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Family History Proves Bewitching to Descendants of Salem 'Witches' : Colonial America: Three presidents, Clara Barton, Walt Disney, Joan Kennedy and one unborn child are among those whose ancestors were accused of consorting with the devil 300 years ago.

August 29, 1993|MARY JANE ALEXANDER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — I'm going to have my first child any day now. Girl or boy? My husband and I haven't tried to find out.

We're more concerned about which ancestors the baby might take after. Will the child be curious or quiet? Tall or short? Witch or warlock?

Witch or warlock?

Well, we're not terribly concerned, to tell the truth, but I admit I was astonished to discover not long ago that 300-year-old witch skeletons hung--literally--from my husband's family tree.

Unbeknown to him and the rest of his immediate family, his ninth-great-grandmother, Sarah Towne Bridges Cloyce, and her two sisters were accused of witchcraft in 1692 in Salem, Mass. Although Sarah escaped the noose, her sisters, Rebecca and Mary, were hanged.

Sarah's name was buried in the family records as Sarah Towne, who married Edmund Bridges Jr. in 1660. But after Edmund's death in 1680, she married the widower Peter Cloyce. Only when reading accounts of the trials during last year's tricentennial did it dawn on me that Sarah Cloyce, accused witch, was the same woman as Sarah Towne Bridges, esteemed ancestor.

Ed's line of descent from Sarah is contained in a family history, "The Paddock Heritage," which was self-published by some of his elderly relatives in 1985.

It's not surprising that Sarah's story was lost. Only in 1957 did the General Court of Massachusetts resolve "that no disgrace or cause for distress" be borne by descendants of witch-trial victims.

Over the centuries, many families have felt disgrace and distress.

New England author Enders Robinson calls the witch trials "the grimmest of stories, and one which my father believed plunged the family into ignominy, and was better forgotten."

His sixth-great-grandfather, Samuel Wardwell, was hanged from a locust tree the same day as Ed's aunt, Mary Towne Estey.

Three presidents--Taft, Ford and Arthur--also are descended from one of Salem's 20 executed witches or their siblings. So are Clara Barton, Walt Disney and Joan Kennedy. And, of course, our descendant in-the-making.

During the Salem hysteria, being related to an accused witch was enough to cast doubt on one's own innocence. Ed's Sarah was likely singled out because her older sisters had been accused.

So were they witches? No. The Towne sisters were devout Puritans. Then why were they accused? Theories range from the simplistic--boredom--to the bizarre--hallucinations brought on by eating moldy bread. The truth is likely more complex: a combination of family rivalries, fights over property and grabs for power.

Rebecca Towne Nurse and Mary Towne Estey were among 13 women, six men and two dogs hanged as suspected witches. Another man, 80-year-old Giles Corey, was tortured under a pile of stones as townspeople tried to force him to enter a plea. His only answer before being crushed to death was immortalized in Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible": "More weight," he said. Only those who did not confess to witchcraft were considered dangerous. Those who admitted guilt were not treated as harshly, particularly if they conjured up names of other "witches."

"They lost their lives because they committed the error of truth," said Robinson, author of "The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692."

Rebecca, Mary and Sarah were the daughters of English-born William and Joanna Blessing Towne. They moved their family to the settlement with the hopeful name of Salem, from the Hebrew word for peace.

It was there more than 50 years later that their daughters would be tested.

"What sin has God found me unrepented of, that he could lay such an affliction on me in my old age?" asked Rebecca. The 70-year-old matriarch, who was nearly deaf, was taken from her sickbed on March 24, 1692, and arrested for witchcraft.

Local children said her "specter" tormented them. She was condemned, brought in chains into the First Church in Salem and--most horrific to the God-fearing woman that she was--excommunicated by unanimous vote. Rebecca was hanged on Gallows Hill on July 19, 1692.

Meanwhile, Mary and Sarah also had been jailed. Mary would not enter a false confession. "I dare not belie my own soul." She was hanged, along with seven others, on a cold and rainy Thursday, Sept. 22.

Sarah was spared. Though kept in irons for nearly a year, she fought back against her accusers. Upon hearing testimony by John Indian, one of the minister's servants, that she was a witch, she snapped in court: "Oh! You are a grievous liar."

Eventually, the political winds shifted. Sarah was freed on Jan. 3, 1693, and spent the 10 years before her death trying to clear her sisters' names. A movie version of her battle, "Three Sovereigns for Sarah," stars Vanessa Redgrave.

Today the Towne descendants have a 442-member family association. It features a quarterly newsletter, "About Towne"; coffee mugs; "Remember Rebecca" T-shirts; annual reunions, and the determination not to let history be forgotten.

Some descendants of witch trial players would rather it be forgotten. The fact that Magistrate John Hathorne wore the robes of chief witch hunter haunted his great-great-grandson, who altered the spelling of his own last name to distance himself. In his essay "The Custom-House," Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of his ancestors, "I, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them may now and henceforth be removed."

Five of the 20 who were executed had no known children or grandchildren. They leave only a legacy of refusing to betray their beliefs. I hope our child will inherit that, along with a drop of Sarah's blood, and bear Towne proudly as a middle name.

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