"Half-Hanged" Mary Webster, Real Witch?

EP. 99

Half Hanged

Mary Webster


7pm

Rumour was loose in the air,hunting for some neck to land on.I was milking the cow, the barn door open to the sunset.I didn’t feel the aimed word hit,and go in like a soft bullet.I didn’t feel the smashed flesh,closing over it like water over a thrown stone. I was hanged for living alone for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin, tattered skirts, few buttons,a weedy farm in my own name, and a surefire cure for warts; Oh yes, and breasts, and a sweet pear hidden in my body. Whenever there’s talk of demons these come in handy.

8pm

The rope was an improvisation. With time they’d have thought of axes. Up I go like a windfall in reverse, a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree. Trussed hands, rag in my mouth, a flag raised to salute the moon, old bone‐faced goddess, old original, who once took blood in return for food.The men of the town stalk homeward, excited by their show of hate, their own evil turned inside out like a glove, and me wearing it.

9pm

The bonnets come to stare, the dark skirts also, the upturned faces in between, mouths closed so tight they’re lipless. I can see down into their eyeholes and nostrils. I can see their fear. You were my friend, you too. I cured your baby, Mrs., and flushed yours out of you, Non‐wife, to save your life. Help me down? You don’t dare. I might rub off on you, like soot or gossip. Birds of a feather burn together,

though as a rule ravens are singular. In a gathering like this one the safe place is the background, pretending you can’t dance, the safe stance pointing a finger. I understand. You can’t spare anything, a hand, a piece of bread, a shawl against the cold, a good word. Lord knows there isn’t much to go around. You need it all.

10pm

Well God, now that I’m up here with maybe some time to kill away from the daily fingerwork, legwork, work at the hen level, we can continue our quarrel, the one about free will. Is it my choice that I’m dangling like a turkey’s wattles from this more than indifferent tree? If Nature is Your alphabet, what letter is this rope? Does my twisting body spell out Grace? I hurt, therefore I am. Faith, Charity, and Hope are three dead angels falling like meteors or burning owls across the profound blank sky of Your face.

12 midnight

My throat is taut against the rope choking off words and air; I’m reduced to knotted muscle. Blood bulges in my skull, my clenched teeth hold it in; I bite down on despair Death sits on my shoulder like a crow waiting for my squeezed beet of a heart to burst so he can eat my eyes or like a judge muttering about sluts and punishment and licking his lips or like a dark angel insidious in his glossy feathers whispering to me to be easy on myself. To breathe out finally. Trust me, he says, caressing me. Why suffer? A temptation, to sink down into these definitions. To become a martyr in reverse, or food, or trash. To give up my own words for myself, my own refusals. To give up knowing. To give up pain. To let go.

2am

Out of my mouth is coming, at some distance from me, a thin gnawing sound which you could confuse with prayer except that praying is not constrained. Or is it, Lord? Maybe it’s more like being strangled than I once thought. Maybe it’s a gasp for air, prayer. Did those men at Pentecost want flames to shoot out of their heads? Did they ask to be tossed on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry, eyeballs bulging? As mine are, as mine are. There is only one prayer; it is not the knees in the clean nightgown

on the hooked rug I want this, I want that. Oh far beyond. Call it Please. Call it Mercy. Call it Not yet, not yet, as Heaven threatens to explode inwards in fire and shredded flesh, and the angels caw.

3am

Wind seethes in the leaves around me the tree exude night birds night birds yell inside my ears like stabbed hearts my heart stutters in my fluttering cloth body I dangle with strength going out of me the wind seethes in my body tattering the words I clench my fists hold No talisman or silver disc my lungs flail as if drowning I call on you as witness I did no crime I was born I have borne I bear I will be born this is a crime I will not acknowledge leaves and wind hold onto me I will not give in

6am

Sun comes up, huge and blaring, no longer a simile for God. Wrong address. I’ve been out there. Time is relative, let me tell you I have lived a millennium. I would like to say my hair turned white overnight, but it didn’t. Instead it was my heart: bleached out like meat in water. Also, I’m about three inches taller. This is what happens when you drift in space listening to the gospel of the red‐hot stars. Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain, a revelation of deafness. At the end of my rope I testify to silence. Don’t say I’m not grateful. Most will have only one death. I will have two.

8am

When they came to harvest my corpse (open your mouth, close your eyes) cut my body from the rope, surprise, surprise: I was still alive. Tough luck, folks, I know the law: you can’t execute me twice for the same thing. How nice. I fell to the clover, breathed it in, and bared my teeth at them in a filthy grin. You can imagine how that went over. Now I only need to look out at them through my sky‐blue eyes. They see their own ill will staring them in the forehead and turn tail Before, I was not a witch. But now I am one.

