Featured image: Examination of a Witch, by T. H. Matteson, 1853
The 1996 movie “The Crucible” is based on Arthur Miller’s award-winning 1953 play about the Salem Witch Trials. It was filmed on Choate Island, part of the Crane estate in Ipswich and Essex. The story and movie are based on accusations against John and Elizabeth Proctor of Salem who had once lived in Ipswich. John Proctor was hung and Elizabeth was given a reprieve in jail, until her baby was born. Her sentence was never carried out.
In this panel from the Ipswich Riverwalk mural by artist and writer Alan Pearsall, Elizabeth Howe is being arrested on charges of witchcraft
Two Ipswich women were accused during the witchcraft hysteria. Rachel Clinton was arrested but never hung. She died destitute in 1695. Elizabeth Howe of Ipswich was arrested on May 28, 1692 and was hung in Salem on July 19, 1692. In this narrative I tell her story and the story of two families that accused her. It’s about superstition, religion, greed, loss, revenge and a strong woman. It’s all true.
Elizabeth and James Howe resided on outer Linebrook Road in an area known then as Ipswich Farms. James Howe lost his sight at about the age of 50 and Elizabeth assumed the dual responsibility of managing the family and the farm. She readily took charge, making decisions well beyond the accepted level for Puritan housewives.
There was long-standing friction between Elizabeth Howe and her neighbors Samuel Perley and his wife Ruth, whose brother had married Elizabeth’s sister Deborah in 1662. For several years their daughter Hannah had experienced episodes in which she would fall into fits and say she was being pricked by pins, which Hannah claimed was the work of Elizabeth Howe. She told her parents “I could never afflict a dog as Goody Howe afflicts me.” The Perleys took the child to several doctors, the last of whom told them she was “under an evil hand”. Reverend Phillips of Rowley would later testify that he had visited Hannah as she lay ill and that Hannah had screamed that Goody Howe was in the room, going in and out of an oven. He rebuked her and her brother Samuel for crying out “Say Goodwife Howe is a witch! Say she is a witch!”. Young Hannah eventually “pined away to skin and bones and ended her sorrowful life”. The standoff between the Howe and Perley families continued for years, during which time Elizabeth Howe was prevented by the Perleys from being admitted into the Ipswich church.
Tom and Ann Putnam were from an old family in Salem Village (Danvers) family that had a long-standing dispute with the town of Topsfield, into which they claimed some of their land extended. The Putnams had a reputation for being vindictive and taking the law into their own hands. Concerned that Putnam was cutting trees not belonging to him, the town appointed several men, including John Howe, to ask the Putnams to show the deeds to the land they claimed, which the Putnams were unable to produce.
A group of impressionable pre-teen girls in Salem Village, under the care of a Barbados slave named Tituba working for Rev. Samuel Parris became fascinated by her stories about black magic. Parris beat Tituba until she confessed herself a witch. In February 1692 the public accusations of witchcraft began, and 12 year old daughter Ann Putnam, the daughter of Thomas and Ann quickly became the ringleader of the afflicted girls, with no discouragement from her mother. Thomas Putnam signed ten of the 21 formal complaints issued against accused witches. The Salem Witch Trials would soon begin, and he would sit on the jury.
Elizabeth Howe’s sister-in-law Rebecca Nurse had been involved in a long-standing dispute with the Putnams, and she was the first resident to be accused. Soon the Perley family revived their long-standing accusations against Elizabeth Howe. On Sunday, May 29, 1692 the constable of Topsfield took Elizabeth Howe into custody, having been charged of “Sundry Acts of Witch-craft done on Mary Walcott, Abigail Williams, and others of Salem Village.” He also rounded up Abigail and Deliverance Hobbs and Sarah Wildes of Topsfield who were also from families on the Putnam enemies list.
Conditions in the unheated jails were harsh. The accused were “bound with cords and irons” In Marion L. Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts he writes, “They were periodically subjected by prison officials, especially by the juries assigned to search them for witch marks”. Elizabeth Howe’s friends and family would make regular trips to comfort her, bringing “country butter” and clean linen. James Howe remained true to his wife and visited her in prison each week with the assistance of their daughters Mary and Abigail.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer was conveyed in Salem to weigh the “spectral” evidence, the ghosts the girls claimed to have seen that looked like the people they were accusing of being witches. The Perley family organized a vicious attack on Elizabeth Howe. In testimony, Samuel Perley stated that a few days after he had first denied Elizabeth’s request to join the church, his cow suddenly went mad and ran into a pond drowning herself. Timothy and Deborah Pearly said their cows would no longer give milk.
Samuel Perley’s son in law Jacob Foster testified that he found his mare leaning against a tree and that no matter how much he whipped her she would not move. Joseph Safford, age 90, testified that his wife had been afflicted by Goody Howe’s apparition. Francis Lane testified that she had hired John Perley to transport posts and rails for a fence and asked Elizabeth Howe’s husband James for assistance, but that Elizabeth told her husband that since John Perley was involved, the rails would not do. When they began to build the fence so many rails broke that they had to buy 30 more.
