My Ancestral Ties to the Salem Witch Trials

(Reposted from an earlier post, mysteriously lost from my blog)

In 1760 a plot of land was laid out like this: “Beginning at a beech tree marked, it being the northeast corner, boundary of Samuel Gustin’s land; thence north 11 rods to a beech…” and thus it goes around the perimeter of the property from beech to spruce to the hemlock with stones by it.  Quaint.  And so it was while perusing old Mack family annals (Highland Scots who settled in New England) that we came upon something quite interesting but not nearly as charming–a direct link to the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

According to these records, the first Mack arrival in the New World, John, (born in 1653) emigrated from Inverness and married Sarah Bagley in Boston in 1681. She was the daughter of Orlando (note the name) and Sarah Bagley. Orlando Bagley was a man of considerable influence in the district, a constable, who apprehended his friend and neighbor, Susannah Martin, for a witch.  Good heavens, we have an ancestor at least partly responsible for the death of this unfortunate woman. (I have since learned, that Orlando’s son was also called Orlando, and it is likely he was the one responsible for arresting Susanna, as the older Bagley was deceased by this time.)

Back to the Macks; an early genealogist says the name wasn’t an abbreviation of some other such as MacDonald or McKenzie, but that they were a family of sufficient importance to have a Coat of Arms in Scotland with a Latin motto indicating they were hard workers and hopeful, of good estates and families, of liberal education, and of large experience, and they were strict Puritans. Seems it was a good enough family name to warrant admission into the upstanding Bagleys who were among the earliest Puritan settlers of Amesbury, Massachusetts.

I discovered more about Orlando Bagley and his ill-fated neighbor, Susanna Martin, at these sites:

I watched (on Netflix) a History Channel documentary about the Salem Witch trials and combined that with the information I’ve gleaned elsewhere.  A most bizarre period of history.  Adolescent girls and young women insisted specters appeared to them in various forms, as animals or that of the accused themselves, and cruelly abused them.  Pinching and hitting them…the girls then continued these hysterics in court with lethal effect.

Panic spread far and wide with neighbor after neighbor falling under the malignant shadow until “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, 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 (*some of them dying there) without trials until the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts subsided.”
The above quote is from:

Women in that rigidly defined community had no voice or authority, but these girls wielded an almighty power over everyone by simply pointing their fingers.  The power must have gone to their heads, along with the dizzying attention they gloried in.  However, I wonder, had they no conscience?  So many innocent people suffered and died as a result of this craze.  For a people obsessed with the fate of their immortal souls, would this not weigh heavily upon them?  Only one girl ever offered an apology.

Oddly, the individual who bore any real resemblance to a witch, the young slave woman, Tituba, who lit the initial powder keg with strange Voodoo practices from her South American background, was never hung.  She confessed (possibly after a beating) and then joined with the girls in naming suspected witches. Maybe it was payback for her slavery.  I don’t know, but she’s also responsible for taking a lot of people down.

I’ve also read about and seen a documentary suggesting there may have been an outbreak in Salem at that time of ergot poisoning (a mold similar to LSD) on the rye used for bread making.  Symptoms of such poisoning include hallucinations and physical pain which may account for some of the girls symptoms, but why only them?  Wouldn’t more people have been afflicted? Maybe more were and that’s why they tossed all reason to the wind.

As for allowing ‘spectral’ evidence as testimony, this was previously unheard of at witch trials and Salem is unique in that regard.  There were other time-honored methods for ferreting out a witch.  For example, the water test–if you sank you were innocent; if you floated, guilty, of course, and then you were put to death.  Or, strip the supposed witch, shave her entire body, then carefully examine every inch of her for a ‘devil’s’ mark.  I’ll bet a lot of men preferred this method. Woe unto you, if you had any funny shaped moles or birthmarks.

Spectral evidence based on gyrating girls shrieking that you came to them in a way that only they could see and caused excruciating torment while enticing them to make a pact with Satan was a no win scenario for the accused.  Any and all denials were met with increased screams and accusations.  Only if you confessed your sin,did they fall silent.  Then you were free to go; God alone being your judge, which makes no sense to me.  Crucify the innocent, or gain confessions from the so-called damned, thus freeing them.  But those truly concerned for the state of their souls refused to make such a blasphemous admission, preferring death.

