July 19, 1692, three hundred and twenty five years ago, my ancestor Elizabeth Howe was accused of witchcraft and hung during the Salem Witch Trials. She was 57 years old at the time, married to a blind man and the mother of six daughters.
The transcripts of the trial have held my interest for most of my life, long before my father and sister became interested in genealogy and discovered our family connection to Elizabeth Howe. When I was in school, the books I read confused me with their liberal use of Puritan phrasing, so I relied heavily on the simple captions beneath the drawings for my information. My initial interest centered on the “fact” that there were real witches who were discovered and sent to hell by hanging. I was a Dark Shadow’s fan at the time, so I was seriously into vampires and witches, and all things paranormal.
My family vacationed in New England around that time and we made Salem, Massachusetts one of our stops. Unfortunately it was during late summer when the town was thick with tourists and storms were plentiful. My dad decided to opt out of exploring the touristy side of Salem, but I have a clear memory of rolling down the car window despite the rain, and staring up at the “witch statue” as we passed the Salem Witch Museum. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the statue was of Roger Conant, Salem’s founder.
|Salem Witch Trial Museum|
Through the years my interest in the witch trials shifted from fascination with “real witches” to what horrors those falsely accused went through. The Puritans believed the devil was out to destroy them specifically, and their fight against him was one of individual religious responsibility. But what stood out in my mind was that most of the accusers of these men and women, were my age. Children! Children accusing adults of something horrific enough to end their lives!
A ten-year-old girl from the Perley family was Elizabeth’s main accuser, testifying that she felt pricked as if with pins when she saw Elizabeth, which caused her to have fits. The child’s parents didn’t believe their daughter at first, but records state they took her to “several doctors” all of whom said she had been was invaded by evil. There doesn’t seem to be further reference to what was wrong with the Perley girl, but clearly she was sick because over the next three years she “pined away to skin and bones”, and died.
Five more girls, ages 11, 12, 17, 19 and 21, came forward to support the Perley girl’s accusations against Elizabeth. The twelve year old, Ann Putnam, must have enjoyed the attention tremendously because her name appears over 400 times in the court documents and she is reported to have accused nineteen people of witchcraft, eleven of which she saw hung.
|Ann Putnam putting on a show|
Elizabeth was arrested on May 28, 1692 charged with “Sundry Acts of Witch-craft.” The warrant reads as follows:
To the Constable of Topsfield Your are in theyre Majestyes Names hereby Required to Apprehend & bring before us Elizabeth Howe the wife of James Howe if Topsfeild Husbandman on Tuesday next being the thirty first day of may about Ten of the Clock forenoone att the house: of Leut Nathaniell Ingersollsof Salem Village, Whoe stande Charged w’th Sundry Acts of Witch-craft done or Committed on the bodyes of Mary Walcott, Abigaill Williams & others of Salem Village, to theyr great hurt, in order to hir examination, Relating to the above s’d premises. & hereof you are nott to fayle. Dat’d. Salem. May. 28th. 1692/ In obedience to this warrant I have appreend [r] ed Elizabeth Howe the wife of Jems how on the 29th of may 1692 and have brought har unto the house of leftenant nathaniell engleson according too to the warrant as attested by me Ephraim Wildes constabell For the town of Topsfelld. Dated May 31st 1692.
Elizabeth was taken from her home to Boston where she was “bound with cords and irons for months, and subjected to insulting, unending examinations while prison officials and the jury assigned to her trial searched her for witch marks.” She was permitted the occasional visit from her daughters and blind husband who brought her “country butter, clean linen and comfort.”
|Chaos in the courtroom|
When her trial began on May 28th, chaos prevailed in the courtroom with her “afflicted” accusers throwing themselves on the ground with hysterical fits. Witness Samuel Parris wrote:
When Elizabeth Howe was brought in for examination Mercy Lewis and Mary Walcott, two of her main accusers, fell into a fit. She was accused by Mary of pinching and choking her in the month of May. Ann Putnam added her accusations to these by saying she had been hurt three times by Howe. When asked how she pled to the charges made against her, Elizabeth Howe boldly responded, “If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent of any thing of this nature”.
Only three witnesses spoke on Elizabeth’s behalf, a minister, a family friend and her father-in-law, but the performance of her accusers far outweighed their voices and she was found guilty.
Public execution was considered the most severe punishment in Puritan Massachusetts, and convicted witches Elizabeth Howe, Rebecca Nurse (her sister-in-law), Sarah Good, Sarah Wildes and Susanna Martin were hanged on July 19, 1692 and buried in a crevice on Gallows Hill.
|Photograph taken at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial located next to Old Burying Point Cemetery.|
But what happened to the families of these accused witches? In 1709, the daughters of Elizabeth Howe joined a petition requesting their good names be restored, and to be financially compensated for their losses during the trials. In 1711 records show approximately 598 pounds was distributed among 22 survivors.
In today’s market, that would be approximately $913 or roughly $41.50 per person.
To read more about Elizabeth Howe, this is the link to her Wikipedia page.