Mary BLISS Parsons, wife of Cornet Joseph PARSONS, daughter of Senator Thomas and Margaret BLISS of Hartford, CT, both very prominent families, was born in England about 1625 and came to this country with her parents when she was about eight years old. She was eleven or twelve when they decided on still another move, to the rude little settlement of Hartford. There for a time life stabilized, and Mary grew to womanhood as an average member of an ordinary New England community. In 1646 she married Joseph Parsons, a successful merchant, and went to live in Springfield. Henceforth, her life would be increasingly set apart from the average.
In 1654 the Parsonses moved to Northampton. The family, which included eleven children, became members of the church. Local tradition has remembered Mary as being "possessed of great beauty and talents, but ... not very amiable ... exclusive in the choice of her associates, and ... of haughty manners."
In 1656, soon after the Parsons family moved to Northampton, Joseph Parsons brought an action for slander against Sarah Bridgeman, charging that Sarah had accused Mary, his wife, of being a witch. On the docket of the Middlesex County Court, for its session of October 7, 1656, is found the following entry: "Joseph Parsons, plaintiff, against Sarah, the wife of James Bridgeman, defendant, in an action of the case for slandering her [Parson's wife] in her name. This action, by consent of both parties, was referred to the judgment of the Honored Bench of Magistrates." A separate document records the magistrates' finding in favor of the plaintiff and their order that the defendant make "public acknowledgment" of the wrong she had done. The acknowledgment was to be a dual performance - once in the town of Northampton and again at Springfield. Failure to fulfill either part of this requirement would result in a fine of £10.
The testimony against Mary Parsons was that following hard upon the heels of any disagreement or quarrel between Mary Parsons and any member of the Bridgeman family, a fatal disease would seize upon some horse, cow, or pig, belonging to the Bridgeman family and, as the disease could not be accounted for in any other way, it must be the result of Mary's uncanny influence exercised by way of revenge.
The decision of the court was in favor of the plaintiff and against Mrs. Bridgeman, and she was ordered to make public acknowledgment of her fault at Northampton and Springfield, and that her husband, James Bridgman, pay to plaintiff 10£ and cost of court.
But the charge of witchcraft against Mary Parsons did not end with the judgment in the slander suit. Her name was cleared, but only from a legal standpoint. In the years that followed, her husband prospered ever more greatly, her children grew in number and (mostly) flourished, her mother and brothers sank the Bliss family roots deep into the CT Valley. But her reputation for witchcraft hung on.
In 1674 the whole matter was renewed in court - with the important difference that now Mary Parsons was cast as defendant. Unfortunately, most of the evidence from this later case has disappeared. All that survives is the summary material from the dockets of the two courts involved. In August 1674, a young woman of Northampton, Mary Bartlett, had died rather suddenly. She was twenty-two, wife of Samuel Bartlett and the mother of an infant son. More importantly, she was a daughter of Sarah and James Bridgman. Her husband and father jointly believed, as they later testified in court, that "she came to her end by some unlawful and unnatural means, ... viz. by means of some evil instrument." And they had distinct ideas about the person most likely to have used such means..
On September 29, the Hampshire County Court received "diverse testimonies" on the matter. Mary Parsons was also there - on her own initiative: "She having intimation that such things were bruited abroad, and that she should be called in question ... ..."the fact that Mrs. Parsons voluntarily appeared before the court desiring to clear herself of such an execrable crime, and that subsequently she argued her own case before the court must not be overlooked. On both these occasions she met her accusers boldly, protesting her innocence, and showing 'how clear she was of such a crime.' In this trial Mrs. Parsons was called to speak for herself and from the meager report upon record, undoubtedly did so most effectively." The court examined her, considered all the evidence, and deferred further action to its next meeting in November. There followed a second deferral "for special reasons" (about which the court did not elaborate).
On January 5, 1675, the county magistrates conducted their most extended hearing of the case. The previous depositions were reviewed and (apparently) some new ones were taken. Both Samuel Bartlett and Mary Parsons were present in person once again.
Mary was "called to speak for herself, [and] she did assert her own innocency, often mentioning ... how clear she was of such a crime, and that the righteous God knew her innocency - with whom she had left her cause." The magistrates decided that final jurisdiction in such matters belonged not to them but to the Court of Assistants in Boston . Still, considering "the season" and "the remoteness" [i.e., of their own court from Boston] and "the difficulties, if not incapabilities, or persons there to appear," they determined to do their utmost "in inquriing into the case." Among other things, they appointed a committee of "soberdized, chaste women" to conduct a body-search on Mary Parsons, to see "whether any marks of witchcraft might appear." (The result was "an account" which the court did not disclose.) Eventually, all the documents were gathered and forwarded to Boston.
At the same court, and apparently as part of the same proceeding, "some testimony" was offered "reflecting on John Parsons." John was Mary's second son: he was twenty-four at the time, and as yet unmarried. How and why he should have been implicated in the charges against his mother cannot now be discovered; but the evidence was in any case unpersuasive. The court did "not find ... any such weight whereby he should be prosecute on suspicion of witchcraft" and discharged him accordingly.
Meanwhile, the case against Mary Parsons moved towards its final round. On March 2, Mary was taken to Boston, "presented" at the Court of Assistants, and formally indicted by the grand jury. Thereupon the court ordered her commitment to prison until "her further trial." The trial came some ten weeks later (May 13, 1675). An imposing roster of Assistants lined the bench: the governor, the deputy-governor, and a dozen magistrates (including her husband's old associate, John Pynchon). However, her fate rested with "the jury of trails for life and death" - twelve men, of no particular distinction, from Boston and the surrounding towns. The indictment was read one last time: "Mary Parsons, the wife of Joseph Parsons ... being instigated by the Devil, hath ... entered into familiarity with the Devil, and committed several acts of witchcraft on the person or persons of one or more." The evidence in the case was also read. And "the prisoner at the bar, holding up her hand and pleading not guilty, ... [put] herself on her trial." The tension of this moment must have been very great, but it does not come through in the final, spare notation of the court recorder: "The jury brought in their verdict. They found her not guilty. And so she was discharged."
She was given full acquittal of the crime of witchcraft. She lived thereafter in Springfield, completed the rearing of her numerous progeny, and saw her sons - and then her grandsons - assume positions of prominence in several CT Valley towns. Death claimed her in January, 1712, when she was about eighty-five years old. She was not again tried for witchcraft, but neither was she ever free from local suspicion.
Details concerning her life and her court
cases of practicing witchcraft can be found in: John Putnam Demons,
Entertaining Satan, Oxford University Press, New York,
1982; Davd D. Hall, Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New
England, Northeastern University Press, Second Edition, Boston,
MA, 1999; Henry Parsons, A.M., Descendants of Cornet Joseph
Parsons, Springfield, 1636--Northampton, 1655, Frank Allaben
Genealogical Company; and J. Hammond Trumbull, History of Northampton,
Vol. I, pp. 43-50; also on pages 228-234.
View her family web card.
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