While many people know Salem as the epicenter of witch hangings in New England, it was hardly the only town in the area where witch trials occurred. In fact, many towns had executions of witches and that includes Boston. Officials executed four witches in the city from 1648 to 1688. I speak about the last witch, Goody Glover, on the North End Crime Tour, but I wanted to write a bit today about the first witch executed in Boston.
Margaret Jones resided in Charlestown (originally its own town, but annexed by Boston in 1874) in the 1640s. She lived there with her husband, Thomas. In 1648 townspeople suspected her of being a witch and she went to jail, along with her husband. According to Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop, suspicions were due because:
1. People she touched in either affection or displeasure became sick or deaf.
2. The medicine she practiced using traditional substances (seeds, liquor, etc.) caused violent reactions.
3. She stated people wouldn’t be healed and they weren’t, despite the best efforts of doctors.
4. She could foretell things and knew of conversations she would have no reason to know of.
A local boy named John Hale, who would later go on to play a role in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials as a minister, said she was suspected partly because of “some angry words passing between her & her neighbors” and that “some mischief befell such neighbors.”
Margaret went to jail because of her behavior. She didn’t exhibit traditional witch behaviors such as giving people fits or producing specters. The primary case against her was the possible use of imps. Imps are small, mischievous creatures who were thought to work for witches to do their evil deeds. These imps, however, needed sustenance to carry out these tasks, so they suckled on a teat hidden somewhere on the witch’s body. According to Governor John Winthrop’s journal, Margaret had a teat in her "secret parts."
A guard was set out to observe Margaret overnight to see if her imps would come to feed from her. While it’s not clear what the type of confinement was, traditionally, suspects had to sit cross-legged on a stool or table. If they declined the authorities tied them up. Jailers made a hole in the door for the imps to come in. During Margaret's time in prison, the authorities saw her holding a little child and feeding it from her teat. The child then ran into another room and vanished.
Based on this evidence and witnesses who came forth, a trial convened. Margaret’s jurors were the big shots of the Massachusetts Bay colony. They included Governor Winthrop, his son, deputy and assistant governors, and wealthy merchant William Hibbins. (Ironically, Hibbins' own wife, Ann, hanged in Boston as a witch in 1656.) Winthrop, in his journal, stated Margaret lied and railed against the jury and witnesses, and was in a most foul mood.
The court found Margaret guilty and executed her by hanging from an elm tree in Boston Common on June 15, 1648. After release from prison, her husband Thomas sought to leave Charlestown on a ship called Welcome. It was a calm day but the ship pitched from side to side. Thomas had a disagreement with the captain about passage fare. The County Court heard of this and sent for Thomas's arrest. As soon as the warrant came to Thomas, the rolling of the ship began to stop. While it seems incredible, it makes for an interesting coda to this witch tale.
I’m often asked if I believe these people (most often women) were witches. Did these individuals have the ability to cast spells and send imps to do their evil bidding? In this particular case, the evidence seems rather light.
This is because there are only two sources (Winthrop and Hale) who report on this instance. Winthrop’s version is critical of Margaret and very matter-of-fact. Hale, on the other hand, has a bit of sympathy for her, stating how she espoused her innocence up to her death. Like other witchcraft cases in New England, it’s another example of a woman who stepped out of what was perceived to be her “proper” place in a community. In Margaret's case she used non-traditional medicine and ruffled some feathers in a small town. This led to someone else to take up a charge of witchcraft against Margaret. In the end, it caused an innocent person to lose their life for something that was certainly not a crime.