Like many people, I’ve been fascinated with the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts since first seeing The Crucible in high school. But I never imagined that I would have a personal connection to this dark period of history. When I began tracing my ancestors back to 17th century Massachusetts, I was stunned to learn that my 9th great grandmother, Susannah North Martin, the subject of this week’s 52 Ancestor Challenge, was, indeed, tried for witchcraft.
In 1692, Susannah was a 67-year-old widow living in Amesbury, Massachusetts, about 24 miles from the Village of Salem. She must have heard of the goings-on in Salem and that at least a dozen people had been arrested for witchcraft, but she probably never thought it would have anything to do with her. Yet, when she saw the constable approaching her door that Spring morning, I wonder if her first thought was, “Not again!”
For years, rumors had swirled around Susannah, implying that she was a witch. It seemed like whenever a neighbor took sick or livestock died, there were whispers that Susannah was to blame. She, herself, did little to squelch the rumors. On some occasions she even seemed to encourage them, by muttering curses under her breath, or unapologetically voicing her opinions for anyone to hear.
Susannah had even been charged with witchcraft, more than twenty years before, but the courts had ruled in her favor. Later, her husband, George, had sued
Cradle belonging to Susannah North Martin on display at the Macy-Colby House in Amesbury, MA
her accuser for slander. The courts had found in George’s favor, but had awarded him less than a penny in damages. Apparently, they didn’t think the accusations could have done much damage to Susannah’s already difficult reputation.
But now, George was gone and her children were grown. Darkness and fear had overtaken the community. Indian attacks were on the rise and danger was in the air. There was fear that God was displeased, and that the Devil walked among them. It was in this atmosphere that Susannah was taken into custody, and escorted to the courts in Salem.
It appears that throughout her life, Susannah’s main trouble was that she was an intelligent and outspoken woman who did not like to be taken advantage of. She spoke her mind when she felt she had been cheated or abused. She did not suffer fools lightly, and would make a joke or sarcastic remark if she thought those around her were being silly. She had been in court numerous times, as a defendant and as a plaintiff. In addition to fighting charges that had been made against her, she had spent years fighting to prove that her father’s will had been falsified. Despite five appeals, she had lost, and her step-mother had succeeded in stealing her inheritance. So the Susannah who was dragged to the courthouse in Salem was not a woman who was easily intimidated.
Upon arrival in the Village of Salem, they immediately hauled her into court. It’s likely that this was the first time that Susannah realized who her accusers were. Perhaps word had not reached Amesbury about the writhing teenage girls. Because when Susannah saw them, shrieking and moaning and rolling on the floor, she did the unpardonable. She laughed.
When the prosecutor demanded to know why she laughed, she said because she found it amusing. When they demanded that she stop torturing the girls, she said that she had nothing to do with their afflictions. And when they asked her who was causing their pain, she said she wasn’t going to waste her time thinking about it.
During the course of her interrogation, Susannah refused to be cowed by her circumstances. She maintained her innocence and conveyed her contempt for the court proceedings. She refused to confess to being a witch. Instead she described herself as a Godly woman, and quoted the bible to her accusers.
Unfortunately for Susannah, her years of disagreements with her neighbors caught up with her. They were only too happy to line up to accuse her of wrong-doing, some of it going back more than thirty years. In total, eleven men and four women provided evidence against their neighbor, Goody Martin.
William Brown gave the oldest evidence, accusing Susannah of having cursed his wife Elizabeth thirty-two years before, causing her to be insane ever since.
Robert Downer claimed that after he told her that he believed the rumors she was a witch she cursed him.That night, an evil spirit in the shape of a cat had attacked him in his bed.
John Pressy said that once, coming home late at night,he had seen a strange light in the woods, which later turned into an apparition of Susannah Martin.
John and Mary Pressy said that after they had testified against her in her previous witchcraft trial, she had cursed them, saying that they would never prosper and never have more than two cows. In all the time since, something had always gone wrong for them, and they had never managed to keep more than two in their herd.
John Allen recounted how he had met Susannah on the road when he was hauling some items in a wagon with his oxen. She had asked him to haul some wood for her, but he had refused because his oxen were already overburdened. She had become angry and said that he would get no more use out of his oxen. Within a week, all but one had drowned.
