Sarah Lyman was part of the first generation of immigrants from England to the English colonies that became known as New England. Born to Richard Lyman and Sarah (Osborne) Lyman, Sarah was baptized in the parish of High Ongar, County Essex, England, on 8 February 1620, back when the English new year didn’t start until March. In August 1631, when Sarah was probably 10 years old, the Lyman family headed from Bristol, England, to the so-called “New World” on the ship Lyon/Lion.
This was the Lyon‘s third known trip to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Lymans were in rarefied company; Reverend John Eliot, who would make a name for himself in his soon-to-be home, was on board, as was Margaret Winthrop, the wife of Governor John Winthrop, and three of Margaret and John’s children, including John Jr. The Lyon arrived at Nantasket on November 2nd. The Winthrops were heading for New Boston, while the Lymans and the Eliots were heading for Roxbury. Now officially part of the City of Boston, in 1631 Roxbury was a distinct and relatively distant colonial settlement, and at the time both were young towns. The Eliots were from Nazeing, Essex, today a 12-mile drive from High Ongar.
While today many people think of people in the past as settling in one location for generations, that was the way only some colonists were. One of my friends was born in the same town where some of their lines had lived since before the American Revolution. The Lymans did not choose this kind of life. The family quickly moved again, one of many families to go with Reverend Thomas Hooker to Connecticut Colony to found the town of Hartford; in Roxbury’s records John Eliot referenced it as “the great removal.” Sarah’s father Richard died in 1641 and her mother Sarah died shortly thereafter. Around 1642, Sarah married James Bridgman, who had moved to Hartford shortly before Richard’s death and bought a lot very close to the Lymans’ home. By 1645 Sarah and James had moved to Springfield, which had started out as part of Connecticut Colony but had broken from it to join the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639.
A number of the families who had moved to Springfield moved again to Northampton when it was founded in 1654, and a number of families from Hartford moved to Northampton as well. Sarah and James moved from Springfield to Northampton, as did the family that Sarah and James disliked most, headed by Mary (Bliss) Parsons and Joseph Parsons. Joseph Parsons had steadily improved his status and financial state and would continue to do so over the course of his life. In the world of white colonial New England, your reputation was one of the most important facets of your life. Mary and Joseph had already developed a rocky reputation in Springfield; though Joseph had cultivated wealth and high status through what seems to have been a combination of hard work and savvy decisions, he appears from court cases to have been rather abrasive in many of his interactions, which may help someone be a more successful businessman but didn’t lend itself to positive interactions with neighbors and others in the community. After the families had resettled in Northampton, Sarah and James’s only surviving son became ill from an unexplained knee condition, and Sarah purportedly spread gossip blaming Mary for causing her son’s illness through witchcraft.
To a 17th century New Englander, it made perfect sense. For example, if someone had an argument or disagreement with you and then something bad befell you or one of your loved ones, the person who had been upset with you could have been trying to get even with you by using witchcraft against you. Things that today we would consider minor, like someone’s newly cooked food spilling before it could be eaten or one of their cattle getting sick, often caused people to become suspicious that a neighbor they disliked or thought was somewhat “off” was causing their trouble through witchcraft.
Since one’s reputation was so important and accusations of witchcraft in particular could potentially lead to serious legal trouble and possibly even a death sentence, it was common for someone who was being called a witch around town – sometimes after only one such instance – to file a preemptive slander suit against the gossiper(s), a tactic which many also hoped would nip any formal witch accusations in the proverbial bud before they could ever be officially filed. After Sarah started telling others that Mary had used witchcraft to cause her child’s illness in 1656, Mary’s husband Joseph filed a defamation suit against Sarah, and a warrant was issued to the constable for attaching Sarah to the slander case, requiring Sarah to give a bond of 100 pounds. Sarah had been supposed to appear in person in Cambridge, which is around a two-hour drive from Northampton today, but the constable appeared in Cambridge without her and said that since Sarah was with child it would be too difficult for her to appear.
The testimonies were taken in groups, which was common then. Particularly interestingly, most of Sarah’s initial supporters had moved to Northampton from Springfield, while most of Mary and Joseph’s initial supporters had moved to Northampton directly from towns in Connecticut Colony.
