6 comments August 19th, 2011 Headsman
This date in 1692 was the third of four execution dates during the notorious Salem witch trials.
Five souls were dispatched at Gallows Hill this date. With the executioner’s due respect to John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr. and The Crucible main character John Proctor, we’re elated this date to focus on the only woman among them — Martha Carrier.
I was very fortunate to have heard stories of the colonial Carriers from the time I was a young child. My first memory of hearing about the Salem witch trials was when I was eight years old, visiting my maternal grandmother. She was the first one to tell me that my grandmother back nine generations, Martha Carrier, had been hanged as a witch in 1692. When I asked her if Martha was in fact a witch, my grandmother said, “Sweetheart, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women.”
She, along with the rest of my family, had a great sense of pride over Martha’s courage in standing up to her accusers. She was one of the few people, out of the 150 New Englanders accused of practicing witchcraft, who not only refused to admit to being guilty, but also never accused anyone else of being a witch, which most people did to save themselves.
Your book tells the story of Martha Carrier from the perspective of her 10-year-old daughter. As an author, how did you approach the research, especially when it comes to Martha as an individual? Is that something you were able to source pretty strongly or did it require a lot of filling in the blanks?
The Heretic’s Daughter was my first novel, and it took five years of research and writing to complete it.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of historical information about the colonies during that time. The courts where the witch trials were conducted kept very meticulous records so I was able to gather a lot of facts regarding the magistrates and deponents, as well as the accused. There are so many wonderful fiction and non-fiction books alike that have been written about the Salem witch trials, but I wanted to write a very personal story about the Carrier family; how they lived day to day, how they survived disease, Indian raids, hostility from their neighbors, and ultimately the witch trials. I was able to weave in a lot of my family’s stories — the cow that gave golden milk, Andrew’s near death experience in the prison — that have been passed down through 10 generations.
When I first began working on the book, it was written from Martha’s point of view, but I decided it would make more compelling reading if the narrator was one of the Carrier children, Sarah, and it is through her eyes that we see the growing hysteria over witchcraft, and her struggle with Martha’s strong, unyielding character. This theme of mother-daughter conflict is central to the book’s development.
So, who was Martha Carrier and why did she become one of the people caught up in the Salem witch trials?
Martha Carrier had evidently long been resented by the community in Andover, where the Carrier family lived during the Salem witch trials, because of her forceful nature. She argued over boundary lines with several neighbors (which was a common occurrence amongst the settlers), telling one neighbor, “I will stick as close to you as bark on a tree.” (source: Salem witch trial deposition; see this document) She was also married to a man who had fought in the English Civil War, and was widely rumored to be one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. Martha fell outside of the Puritan ideal of what a woman was supposed to be and was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that when she was asked by her judges if she had ever seen the Devil, she responded by telling them that the only devils she had ever seen were the men sitting in judgment before her.
One of 20 granite benches commemorating the Salem witch trial victims at a memorial. (cc) image from Deaf RED Bear.
Her own children accused her of witchcraft. Are you descended through those kids as well? And do we know anything about how they later dealt with or rationalized that act?
My family is descended from Tom, Jr., and I learned the full genealogy at an early age from my grandparents. Four of Martha’s five children were arrested to compel her to admit to being guilty. Her two oldest sons were arrested first, and they were tortured until they agreed to testify against their mother. Tom and Sarah were then arrested — the real Sarah being only 7 years old at the time, and the second youngest child to be imprisoned during the trials — and they quickly admitted that they, too, were complicit in witchcraft.
During the research, I discovered how truly awful the conditions were in the Salem jail. Nearly half of the 150 people arrested from towns all over New England were under the age of 18. The surprising thing was not that people died, but that anyone survived at all. The four children were kept imprisoned for months after their mother was hanged and they were finally released in the fall of 1692. Within a few years, their father, Thomas, collected his children and grandchildren and moved to the wilds of Connecticut to start a new life.
How did she try to defend herself?
Martha Carrier was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that Cotton Mather, one of the most famous theologians of his day, named her the “Queen of Hell.”
This Rampant Hag, Martha Carrier, was the Person, of whom the Confessions of the Witches, and of her own Children among the rest, agreed, That the Devil had promised her, she should be Queen of Hell.
When she was confronted by the accusing girls, she turned to her judges and said, “It is a shameful thing that you should listen to these folks who are out of their wits.”
By the time of her arrest, several women had already been sentenced to be hanged, and she knew that her refusal to confess would mean death. She never wavered in her testimony and never accused another person to save herself, even when her four children were arrested and two of her sons were tortured.
Do you feel like she’s an overlooked figure in this affair? She’s not, for instance, even a character in The Crucible.
Arthur Miller did extensive research for The Crucible, but he did make changes to the historical facts for fictional purposes: for example John Proctor was in his seventies during the trials; hardly the strapping figure played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film adaptation.
There were so many remarkable people and events during the trials that he had to choose selectively in order to illustrate his primary motivation in writing the play which was to shed light on the McCarthy era communist “witch” trials.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Martha Carrier, as did Cotton Mather, but her forceful character made her a difficult subject, especially when there were more motherly figures like Rebecca Nurse, or titillating young characters like Abigail Williams to explore.
At this distance of time, Martha Carrier must have a great many descendants. Are you in touch with other branches of the family?
Soon after publishing The Heretic’s Daughter, I started getting emails and letters from fellow descendents of Thomas and Martha Carrier telling me that they, too, had heard many of the stories that I had grown up with.
For the release of my second novel, The Wolves of Andover, about Thomas Carrier’s life, I decided it would be fun to invite some of these extended family members to Salem for a book launch. On November 5th, 2010, nearly 250 Carrier descendents, some of them flying in from as far away as Washington State, California and Arizona, came to Salem for a weekend of author talks, receptions and story swapping. A video on my web site captured some of the highlights from that remarkable weekend.
We came as strangers and left Salem as family.
Ultimately, what’s changed about you yourself from your literary encounter with this famous ancestor?
The Salem witch trials were a dark period in American history, but from researching those events I discovered that positive changes occurred over time in the judicial system, the penal system, and for religious tolerance. I am awe-struck by the courage and fortitude of the settlers who sacrificed so much for their children and grandchildren.
And I am especially proud of my heritage: that my 9x great-grandmother defended her principles and conscience, even in the face of death. An interviewer once asked if, having written the novel, I felt I was speaking for Martha Carrier, and I said that I felt she had been speaking for me. A ferocious woman indeed!
With your second book, The Wolves of Andover, you’ve written two about the Carrier family. What’s your next project?
I am about halfway through my third novel, but this one is quite different from the first two. It takes place during reconstruction era Texas in 1870, and chronicles a particularly chaotic, violent time in Texas history.
There’s another fine interview with Kathleen Kent here. -ed.
Also on this date
- 1919: Boonpeng Heep Lek, the last public beheading in Thailand
- 1799: Thomas Nash, after rendition to the British
- 1626: Henri Talleyrand, Comte de Chalais
- 1937: Ikki Kita
Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Mass Executions,Massachusetts,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Torture,USA,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions