Chapter One: Witches Then and Now
Nobody broke the news to me—gently or otherwise—and I didn’t find
out by delving into family genealogy. As far back as I can remember,
I’ve known I was descended from a witch—or rather, I was descended
from a woman who was hanged as one. When I probe my memory, the first
family discussion I recall on the subject had to do with the correct
form of the past tense of the verb “to hang.”
“Pictures are hung,” my mother told me. “People are hanged.”
My father died when I was young, and the only other male in the
immediate family, my brother, went away to college when I was four. The
result was my mother, grandmother, and sister, who was five years older,
raised me. Surrounded by three of the feminine persuasion and hearing
often about my seven-times-great grandmother who ran a farm by herself
and was able to do things women weren’t supposed to be able to
do—and was hanged as a witch for it—it’s no wonder I came to be
what you might call an early feminist, believing a woman could do
anything a man could do.
In recent years I’ve wondered if my ancestor really was a witch.
Having studied transcriptions of as many original documents from the
time of the New England witch hysteria as I could get my hands on, I’m
almost certain at least some of the accused were practicing magic, or
“witchcraft” as it then was called. I’ll hold off until later to
give an opinion about my ancestor’s guilt or lack of it but will say
my mother was convinced she was innocent. It was generally accepted in
the Martin household that the words on her memorial in Amesbury,
Massachusetts were true. She was, “An honest, hardworking, Christian
woman. Accused as a witch, tried and executed at Salem, July 19, 1692. A
martyr of superstition.”
Perhaps as a result, my parents were what you might call staunchly anti
Let me revise that statement. My mother was, which is perhaps a little
strange since it was my father’s side that had the witch in it. Now
that I think about it, I’m not sure what my father felt because I was
so young when he passed away. His two brothers were Methodist ministers,
and I recall now my mother saying he’d wanted to be one, too, but
she’d talked him out of it. She’d said she simply couldn’t be a
minister’s wife. Maybe it had to do with her husband’s
six-times-great grandmother having been hanged as a witch. Or maybe it
was something more than that. As an outward display of contempt for what
she considered a narrow-minded and dangerously-superstitious worldview,
she insisted on naming my sister “Susannah North Martin” after the
family martyr, which makes me wonder now if the connection between my
mother, whose name was Evelyn, and the first Susannah Martin wasn’t
somehow closer than it would appear at first glance.
Whatever the case may be, nowadays you’d think most people wouldn’t
care one way or the other if you had someone in the family who was
tried, convicted, and executed more than 300 years ago for what was then
the felony of witchcraft. It’s probably true most wouldn’t. But one
time, when it came out in conversation I was descended from one of the
Salem Witches, the mother of a girl I was dating gave me the strangest
look. It turned out she was a staunchly Christian lady—what my mother
would have called, with a hint of scorn in her voice, a “Bible
thumper.” Even in this modern age, this woman believed witches were
real, evil, and to be feared and shunned.
I guess she never watched Bewitched.
Caution: This Book May Challenge Your Beliefs
What happened in New England long ago was tragic and horrific, which is
why I suppose it still fascinates so many of us today. At the very
least, it makes us think and wonder. And if someone you are directly
descended from was caught up in it and actually killed by it—well, you
might say having a witch in the family makes you look at things
differently than you otherwise might. For one thing, you don’t
automatically assume people in authority know what they’re talking
about. In my own case, I almost always submit to an internal compass
what is said by Church leaders, people in positions of authority in
government or science, or in practically any discipline for that matter.
My tendency is hold off on accepting what they say is true until some
evidence or pattern causes it to click into place in my gut. Even when
things do resonate with truth, I remain open to the possibility that I,
or they, might be wrong, or that whatever I had accepted as being one
way might in light of new evidence be subject to revision, however
slight. The result of this inherent skepticism is that I’ve been
forced to change my worldview many times over the years. This holds even
for my mother’s assumptions concerning the witch trials in New
England, and our ancestor’s guilt or lack of it.