Later My body of skin waxes and wanes around my true body, a tender nimbus. I skitter over the paths and fields mumbling to myself like crazy, mouth full of juicy adjectives and purple berries. The townsfolk dive headfirst into the bushes to get out of my way.

My first death orbits my head, an ambiguous nimbus, medallion of my ordeal. No one crosses that circle. Having been hanged for something I never said, I can now say anything I can say. Holiness gleams on my dirty fingers, I eat flowers and dung, two forms of the same thing, I eat mice and give thanks, blasphemies gleam and burst in my wake like lovely bubbles. I speak in tongues, my audience is owls. My audience is God, because who the hell else could understand me? Who else has been dead twice? The words boil out of me, coil after coil of sinuous possibility. The cosmos unravels from my mouth, all fullness, all vacancy.

Creepy… That was a poem written by Margaret Atwood about today's subject, Half hanged mary webster. We figured it would be a good way to set the tone of the episode. Kind of lengthy but awesome nonetheless. So who exactly is Mary webster? Why do they call her half hanged? Well let's find out shall we!!

Mary’ Webster was born Mary Reeve, daughter of Thomas Reeve and Hannah Rowe Reeve, in England around 1624. The family migrated to Springfield in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Mary married William Webster in 1670. He was 53 and she was about 46. They lived in the Puritan town of Hadley, Mass., 20 miles north of Springfield along the Connecticut River.

William and Mary Webster had little money, lived in a small house and sometimes needed help from the town to survive. No records exist of Webster having had any children.

Poverty and neglect did not improve Mary’s fiery temper, and she spoke harshly when offended, wrote Sylvester Judd in his 1905 History of Hadley.

“Despised and sometimes ill-treated, she was soured with the world, and rendered spiteful towards some of her neighbors; they began to call her a witch, and to abuse her,” Judd wrote.

Mary Webster supposedly put a spell on cattle and horses so they couldn’t go past her house. The drivers found her and beat her so the animals could pass.

She once walked into a house and a hen fell down a chimney into a pot of boiling water. She had a scald mark on her body, probably from the hot water, but her neighbors called it the witches’ mark.

All of this was happening here years before the infamous Salem witch trials. Essentially this was one of the big precursors to the witch trials as Cotton Mather, who was a New England Puritan minister, prolific author, and pamphleteer. One of the most important intellectual figures in English-speaking colonial America, Mather is remembered today chiefly for his Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and other works of history, for his scientific contributions to plant hybridization and to the promotion of inoculation as a means of preventing smallpox and other infectious diseases, and for his involvement in the events surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692–3. He would write about an incident with Mary Webster and Philip Smith. Smith was a judge, deacon, and a representative of the town of Hadley. These writings by Matters plus a few others would serve as the catalyst that pushed people to the insanity that was the witch trials. We’ll talk a little about the consequences of these writings a little later but let's look at the incident that Cotton Mather would write about first.

Given the stories from earlier about her supposedly causing animals to not be able to pass by her house, and the witches mark, plus her overall “go fuck yourself” attitude, it's not a wonder given the times that thing's would get kinda crazy.

Eventually, the various stories and Mary’s apparently unpleasant behavior reached a critical mass: Mary was examined on suspicion of witchcraft by the county court magistrates at Northampton on March 27, 1683. The following is from the record:

"Mary, wife of William Webster of Hadley, being under strong suspicion of having familiarity with the devil, or using witchcraft, [had] many testimonies brought in against her, or that did seem to centre upon her, relating to such a thing;"

The courts at Northampton, as they had done in the previous case of Mary Parsons, decided that they were not equipped to handle such a case, so it should be sent to the Court of Assistants in Boston. She was sent to Boston in April of 1683, where she waited in jail until her court date on May 22nd 1683; Gov. Bradstreet, Deputy Gov. Danforth and nine Assistants were present. The record of the court reads:

"The grand-jury being impannelled, they, on perusal of the evidences, returned that they did indict Mary Webster, for that she, not having the fear of God before her eyes, and being instigated by the devil, hath entered into covenant and had familiarity with him in the shape of a warraneage, [fisher or wild black cat of the woods] and had his imps sucking her, and teats or marks found on her, as in and by several testimonies may appear, contrary to the peace of our sovereign lord, the king, his crown and dignity, the laws of God and of this jurisdiction -- The court on their serious consideration of the testimonies, did leave her to further trial."

After the indictment, Mary was returned to jail again to await her trial on June 1st, 1683. The record of this court appearance reads:

"Mary Webster was now called and brought to the bar, and was indicted To which indictment she pleaded not guilty, making no exception against any of the jury, leaving herself to be tried by God and the country. The indictment and evidence in the case were read and committed to the jury, and the jury brought in their verdict that they found her -- not guilty."

Thus Mary was decreed innocent, although her neighbors were perhaps less than overjoyed to have her return to Hadley. Perhaps in an early example of Western Massachusetts’ discontent with decisions made by Boston, the residents of Hadley clearly disagreed with the Boston court’s verdict.

