Martha Carrier, History of American Women

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History of American Women

Colonial Women | 18th Century Women | 19th Century Women

Martha Carrier

Salem Witchcraft Trials

Image: Scene at Witchcraft Trial

Born Martha Allen, she was the daughter of one of the original founders of the Massachusetts town of Andover. In 1674, Martha married below her station to a young Welsh servant, who was the father of her illegitimate child, Thomas Carrier. Living for a few years in Billerica, the couple returned to Andover in the 1680s with very little money and four children.

The couple settled in Billerica proceeded to enlarge their family. After what must have been a joyful time for the Carriers, now with three sons and two daughters, the tough times began in 1690. The next two Carrier children died from the common 17th century disease of smallpox.

When Martha’s father also died later that year, the Carriers moved back to Andover to live with Martha’s mother. Unfortunately for the Carriers, they brought the smallpox virus with them to Andover. They are noted in public records as receiving the standard, but ominous, warning from the Andover Selectmen to “move on.”

Within two months of the arrival of the Carriers, nine people had died from the illness. The victims included Martha’s two brothers, her sister-in-law and a nephew, all living in Martha’s mother’s house when the Carriers arrived. The fact that Martha’s husband and children had been stricken with smallpox, but none of them died, would have been interpreted as proof that Martha possessed special powers, and they blamed her for the thirteen smallpox deaths.

To make her situation worse, after the death of her two brothers, Martha took charge of her father’s estate. She immediately ran into friction with her neighbors, threatening vengeance upon those she believed were cheating her or her husband. Martha’s independent spirit and lack of deference seem to have quickly alienated her from the rest of the community.

Martha Carrier was plain and outspoken in speech, of remarkable strength of mind, a keen sense of justice, and a sharp tongue. She, doubtless took largely upon herself the care of the household, and no small interest in the management of the outside affairs, in which she sometimes came into collision with the neighboring farmers. If the stories of witnesses can be credited, she had more than once threatened vengeance on persons she thought had cheated her husband in his dealings with them.

The Accusations
Carrier’s reputation as a witch found new expression when the witch hunt in Salem began. As the testimony reflected, the Salem community was well aware of Andover’s gossip about Martha. Susan Sheldon, Mary Walcot, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Ann Putnam – girls who also accused many others of witchcraft – screamed before the court that they could see the ghosts of the thirteen Andover smallpox victims.

A warrant was signed for Martha’s arrest on May 28, 1692, the first person in Andover to be charged with witchcraft. She was taken to jail and placed in chains to keep her spirit from roaming. Three days later, Martha underwent the examination that always preceded the witchcraft trials, and Martha maintained her innocence.

She was then transported to the Salem Village Meeting House to face the accusing girls. When Martha entered the room, the girls fell to the floor, writhing with cries of agony.

The Indictment
The accusers persisted and Martha was formally indicted. After the elders read the indictment, Martha responded with a plea of “not guilty,” and boldly asserted that those who accused her had lied. She was bound in chains and taken to jail to await trial while more evidence could be found. Martha’s two oldest sons, Andrew and Richard, ages 18 and 15 respectively, and her seven-year-old daughter, Sarah, were also put in jail as suspected witches.

Under intense pressure, little Sarah confessed that she was a witch, and that it was her mother who made her a witch. Her sons Andrew and Richard were “tied neck to heel until the blood was ready to come out of their noses,” before they confessed. Under the persuasive magistrates, the children told the examiners about journeys, meetings and “mischiefs by them performed, and were very credible in what they said.”

The Trial
On August 2, 1692 a special court was held in Salem to deal with six accused witches, including Martha Carrier. When the witnesses were brought before the court the evidence against Martha was overwhelming. All of Martha’s past arguments were brought up, and there were many facts which “looked greatly against her.” Martha again pleaded not guilty, but the proceedings continued.

There was first brought in a considerable number of the bewitched persons, who not only made the court sensible of an horrid witchcraft committed upon them, but also deposed that it was Martha Carrier, or her shape, that grievously tormented them by biting, pricking, pinching and choking them. It was further deposed that while this Carrier was on her examination before the magistrates, the poor people were so tormented that everyone expected their death on the very spot; but that upon the binding of Carrier they were ceased.

The Execution
On August 19, 1692, Martha was taken in the back of a cart to Gallows Hill in Salem. Jeering crowds lined the streets and gathered at the scaffold to witness the hanging of Martha and four men, who were also convicted witches. A testament to her courage, Martha Carrier maintained her innocence to the end. “I would rather die than confess a falsehood so filthy,” she shouted.

Almost 10 years after her hanging, her surviving family was paid 7 pounds and 6 shillings in restitution for her death.

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