The first group of testifiers supported Sarah against Mary. William Hannum testified supporting his wife’s testimony that Mary had gotten into an altercation with their family about yarn, and also added that Joseph Parsons had beat his wife and at least one child; whether there is any truth to this latter claim it is difficult to say for sure, not least since he was testifying against Mary, but it is certainly possible. Sarah and her husband James testified that their son said he had seen Mary while she was not physically there and that Mary’s visage had threatened to further harm his knee. There is a modern tradition amongst Parsons descendants and in the Northampton area that the people who testified against Mary and the people who gossiped that she was a witch were envious of her. The term “jealousies” was used a lot in testimony against Mary, and I think this may be at least part of the cause of this tradition. The term “jealousies” then did not mean what “jealousy” as a synonym of “envy” means today. It was much more akin to the lengthy Webster definitions published in 1828; note that three of the four definitions include “suspicion” and two include “apprehension.”
Then a group of testifiers rebuffed the previous group, testifying such things as that Sarah had said her child had always been sickly, that the cow that William Hannum suspected Mary of killing through witchcraft showed signs of having been physically ill enough to die of natural causes, that Sarah and another woman had been heard discussing Mary being a witch, and that Sarah was so suspicious of Mary that she had demanded Mary repeatedly be searched.
Then additional testimony was collected on the previous groups of testimony. Amongst them, John Mathews testified that Joseph had told Mary she was “led by an evil spirit” and that Mary said that if so, it was because Joseph had locked her into the cellar and left her there; again, third-party testimony suggests that Joseph may have been abusive towards Mary. Some of the people who had initially testified for Sarah changed their testimony. Eventually Sarah admitted in court that she had told another woman about Sarah’s son saying Mary’s visage had appeared before him saying she would hurt him.
Mary Parsons requested that John Pynchon, then the magistrate of western Massachusetts, provide testimony supporting her, and on September 30th, he did so. The court sided with the Parsons, saying that Sarah “hath without just ground raised a great scandal and reproach upon the plaintiff’s wife” Mary and requiring Sarah to state so at public meetings at both Northampton and Springfield within sixty days. The court also said Sarah’s husband James had to pay ten pounds for damages and reimburse Joseph’s court costs.
Sarah died in Northampton, a long way geographically and culturally from the England of her birth. Her death is listed on the first page of recorded deaths in Northampton, a page titled “Record of Deaths in Northampton since the year 1654.” At the time of her death, Sarah and James were on the frontier of British colonization; an entry from the year before she died describes an inquest into how “Robin an Indian servant to Nathanell Clark” was “kild by the Indians.” (The term “servant” was used for both true servants and slaves then, so it is unclear from the entry which Robin was.) Sarah’s entry states with typical simplicity, “Sarah Bridgman wife of James Bridgman died 31 August 1668.” Sarah was probably 47 years old when she died, and was buried in the town burial ground; it would eventually become known as North Bridge Cemetery, and still exists today. But if Sarah’s family erected a gravestone or other marker for her, it has been lost to time; the oldest surviving gravestone is for someone who died nearly twenty years after Sarah.
The sour feelings between the Bridgmans and the Parsons continued after Sarah’s death. James Bridgman seems to have continued to believe that Mary (Bliss) Parsons harbored malevolent feelings towards their children that Mary used witchcraft to act upon. Sarah and James’s daughter Mary (Bridgman) Bartlett died suddenly from unexplained causes, and without Sarah there to act, Sarah’s and her daughter Mary’s widowers, James Bridgman and Samuel Bartlett, accused Mary Parsons of causing Mary Bartlett’s death through witchcraft. A suit was filed against Mary Parsons in 1674 and was heard in the regional court. The case was forwarded from the regional court to the higher court at Boston, known as the Court of Assistants, where Mary Parsons was indicted by a grand jury and tried on charges of witchcraft in 1675. Mary was acquitted of all charges. Sarah’s widower James died the following year.
High Ongar’s pre-English-Civil-War registers survived the ravages of war and time and are now digitized on Essex Record Office’s website. For a fee anyone can view Sarah’s baptism and her family’s other parish register entries from an internet-enabled computer/device anywhere in the world.
Northampton’s vital records are part of the Holbrook Collection, originally microfilm reels that were digitized by Ancestry a couple of years ago and retitled “Massachusetts, Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988.” The indexing of this record set on Ancestry is not particularly good and is especially bad for the 17th century; if the town of residence is known, I generally recommend a search by hand as not finding an entry through a database search does not necessarily mean the entry isn’t there. The Holbrooks filmed three versions of Northampton’s records, the originals, an old handwritten copy of the originals, and a typed transcript where the two versions were compared and some additional notes were added by the transcribers.