Let’s talk about belief systems. To me, you might compare one to a
stack of cans like you might see in a grocery store, containing peas or
soup, which forms a pyramid. Each can represents an individual belief.
All are in place and fit together to form a worldview that makes sense
because everything belongs where it is and holds the other cans in
What happens if hard evidence turns up that refutes one of the beliefs,
especially one of the key supports near the bottom? Suppose if you
remove or change that can, the whole stack will come tumbling down?
If you’re honest with yourself, that can of peas will have to go, even
though you may be left with a helluva mess. If your are a seeker of
truth, you will be compelled to remove an erroneous belief even though
your pyramid of cans will have to be reconstructed from the ground up.
The Case of the Great Sphinx at Giza
Let me give you an example of the reaction of a scientific community to
new information which if accepted would have upset long and dearly held
theories. For many years the body of the Great Sphinx at Giza, Egypt,
was covered with sand. The reason was that it is lower than the
surrounding area. No one disputes that in its natural state the part of
the Sphinx that’s now the head was an outcropping of rock sticking out
of the ground. The Egyptians, or perhaps some other ancient people, as
we will see, thought this rock could be carved into the head of an
animal or a king, and they did so. At some point, maybe at the same
time, the rest of the rock was uncovered and carved into a body to go
with it. Over the years sand storms covered it up again. But today the
sand has been cleared away and the body is exposed.
Not long ago, a geologist happened to notice that the body of the Sphinx
appears to have been badly worn by water. The rock is clearly eroded,
and small gullies can be seen all over it. Other geologists were
consulted. The type of rock the Sphinx is made of was compared with the
same type of rock that indeed had been worn away by water. Sure enough,
without doubt the Sphinx’s body has suffered water erosion.
How could this be? As we all know the Sphinx is located in the middle of
a desert where it almost never rains. According to textbooks,
Egyptologists, and tradition, the head of the Sphinx is a sculpture of
King Khafre of Egypt who lived about 4500 years ago. The Sphinx is
supposed to have been carved during his rein. Yet meteorologists who
study ancient weather patterns say the climate of Giza was pretty much
the same 4500 years ago as it is today. For there to have been enough
rain to cause the type of erosion in evidence, the Sphinx would have to
have been in existence for more than twice that long. Way back
then—9,000 to 14,000 years ago—the weather of the area would have
been similar to the African savanna with a season when rain poured down
for several months each year. This would easily have caused the erosion.
When I learned this, my reaction was that the Sphinx must be a heckuva
lot older than anyone previously thought. Some sort of civilization must
have existed before the Egyptians, or at least a group of people smart
and industrious enough to have carved the outcropping into a head, clear
away and expose the base, and carve it into the body of the animal.
Indeed, such a theory has been put forth. Close examination of the head
reveals the current sculpture that resembles King Khafre may have been
reworked from an earlier one that depicted an animal’s head. It
doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture an ancient
civilization of hunter gatherer people on the savanna digging out the
outcropping and carving it into the shape of a lion, for example. Humans
have had the mental ability to do this sort of thing for at least as
long as the cave paintings have existed in France and Spain, and
that’s 30,000 or 40,000 years. It isn’t hard to imagine the
Egyptians coming along later and adapting an already ancient monolith
for their own purposes.
What do you suppose was the reaction of the scientific community of
Egyptologists to all of this?
Why, naturally, it was to reject it out of hand. No kidding.
They have refused to listen—have totally rejected the whole idea. They
have too much invested in the belief that Egyptians created the Sphinx.
To admit the possibility of anything else would be to jeopardize
Egypt’s claim to be the first true civilization on earth. These
scientists are simply not going to let something like water erosion on
the body of the Sphinx cause them to rethink and let go of positions
they hold dear. Accepting the erosion even exists would mean theories
they hold about how the Sphinx came to be would have to be revised. For
most of them a matter of pride may be at stake since the majority are
Egyptians themselves and feel good about their ancestors having produced
the first civilization. And for some it may be a matter of religious
faith. As followers of Islam they trace their lineage back through
Abraham all the way to Adam and Eve. If one calculates how long humans
have been around based on the number of generations listed in the Bible,
the figure is approximately 4500 to 5000 years. No way the Sphinx could
be older than that, right?
