizzying attention they gloried in. However, I wonder, had they no conscience? So many innocent people suffered and died as a result of this craze.  For a people obsessed with the fate of their immortal souls, would this not weigh heavily upon them?  Only one girl ever offered an apology.

Oddly, the individual who bore any real resemblance to a witch, the young slave woman, Tituba, who lit the initial powder keg with strange Voodoo practices from her South American background, was never hung.  She confessed (possibly after a beating) and then joined with the girls in naming suspected witches. Maybe it was payback for her slavery.  I don’t know, but she’s also responsible for taking a lot of people down
I’ve also read about and seen a documentary suggesting there may have been an outbreak in Salem at that time of ergot poisoning (a mold similar to LSD) on the rye used for bread making.  Symptoms of such poisoning include hallucinations and physical pain which may account for some of the girls symptoms, but why only them?  Wouldn’t more people have been afflicted? Maybe more were and that’s why they tossed all reason to the wind.

As for allowing ‘spectral’ evidence as testimony, this was previously unheard of at witch trials and Salem is unique in that regard.  There were other time honored methods for ferreting out a witch.  For example, the water test–if you sank you were innocent; if you floated, guilty, of course, and then you were put to death.  Or, strip the supposed witch, shave her entire body, then carefully examine every inch of her for a ‘devil’s’ mark.  I’ll bet a lot of men preferred this method. Woe unto you, if you had any funny shaped moles or birthmarks.

Spectral evidence based on gyrating girls shrieking that you came to them in a way that only they could see and caused excruciating torment while enticing them to make a pact with Satan was a no win scenario for the accused. Any and all denials were met with increased screams and accusations. Only if you confessed your sin,did they fall silent. Then you were free to go; God alone being your judge, which makes no sense to me.  Crucify the innocent, or gain confessions from the so-called damned, thus freeing them.  But those truly concerned for the state of their souls refused to make such a blasphemous admission, preferring death.

To understand the mindset of these Salem Puritans is almost impossible, but I’ll try.  It seems they were terrified of the dark forest.  Though only six miles from the coast, Salem was on the edge of the wilderness.  The dreaded Indians dwelt in the woods, and the settlers feared Satan also brooded over the forest.  Disease and misfortune were attributed to evil entities.  Deeply insecure and preoccupied with horror of the dark forces, they sought its manifestation in everything and everyone.  And you tend to find what you look for.  Particularly when fear of the demonic is mixed in with an extremely judgmental community, resentment toward your neighbor, a means to get even, and young actresses happy to oblige you with a stellar performance.
There’s a vast deal more to be said on the subject and I may continue this post another time.  Meanwhile, if you know anything of my distant ancestor Orlando Bagley (sounds straight out of the Shire) and his part in the trial and execution of Susanna Martin, I’d be glad to know more.  And to her descendants, in behalf of our family, I offer my deepest apology.

*Two more interesting sites about the Salem Witch Trials:



  1. Beth,

    I heard of the Salem witches but never knew they were punished in such horrible ways. Thanks for a very interesting report.

  2. Yes, unbelievable, isn't it? Thanks Mona.

  3. Hi there -- I'm also a descendant of Orlando Bagley and the Macks. You may already be aware of this, but being related to them means you are related also to Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church. Also means you are likely related to Stephen Mack, founder of Pontiac, Michigan. Joseph Smith's mother is Lucy Mack Smith....

    1. Yes, I have become aware of this and thanks so much for your very informative comment,

  4. Hello, Beth! I was so excited to find your blog! I found it by googling your ancestor, Orlando Bagley, and my ancestor, Susannah North Martin! My husband recently taught a Sunday School class to a group of adult members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and as he prepared for his lesson, found out your ancestor and my ancestor had some connections! So fascinating! What a difficult time for all the folks around Salem, back then! How very blessed we are, now for the freedoms which we enjoy, today, because of all the hardships they endured!

    How very thrilled I am to find that you are an author, and I have checked SEVERAL sources (one being Goodreads) that say what an interesting and enjoyable-to-read author you ARE! I am DELIGHTED! Going to go straight to Amazon and purchase a few Kindle books for my I-pad, right now!

    No need to apologize for your ancestor's involvement in Susannah's demise--I'm sure none of her descendants blame anyone involved, and certainly not their descendants! Such sad foolishness~all forgiven, now! I like to think they are even friends in heaven!

    ~ Lanell Martin Huntsman (Susannah North Martin is my 8th Great Grandmother on my Father's side)-- born & raised in Southern California

    1. Thanks so much! Sorry to be so late in replying. I've been ill and gotten behind with this blog, but am delighted to hear from you. Please pop in again and feel free to email me. How fascinating to discover this strange family connection. Really! I have heard from one other Martin descendant but cannot remember who, and several Bagley/Mack descendants. Yes, what a bizarre time period it was. Thanks again and for your high praise.