Authors: Kathleen Kent
Copyright © 2008 by Kathleen Kent
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: September 2008
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
This book is dedicated
to Mitchell and Joshua
And to my parents, John and Audrey,
for giving me the stories
n 1630 Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony took a small group of men and women from the old England to the new. These Puritans, so they were named, would make a place in the colonies by surviving war, plague, and the work of the Devil in a small village called Salem. One woman and her family would stand against religious tyranny, suffering imprisonment, torture, and death. Her outraged and defiant words were recorded by Cotton Mather, who called her “The Queen of Hell.” Her name was Martha Carrier.
Letter from Colchester, Connecticut, November 17, 1752
New London, Connecticut
My dear Lydia:
I have only just received word of your marriage and I thank God he has delivered to you a husband who is worthy of your hand and has the means to begin family life with all comfortable effects. I do not have to tell you, my dearest, that you have always had the greatest share of a grandmother’s love.
So many months have passed since I last saw you and I ache to sit with you and share your joy. My infirmities have too long kept me from my loved ones and I hope I will again be able to travel to see you. I know you are a woman fully grown but in my mind you are still a girl of twelve, fresh and lively, come to stay with me for a good while to lighten the press of years. Your presence always brought with it a fragrance of greening things that chased away the decay of my own rooms. I pray I may see you one more time before my death, but my hold on this world is gentle at best and I feel most urgently that now is the time to give you a gift greater than plates and bowls. What I give to you is a treasure which encompasses generations and spans the oceans from this world to the old.
Today is my birthday and, because of God’s grace, I am seventy-one years of age. This is an astonishing amount of time to live even in an age of wonders and, dare I say it, magical occurrences. As you must well know, in September of this very year minds wiser than ours decided that eleven days must be dropped from our calendars. For what reason, I cannot divine. I only know that I went to sleep on a Wednesday, the
nd day of September, year of our Lord
, and woke up on a Thursday, the
th day of September of the same year.
They call this new reckoning the Gregorian calendar. The Julian calendar is abandoned. We have been plotting time in the same way, or so I believe, since the birth of the good Christ. Where do you think these eleven days are supposed to have gone? As you are still young, these things may seem very like a part of the natural world. But I am still tied to the past and these happenings fill me with apprehensions. I have lived long enough to remember a time when progress of this sort would have been seen as sorceries and witchcraft and would have brought a terrible judgment from our Town Fathers for placing a hand too near the inventions of heaven.
And now I have hit upon the heart of my letter. You cannot have grown to womanhood without hearing the embittered whispers of Salem Village, and of me and my parents. But in your love for me you have never asked me to reveal the dread happenings of my youth. The name Salem even now causes grown men and women to blanch with fear. Do you know that a few months past, the councilmen of Essex County, Massachusetts, voted to change the name of the village to Danvers? It was a thing well done and done quietly, too, though I believe the memory of the Salem witch trials will last well beyond the few remaining living relics of that time.
As God in heaven knows, changing a name cannot change the history of a place. This history has for so long lived like a spider in my breast. The spider spins and spins, catching memories in its web, threatening to devour every final happiness. With this letter I hope to sweep away the terror and the sadness and to have my heart made pure again by God’s grace. That is truly the meaning of the word “Puritan.”
I believe this word is sorely out of fashion now. It brings to mind thoughts of an antiquated people steeped in superstitious beliefs and old-fashioned prideful practices. Puritans believed they were a people covenanted with God. Charged by Him to secure a fortress in the wilderness and make it sacred ground. There in those remote places they were to bend the course of the world to God’s plan.
I say now, What arrogance. The Town Fathers believed they were saints, predestined by the Almighty to rule over our little hamlets with harsh justice and holy purpose. This holy purpose, like autumn brush fires, would swell and burn mightily through Salem Village and neighboring towns, committing scores of families in due course to dust. And beneath it all was greed and the smallpox and the constant raids of Indians, dismantling people’s reason, eating at the foundation of trust and goodwill with our neighbors, our families, and even our belief in God. It was a terrible time, when charity and mercy and plain good sense were all thrown into the fire of zealotry, covering everyone left living with the bitter ash of regret and blame.
The Puritan faith turned every happening, a falling tree, a sickness, a wart, into a warning and a judgment from the Eternal Father. We were like children who quaked and shivered at the world we had been given. And it was through childlike distempers, selfishness, and slanderous voices that entire villages were brought low. I have seen firsthand, God help me, more than one child bring a parent to the scaffold. “Honour thy Father and thy Mother,” saith the commandment. This covenant was surely put aside in the black year of
, and many more commandments besides were broken as easily as limestone upon hard rock. I tell you all of this to show you the inner resources of the Puritan mind and to prepare you for what I am sending you by parcel.
