The Witch of Hadley: Mary Webster, the Weird, and the Wired
- By Anna Smith
Art: “Examination of a Witch,” Thompkins H. Matteson, 1853, detail. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.
Perhaps I stayed up too late. Perhaps I didn’t need to go downstairs right at midnight to look up the Witch of Hadley (my little town—the farming community between Amherst and Northampton, home to prime farmland, big box stores, and some very interesting dead people).
I spent an hour reading about Mary Webster: how she lived down the street from me (a stone’s throw from where I sat, shivering in the dark, entranced by the screen), how they accused her of witchcraft, sent her to Boston where she was acquitted—and where, a year and a half later, she was accused again. I probably now know more than necessary about my town’s famous witch, also known as Half-Hanged Mary.
A bit of context. It’s in the early 1680s. Some of Hadley’s farmers are claiming they can’t drive their cattle and horses past old Mary Webster’s house. (By “old,” they mean a woman of fifty-one.) As a remedy, men would enter her home and “disturb” her—because she’s a witch, obviously.
What is meant by “disturbing witches” isn’t precisely defined. In the case of Mary Webster, however, historians Samuel Drake and Sylvester Judd have written that the farmers “would enter the House, beat her, or threaten to do so, and then she generally let them pass.” Turns out they made a practice of disturbing witches in seventeenth-century New England. Apparently when witches are being “disturbed,” they can’t disturb you. (Years later in Salem, the practice would also be thought effective… with consequences more generally known.)
* * *
At the Hadley Historical Society in June, 2017, Bridget Marshall, an American Studies professor from UMass Lowell, spoke to a rollicking, almost entirely female gathering about our town “witch.” As she told it, New Englanders of the time believed that witches, devils, and demons dwelled among them. This was fun to think about at high noon, in a roomful of women.
Many months later, in the middle of the night, as I google my way through insomnia, bouncing back and forth between historical documents and an inbox of campaign fundraising appeals, I imagine how Mary Webster would have been treated today. Would they have even needed to go into her house to “disturb” her? Imagine the Twitterverse: “Hang her!!! #witchofhadley.”
Has a jury of trolls ever acquitted anyone? Think of our past decade of “disturbances”: Gamergate, Pizzagate—or any average day with our Disturber-in-Chief.
* * *
What happened here in Hadley in the late 1600s? Now a place where permaculture and pollinator habitat coexist with fields of corn and industrial hemp, yet the past never seems far away—it bleeds into the present like last night’s dream or the first sketch on a painted-over canvas. This is good: our highly-wired present can learn from meditating on the earlier years of this place we call Hadley.
Mary Webster’s troubles started not long after what non-native historians typically refer to as Metacom’s (or King Philip’s) War—America’s most devastating civil war, if judged in terms of deaths per capita. This conflict included an attack on Hadley in 1675, and it seems likely that the witchcraft scares were at least in part related to fears stemming from these conflicts. You don’t have to be a trauma expert to imagine that settlers in Massachusetts, just a decade later, might have still been a bit unhinged.
According to Judd, Mary Webster lived in a “town-house”—i.e., housing for the poor—in “the Middle Highway,” a meadow. Her husband and his brother were the sons of one of Hadley’s founders, John Webster, a former governor of Connecticut, yet they had somehow lost their property and fallen into indigence. Thus, the Websters were now socially vulnerable (as were many people accused of witchcraft) and dependent on the town for their survival. Judd writes that Mary’s temper, “which was not the most placid, was not improved by poverty and neglect, and she used harsh words when offended.”
Here’s some of the evidence against Mary: A chicken went down someone’s chimney, fell into a cauldron of boiling water. Shortly after that, upon examination (nowhere near the site of the chimney/chicken incident), “it was found that Mary Webster was suffering from a scald” on her torso. The examiners—“men of faith”—reached the conclusion that she had been acting in the form of a “familiar” in order to spy on her neighbors.
What other conclusion is possible?
In April, the court in Northampton sent her to Boston to be tried as a witch. I wonder how her neighbors felt when, on June 1st, a jury judged her innocent and shipped her back to Hampshire County?
One answer, we know, is that Mary’s story didn’t end there. And so, a year and a half after Mary’s acquittal in Boston, during the winter of 1684-85, enter Lieutenant Philip Smith.
Cotton Mather practically gushes when presenting the Lieutenant: “Mr. Philip Smith, a man of about Fifty years, a Son of eminently vertuous Parents, a Deacon of a Church at Hadley, a Member of our General Court, a man of their County Court, a Select-man for the affairs of the Town, a Lieutenant in the Troop, and, which crowns all, a man for Devotion and Gravity, and all that was Honest, exceeding exemplary” (Magnalia Christi Americana).
It does seem difficult to compete with that.
As it turns out, Smith isn’t an entirely new character in our story. He was also a member of the court in Northampton that in April of 1683 sent Mary Webster to Boston to be tried for witchcraft. A year and a half after her acquittal, the lieutenant was dying, and the stories of what happened around his death are seriously spooky.
Apparently the two had had a difficult encounter. Mary had been begging, and she was less than thrilled with the Lieutenant’s offering. As any exemplary Puritan would, Lieutenant Smith then decided that Mary had bewitched him, causing his illness. According to Mather, Smith’s “[p]rivities were wounded or burned,” and “bruises, pricks, or holes were found on his back.” Also, “people actually felt something often stir in the bed, at a considerable distance from the man, it seem’d as big as a cat, but they could never grasp it.” (What could it be, if not Mary’s “familiar”?) Others in the sick room “beheld fire on the bed,” but it would disappear when they started to speak of it.
