A Sketch of Bridget Bishop

by Mai-Linh Gonzales Westwood

The Salem witchcraft scare of 1692 was not a typical Puritan occurrence. It was an aberration that grew out of a number of tensions in the community. The Puritan principles that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded on had shifted some what. Instead of self reflection on personal sinfulness, people began to focus on the sinfulness of others. Religious leaders (such as Increase and Cotton Mather) had long preached about the power that Satan exercised on Earth through witches. Since it was a long held Puritan belief that Man was inherently evil, it was easy to blame community problems on people who were in the slightest way different. The Colony was also under close scrutiny in England and was bargaining with little success for its autonomy. In the resulting atmosphere of political tension, many citizens became scapegoats for general frustration. <1> Belief in witchcraft and community grudges combined with other tensions to bring about a witch hunt hysteria. A group of "afflicted" girls began to accuse various community members of bewitching them. Between June 10 and September 22, 1692, these accusations led to the deaths of nineteen Massachusetts men and women, and two dogs. Another man was pressed to death for refusing to plead to his indictment. When the executions had come to an end, fifty five people had confessed that they were witches, and 150 more were in jail awaiting trial. <2>

Bridget Bishop was the first victim in this famous series of trials. She was a victim of the focus on the sinfulness of others and desire to rid the community of any threats of evil. Bridget Bishop was not a typical woman of the times in dress, manner, or actions and had been persecuted for this in the past. She did not embody the stereotypical role of a submissive wife and this was threatening to the Puritan village. When the witchcraft hysteria swept through the village, Bridget Bishop was one of the first accused by the afflicted girls. An examination of the "evidence" brought forth during her examination and trial will show that, except for spectral evidence, Bridget Bishop's only "crime" was being slightly different from the rest of the community.

Although Brid et Bishop was a member in "full fellowship" of John Hale's church in Beverly, <3> "her freedom from the austerity of Puritan manners, and disregard of conventional decorum in conversation and conduct brought her into disrepute." <4> She was an easy target for the afflicted because of her flashy taste in dress, her smooth and flattering manner with men, and the questionable gaieties that had gone on in her tavern. <5> Her typical costume was described as including a black cap, a black hat, and a red paragon bodice bordered and looped with many different colors -- a showy outfit for the times. <6> She also possessed a great deal of laces about which her dyer, Samuel Shattuck, said "I always thought there was something questionable about the quality and style of those laces." <7> He also said that some of them were so small he saw no practical use for them.

Another difference between Bridget and the typical Puritan wife was the number of husbands she had. Although a woman's remarriage after the death of a husband was common, Bridget was an exception because she had three husbands during the course of her lifetime. Her first husband was a man by the name of Wasselbe. After his death, she was married to Thomas Oliver from 1666 until his death in 1679. Before the witchcraft trials, Bridget had twice visited the county courts because of violent public quarreling with this husband. Her third husband, Edward Bishop, was one of the founders of Beverly Church and very respected in Salem Village. <8> He was a sawyer (wood cutter) by trade. This was an indispensable occupation at the time and held high rank in the community. <9> After she married Edward Bishop in 1685, the "old Oliver house" was torn down and a new one erected to rent to tenants. <10>

For many years, Bridget (at the time Goody Oliver) had been under suspicion of witchcraft because of the accusations brought against her by Wonn, John Ingerson's Negro, who claimed that he saw her shape upon the beam of the hay house with an egg in her hand. <11> Although she had been rumored as being a witch as far back as King Phillip's War, the real gossip about Goody Bishop began when she opened up a tavern in her new home on Ipswich Road. <12> "Having already built up a long reputation for aggressive behavior in petty commercial transactions, Bridget soon turned the Bishop house into a place of late night conviviality where she sold cider manufactured from apples grown in her private orchard." <13> This unlicensed tavern seems to have been a rendezvous for local youths and traveling sailors. It became a popular complaint that she permitted young people to loiter at unseemly hours playing "shovel board" and making an uproar that disturbed the sleep of the decent neighbors. <14>

One night, one of her neighbors, Christine Trask, stormed into Bridget's tavern and threw some shovel board pieces into the fire because "Bishop did entertain some people in her house at unseasonable hours in the night, to keep drinking and playing at shovel board, whereby discord did arise in other families and young people were in danger of being corrupted." <15> The next morning Goody Trask told Minister Hale about the incident and shortly after fell into "a distracted state of mind." <16> She continued in this way for several months, except for a short time of sanity during which she made friends with Bridget Bishop. One day she asked for Goodman Bishop and apologized for any wrongs she might have done him. Later that same evening she fell into one of her fits and destroyed herself. Bridget Bishop was formally accused of murdering Christine Trask through witchcraft in 1686. She would have been convicted if it were not for the intervention of Minister Hale. Hale testified that to his knowledge Bridget Bishop was the victim of gross misrepresentation. He testified that when Trask was free of her malady, she "repented bitterly of what she had said and done of the Bishops and heartily desired their forgiveness." <17>

Even after her first trial, Bridget Bishop continued to "brave public sentiment by living in the same free and easy style, paying no regard to the scowls of the sanctimonious or the foolish tittle-tattle of the superstitious." <18> Under the circumstances in 1692, memories of the old incident were revived.