What follows is my own written history, pieces of which may have been told to you from your earliest childhood. That you came to love me so deeply when others turned from me is God’s miracle and perhaps my recompense for so many losses. My life is very like the bedtime fables a parent might tell an errant child to frighten him into obedience: the stuff of nightmares. But, oh my child, this nightmare was not drawn from the well of fanciful hearth tales but woven from the blood and bones and tears of your own family. I have set down my recollections and my involvement in the events surrounding the Salem Village witch trials, and as God is my witness, I have set them down as faithfully as I may. I pray that with this record you will understand, and come to forgive me for what I did.
The winter winds have come early and have blown tirelessly for weeks. Do you remember the great oak that grows hard by the house? It is very old and has lost many branches but the trunk is thick and sound and the roots are deep. There was a great span of time when I hated the sight of an oak tree. But I cannot blame the tree for a hanging any more than I can blame the ocean for a drowning. Once you have read this account you will know my meaning. I pray you liken your family to this venerable old tree, within whose branches you may find shelter and a connection between the earth and the heaven above, where we may hope to be one day united with God, and with each other.
Yours, in God’s gracious care,
And ever-loving, Grandmother,
Sarah Carrier Chapman
h, children, be afraid of going prayerless to bed,
lest the Devil be your bedfellow.
from a funeral service
Massachusetts, December 1690
HE DISTANCE BY
wagon from Billerica to neighboring Andover is but nine miles. For myself it was more than a journey away from the only home I had ever known. It was the ending of a passage from the dark fog of infancy to the sharp remembrances of childhood. I was nine years of age on that December day and my entire family was going back to live with my grandmother in the house where my mother was born. We were six in all, cramped together in an open wagon, carrying within my mother and father, two of my older brothers, myself, and Hannah, who was but a baby. We had with us all of our household possessions. And we were bringing, unbeknownst to any of us, the smallpox.
A plague of it had swept across the settlements of Middlesex County, and with our crossing east over Blanchard’s Plain, contagion and death followed with us. A close neighbor, John Dunkin of Billerica, had died within the space of one week, leaving a widow and seven children. Another neighbor brought us the news, and before the door could close on the messenger, my mother had started packing. We had thought to outrun the pox this time. My father had bitter memories of being blamed for bringing the pox into Billerica many years before. He always said it was because he was a Welshman and a stranger to the town, even after living there for so many years, that he stood accused. But the disease crept along with us like a pariah dog. It was my older brother Andrew who would be the first to succumb. He carried the seeds of sickness within him, and from him it would spread to our new town of residence.
It was deep into the season and so bitterly cold, the liquid from our streaming eyes and noses froze onto our cheeks like frosted ribbons of lace. All of us had dressed in every bit of clothing that we possessed and we pressed tightly together for warmth. The crudely hewn boards of the wagon had been covered with straw, and my brothers and I had wrapped it around us as best we could. The draft horse labored under his load, for he was not a young gelding, and his breath steamed in great puffs into the air. His coat was as woolly as any bear’s and encrusted with a forest of icicles that hung down sharply from his belly. Richard, my oldest brother, was not with us. He was near a man at sixteen and had been sent ahead to help ready the house for our arrival, bringing provisions strapped across the back of our one remaining ox.
Father and Mother sat at the front of the wagon silent, as was their habit. They rarely spoke to each other in our presence and only then of weights and measures and time delineated by the seasons. The language of field and home. He often deferred to her, which seemed remarkable, as he towered over my mother. Indeed, he towered over everyone. He was close to seven feet tall, so it was said, and to me, being a small child, his head seemed to rest in the clouds, his face forever in shadow. He was forty-eight years of age when he married my mother, so I had always thought of him as an old man, even though he carried himself erect and was fleet of foot. Thomas Carrier, so the gossip went, had come from old England as a young man to escape some troubles there. As my father never spoke of his life before marrying, and for truth said hardly a word regarding anything at all, I did not know his history before he plied his trade as farmer in Billerica.
I knew only two things for certain of his past. The first was that my father had been a soldier during the civil wars of the old England. He had a red coat, old and battered and faded to rust, which he had brought with him from London. One arm was torn, as though slashed through with something sharp, and Richard had told me that, but for the padded lining in the sleeve, Father would have lost an arm for sure. When I pressed Richard for more of the story as to how and where Father had fought, my brother would purse his lips and say, “Ah, but you’re only a girl and cannot know the ways of men.” The other thing I knew was that men feared him. Often behind my father’s back they would gesture secretly to one another a peculiar signal. A thumb passed over the neck from one side to the other as if to sever their heads from their bodies. But if Father ever saw these gestures, he gave them no notice.