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.