John Hale was giving much thought to the matter and praying that if the devil had deluded him before the Lord would now "open his eyes to the truth." <19>

Bridget Bishop was indicted again for witchcraft on April 19, 1692, along with Marry Warren, Giles Corey and Abigail Hobbs. <20> She was accused by Mercy Lewis and Ann Putnam. Her examination was held before John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin at the Corwin home. <21> Judge Hathorne asked her if she had bewitched her first husbands to death. She replied, "If it please your worship I know nothing of it." <22> The afflicted children were in fits the entire time and accused Bridget of attempting to make them sign the Devil's book." <23> One of the afflicted children claimed to see Bridget's "shape." Jonathan Walcott struck at it with his sword. His sister, Mary, claimed that he hit her and tore her coat. Upon examining Bridget, they found a small cut in her coat. It did not appear to be the direct cut of a sword but Jonathan justified this discrepancy by saying that his sword was in its sheath when he struck at her. <24> Another interesting fact is that Bridget appeared never to have been in Salem Village proper. During her examination she exclaimed, "I never was in this place before, I know no man, woman, or child here." <25> Because Bridget's history of problematic relationships with her neighbors "so thoroughly typified the career of the malefic witch," the fact that she knew no one in the courtroom was overlooked. <26> Bridget denied all accusations against her and when she looked up her eyes appeared to be tormented. <27> "I do not know what a witch is," she said flatly when asked if she was one. <28> After her examination she was put in Salem prison to await trial.

The judges assigned to deliberate over the Salem witchcraft trials were Bartholomew Gedney of Salem, Samuel Sewall, John Richards, William Sergeant, and Wait Winthrop of Boston, Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, and Deputy Governor Stoughton from Dorchester. <29> The judicial bench had never sought the advice of ministers on matters of criminal law, nor did it ever again, but while preparing for the witchcraft trials, the judges sought the advice of the ministers on the admissibility of spectral evidence (evidence invisible to the jurors). The ministerial fellowship led by Cotton Mather, avowed their belief in the invisible kingdom of the devil. <30> The ministers did not, however, condone the use of spectral evidence in the court room. Mather advised that instead of using spectral evidence to convict witches, that the Magistrates "employ aggressive methods to obtain confessions." If confessions were unobtainable, Mather recommended that the court search for witches marks and puppets as evidence of witchcraft. <31>

After a hectic two weeks of preparation, the special court of Oyer and Terminer opened for its first session on Friday, June 2, 1692. <32> Bridget Bishop was chosen as the first for trial because a conviction could be justified on such evidences. So far as this court was concerned, the examination was the trial; its records were reviewed not as hypotheses to be tested, but as facts already proved. The only new business was hearing the testimony that had been collected since the examination and jury deliberations. Cotton Mather described court procedure "with a kind of naive accuracy when he remarked 'there was little occasion to prove the witchcraft, this being evident and notorious to all beholders.'" <33>

Bridget Bishop was searched for witch marks just before the first day of trial and immediately after. The jury of women assigned to this task stuck pins into any part of her body which looked in any way out of the ordinary. In doing so they found a "witch's tet" between "ye pupendum and anus." <34> This "excrescence of flesh not usual in women" was said to be the preternatural mark with which she would suckle her devil in its familiar form (that of a small hairy animal). <35> On her second examination, just three hours later, this "tet" had withered to dry skin. <36> Many claimed the devil had removed his mark to protect her.

While walking with guards from the jail to the courtroom, Bridget cast her eye on the place of worship. It was said that as she did so a heavy roof timber inside the meetinghouse came crashing to the floor. <37> The moment that Bridget was brought into the courtroom the afflicted children fell into fits with loud cries and horrible convulsions. Their limbs were twisted and their faces contorted with grimaces of pain. <38> Then the litany of testimony began. Elizabeth Balch said that she had heard an argument between Bridget and her second husband. She did not think anything of it at the time, but reflecting on it recently some phrases stuck out in her mind. Goodman Oliver had said that Bridget was "a bad wife" and that "the devil had come bodily to her ... and she sat up all night with the devil. <39> Richard Coman testified that for three nights Bridget and three other women had appeared to him. On the third night, Coman slept with a sword at his side and asked a kinsman to sleep over. Although his friend could not see the women, he saw Coman struggle as the witches attempted to pull the sword away from him. <40> John Louder, the servant of Bridget Bishop's neighbor John Gedney, said that one night, after he told Bridget not to let her chickens wander around in his orchard, her specter appeared in his bedroom and choked him for an entire night. <41> On another occasion a creature with the body of a monkey, a cock's claws, and a man's face appeared to Louder and told him that he was a messenger sent to say that if he would "be ruled by him, he should want for nothing in this world." Louder called the creature a devil and struck at it with a stick but felt no substance. The creature vanished, but when Louder went to the window he saw Bridget Bishop walking through the orchard. <42> John Cook also claimed to have had a run in with Bridget's specter. He testified, "One morning about sunrise, I saw Goodwife Bishop ... stand in the chamber by the window. She looked on me and grinned, and presently struck me on the side of the head, which did very much hurt me. And then I saw her go out under the end window at a little crevice about so big as I could thrust my hand into." <43>

