Historical Fiction, History, Research, Wanderer Among Shadows

The Parkers, Why Were They Accused?

So now that my book has been released on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08VCL542T), I’ll share some more of the historical details with you on the subject matter. I’ll try not to give away too many spoilers in this post, but do not read further if you don’t want any. In this post I will attempt to give you more insight into the witchcraft accusations.  The two main characters of my book are Mary Ayer Parker and her daughter Sarah Parker who lived in Andover, Massachusetts in 1692. Mary was the widow of Nathan Parker who died in 1685 and Sarah was the couple’s youngest daughter who was twenty-two at the time of the Salem Witch Trials. The records regarding the two Parker women from Andover are scant, making it difficult to ascertain just why exactly they were accused, but I and a few others have attempted to determine why they were brought up on charges of witchcraft in 1692.

I will discuss Mary’s case first. The Salem trials mark the first time that Mary Parker appears to have gotten into legal trouble in her life. The surviving court records for Mary in 1692 are few with only her examination, three indictments, and two short pieces of testimony surviving. She appears to have had her trial by September 16, 1692. The three indictments against her were for her afflicting Sarah Phelps and Hannah Bigsby of Andover and Martha Sprague of Boxford. Of these three indictments, only the one for afflicting Martha Sprague was returned ignoramus by the grand jury, although the surviving records would lead one to believe this indictment had the most evidence backing it up. No reason is given for the grand jury dropping this charge. Some of the other people to accuse Mary of witchcraft were William Barker, Jr., Mercy Wardwell, and Mary Warren.  So what brought these people to accuse Mary?

We have to look at some of the family background here to understand possible motivations. Martha Sprague was the stepdaughter of Moses Tyler and Hannah Bigsby and Sarah Phelps were Thomas Chandler’s daughter and granddaughter respectively. The Parkers, Tylers, and Chandlers were involved in a dispute decades before the Salem trials. In the 1660s, Moses Tyler’s younger brother, Hopestill, was apprenticed to Thomas Chandler. In 1662, Chandler brought suit against the Tylers for Moses breaking Hopestill’s apprenticeship contract and helping Hopestill to run away from Chandler. A few years before, the two families had asked Nathan Parker to write up the apprenticeship contract and keep it in his possession. When Nathan and Mary were not home one day, Moses along with accomplice John Godfrey stole and burned the contract. Nathan testified to this in court, Chandler won the suit, and Hopestill had to go back to Chandler.

Jacqueline Kelly, in her essay “The Untold Story of Mary Ayer Parker: Gossip and Confusion in 1692,” wonders if the Chandlers thought the Parkers favored the Tylers, especially when their children Hannah Parker and John Tyler later married. However, Nathan’s testimony during the apprenticeship dispute was damaging for the Tylers and in fact, if anyone, it would have been the Tylers who resented the Parkers after the fact. It also does not consider the fact that during the Salem trials several members of the Tyler family were accused, with one of their own, Martha Sprague, aiding in the accusations. Martha Sprague, who as mentioned before was the stepdaughter of Moses Tyler, accused some of her own stepfamily members. Author Richard Hite claims that it is possible Martha Sprague accused Mary Parker because of mentions Moses Tyler may have made about the apprenticeship dispute from decades earlier.

So while the apprenticeship dispute may explain why members of the Tyler and Chandler families accused Mary Parker, it doesn’t explain why others accused her. Kelly, however, gives us a possible explanation for this as well. She discusses how Mary Ayer Parker may have been mistaken for her sister-in-law, whose name was also Mary Parker. This second Mary Parker, the widow of Nathan’s brother Joseph, appears to have suffered from some sort of mental instability. Her son Stephen petitioned the Salem Quarterly Court in 1685 “…that his mother ‘is in a distracted condition, and not capable of improving any of her estate for her own comfort & also having some money come from England … to request this Honored Court to empower myself or some other, to receive said money (being about ten pounds)…’” It is unclear what this Mary’s mental condition was but it could have possibly caused misgivings about her character in the community. Kelly postulates that she was confused with her sister-in-law in 1692, leading to the accusations against Mary Ayer Parker.

Now onto Sarah Parker, for whom there are even fewer surviving records. In fact, there are no court records that survive in regards to Sarah’s court case itself from 1692. The only time her name is brought up that year is when three other women, Elizabeth Johnson, Sr., Rebecca Eames, and Susannah Post, mention her in their own examinations. Therefore, we cannot know with certainty what may have been said by either Sarah herself or the afflicted at her examination, if she even had one. This also leads us to question whether she confessed like so many others in Andover or if she followed in her mother’s footsteps and maintained her innocence.

Because I have no other information to go on, I will instead look to the examinations of the three above-mentioned women to seek possible reasons for why Sarah was accused. First, Rebecca Eames stated in her examination that she did not know Sarah to be a witch, “but she heard [Sarah] had been crossed in love and the devil had come to her and kissed her.” This is perhaps the most interesting piece of testimony because it does not necessarily accuse Sarah of wrongdoing, but instead suggests that she is perhaps the victim of another person’s witchcraft or even the devil’s own persuasion. It is also interesting because Eames was not from Andover and it is a strange claim to make about a person she may not have even known that well. The fact that she also says she was hearing rumors about Sarah leads me to believe that there were suspicions about her prior to this woman’s testimony. So what was it about Sarah that sent tongues wagging? Because Eames’s claim has romantic undertones to it, I can’t help but wonder if she was perhaps jealous of Sarah, who would have been much younger than Eames, or if perhaps Sarah was of the flirtatious type and this was well known by others. 

Next, Elizabeth Johnson, Sr. claimed that Sarah joined her in afflicting Sarah Phelps and the Martin children. Susannah Post stated that Sarah was at witch meeting in Andover. Unlike Eames, these two give no clues as to their motivations behind mentioning Sarah in their given statements. I can think of no reason for why Johnson accused Sarah. Post, on the other hand, was a stepdaughter of one of the Tylers which makes it possible that her accusation stemmed back to the apprenticeship dispute, but as she was not blood related to the Tylers and Sarah was not even born when the dispute happened, this seems like a weak possibility. A more likely reason could be that Post knew Sarah well because of their familial ties through John Tyler and Hannah Parker’s marriage and simply came to dislike Sarah.

Strangely, a lot of scholars have overlooked one interesting possibility and that is, if Sarah was formally accused before her mother, the suspicion of witchcraft on her may have spurred suspicion of her mother. I have considered this possibility given the dates of the examinations of the three women who mentioned Sarah, which occurred from August 19th to 30th in 1692. Mary was not brought to court until September 2nd. So if people were already suspicious of Sarah in August, it is possible that she may have been arrested before her mother and Sarah’s arrest and the accusations against her may have caused people to accuse Mary in a form of guilt by association.

Ultimately, unless more court records are unearthed, or time travel becomes possible, we will never know the true motivations of Sarah and Mary’s accusers. What we do know, is that two innocent women’s lives were upended. It is astounding how old grudges or mass hysteria or a case of mistaken identity can cause so much damage.

Sources:

  • The University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive
  • The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege by Marilynne K. Roach
  • In the Shadow of Salem: The Andover Witch Hunt of 1692 by Richard Hite
  • “The Untold Story of Mary Ayer Parker: Gossip and Confusion in 1692” by Jacqueline Kelly

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