Usually around this time of the year, the nerds usually receive multiple requests to share tales of New England hauntings and mischief. We usually try to avoid discussing questionable or undocumented stories of the unexplained as it could lead down a slippery slope of fabrication and exaggeration. That said, no semi reputable blog...which we occasionally rise to the level of…. could expect to survive in New England without a witch story. As a result, allow us to share the story of Susannah Martin, the witch of Amesbury, Massachusetts.
Susannah North was born in England in 1621. When she was 18 years old, her family immigrated to Salisbury, Massachusetts. The family lived with other settlers on plots along the “circular road,” now known as the triangle formation of Elm street, School street and Bridge Road in Salisbury square. Prior to settlement, the area was inhabited by Penacook Native Americans, “wolves and wild animals”.
When she turned 25, Susannah married a blacksmith named George Martin. Eight years later, the couple moved to Amesbury. Over the years, the couple had eight children.
Susannah was no stranger to the early Massachusetts judicial system. In 1669, she was formally accused of witchcraft by William Browne. According to court documents Martin tormented his wife Elizabeth with her spirit. After her arrest, Susannah was released on bail and the charges were eventually dropped.
A few years later, she was accused by William Sargent, Jr. of fornication, of killing her infant and witchcraft. In response,, her husband sued Sargent for two counts of slander against Susannah - one for accusing her of being a witch, and another for claiming one of her sons was a bastard and another was her "imp". Eventually, a Massachusetts high court found Sargent liable and cleared Martin of the witchcraft accusation.
Unfortunately, Susannah’s legal troubles extended beyond witchcraft claims. She was prosecuted for a variety of criminal offenses, including calling one neighbor a liar and a thief. Likewise, when her father, Richard North, died and left a sizeable inheritance to Susannah’s sisters, a granddaughter and his second wife, she sued the estate. From 1671 to 1674 she was embroiled in a series of legal disputes over the estate, all of which were ultimately unsuccessful.
Susannah was left a poor widow when her husband George died in 1686.
In 1692, the witchcraft hysteria erupted in Essex County. Residents of nearby Salem, including Joseph and Jarvis Ring, accused Susannah of being a witch and asserted she had attempted to recruit them into a covenant with the devil. She was also accused by John Allen of Salsbury, a man who claimed that she had bewitched his oxen and drove them into the Merrimack River where they later drowned.
She was arrested in Amesbury on May 2, 1692 and transported to Salem for judicial examination. Justices John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin subjected her to intense questioning and twice ordered humiliating physical examination in an effort to find a "witch’s teat" that was used to feed their unholy companions. No such mark was found but the examiner did make a note that “in the morning her nipples were found to be full as if the milk would come,” but later in the day “her breasts were slack, as if milk had already been given to someone or something.”
Martin was quickly incarcerated and ordered held for trial.
The next month when her trial started, Martin was denied the right to representation by legal counsel. At least nine and as many as twenty-four Amesbury and Salisbury neighbors traveled to Salem to testify against Martin. Among the personal grievances harbored over the years were claims that her specter had stalked a farm hand, she had bitten another man’s hand, she had driven a neighbor mad, and she had been seen at witch meetings. In response Martin exclaimed “I have led a most virtuous and holy life.”
Martin refused to be intimidated by her accusers. Standing in the courtroom, confronted by girls seemingly writhing from "afflictions", she maintained that she only “desire[d] to lead my self according to the word of God.” Asked what she then made of the afflicted girls, Martin suggested that they might be the ones under the devil's influence, reminding the judges that, “He [the devil] that appeared in the sam[e] shape a glorifyed saint can appear in any ones shape.”
The Reverend Cotton Mather believed Susannah to be “one of the most impudent, scurrilous, wicked Creatures in the World.” According to trial notes he maintained, the following interaction took place between Martin and one of her accusers:
“[Magistrate] (to the afflicted girls): Do you know this Woman?
[Abigail Williams]: It is Goody Martin she hath hurt me often.
Others by fits were hindered from speaking. Eliz: Hubbard said she hath not been hurt by her. John Indian said he hath not seen her Mercy Lewes pointed to her & fell into a little fit. Ann Putman threw her Glove in a fit at her.
The examinant laught.
[Magistrate] (To Martin): What do you laugh at it?
[Martin]: Well I may at such folly.
[Magistrate]: Is this folly? The hurt of these persons.
[Martin]: I never hurt man woman or child.
[Mercy Lewes]: She hath hurt me a great many times, & pulls me down
Then Martin laughed again
[Mary Walcott]: This woman hath hurt me a great many times.
Susan Sheldon also accused her of afflicting her.
[Magistrate] (To Martin): What do you say to this?
[Martin]: I have no hand in Witchcraft.
[Magistrate]: What did you do? Did not you give your consent?
[Martin]: No, never in my life.
[Magistrate]: What ails this people?
[Martin]: I do not know.
[Magistrate]: But w’t do you think?
[Martin]: I do not desire to spend my judgm’t upon it.
[Magistrate]: Do not you think they are Bewitcht?
[Martin]: No. I do not think they are
[Magistrate]: Tell me your thoughts about them.
[Martin]:Why my thoughts are my own, when they are in, but when they are out they are anothers.”
Susannah mounted a vigorous defense but was found guilty. On July 19, 1692, Martin was escorted to Proctor’s Ledge with Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Wildes and executed by hanging. She and her fellow “witches” were buried in a shallow grave near the execution site.
Famed Massachusetts poet John Greenleaf Whittier was a direct descendant of Susannah Martin. In 1857, he honored his ancestor in a poem titled The Witch’s Daughter. As Whittier noted:
“Let Goody Martin rest in peace, I never knew her harm a fly,
And witch or not – God knows – not I?
I know who swore her life away;
And as God lives, I’d not condemn
An Indian dog on word of them.”
In 1711, the Massachusetts colonial legislature passed a resolution clearing the names of the convicted witches and offered financial restitution to their descendants. Surprisingly, Susannah Martin’s family did not wish to be named in the resolution nor sought compensation. In 1957, the Massachusetts legislature formally apologized to the victims of the Salem Witch Trials but did not specifically mention Martin by name. Years later, in 2001, the Massachusetts corrected that oversight and passed a resolution officially exonerating five of the victims not mentioned in the previous resolutions: Susannah Martin, Bridget Bishop, Alice Parker, Wilmot Redd and Margaret Scott.