On a damp and dreary Sept. 22, 1692, in Salem, Mass., the hangman carried Mary Towne Easty, 58, up the ladder to a rope tied to a branch. He pulled its noose over her neck, then dropped her to her death. It need not have been so.
One of her accusers, Mary Herrick, about 17, alleged Mary Easty (also spelled Esty, Eastey, Estey, or Estye) “appeared” to her just before she was executed, and said, “I am going upon the Ladder to be hanged for a Witch, but I am innocent, and before a 12 Month be past you shall believe it.”
Judge Samuel Sewell, one of the magistrates at Mary Easty’s trial, made public apology five years later for his part in her condemnation. He fasted Thursdays thereafter as penance.
In 1711, the legislature compensated Isaac Easty 20 pounds for the wrongful execution of his wife.
It should not have been so. Mary Easty could have escaped death by “confessing” to witchcraft. “Confessing witches” were those accused who, fearing for their lives, pleaded guilty. Confessors were spared death.
A man named Easty Voter was buried in a graveyard in Franklin County’s New Vineyard, just off Barker Road in 1856. The footstone, with “E.V.” engraved, still marks the place.
The use of Easty as his baptismal name may have been taken from Mary Easty, his great-great-grandmother. The Franklin County reunion of the Voter family, held each July in the town of Strong for descendants of Easty Voter, is aware of the relationship.
Mary Towne Easty was the mother of eight sons and three daughters, and had at least 22 grandsons and granddaughters.
Although thousands have descended from Mary Easty in the 320 years since her death, most of them do not bear her Easty surname, and fewer still a Voter surname.
How many of her descendants know they had a great-grandmother who kept her Puritan faith rather than her life, and pleaded with her judges that “no other innocent blood be shed”?
Her judges were not swayed and her life was taken, but the court condemned no one thereafter. Few, if any, in New England have been executed for witchcraft since that bleak Thursday 320 years ago.
In Europe, tens of thousands had been accused of witchcraft, tortured, tried, condemned and burned at the stake or hanged. In Scotland alone 4,000 were executed. In Salem, the number was 20. Witches in Europe had been hunted for centuries. In Salem, the witch hunt began and ended in 1692.
The clergy of Boston, among the most respected and educated class in the colony, believed witchcraft was real and dangerous. According to the Hebrew scriptures, the Lord said to Moses, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
The diagnosis of witchcraft in Salem was first made by the doctor who attended the minister’s teenage daughter. Finding no physical cause for her malady, he pronounced its cause to be witchcraft.
Massachusetts was a colony of England, and English law for centuries had ruled that witchcraft was a crime punishable by death and forfeiture of the felon’s “goods and chattels.”
Salem’s troubles, initiated by the accusations of several hysterical and histrionic girls, were compounded by family jealousies, economic envies and fear of disease and death. What or who caused these evils? How could the colony be purged of them?
They practiced the age-old solution: Lay blame and punish the blamed.
Mary Easty believed witchcraft to be real and evil. So did the clergy and the Salem magistrates. So did the populace in Europe and America. But Mary knew she was not a witch. She knew others had been falsely accused.
She knew the “afflicted girls” “belied” themselves. She urged her judges to examine these girls separately, and also to question the “confessed” witches individually. Were that done, their “wiles and subtleties” would be exposed. They have since been exposed, but too late for Mary.
Mary Easty’s petition to the court, not necessarily in her own hand, is still in existence, kept in Massachusetts archives. It is is paraphrased here, using today’s English:
“God knowing I am innocent, … your petitioner respectfully requests your Honors to consider that other accused persons are innocent too. … I ask that no more innocent blood be shed, as it will surely be if you continue going the wrong way.
“I have not confessed and will not, for I am innocent as the Lord, searcher of all hearts, knows. The girls say I will not confess because I am in league with the Devil. They lie about me, and they lie about the others they have falsely accused. I know not the least thing of witchcraft. I cannot, I dare not, betray my own soul. I beg your Honors not to deny this petition from a condemned but innocent person.”
Historian George Lincoln Burr wrote, “More than once it has been said that the Salem witchcraft [hysteria] was the rock on which theocracy shattered.” If so, the rock that helped shatter it was the selfless plea of an ordinary, honest and faithful church woman.
Mary Towne Easty was my great-grandmother, seven generations back.
Any person may receive gifts of faith, courage and conviction such as she exhibited, and descendancy is of no advantage in acquiring them. Yet somehow a bloodline gives special meaning to her example.
Who among us would keep faith at the cost of life? She did. Let us hope, by God’s grace, none again need make the choice.
Sherwood W. Anderson lives in New Vineyard.