My objective in telling you this story is to put you on notice. Be
prepared. This book contains information that may cause it to be
necessary to reconstruct your worldview. If this turns out to be the
case, the best way for you to react is to be glad. You will be in closer
touch with reality, even though your new worldview may be out of sync
with that held by many living now, in the twenty-first century.
Witchcraft in the Seventeenth Century
Let’s take a look at New England in the late seventeenth century.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that in 1692 mass hysteria and rampant
paranoia swept the New England countryside. People in the small village
of Salem, and indeed across the whole of Essex County Massachusetts,
were being accused of casting spells, of consorting with the devil, of
being witches. This persecution was a relatively rare phenomenon in
America. But there was nothing at all new about it in western
civilization. Throughout France, Italy, Germany, and England,
witch-hunts had been going on and commonplace for 300 years. Some think
millions may have been executed, but most historians now dispute that
figure. According to reliable sources, from the fourteenth through the
sixteenth centuries, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people were executed.
Many, like Joan of Arc, were burned at the stake.
Witches Were Condemned by the Bible
In those days, people believed what was written in the Bible was
literally the word of God. This isn’t hard to believe since plenty of
Christians still do today, particularly members of evangelical
churches. They call themselves “Bible inerrantists” and say they
believe what the Bible contains is literally the word of God put down on
papyrus or on clay tablets by Moses, the prophets, the disciples and
others who were selected by God for the task. They hold that what is
written is infallible, and that we are to live by it on a daily basis.
Where does it say witches should be put to death?
The Ten Commandments are given in Chapter Twenty of the Book of Exodus,
and are followed by a host of smaller commandments and the punishments
to be meted out for breaking them. If someone steals an ox, for example,
and slaughters it or sells it, and that person gets caught, he must pay
back five head of cattle to settle the score. Stealing a sheep, on the
other hand, only requires the pay back of four sheep. If a man seduces
and sleeps with a virgin who is not betrothed, he must pay the bride
price, presumably to her father, and marry her anyway. And on it goes.
Exodus 22:18 says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” That’s
the King James translation, which is what our New England forefathers
would have been familiar with. A more recent translation, the New
International Version puts it this way: “Do not allow a sorceress to
live.” Either way, it’s pretty clear what’s to be done with people
who conjure up spells and work magic. They are to be put to death, no
doubt because they called on spirits other than Yahweh, the Old
Testament God of the Jews. As you may recall from Sunday school, the Old
Testament God is a jealous God and it was a big no-no to cavort with or
worship others. “You shall have no other gods before me” tops the
list of the Ten Commandments.
Despite this biblical condemnation, however, the record shows that early
Christians were relatively tolerant of paganism and sorcery. The apostle
Paul, who was the most prolific of the early Christian evangelists,
spent the majority of his ministry converting as many gentiles as
possible. Gentiles were pagans, and what in the seventeenth century
would have been labeled “witchcraft” was rampant among them. Paul
was a smart guy and realized that putting these heathens to death would
not win friends or influence people in a positive way. As a result, he
took a “when in Rome do as the Romans” approach and even persuaded
other Church leaders of the time, including the top guy, Peter, that
gentiles who wished to become Christians should not be required to
follow Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised. This became Church canon
in spite of Old Testament laws and commandments spelling out what was
permissible and what wasn’t. So you might say the new followers of
“the way,” as Christianity then was called, were selective about
which commandments—after the big ten—they followed. They even
ditched one altogether—remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. As
God had rested on the seventh day, Saturday, so were the Jews to rest.
Christians moved their day of worship to the first day of the
But that was in the days the Church was reaching out for new followers.
Some historians say that as the Roman Catholic Church began to
consolidate its power—once it became the official state religion of
the Roman Empire, and later of other countries such as Spain and France,
heretics were looked upon as enemies. By 1231 Pope Gregory IX instituted
the Inquisition in order to expose and punish heresy, and from that
point forward the practice of magic and sorcery was dangerous business.