To relieve their friend’s suffering, a group of young men decided to “disturb” Mary Webster. Mather tells us that “all the while they were disturbing of her,” Lieutenant Smith “was at ease, and slept like a weary man.” Mather tells Philip Smith’s story in a couple of his books, though he never uses Mary’s name—he seems content to refer to her as the “wretched woman.” A later historian, Thomas Hutchinson, referred to Smith as “an hyponchondriak person” who “fancied himself under an evil hand.”
* * *
It is in Hutchinson’s history, written some years after the actual events, that we first hear of the hanging of Mary Webster. He writes that a group of “brisk lads” went to her house, hanged her till she was near death (did they believe she was dead?), then cut her down, rolled her into a snow bank, and left her there.
But Hutchinson ends on a cheerful note, “It happened that she survived and the melancholy man died.”
Apparently, she lived another eleven years and became known as “Half-Hanged Mary.” In 1985, Margaret Atwood dedicated her novel The Handmaid’s Tale to Mary Webster, her ancestor, and ten years later, wrote a poem to “Half-Hanged Mary.” The resurgent popularity of Atwood’s novel and its Hulu series, as well as the anticipation around the release of the novel’s sequel, tell us that this noxious strain in our collective consciousness is still in need of healing. We’re a long way from understanding everything about misogyny, groupthink, and terror.
If people already think you’re a witch, it’s hard to imagine what surviving a hanging would do for your reputation. I like to envision that first encounter with her neighbors. And yet, Judd tells us she “died in peace.”
* * *
One night last fall, near Halloween, I walked around the Hadley Town Common, past yard signs urging me to vote yes, then no. The 2016 election was on my mind (as it is again now, and will be next fall). I wondered what phantoms were affecting us then and might be affecting us still. What will it take to for us to come closer to empirical reality, for something closer to truth to prevail?
I stood on the sidewalk, near the lot where Mary Webster lived with her husband William. (Weirdly, in a story with no lack of weirdness, he isn’t mentioned in any of the accounts of the witchcraft, though he died two years after the hanging. Oh, where were you, William Webster?)
What did the Websters’ little house look like? The picture-perfect farmhouses and barns (not far from the cemetery with the Websters’ family plot) were built more recently. Looking at the sugar maples lining the Common, I wondered if any of them are descendants of the one where they tried to hang Mary.
A neighbor had rigged up a light show of flying ghosts against a dark side of their huge old house. It was strangely beautiful, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the folks more than three centuries ago who were convinced they were sharing this very space with devils, demons, and witches.
Here’s what’s disturbing me now: Cotton Mather wrote about Mary Webster in his Memorable Providences and Magnalia Christi Americana. He didn’t live here, but had reason to tell the story his way. Belief in maleficium was good for business—and it still is.
In case we didn’t already know, the last few years have reaffirmed that people have difficulty revising their views—even when faced with evidence to the contrary. Our former senator and Secretary of State John Kerry’s heroic record while serving as commander of a swiftboat in the Vietnam War was unfairly attacked; as a result, we now have the term “swiftboated.” Some people still insist that vaccinations cause autism. Conspiracy theorists believe that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened, and propagate this nonsense online—some have even threatened the parents of victims because of their activism on gun control.
If we’d been able to give Lieutenant Smith a lie-detector test, he may very well have passed. I’m guessing that he didn’t much like being wrong when they shipped Mary back to the community, their tax dollars in action.
But now in 2019, more than three centuries after Mary was hanged somewhere nearby, I’m more worried than ever about the nature of hordes. If people believed that their neighbors were consorting with devils in the 1600s, how are we collectively hallucinating now? Ten minutes on Twitter will show you the hostility of social media—the real and robotic. Jaron Lanier’s 2018 book on social media begins, “Welcome to the cage that goes everywhere with you.” The computer scientist and philosopher writes about the common business model of the five giant tech companies and a strategy that Shoshana Zuboff has called “Surveillance Capitalism.” Lanier describes the ways the tech giants track our activities, and even our voices and facial expressions, then sell this information to third parties whose goal is behavior modification. The resulting bubbles of illusion are created especially for us, from the raw material of our data. Lanier writes that we now have “[b]ots, AIs, agents, fake reviewers, fake friends, fake followers, fake posters, automated catfishers”—what he calls “a menagerie of wraiths.”
These aren’t the mobs of yesteryear. We’re not in Salem anymore.
* * *
Since moving to Hadley I’ve seen three car accidents on the corner of Route 9 and West Street, always because someone made a turn into oncoming traffic and misjudged how much time and space were needed to pull this off. I’ve seen the fine spray of glass on the road, the crunched vehicles, the flashing lights of squad cars and ambulance. It’s a popular place, with two restaurants on the beautiful town common. I wonder if we will ever see a stoplight there.
So much of technology has the effect of speeding things up that now we have a “resistance” of sorts—the “Slow Movement”—slow food, slow tech, slow sex. When exploring the history of technology, the phrase my students and I stumble upon most often is “unintended consequences.” We read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, immersing ourselves deeply in this unique form of regret and grief.
But it isn’t too late to learn from the past.
A group of young men in Hadley misjudged what it would take to kill Mary Webster. Perhaps those who have tried to confuse, discredit, and silence the vulnerable among us have committed similar errors in judgment.
May what they’ve tried to bury come back to tell and prevail.
Autumn is the season in America when what seemed dead comes back to haunt us: dead stories, dead memories, dead dreams.
Anna Smith lives on a small farm in Hadley, Massachusetts. She teaches for UMass Amherst's University Without Walls and for Shasta College. She can be reached at email@example.com.