On January 10th, 1685, Lieut. Philip Smith died under supposedly mysterious circumstances. Smith was a prominent member of the Hadley community, and had probably had encounters with Webster. Apparently Mary was suspected of having caused the death, and some residents attempted to hang her for it. At this point, the explanations of what happened vary depending on the source. Philip Smith's accusations, afflictions, and death were described within a few years in a publication by Cotton Mather “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts”. Mather names Smith but not Mary Webster. Mather describes how some friends of Smith "did three or four times in one night go and give Disturbance to the Woman." A little bit about Cotton Mather real quick.

Born on Feb. 12th 1663 into a family of renown New England Puritan ministers, including Rev. John Cotton and Rev. Richard Mather, Cotton Mather seemed destined to achieve fame. His own father, Rev. Increase Mather, also held a position of prominence as a well-admired political leader, minister of the South Church in Boston, as well as the presidency of Harvard College. Excelling in his entrance exams in Latin and Greek, young Cotton began his schooling at Harvard at only 12 years of age. After receiving his M.A. at age 18, he felt called to a life of service in the clergy. A terrible stutter, however, forced him to delay entering the ministry and the demands of preaching, and instead he entertained the notion of becoming a doctor. Encouragement from a friend eventually pulled him over this speech impediment and back to his calling, although medicine remained a key interest throughout his life. Mather preached his first sermon in August of 1680, and went on to be ordained by 1685 at age 22. Besides his involvement with the witch trials in Salem during the 1690s, Cotton Mather is remembered as one of the most influential Puritan ministers of his day. Never achieving his father's success as a political leader or president of Harvard, Cotton made his mark through his efforts as a master of the pen. By the end of his life, he had published over 400 of his works, ranging from the subject of witchcraft to smallpox inoculation. His publication, Curiosa Americana(1712-24), demonstrated his abilities as an accomplished scientist, and earned him election to the prestigious Royal Society of London, England. Although his efforts of encouragement in smallpox inoculation were met with much resistance and nearly killed his own son, he is recognized as having been a progressive medical advocate for his day.

n regard to the Salem witch trials, however, it was Mather's interest in the craft and actions of Satan that won him an audience with the most powerful figures involved in the trial proceedings, several of the judges and the local ministers in Salem. Before the outbreak of accusations in Salem Village, Mather had already published his account, Remarkable Providences (1684), describing in detail he possession of the children of the Goodwin family of Boston. Mather actually took the eldest of the children, 13-year-old Martha, into his home to make a more intense study of the phenomenon. Later scholars have suggested that this book in fact outlined the symptoms of clinical hysteria. It was this same hysteria that provided the behavioral model for the circle of "afflicted" girls during the trials in Salem. Mather, however, used his experience with Goodwins to further his notion that New England was in fact a battleground with Satan. Similar themes appear in his sermons and in the Preface to one of his children's books, in which he warns young readers: "They which lie, must go to their father, the devil, into everlasting burning; they which never pray, God will pour out his wrath upon them; and when they bed and pray in hell fire, God will not forgive them, but there [they] must lie forever. Are you willing to go to hell and burn with the devil and his angels?". Thus, the subject of eternal damnation weighed constantly upon Mather's mind, and it resonates in his own diary accounts. Scholars suggest that Mather's dramatic descriptions the devil's activity upon the young Goodwin children may have led to the first cry of witchcraft among the young girls in Salem Village

Although Mather was not directly involved in the proceedings of the Salem witch trials, he wrote a letter to one of the magistrates in the trials, John Richards of Boston, urging caution in the use of spectral evidence. Mather was also the author of the "Return of the Several Ministers," a report sent to the judges of the Salem court. This carefully-worded document advised caution in the use of spectral evidence, saying that the devil could indeed assume the shape of an innocent person, and decrying the use of spectral evidence in the trials, their "noise, company, and openness", and the utilization of witch tests such as the recitation of the Lord's Prayer. However, the final paragraph of the document appears to undercut this cautionary statement in recommending "the detection of witchcrafts". Thus, in Bernard Rosenthal and Perry Miller's opinions, the courts interpreted the letter as Mather's seal of approval for the trials to go on.

Ok so back to the Mather at hand….

That's The kind of man we're dealing with when it comes to his feelings and beliefs.