Isaac Cummings, senior, gave testimony that eight years before, James Howe had asked his son Isaac to borrow a horse, which was refused, and that the next day his mare fell down dead. The younger Isaac confirmed the story. His wife testified that Elizabeth had cursed the horse with oil and brimstone. Thomas Andrews testified that he had been called to assist with the mare and had set a pipe of tobacco “under her firmament” to treat the pain, and that a blue flame had shot out and set the mare’s hair on fire. They tried this old folk prescription three times with the same results each time and decided they would rather lose the mare than the barn.
Elizabeth Howe’s brother-in-law John testified that he told Elizabeth that “if she would confess” he would accompany her to Salem, but she had refused. He recounted that the next day at sunset his sow leaped up three or four feet high. gave one squeak and fell dead. He cut off the ear of the sow and the hand he used to do this became numb, and thus concluded “I suspected no person other than my said sister Elizabeth Howe”. It has been speculated that because James and Elizabeth had no sons, John may have hoped that he would someday inherit his brother’s estate.
Joseph Putnam, Thomas’s younger brother spoke out against the witch hunts. Elizabeth Howe’s friends and family also rose to her defense. James Howe Sr, age 94, testified that Elizabeth had been a wonderful daughter-in-law for 30 years. Daniel, John, and Sarah Warren swore that they had never heard Elizabeth Howe utter an un-Christian word about the accusers. Simon and Mary Chapman testified that the accused had been good to them and that they “never saw any harm by her.” Joseph and Mary Knowlton told the jury that their neighbor Elizabeth Howe was faithful to her word and honest in her dealings and had expressed no ill feelings toward the accusers. Rowley pastor Phillips described bringing Elizabeth Howe to the Perley house and receiving no confirmation from the children that Elizabeth was causing Hannah’s fits. The Chapmans and Knowltons testified that they had never heard her speak against those who were accusing her and had heard her say “indeed I pray that God would forgive them for they harm themselves more than me.” How true her prophecy would be.
When asked how she plead to the charges made against her, Elizabeth Howe responded, “If it was the last moment I was to live, God knows I am innocent of any thing of this nature”. Mary Walcott and Mercy Lewis (who had been Thomas Putnam’s servant) threw themselves to the floor in fits. Ann Putnam screamed that Elizabeth Howe had stuck a pin in her hand. Elizabeth was then asked, “What do you say to these things?” to which she replied, “Sir, I am not able to give account of it.” The court responded, “That is strange that you should do these things and not be able to tell how.” The judges had already made up their minds. Cotton Mather, the minister of Boston’s Old North church would later proclaim that the court was leading the final charge against the Devil’s legions and that the end of the world was at hand. His father Increase Mather, president of Harvard College cowardly failed to take a stand against the court even though he questioned the use of spectral evidence.
Rebecca Nurse was at first found not guilty but the afflicted girls’ outcry was so immediate and intense that the chief judge charged the jury to reconsider. They changed the verdict after not receiving an adequate answer to a question they put to Rebecca, who was partially deaf and did not understand what they were asking.
Elizabeth Howe was hanged on July 19, 1692, along with Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Sarah Wildes and Susanna Martin. They were buried in a crevice on Gallows Hill.
By September, eighteen accused had been hung and Giles Corey was pressed to death from stones piled on his body for refusing to answer the charges. Public opinion turned against the proceedings. The ministers of Ipswich joined spoke out against the proceedings and the actions of their fellow pastor Samuel Parris. It is said that the group of accusing girls were brought to Ipswich but were refused permission to cross the bridge into town. The courts issued a written apology on March 18, 1702 in response to public demand. In 1711, a sum of approximately 598 pounds was distributed among the survivors.
James Howe died in 1701.Thomas Putnam and his wife Ann died a couple of weeks apart of unknown causes in 1699, he age 47, she 38, leaving young Ann Putnam to raise her nine siblings. In 1706 she recanted her testimony, asserting that she herself had been deluded by Satan. Ann Putnam never married and died at the age of 37. Samuel Perley died in 1707, the date of death for his wife is unknown. There is no record that they ever apologized or recanted their accusations. The Perleys and the Howes continued to marry members of each other’s extended families. The Salem, Danvers, Topsfield and Ipswich communities eventually put the tragedy behind them, but questions and theories about how the events of 1692 came to be will linger with us forever.
- History of Massachusetts (blog)
- A Short History of the Salem Village Witchcraft Trials: Illustrated by a …
By Martin Van Buren Perley
- Records of Salem witchcraft, copied from the original documents, Vol. I (1864)
- Records of Salem witchcraft, copied from the original documents, Vol. II (1864)
- Salem Witchcraft: Comprising More Wonders of the Invisible World, collected by Robert Calef; and Wonders of the Invisible World, by Cotton Mather; together with notes and explanations (1865) by Samuel P. Fowler