Some other neighbors of Bridget's (while she was Goody Oliver), John and Rebecca Bly, bought a pig from her and did not pay for it on time. She came to their house and argued with them about it. Afterwards the sow was taken with fits and foamed at the mouth. She would not let her piglets suckle and banged her head against the fence. On the advice of another neighbor, they cured the sow by feeding it red ochre and milk. The animal was soon well again but they still believed that it had be bewitched. <44> John Bly also testified that when the old Oliver house was torn down, he and his son found in the holes and crevices of the cellar wall, "several puppets made up of rags and hogs' bristles, with headless pins in them with the points outward." <45> John Hale came forward and retracted his testimony on her behalf of some years ago. He said that the wounds which Goody Trask had died of could not have been done to herself without some extraordinary work of the devil or witchcraft. <46>

Samuel Shattuck shared a strange tale with the courtroom. He said that a while back Bridget Bishop had begun to drop in on his house for various errands and his eldest son began to fall ill. The boy often fell as if pushed and got great bruises. He would walk on a board in the yard and would not come off of it until bodily removed. <47> One day a stranger came into town and appeared to mean to stir up trouble for Bridget. He told the Shattucks that their boy was bewitched and that if they would tell him who they thought was the culprit he would speak to her. After a series of questions (on the part of the visitor) the Shattucks decided that Bridget was the one bewitching their child. The stranger and another of the Shattuck's children went to see Bridget and she chased them off her property with a spade. When the stranger and the child returned, they both looked worse for the wear. <48>

Samuel Gray testified that one evening he and his child were haunted by the vision of a woman. The woman hovered over the baby's crib until the child let out a horrible scream. Afterwards, the child cried for days, then pined away and died over a period of months. Later he saw the same woman on the street. When he inquired as to her identity he found it to be Bridget Bishop. <49> Deliverance Hobbs, an accused witch who had confessed during her examination, also testified against Bridget Bishop. She reported that Bridget had helped administer the sacrament on the witches sabbath and that after she herself had confessed Bridget's shape had beaten her with iron rods to try to make her retract her confession. <50> Susanna Sheldon, one of the afflicted girls, testified that one night Goody Oliver, Mrs. English, Giles Cory, and a large black man with a high crowned hat had appeared to her and tried to get her to take an oath on the devil's book. Sheldon claimed that Goody Oliver told her that she had been a witch for over twenty years. While Bridget was speaking, a snake crept over her shoulder and into her bosom. The three bowed and prayed to the black man. Then they all set to biting Sheldon. Two nights later they appeared again and Bridget said that she had killed four women, "two of them were foster's wives, and John Trask's wife, and she did not name the other." <51> Sheldon also said that during the course of the trial Bridget had appeared to her along with two little twin boys that said Bridget had killed them by bewitching them into fits. <52>

The last to testify was William Stacy. He admitted that he had admired Bridget when he was 22 because she had visited him when he had smallpox. Later he had doubts of her character and began to listen to and engage in the gossip about her. After Bridget expressed her resentment of this he began to have some "unnerving experiences." <53> Once Bridget got him to do some work for her for which she paid him a threepence. Later he looked into his pocket where he had put it and it had disappeared. On another occasion, his wagon wheel sank into a hole and when he climbed out to free it the hole disappeared before his eyes. <54> One night in the winter he was awakened by something cold pressing between his lips. He looked up and saw that the room was as fight as day and that Bridget was sitting on the foot of his bed. When he looked at her she clapped her cape and hopped away. As she did so, the light flowed out of the room. Stacy also blamed the death of his daughter Priscilla on Goody Bishop. He claimed that one day the child screeched out in agony and so continued for a fortnight until she died. <55>

