Martha Carrier  
By Kate Murphy

Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001

Best remembered in popular lore as the 'rampant hag' described by Cotton Mather, modern historical studies demonstrate that Martha Carrier was a victim of Salem's outbreak of witchcraft accusations. Carrier was accused of being in league with the devil by the circle of "afflicted" girls, neighbors and even her own children, and hanged as a witch on August 19, 1692. Like many of accused witches, Carrier was a poor, disagreeable woman, for whom this was not the first accusation of witchcraft.

Born Martha Allen, daughter of one of the original founders of the Massachusetts town of Andover, in 1674 Martha married below her station to a young Welsh servant and father of her illegitimate child, Thomas Carrier. Living for a few years in Billerica, the couple returned to Andover in the 1680's with very little money and four children. Martha's independent spirit and lack of deference seem to have quickly alienated her from the rest of the community. The turning point came in 1690 when a smallpox epidemic erupted in the town. Although her family, particularly the men, accounted for 7 of the 13 who died of smallpox in the town, the community of Andover blamed Martha for the tragedy.

Carrier's reputation as a witch found new expression two years later when the outbreak in Salem began. As the testimony of the circle of accusing girls reflected, the Salem community was well aware of Andover's gossip. Susan Sheldon, Mary Walcot, Elizabeth Hubbard and Ann Putnam screamed before the court that they could see the 13 ghosts of Andover. Other neighbors accused her of maleficium, testifying that after harsh words from her, evil things like sick or dead animals or strange illnesses befell them. During her courtroom examination, however, Carrier stood her ground and boldly asserted that those who accused her lied. Asked if she could then look upon the girls, seemingly possessed, without their writhing in pain, she said she would not, for "they will dissemble if I look upon them." Later, she admonished the magistrates, saying "it is a shamefull thing that you should mind these folks that are out of their wits."

Accusations of witchcraft extended beyond Martha to the rest of her family. Her sons Richard and Andrew, ages 18 and 15 respectively, were tied neck to heels until blood was ready to come out of their noses. Under such intense pressure, Martha's own children, including seven-year-old Sarah and ten-year-old Thomas, Jr., testified against her and confessed themselves to be witches. Young Sarah told the court that she had been a "witch Ever Since She was Six years Old that her Moth'r brought a red book to her and She touched it." The assistant minister Thomas Barnard who was responsible for these confessions, managed to get confessions from all but two of accused witches, including Martha, who were also members of his congregation.

One explanation for the targeting of the Carrier family depends upon a conspiracy theory that holds that the motive of the Andover accusations was to punish and remove political power and social influence from the founding families of Andover. According to the originator of this theory, Enders Robinson, (see his book, Salem Witchcraft) a group of ten accusers were in league with Andover's assistant minister Rev. Thomas Barnard in order to gain control over the town's affairs by discrediting the senior minister, Rev. Francis Dane, and the leading families through witchcraft accusations. Robinson points to the concentration of Andover accusations within families were either related to Rev. Francis Dane or to the powerful founding families. Although the correspondence he finds between these groups is interesting, there is no strong evidence supporting such a conspiracy.

An alternative explanation, put forward by Carol Karlsen in her book ,I The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, blames the disruption to the existing socio-economic order that women inheriting a significant amount of money or property would cause. Karlsen argues that a sizable group of accused women were not the typical marginalized women, but wealthy and prominent members of the community, who shared an unusual place within society as primary heirs to money and property. Although Martha might have inherited some property after the majority of her male relatives died in the smallpox epidemic of 1690, such an inheritance would have been minimal. More likely, Martha's established reputation as a witch and as a disagreeable woman made her a target once the momentum of accusations got out of control in Salem.

Bibliography

Enders Robinson, Salem Wichcraft: And Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables,1992.

Carol Karlson, Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 1998.