Salem Witchcraft Trials
From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, Massachusetts, for hanging. Another man of over eighty years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft. Dozens languished in jail for months without trials.
Mary Ayer, daughter to John and Hannah Ayer, married Nathanial Parker. She was 55 years old and a widow in 1692. Mary was accused of witchcraft, but refused to confess during the witchcraft trials saying, “I know nothing of it, there is another woman of the same name in Andover.”
She was referring to her sister-in-law, Mary Parker, the aged and senile widow of Joseph Parker, who had a documented history of mental instability. Essex County Court records from the period show that both Joseph’s wife and his son Thomas were perceived to be mentally ill. And at the time, insanity was sometimes associated with other deviant behavior, including witchcraft.
In fact, there were not one but three other Mary Parkers in Andover. The reputation of “Mary Parker” was further tarnished by the lengthy criminal history of a fourth Mary Parker from Salem Town. Throughout the 1670s, that Mary appeared in Essex County Court a number of times for fornication offenses, child support charges, and extended indenture for having a child out of wedlock. She was a scandalous figure and undoubtedly contributed greatly to negative associations with the name Mary Parker.
A disreputable name could have been enough to kill the wrong woman, in a society where the literate were the minority, and the spoken word was the most damaging. Gossip, passed from household to household and from town to town was the most prevalent source of information. The damaged reputation of one woman could be confused with another as tales of “Goody so-and-so” filtered through the community.
William Barker Jr., who testified against Mary Ayer Parker, may have been confused as well. In his own confession, William accused a Goody Parker, but he didn’t specify which Goody Parker he meant. There was a good possibility that Barker heard gossip about one Goody Parker or the other, and the magistrates of the court issued a warrant for the arrest of Mary Ayer Parker without making sure they had the right woman.
Generally, the process of the trials consisted of citizens making complaints against individuals who were then brought before magistrates for preliminary hearings. When the magistrates felt that there was sufficient evidence for a trial, the accused was jailed pending a hearing before a grand jury. And if those juries handed up a “true bill” (signifying evidence of misbehavior), a formal trial by jury could follow.
The formal trial followed 17th-century English precedents, in which the accused were not represented by lawyers but could question accusers and witnesses. Most, however, were not emotionally or intellectually equipped to defend themselves against a hanging court and hysterical witnesses – more than forty persons confessed to being witches. The historical irony is that only those who did not confess to being witches were actually tried and convicted.
Mary Ayer Parker was convicted on little evidence, and even that seems tainted and misconstrued. The Salem trials did her no justice, and her treatment was indicative of the chaos and ineffectualness that had overtaken the Salem trials by the fall of 1692.
In less than one month, she was arrested, examined, found guilty, and executed. Historians have paid little attention to her case, one in which it is nevertheless possible to discern where confusion and conspiracy could have arisen, leading to her untimely death.
Image: Mary Parker Memorial
On September 17, 1692, Mary Ayer Parker was tried and condemned to death. On September 22, 1692, she and Martha Corey, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, and Samuel Wardwell were hanged on Gallows Hill.