After all, what it boiled down to was a religion in competition with
Christianity, and a threat to the authority of the Church and its
leaders. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared witchcraft a heresy, the
punishment for which was death. Superstitious villagers often conducted
witch-hunts. More than a few historians think when animosities and
tensions arose among people, a witch-hunt was a way to get rid of real
or imagined enemies. The authorities rarely did anything to stop them.
Many people probably did believe their neighbors to be sorcerers and
were afraid of them. And I’m willing to bet many actually were
practicing magic. After all, some in our modern, twenty-first century
world claim to be witches. Why wouldn’t witches have existed then?
In Chesterfield County Virginia, which borders on the city where I live,
county meetings are opened with a prayer. Apparently the ACLU hasn’t
learned of this. Anyhow, the honor of giving the invocation is rotated
among Christian and Jewish clergy. A resident of Chesterfield, Cyndi
Simpson, is a Wiccan priestess, also known as a witch, affiliated with
the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations—a church that,
according to its web site, does not require its members to subscribe to
any particular creed. Cyndi asked the Chesterfield County Board of
Supervisors to add her name to the list of ministers, rabbis, and
priests who give invocations at the meetings. Her hope, she said, was to
give a generalized invocation “to the creator of the universe” in
order to help rid the community of misconceptions about witches and
Wiccans. You see, in Virginia and probably many other places, Wicca and
other neo-pagan religions are often associated with Satanism. According
to Cyndi this is wrong. She is quoted in the local newspaper as saying,
“I wasn’t going to talk about the Goddess. I was going to call the
elements, maybe offer up an invocation to the highest being— something
that would be non-secular. But they didn’t want any of that. One of
the board supervisors called Wicca a mockery.”
Cyndi took her case to court and lost.
So, according to Cyndi Simpson and other Wiccans, modern witches are
not, for the most part, devil worshipers. “Satanists” are. The web
site of the Church of Satan says that the organization has about 10,000
members in the United States today.
But Cyndi says that organization is not to be confused with Wicca and
witchcraft, which according a Wicca web site is “a pantheistic
religion that incorporates spirituality, divinity and nature.” Wicca,
it says, is a peaceful, harmonious and balanced way of thinking and
life that promotes oneness with the Divine and all that exists. Because
most modern witches, it says, believe every living thing springs from
and has the Divine at its core, Wiccans do not believe in working evil
spells, adding that most believe in the Wiccan Rede, which states, “An
[sic] it harm none, do what you will.” This web site goes on to
explain the threefold rule: that anything a person does, any energy she
sends out will come back to her, magnified. Do good and good will return
to you. Do evil and evil will come back. Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote,
“A man reaps what he sows.” On this, Christianity and most religions
of the world agree.
Guarding Against Fallacious Witchcraft Accusations
Actually, perhaps Virginia is not so backward. In the middle of the
seventeenth century a law was passed in what is now the Old Dominion to
prevent people from arbitrarily charging others with witchcraft. Anyone
who accused someone and could not produce substantial proof could be
fined the amount of fifteen hundred pounds of tobacco. That’s the
equivalent of a full year’s production for a small planter.
But no such law existed in New England, and a number of folks in Salem
Village sowed some pretty nasty stuff. It appears at least one
individual reaped what he sowed. On July 19, 1692, five women, including
my ancestor, Susannah North Martin, were hanged. When one of the women,
Sarah Good, stood at the gallows ready to die, she was asked once more
by Reverend Nicholas Noyes, assistant minister of the Salem Town church,
to confess and in so doing save her soul. Rather than do so, she is said
to have screamed, “You are a liar! I am no more a witch than you are a
wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to
The curse came true. Twenty-five years later, as Noyes lay dying, he
choked on his own blood.
Stay tuned. In the next chapter, we will begin to take a closer look at
the life and the times of Essex County, Massachusetts in 1692.
Excerpted from "A Witch in the Family" by Stephen Hawley Martin. Copyright © 2017 by Stephen Hawley Martin. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.