by Rachel Christ and Jill Christianson, Salem Witch Museum
Establishing the details of women’s lives in early America can present massive challenges for historians. Consider the three women of Salem Town who were executed in 1692; Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, and Bridget Bishop.
If not for her role in the Witch Trials, we would know almost nothing about the life of Alice Parker. The sparse court records indicate she was older, however her exact age was never specified. She was married to fisherman John Parker, and the couple rented a home on the Salem Harbor waterfront. While her husband had children from a previous marriage, Goody Parker appears to have none of her own. Beyond this information, we can only make guesses based on trial testimony. It seems she was forthright and aggressive in her speech, as neighbors claimed she bewitched them and recited stories of her ominous predictions.
Slightly more is known about Ann Pudeator. Again, records reveal nothing about her early life. However, we are able to trace her to Falmouth, Maine, where she lived with her first husband, Thomas Greenslett, and their five children. Around 1677, the couple moved to Salem, where Thomas died shortly after their arrival. As a widow, Ann supported herself as a midwife and nurse. She was hired by blacksmith Jacob Pudeator to look after his alcoholic wife, Isabel. When Isabel died, most likely from drink, and Ann married the 20-years-younger Jacob shortly thereafter, community gossip whispered of foul play. But when Jacob died in 1682, leaving the 60-year-old Ann a wealthy widow, the gossip grew even worse. Much like Alice Parker, by 1692, the 70-year-old midwife, already surrounded by scandal, was an easy target for a witchcraft accusation.
Bridget Bishop has a clearer backstory. She was born Bridget Playfer c. 1635 in Norwich, England. Records show Bridget married Samuel Wasselbe in 1660 and the couple’s first son died young. A 1665 birth record for a second child born in Boston gives an approximate date for Bridget’s arrival in New England, and also tells the story of more tragedy, as she is listed as a widow. It seems this second child also died young. In 1666, Bridget married Thomas Oliver – who also came from Norwich, England. The couple lived in Salem and had one child, a daughter named Christian. Court records provide a glimpse into the volatile marriage between Bridget and Thomas, as they were cited on multiple occasions for verbal and physical altercations. Thomas Oliver died in 1679. In 1685, Bridget married her third husband, the sawyer Edward Bishop.
When Bridget Bishop was tried in 1692 by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, so much gossip had accumulated over the previous twenty-five years that she too was a perfect suspect. Neighbors listed charges of theft, possession of poppets, the bewitchment of neighbors and livestock, and the speculation she killed her first two husbands. On June 10th, Bridget Bishop became the first person to be hanged during the Salem witch trials.
The lives of women often slipped through the pages of history. The stories of these three women, filled with familial hardship, neighborhood gossip, and outspoken individuals, remind us that history is made-up of everyday people. Focusing on these stories gives us the chance to understand how history is not perfect, frequently giving voice to few, while silencing many.
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