Accused of Witchcraft
Born Margaret Stevenson in England in about the year 1615, she first appeared in the record books in 1642, when she married Benjamin Scott. Initially the Scotts lived in Braintree, Massachusetts, but later moved to Cambridge where they had four children between 1644 and 1650. The Scott family arrived in Rowley (a small town north of Salem) in 1651, where Margaret gave birth to three additional children.
The Scotts lacked the money to purchase their own land, and in 1664 the town donated land to Benjamin Scott. In March of 1665, Benjamin Scott was convicted of the crime of theft, for which he was “fined and admonished.” However, six months later he took the Freeman’s Oath, indicating he was both a householder and a church member.
Benjamin Scott died in 1671 leaving an estate worth only 67 pounds and 17 shillings, not much by the standards of that time. Margaret had to live on that estate for the next twenty-one years, and by the time of the Salem trials must have been very poor.
At first glance, Margaret Scott seems to have lived an uneventful life, but certain aspects of her character made her a very likely candidate as a witch suspect. One such aspect was the high infant mortality rate among her children. Women in New England who had trouble raising children were very vulnerable to witchcraft charges.
Out of Margaret’s seven children, only three made it to adulthood. Only one of her three children born in Rowley lived to adulthood. The residents of Rowley would have been well aware of her high infant mortality rate. Still, by the time of the witchcraft trials, 77-year-old Margaret Scott had as many as eleven grandchildren.
Another factor that made her vulnerable to accusations was her status as a widow for twenty-one years. Being a widow did not in itself expose a woman to suspicion, but Scott suffered from the economic and social effects of being a widow for a prolonged period. The most dangerous aspect of being a widow was the lack of a husband for legal support and influence.
Often widows who were over fifty and not wealthy, were unable to find a new spouse, and were reduced to poverty and begging. By begging, the widow exposed herself to witchcraft suspicions, according to what historian Robin Briggs calls the refusal guilt syndrome. This occurred when a beggar’s needs were refused, which caused feelings of guilt and aggression on the refuser’s part. The refuser projected this aggression on the beggar and grew suspicious of her.
Some of the depositions against Scott did involve misfortunes occurring to people who had denied her a service or food. Perhaps Scott actually used her reputation to receive favors, which could be very effective. If people believed that Scott was a witch, they might have eagerly given her what she asked out of fear of retaliation. However, if someone refused Scott and then fell on bad circumstances, witchcraft accusations were almost a certainty.
Evidence suggests that Scott’s suffering and dependence on begging resulted in part from a lack of familial support. Only Margaret Scott’s son Benjamin stayed in Rowley. When she was accused of witchcraft, Benjamin, who had six children of his own at the time, probably lacked the time and money to pursue a legal defense of his mother.
Margaret Scott was formally accused of witchcraft by Rowley’s most distinguished citizens – the Wicoms and the Nelsons. Formal charges were filed after the daughter of Captain Daniel Wicom became afflicted by witchcraft. The Nelsons helped produce witnesses, and one of the Nelsons sat on the grand jury that indicted her.
By the time Margaret Scott appeared in front of the court, critics of the Salem Witchcraft Trials had become more vocal, expressing concern over the wide use of spectral evidence – testimony that the accused witch’s spirit (spector) had appeared to the witness in a dream or vision – in the Salem trials.
Both the Nelsons and the Wicoms also provided maleficium evidence – a witch’s destruction of one’s property, health, or family – against Margaret Scott. Both testimonies show evidence of the refusal guilt syndrome.
Of the six depositions presented before the Salem Court on September 15, 1692, four described the spectral image of Margaret Scott tormenting others. The spectral evidence came from the depositions of young women who may have been influenced by their paranoia surrounding Indian hostilities, social pressures, and religious beliefs. Some depositions showed that many people suspected Scott was a witch long before 1692.
Frances Wicom testified that Margaret Scott’s specter tormented her on many occasions. Several factors may have led to her testimony, including her home environment and its relationship with Indian conflicts. She undoubtedly heard firsthand accounts of bloody conflicts with Indians from her father, who was a captain in the militia. New evidence shows that a direct correlation can be found between anxiety over Indian wars and witchcraft accusations.
Another girl tormented by Margaret Scott’s specter was Mary Daniel. Records show that Mary Daniel probably was a servant in the household of Rowley’s minister, Edward Payson. If Mary Daniel worked for Mr. Payson, her religious surroundings could well have had an effect on her actions. Recent converts to Puritanism felt inadequate and unworthy, and at times displaced their worries through possession and other violent experiences.
The third girl to be tormented spectrally was Sarah Coleman. Sarah was born in Rowley, but lived most of her life in the neighboring town of Newbury. Sarah testified that the spector of Margaret Scott started to afflict her on August 15, which was only four days before the execution of five other accused witches, which would have brought considerable attention to the Salem proceedings.
Margaret’s case included spectral evidence, but it also involved a lot of maleficium evidence, and she exhibited many characteristics that were believed to be common among witches in New England. To the judges at Salem, Margaret Scott was a perfect candidate to highlight the court’s effectiveness, and silence the opposition. They might have taken the opportunity to prosecute her to bolster their own reputation.
In the end, Margaret Scott was found guilty of witchcraft due to prolonged suspicion of her character, the spectral and maleficium evidence provided at her trial, and the prominence of the accusers in her community.
On September 22, 1692, Margaret Stevenson Scott was hanged by the neck until dead on Gallows Hill, Salem, Massachusetts – the last of the executions there during the witchcraft trials
In the spring of 1693, Governor William Phipps signed pardons for the accused who were still in prison. It took until 1697 for the court to admit wrongdoing. The General Court ordered a day of fasting, and declared the 1692 trials unlawful. During the early 1700s, Salem passed a bill stating that those accused had their good name and rights as citizens restored – a bit late for those who had been hanged.