To understand the mindset of these Salem Puritans is almost impossible, but I’ll try.  It seems they were terrified of the dark forest.  Though only six miles from the coast, Salem was on the edge of the wilderness.  The dreaded Indians dwelt in the woods, and the settlers feared Satan also brooded over the forest.  Disease and misfortune were attributed to evil entities.  Deeply insecure and preoccupied with horror of the dark forces, they sought its manifestation in everything and everyone.  And you tend to find what you look for.  Particularly when fear of the demonic is mixed in with an extremely judgmental community, resentment toward your neighbor, a means to get even, and young actresses happy to oblige you with a stellar performance.

There’s a vast deal more to be said on the subject and I may continue this post another time.  Meanwhile, if you know anything of my distant ancestor Orlando Bagley (sounds straight out of the Shire) and his part in the trial and execution of Susanna Martin, I’d be glad to know more.  And to her descendants, in behalf of our family, I offer my deepest apology.

*Two more interesting sites about the Salem Witch Trials:

18 responses to “My Ancestral Ties to the Salem Witch Trials

  1. Interesting post. We have our own story in Virginia Beach of The Witch of Pungo. Grace Sherwood was dunked in a pond to drown. She didn’t drown because she knew how to swim. She was singled out as a witch by a neighbor who wanted her land. She wouldn’t sell so he accused her. She kept her land and was still under suspicion, but never harassed again. Governor Kane pardoned her after 300 years during the Williamsburg 400th Anniversary. On Witchduck on the property of Sentera Bayside Hospital there is a statue of her with a basket of herbs with a fawn at her side.

    Most women accused of witchcraft were healers. Male doctors didn’t like the competition, especially since the women knew more than the doctors did. The doctors used cures that killed more patients than cured. The same herbs the women used are used in modern medicine.

    It is interesting when you have both good and bad in your ancestry. I think it is cool.



  2. Thanks Ray. I recently read about the Witch of Pungo, very interesting much misunderstood woman. I’m sure your assumptions are quite right. Yes, both good and bad in my ancestry. 🙂 Probably in everyone’s.


  3. I don’t know about the ancestry of my parents, but on my wife’s maternal ancestry side there are the James brothers.



  4. I never had a chance to visit Salem although we lived in Boston for many years and it wasn’t too far. You have scary ancestors <beth!!


  5. I’ve never visited either, but would like to. Yes, I fear so, Mona.


  6. I just finished reading The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. It was a fascinating book, where she goes back and forth between now and the past. The author also had ties to the witches of Salem – one who lived and one who was killed.


  7. I love this period in history, studied it in college, and have ancestral ties to the region. I wrote a tome of a novel set in Salem Village, probably at least 150,000 words long, on a word processor back in my distant youth. I still have a paper copy (along with a worthless floppy disc.) One of these days I may have to see if I can salvage a publishable book from it! Terrific blog, Beth.


  8. My husband has ancestral ties to that area and I’ve wondered if he had ancestors involved in the Salem trials. I’m fascinated by that subject, and thank you for this post.


    • Maybe you could do some research, Caroline. I’m fascinated too. Obviously. 🙂 I also wonder, whatever happened to the Puritans? No one says, ‘I’m a Puritan,’ anymore.


  9. Great Blog. I too have ancestors who suffered. When reading about the witch hunt you will see a reference to Goodwife (Goody) Merritt. That’s my family…..we got hung. For years I tried to see if I could do magic and make a few people disapear. But alas, the witch gene was not passed down.



  10. Katrina Bagley

    Hello! I too am a descendant of Orlando Bagley. Do you know where he came from? One record I have says that he was born in 1622 in England but other records say he was born in 1628 in Amesbury. I thought he was an immigrant. Thanks for this post- what a neat read!


    • Kewl Katrina. My mom gave me the information on Bagley, an ancestor on her father’s side. His people were Macks who came over from Scotland. I think the Bagleys are connected to the Macks but I need to go back and look up exactly how. We descend from female lines of the Bagley family so likely one of our Mack ancestors married a Bagley. I’ll look into this again and get back with you.


    • Very fun talking to you, Katrina. As I said in the above comment I’ll check with my mom and see what dates she has in the family annals. Yes, it would be fairly early in the 1600’s that the Bagleys emigrated.. Not sure where from for either. Mom sent all this info to me a while back.


  11. Katrina Bagley

    Oh sorry I just realized you are talking about Orlando Bagley Jr. The dates I posted above are for Orlando Bagley Sr. Do you know anything about him? The birth date I have for Orlando Bagley Jr. is Feb 18, 1658 in Boston


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