Northampton’s vital records were also recently added to FamilySearch from the Family History Library’s microfilmed copies. Personally I find their film’s scans of the old vital records harder to read than the Holbrook Collection’s film’s scans; however, FamilySearch’s (currently unindexed) version is free. Also, FamilySearch has an additional register under its own category of “Franklin, Hampshire” [counties of Massachusetts] that includes some later copies of early materials pertaining to residents of a number of the area towns, including a record of people killed in what is usually called the French and Indian War here in the States (known as the Seven Years’ War in most of the English-speaking world) and of the massacre at Deerfield; while as yet unindexed on FamilySearch, the register contains a handwritten index at the front.
Springfield’s vital records are in their own database on FamilySearch, titled “Massachusetts, Springfield Vital Records, 1638-1887”; while indexed, I was told by someone who knew the indexer that the index FamilySearch put on the site had not yet been completed and proofed by the person who had been independently compiling it, so again, if you can’t find an entry I recommend a page-by-page search. Additionally, some of the very earliest vital records in the scans of Springfield’s register are written in handwriting that appears to date from a later time period; as yet, I have been unable to determine the provenance of these entries, and while they were most likely copied from deteriorating original pages, at this point I cannot say that for sure. Scans of films of Springfield’s vital records are also in FamilySearch’s unindexed Massachusetts town records collection.
The slander case testimony is in the Middlesex County Court Records [of Massachusetts] and copies of some testimonies are also at Harvard Law Library. The early colonial Middlesex County Court docket copies of a wide variety of cases are online (with a time gap) and unindexed at FamilySearch. Fascination with colonial witch trials and with Northampton’s history have continued to the present, and consequently there has been an awful lot written about the cases of the Bridgman family vs. the Parsons family, continuing to modern times. Unfortunately the majority of the original material regarding the second trial, wherein Mary was indicted for witchcraft and then acquitted, has been lost. Following are some suggestions for others interested in reading printed works on the cases in this blog post and/or other witch cases:
Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth Century New England: A Documentary History, 1638-1695, 2nd ed., edited and with an introduction by David D. Hall (USA: Duke University Press, 2nd ed. copyright 1999). Hall’s introduction is invaluable for anyone trying to place witch-hunting in New England in historical context and to understand the system in place for dealing with witch cases. The bulk of the book is Hall’s transcriptions of a variety of witch cases from around New England; transcriptions of testimony from the Parsons vs. Bridgman slander case comprises the majority of chapter 6, titled “A Long-Running Feud (1656-1675).”
Colonial Justice in Western Massachusetts (1639-1703): The Pynchon Court Record, edited with a legal and historical introduction by Joseph H. Smith (USA: The William Nelson Cromwell Foundation at Harvard University Press, 1961). William Pynchon and then his son John Pynchon served as magistrates for a swath of the geographical area of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, based out of Springfield and including Northampton. This book is a mix of transcriptions, analysis, and information about the various legal procedures used at the time. There are a number of witchcraft-related cases included in the book.
“‘Hard Thoughts and Jealousies'” by John Putnam Demos, from A Place Called Paradise: Culture & Community in Northampton, Massachusetts, 1654-2004, edited by Kerry W. Buckley (USA: Historic Northampton Museum and Education Center in association with University of Massachusetts Press, 2004); originally published in Demos’s Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (1982). This essay consists primarily of background on the women’s lives and families of origins and an analysis of the cases involving the two families; the title is a quote from testimony. While I don’t think it is really very possible to draw conclusive findings about people’s internal states and emotional lives from third-party historical records and family traditions as Demos tries to do repeatedly in this essay (particularly in the background section), it is an interesting essay well worth the read. (After Demos’s essay was republished in A Place Called Paradise, a revised edition of his book Entertaining Satan was published.)
A side note regarding Demos’s essay: Modern readers may read John Eliot’s description of Sarah (Lyman) Bridgman’s father Richard’s state of “melancholy” after moving to Hartford and assume Richard was depressed; this may or may not have been the case. Melancholy, also called melancholia, was a very common diagnosis in 16th and 17th century England (New England’s early colonial medical practices were based upon England’s), and could be anywhere from a purely emotional issue to a completely physical one, though given the beliefs of the time, most illnesses fell somewhere in between the two extremes. Melancholia could be caused by supernatural forces, including witchcraft. An essay about Robert Burton’s popular 17th century compilation The Anatomy of Melancholy has been posted online, “Major Depression in Seventeenth Century England: A Brief Look at Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy,” and others interested in historical medical practices will likely enjoy reading it.