October 24, 2012

Bridget Bishop, a Martyr for Truth in the Salem Witch Trials

To celebrate Halloween, I thought I’d tell the story about one of my favorite ancestors.  She was thought to be a witch!  Isn’t that a fitting story to tell for the holiday?  Her name was Bridget Bishop and she was the first 'witch' executed during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.  If you visit Salem, you’ll see that her memory is alive and well there within the tourist industry.  
She had come to Salem about 1664, presumably with her husband Samuel Wasselby. But he died before 1665.  Now she was a young widow in a strange land among uptight Puritans.  To boot, her children died sometime before 1666.  That’s a lot of sadness and difficulty in a short amount of time.  
There was no good way for a single woman to earn money in Puritan New England.  To survive, Bridget married an older man named Thomas Oliver in Salem in the summer of 1666.  Thomas was abusive and often beat Bridget bloody, black and blue.  They fought often and publicly, which resulted in their punishment and censure more than once.  One time they were forced to stand back to back in the public square for an hour, with writing pinned to their foreheads describing their offenses.  In Puritan times, no sympathy was given to the abused in this situation, in fact, the abused were believed to deserve whatever punishment they got.  In spite of their fighting, they had a daughter Christian together in 1667.  Most women would cower and submit, but laudably, Bridget stood up for herself.
After Oliver died in 1679, Bridget inherited his property and land.  Shortly thereafter she was accused as a witch.  The charges were dropped.  Scholars have confirmed that accusations that a widow was a witch often followed the situation in which Bridget found herself—widowed without a will but sizeable property to inherit.  Belief in witches came to Salem from superstitious England, so this was not unusual.  Bridget married again to a man named Edward Bishop several years later, about 1685.  
What distinguished Bridget was her well-known manner of dress-- a red paragon bodice on her dress.  ‘Paragon’ refers to everyday clothing; it was usually made out of dark bland colors, not red.  Not only was her bodice red but she had embroidered it with multicolored patterns.  It was showy for a Puritan society and caused her to stand out and be associated with anti-Puritan behavior.  Bernard Rosenthal, noted historian, said,  "The notoriety Bridget gained because of her feisty temperament, brushes with the law, reputation of being a witch, and her three marriages made her a ready target as the witch hysteria began brewing in January 1692."  
Although Tituba was the first accused in January 1692, accusations against Bridget followed on April 16.  Bridgett was arrested two days later and hauled to Boston, a one day journey.  The Boston jail was infested with lice, freezing cold and stank of excrement and tobacco.  She was shackled at her ankles to a wall and imprisoned with pirates, prisoners of war and thieves in the same room.  The jailer billed her for her stay, transportation back and forth to Salem and even blankets.  
After 3 days in jail, she was hauled back to Salem to be examined in court.  The accusing girls fell into fits as she entered the courtroom, although she had never seen them before.  The girls could have only known Bridget by her reputation, perhaps overhearing pious parents gossiping about her.  
On June 2nd, the first witch trial was held, for Bridget Bishop.  The courthouse was directly across the street from Bridget's home with Edward Bishop.  That morning, she and the other accused women underwent physical examinations, including their private parts.  This degrading invasion of privacy was especially upsetting in those Puritan times.  An examiner saw a supposed ‘witches mark’ on Bridget, then when she was examined again later, it was gone.  This only added to the evidence against her.
This, along with the fits the girls exhibited, and testimony given of 'spectral evidence' added to the mounting evidence.  ‘Spectral evidence’ was testimony of people who said they had seen her in spirit hurting animals or people.  Her tell-tale red bodice was mentioned to strengthen their testimonials.  This was the first time spectral evidence was accepted in a court of law.  Others testified of finding Voodoo dolls in her walls or making their money disappear.  The worst testimonial was from her brother in law, who said she stayed up all night talking to the devil.  That must have hurt Bridget terribly.  She must have wondered if the whole town was against her. 
Bridget denied the accusations, saying, "I am innocent to a witch.  I know not what a witch is.  I am as innocent as a baby."  Later as she began to sense the gravity of the accusations, she became irritated, "I am clear; if I were any such person you should know it."  What we consider laughable evidence today was enough to convict her then.  She was the first to be convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to die.  
On June 10, 1692, Bridget was forced-marched down Essex Street to the gallows at the top of Gallows hill.  There she was hung alone from a tall oak tree.  Nineteen more were executed for witchcraft before the end of the hysteria.  And sadly, over a hundred of the 400 accused died in prison.  