John Kimball testified that twenty-three years before he had purchased land from George and Susannah Martin, which he had paid for with cattle. Susannah had wanted a different cow than the one he paid with. When he refused to give her that cow she had said, “it will never do you any more good” and the following April, despite appearing healthy, the cow had up and died.
John Kimball also said that after he decided not to buy a puppy from Susannah, she told a neighbor that she would be sure he had plenty of puppies. Not long after that he was chopping wood in the forest and suddenly was attacked by dark, mysterious puppies. He tried to fend them off with his axe but they disappeared into the ground. The next day a neighbor of his visited Susannah, and she said told him that it was all over town that Kimball had been frightened by puppies. But there was no way this could have been true, as Kimball was still in the woods, and had not told anyone about the occurrence.
John Atkinson said that he had purchased a cow from Susannah’s son, but Susannah had not approved of the purchase. After she muttered under her breath about it, the cow became so wild and willful that she eventually broke loose from her ropes and escaped. The only explanation was witchcraft.
Bernard Peche testified that Susannah’s apparition had come to him at night and sat on his chest, making it difficult to breathe, and that she had bewitched his cattle to death.
Jarvis Ring gave a similar account as Bernard Peche, saying that Susannah had come to him in the night and sat on his chest. However he also said that Susannah had bit him on the little finger of his right hand, and that the mark was still there to be seen because it was hard to heal.
Joseph Ring, Jarvis’ brother, said that he saw Susannah in the woods and that she had then turned into the shape of a black hog and run away.
Joseph Knight said he had once encountered her in the woods. From a distance he had seen her walking with a little dog that then jumped into her arms. When she got closer, he saw that the little dog had turned into a keg. He also had trouble getting his horses to cross the road where she had been.
Susannah Atkinson recounted a time eighteen years past in which Susannah Martin had come on foot to visit her in Newbury. It was the Spring of the year and a very dirty season. But when Susannah appeared at her door she was clean and her feet were dry. When asked, she wouldn’t explain how she had done it. The only obvious conclusion was that she must have flown.
Several other persons testified that they had either witnessed Susannah cursing the people who had testified above or had been afflicted themselves with mysterious pinching, choking or bite marks, which they attributed to Susannah’ s apparition.
Susannah was imprisoned for two and a half months during which time she was chained, starved, and physically abused. At the end of that time, Susannah, along with Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes, were put into a cart and brought to Gallows Hill where they were hanged to death. Despite the name, no gallows were built on the hill. Instead, the accused were hanged on trees where they were left to slowly suffocate. Later, their bodies were tossed over a cliff into an open grave.
Here stood the house of Susanna Martin. An honest, hardworking, Christian woman. Accused as a witch, tried and executed at Salem, July 19, 1692. A martyr of superstition.
During the long months of her ordeal, Susannah never wavered in her conviction that she was innocent of the crimes with which she had been charged. Unfortunately, she fought and died alone. Her husband was gone, and her children did not come to give her support. Perhaps she wanted it that way, as family members who lent support were often accused of witchcraft themselves.
Although most of the nineteen people who were executed as witches during the Salem trials were later exonerated, Susannah and four others were overlooked. It wasn’t until October 31, 2001, that the state of Massachusetts exonerated her and cleared her name of all charges of witchcraft.
Susannah has many descendants through her eight children, including President Chester A. Arthur. Below is my connection to Susannah North Martin. If you are related to her or to any of the participants in the Salem Witch Trials, I would be interested in hearing from you.
9th great grandmother
son of Susanna North and George Martin
daughter of John Martin and Mary Weed
daughter of Mary Martin and John Peaslee
son of Sarah Peaslee and Peter Morrell
son of John Morrell and Sarah Winslow
son of Benjamin Morrell and Mary Armstrong
son of Elfonso Morrell and Elizabeth Lower
daughter of Perry C. Morrell and Elmira Potter
son of Lettie S Morrell and Samuel Harvey Rutledge
Mom and Dad
daughter of Lee Rutledge and Verena Burry
Massachusetts Clears 5 From Salem Witch Trials. The New York Times. November 1, 2001.
Susannah Martin Executed July 19, 1692. Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. The University of Virginia.