During this entire two day tirade Bridget Bishop did not once open her mouth to defend herself. <56> After hearing all the "evidence," the judges condemned her to hang. A difficulty arose on the present status of Massachusetts law. Not until June 8, when the General Court legalized the sentence by reviving an old colonial law making witchcraft a capital offense, could action be taken. <57> On June 10, the High Sheriff took Bridget Bishop to what would come to be called "Witches Hill," a barren and rocky elevation on the west side of town, and hanged her from the branches of a great oak tree. <58> Although the whole town turned out to see the execution, Bridget refused to show any sign of remorse. From Ipswich, Marblehead, Beverly, Topsfield, even from Boston, people flocked to see the first victory flaunted in the face of the Prince of Darkness. <59>

After Bridget was executed there was still room for uncertainty about the methods of the court. Governor Phips again asked for the advice of ministers on the proper procedures. Their answer, "The Return of Several Ministers Consulted," repudiates the validity of spectral evidence. It states, "Presumptions whereupon persons may be committed and convictions whereupon persons may be condemned as guilty of witchcrafts, ought certainly to be more considerable than barely the accused person being represented by a specter unto the afflicted, insomuch as 'tis an undoubted and notorious thing that a demon may, by God's permission, appear, even to ill purposes, in the shape of an innocent, yea, and a virtuous man." <60> The ministers even suggested that the witchcrafts might subside if the evidences were viewed more critically. One member of the court, Nathaniel Saltonstall, resigned from the court. He said that were spectral evidence barred, Bridget Bishop had been hanged for "little more than wearing scarlet, countenancing shovel board, and getting herself talked about, all offenses, but hardly capital offenses." <61> One other person who participated in getting up accusations against Bridget, in a death bed repentance, acknowledged the wrong she had done. <62>

The social and political tensions from both inside and outside of the community at the time of Bridget Bishop's second trial could only be soothed by an allocation of guilt. The members of the Salem Village community were not satisfied until they punished someone for the hardships the community was experiencing. Anxiety over finding the cause of their troubles and the popular belief in the reality of witchcraft led to a dark chapter in America's history. An objective examiner can see that Bridget Bishop's execution was not a consequence of her own personal wrongdoings. The only "concrete" evidences against her were some kind of a wart or cyst which withered away when pricked and a neighbor's claim of the existence of a few dolls. Bridget Bishop was instead persecuted because she deviated from the norm in her society. She was independent, attractive, and aggressive. In another time, she would have been praised for these qualities but in 1692 she was executed for them.


1 N. E. H. Hull, Female Felons. Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), p. 48.

2 David Levin, What Happened in Salem? (Atlanta: Harcourt, Brace, World, Inc., 1928), p. xi.

3 Charles W. Upham, Salem Witchcraft. Volume One (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1976), p. 194.

4 Upham, v. 1, p. 192.

5 Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts. A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (New York: Anchor Books, 1949), p. 153.

6 Upham, v. 1, p. 192.

7 Starkey, p. 107.

8 Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed. The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974), p. 192.

9 Upham, v. 1, p. 191.

10 Charles W. Upham, Salem Witchcraft. Volume Two (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1976), p. 253.

11 Frances Winwar, Puritan City. The Story of Salem (New York: National Travel Club, 1938), p. 105.

12 Starkey, p. 153.

13 Boyer, p. 192.

14 Starkey, p. 107.

15 Upham, v. 1, p. 196.

16 Ibid.

17 Upham, v. 1, p. 197.

18 Upham, v. 1, p. 193.

19 Starkey, p. 107.

20 Starkey, p. 103.

21 Levin, p. 21.

22 Upham, v. 2, p. 126.

23 Upham, v. 2, p. 127.

24 Upham, v. 2, pp. 125-126.

25 Boyer, p. 193.

26 Weisman, p. 138.

27 Levin, p. 22.

28 Starkey, p. 107.

29 Starkey, p. 152.

30 Hull, p. 14.

31 Weisman, p. 152.

32 Boyer, p. 7.

33 Starkey, p. 152-3.

34 Starkey, p. 155.

35 Winwar, p. 107.

36 Starkey, p. 155.

37 Boyer, p. 15.

38 Winwar, p. 106.

39 Starkey, p. 154.

40 Levin, pp. 30-31.

41 Levin, p. 28.

42 Upham, v. 1, p. 265.

43 Boyer, p. 16.

44 Upham, v. 1, p. 262.

45 Upham, v. 1, p. 266.

46 Levin, p. 26.

47 Ibid.

48 Upham, v. 1, pp. 193-194.

49 Levin, P. 25.

50 Starkey, p. 154.

51 v , pp. 31-32.

52 Levin, p. 31.

53 Starkey, p. 153.

54 Ibid.

55 Levin, p. 24.

56 Starkey, p. 154.

57 Starkey, p. 156.

58 Weisman, p. 7.

59 Winwar, p. 111. 6

60 Weisman, p. 152.

61 Starkey, p. 156.

62 Upham, v. 1, p. 195.

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