Historian Barbara Morrell wrote, "One thing that is crystal clear about our feisty and colorful Grandma Bridget:  She was a survivor.  She had lost her husband Samuel and possibly her first two babies immigrating to America.  She survived spousal abuse, the death of Thomas and her first arrest for witchcraft and then remarried again before she died as an innocent victim of the Salem Witch hunt.  Bridget Bishop may be an unlikely heroine, but her descendants can be proud to have her as an ancestor-- one who died for the truth.  It is possible that her strong and feisty spirit came down the generations… giving them the courage to leave their ancestral home to gather with the [Latter-day] Saints."  
I honor Bridget similarly.  She had a rough life and yet lived her life well.  She didn’t care what people thought of her, daring to be a little different from everyone else as seen in her colorful clothing.  Her defining moment came when she stood up to her accusers and boldly defended her innocence.  She could have lied and confessed to save her life, but she chose the truth.  That is heroine status for me, in a way, like Abinadi of the Book of Mormon.  
So there’s a witch story for Halloween, a sober story for what should be a fun holiday.  Ummm, sorry about that…  
I couldn’t quit before I added some additional fun stuff.  I’ve got a correction for historians, tourist recommendations and another literary work to mention.  
If you visit Salem, you’ll note that Bridget is used as a ‘tourist attraction’ as the ‘ultimate scarlet woman’ in the taverns, wax museum and several ghost tours.  There are extremely incorrect portrayals of Bridget.  She is confused with another ‘Goody’ Bishop who owned a tavern and played illegal games late at night at that tavern.  That tavern is still standing and they claim that Bridget haunts it.  That just goes to show you that historians sometimes get things wrong.  
Careful research revealed this error showing that the two were confused, even during the witch trials.  In fact, the ones who did own it (Edward and Sarah Bishop) were arrested and jailed for witchcraft too.  Both 'Goody' Bishops were married to Edward Bishops, and knowing Bridget wore pretentious clothing, some must have made the connection that she would be the one to own the tavern.  
So if you go to Salem and want to look her up, don’t bother with the Bishop Tavern.  If you go to the wax museum, she’s shown as a provocatively dressed woman of ill repute.  Ignore that, as it’s the other Bishop woman again.
What you might want to see is an interactive play performed by the Gordon College drama department called, “Cry Innocent.”  They reenact Bridget’s trial with more accuracy of her character.  The audience gets to participate in it… that’s so cool!  And you can go to her grave, where her now famous denial is inscribed on the top.  
This error crept into even a famous play written in the 1800’s.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about her in his play ‘Giles Corey of the Salem Farm’ of 1868.  Note the reference to the tavern and the illegal game of ‘shovel board.’  Character Giles Corey comments on Bridget’s accusation of witchcraft early in the play: 
Poor soul!  I've known her forty year or more.
She was the widow Wasselby, and then
She married Oliver, and Bishop next.
She's had three husbands… I remember well
My games of shovel-board at Bishop's tavern
In the old merry days and she so gay
With her red paragon bodice and her ribbons!
Ah, Bridget Bishop always was a witch!
Then later, Giles comments on her sentence to death: 
A melancholy end!  Who would have thought
That Bridget Bishop e'er would come to this?
Accused, convicted, and condemned to death
For Witchcraft!  And so good a woman too!
You’ll note this error in almost all of the things written about her.  Even school textbooks may have this wrong.  As her descendant, somehow it matters to me.  So I had to write this additional stuff down for clarity.  And in case you ever make it to Salem…
Barbara Morrell adds, "The real Bridget Bishop was a colorful and controversial enough character without the illegal tavern and shuffleboard.  She apparently drew attention for her trademark red paragon bodice and for being married three times.  She had been punished by the strict Puritan courts for public fights . . . She was arrested. . . for witchcraft 12 years before the witch hysteria.  But that doesn't tell the whole story of Bridget.  She was also a mother and grandmother.  She had property and financial means at a time most women had no independence.  Both Thomas and her third husband Edward were men of status in Salem. . . She stands shoulder to shoulder with the more reputable victims of the witch trials. . . Despite immense and ongoing pressure to confess, [she] proclaimed [her] innocence to the end. . . Bridget stands with those who died for the truth."
Morrell, Barbara.  The True History of Bridget Bishop.  14 pages.  This is an excellent, well-researched paper.  Found at http://www.josephtoronto.org/?page_id=411
Sutcliffe, Katherine.  Salem Trials Homepage: Biography of Bridget Bishop.  Found at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_BBIS.HTM
Photo courtesy of  Wikipedia Commons.  The copyright has expired.

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