Mather claims that it was only during this night of vigilante violence perpetrated against Mary Webster that Smith was able to sleep peacefully. "Upon the whole, it appeared unquestionable that witchcraft had brought a period unto the life of so good a man," Mather concludes. Cotton Mather's book was published in 1689 only a few years before the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692 and it followed a similar book recently published by his father, Harvard president Increase Mather in 1684. As early as 1681, Increase Mather had met with "ministers in this colony" and begun soliciting far and wide for instances and anecdotes of witchcraft. It is not known to what extent Increase Mather's solicitations (and the implied doctrinal views in support of the real power of witchcraft) may have directly influenced the circumstances in Hadley in 1683-4. According to Thomas Hutchinson, prior to Increase Mather's book, it had been decades since anyone had been executed for witchcraft in New England, despite the occasional slur or spurious accusation. While many would go on to say they regretted their actions during the witch trials, Mather would stubbornly stick to his guns and repeatedly call for more trials and executions. As late as 1702 Mather would use the incidents of the Mary Webster Philip smith incident to try and rile up the people about witchcraft.

Mather claims that Mary Webster had it out for Smith because:

"He was, by his office concerned about relieving the indigences of a wretched woman in the town; who being dissatisfied at some of his just cares about her, expressed herself unto him in such a manner, that he declared himself thenceforward apprehensive of receiving mischief at her hands."

Smith’s illness is described at length, and perhaps most important are Smith’s own suspicions about what has caused it. From Mather’s telling, it is easy to imagine how distraught and suspicious Smith’s family and friends would have been:

“About the beginning of January, 1684-5, he began to be very valetudinarian. He shewed such weakness from and weariness of the world, that he knew not (he said) whether he might pray for his continuance here: and such assurance he had of the Divine love unto him, that in raptures he would cry out, Lord, stay thy hand; it is enough, it is more than thy frail servant can bear. But in the midst of these things he still uttered a hard suspicion that the ill woman who had threatened him, had made impressions with inchantments upon him. While he remained yet of a sound mind, he solemnly charged his brother to look well after him. Be sure, (said he) to have a care of me; for you shall see strange things. There shall be a wonder in Hadley! I shall not be dead when it is thought I am! He pressed this charge over and over.”

From the description, it is obvious that Smith is suffering in the extreme, and the very visible struggle he endured with his illness no doubt appeared to the Puritan audience as a fight with the devil. Whatever the cause, he suffered fits and delirium, sure to frighten not only him but also his nurses and watchers:

“Being become delirious, he had a speech incessant and voluble beyond all imagination, and this in divers tones and sundry voices, and (as was thought) in various languages.”

He cried out not only of sore pain, but also of sharp pins, pricking of him: sometimes in his tow, sometimes in his arm, as if there had been hundreds of them. But the people upon search never found any more than one.

Mather explains that some of the witnesses to Smith’s outcries tried to test the theory that Webster was involved in an interesting way:

"Some of the young men in the town being out of their wits at the strange calamities thus upon one of their most beloved neighbors, went three or four times to give disturbance unto the woman thus complained of: and all the while they were disturbing of her, he was at ease, and slept as a weary man: yea, these were the only times that they perceived him to take any sleep in all his illness."

There were continuous strange occurrences in the man’s sick room: (We’ll go through these and break them down)

· Gally pots of medicines provided for the sick man, were unaccountably emptied

· audible scratchings were made about the bed, when his hands and feet lay wholly still, and were held by others.

· They beheld fire sometimes on the bed; and when the beholders began to discourse of it, it vanished away.

· Divers people actually felt something often stir in the bed, at a considerable distance from the man: it seemed as big as a cat, but they could never grasp it.

All of these strange incidents, combined with the strange occurrences after his death:

· The jury that viewed his corpse, found a swelling on one breast, his back full of bruises, and several holes that seemed made with awls.

· After the opinion of all had pronounced him dead, his countenance continued as lively as if he had been alive; his eyes closed as in a slumber, and his nether jaw not falling down.

· Although he died on Saturday morning, on Sunday afternoon, “those who took him out of the bed, found him still warm, tho' the season was as cold as had almost been known in any age”

· On Monday morning they found the face extremely tumified and discolored. It was black and blue, and fresh blood seemed running down his cheek upon the hairs.

· Divers' noises were also heard in the room where the corpse lay; as the clattering of chairs and stools, whereof no account could be given.

These symptoms would have been pretty fucked up and disturbing to anyone, especially the Puritans with their limited understanding of disease and death. In this culture, the only reason one got sick – especially in such a visible and painful way – was because of a punishment from God, or the involvement of the Devil. If bad things were happening to good people, then witchcraft was afoot. Mather ends his discussion of the case with the sentence: “Upon the whole, it appeared unquestionable that witchcraft had brought a period unto the life of so good a man.”

So getting back to what the men had to "disturb" Mary and supposedly get Philip smith to finally rest, we find out how she was really treated, being accused of being a witch and the rumors of her involvement in Smith's death.

The practice of beating or restraining a suspected witch to prevent her from further mischief was a popular practice. Similar activities are referred to in the Salem witch trials. In referring to the “disturbing” of Mary Webster, Thomas Hutchinson, in his History of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, describes the incident like this: