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Weird Norfolk: A tale of two marriages to two Norwich witches intertwined with Salem

PUBLISHED: 09:00 09 February 2019

The Salem witch trials. Picture: Wikipedia

The Salem witch trials. Picture: Wikipedia

Wikipedia

To marry one woman accused of witchcraft is misfortunate, to marry two is plain suspicious. Weird Norfolk recount the tale of the Norwich man who may have seen two wives sent to their deaths for witchcraft.

Their story is a reminder of a dark past and Norfolk’s terrible links to an infamous witch hunt that cast a shadow over New England.

Salem in Massachusetts, on the north-east coast of America was founded in 1626 and, ironically, named after the Hebrew word for peace. The peace of the Puritan community was, however, totally shattered by a vicious witch hunt in the winter of 1691 after a West Indian slave, Tituba, told voodoo and witchcraft stories to a group of four girls, one of whom was the daughter of Tituba’s master. Later, the girls were seen to writhe and roar, their bodies contorting as they complained of being bitten and pinched – elders declared the girls to be bewitched and in turn the young women began to name their tormentors: within weeks, around 185 witches and wizards had been named and in the months that followed, 19 hanged. On March 1, Tituba stood in front of a court convened in a church where she had prayed for three years. She confessed that she had seen the devil and his full cast of grotesque creatures and accomplices – and tellingly, accused two other residents of Salem, and then nine, and then 40 and finally 500. She would later retract every word, claiming she had been bullied by her master into creating colourful tales – she, unlike the women she named, escaped with her life.

Two of those who died were from Norfolk, Bridget Bishop and Rebecca Nurse, women who couldn’t have been more different in character, but whose lives ended in the same, brutal and unjust way. The very first victim was Bridget, from Norwich, but arrested before her was Rebecca from Great Yarmouth, whose story we have told before and who was hanged nine days after Bridget along with four poor innocents.

Hanged at Proctor’s Ledge in Salem, the women are forever linked to trials which themselves were influenced by the 1645 witch trials of East Anglia that offered America accusers a grotesque template to copy.

The former site of St Mary in the Marsh church, where Bridget Bishop married Samuel Wasselbe.  Picture: ANTONY KELLYThe former site of St Mary in the Marsh church, where Bridget Bishop married Samuel Wasselbe. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

But we must start at the very beginning and meet the man whose story snakes through this grim period in history on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thomas Oliver was born in 1601 and married first wife Mary Leman at St Andrew’s Church in Norwich on January 29 1626. The couple had three children, Mary who died aged eight, John and Thomas. When Charles I set out to suppress the Puritans, Oliver and his family decided to seek a new life and set sail in the spring of 1637, heading for Massachusetts Bay. While we could commend Oliver’s dedication to his religion, there may possibly have been another reason he was keen to turn over a new leaf in the New World: Mary, it seems, was not adverse to sharing her unpopular opinions with anyone in earshot. Having arrived in Salem, Mary’s outspoken nature refused to be suppressed, although in fairness, most of her outbursts were in support of her husband’s respect for Roger Williams, an extreme Puritan who didn’t believe the Boston church was committed enough to the proper worship of God. He had been banished from Salem in 1635 for denouncing the church and to support him was foolish, as the Olivers found out when they clashed with Salem elders. By the 1650s, the love affair with New England had ended and the couple returned to Norfolk – at this point, details become sketchy, but everyone agrees that Mary died within a few years, the cause of her death, however is a matter for debate. A record exists of notes made in Norwich in 1659: “Mary Oliver burnt for witchcraft and her goods confiscated for the use of the city.” Was it Thomas Oliver’s wife? Meanwhile, Thomas Oliver had second thoughts about Salem and, by that time, a second wife, Bridget.

Bridget Playfer had been married before to Captain Samuel Wasselbe, the pair had a son, Benjamin, before Bridget, and possibly Samuel, made the arduous passage across the Atlantic to Boston. In 1665, Samuel died and shortly afterwards a daughter Mary of that union was born – within a year, both children were dead and Bridget had met widower Thomas Oliver and the pair married on July 26 1666. Oliver, it turned out, had married another woman who wasn’t afraid to speak up and, to put it mildly, was somewhat of a handful. The pair, who had daughter Christian, together, argued constantly and Bridget was taken to court for calling her husband bad names on the Sabbath and told to pay a fine or stand in the public square in penance with her husband – Oliver’s daughter paid her father’s fine but not Bridget’s and she was forced to stand in shame, for all to see.

Oliver told anyone that would listen that he’d made a dreadful mistake in marrying Bridget and that she was in league with the Devil, who he said regularly came to her at night and stayed with her until dawn. When Oliver died on April 24 1679, Bridget stood to inherit his house and land, although most was owed to creditors.

There was gossip that Bridget had caused the deaths of her two husbands – Oliver’s children accused their stepmother of bewitching their father to death – and in the year that her second husband died, she had been accused of witchcraft when John Ingersoll’s slave Juan claimed her “spectre” had pinched him, that she had stolen eggs and frightened horses. Brought before Salem’s Court of Assistants in 1680, she was exonerated of all charges by the Reverend John Hale who said she “in no way deserved to be ill-thought of”. The next time she would stand in front of a court, she would not walk away. Bridget married again, to Edward Bishop, and the marriage was predictably stormy – here was a woman who enjoyed a good argument, who didn’t think twice about allowing a row to boil over into a physical violence but who could turn on the charm when she needed to. Short of an accusation of theft in 1688, it appeared Bridget was keeping her nose clean as the mistress of two taverns and a wife, mother and grandmother: all this changed in April 1692, when teenage girls named her as a suspect in the most famous witch trial of all time.

Middle-aged, accused for the second time of witchcraft, unpopular, difficult, outspoken and as hard as nails, Bridget never waivered in her assertion that she was innocent: “I am not come here to say I am a witch,” she told the court, standing before them in her trademark red bodice looped with laces of different colours and her black cap. Accused of bewitching five young women, Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam, Jr., Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, and Elizabeth Hubbard, Bridget stood no chance – she had been previously charged, she had the so-called witch’s mark on her body and when her accusers confronted her in a room, a number of the “afflicted” girls howled that Bridget was causing them pain.

The girls claimed Bridget had told them to “sign the Devil’s book”, men who had worked on her house in 1685 told of discovering poppets stuck with pins in her cellar wall, her spectre was said to have visited several men at night and Samuel Shattuck, a dyer in Salem Town, accused Bishop of bewitching their son and causing his declining health. John Louder, who worked at the Ship Tavern claimed to have seen a black pig and black imps in her yard, and even Bishop flying over her orchards afterward. The court heard of Bridget’s love of shovel board games, the late nights at the tavern, the mysterious death of her first husband, her love of flamboyant dress. Bridget didn’t stand a chance.

On June 10 1692, Bridget Bishop from Norwich was taken to the top of Gallows Hill, a wooded ledge overlooking Salem that was in plain view, with her hands bound behind her back and her legs and petticoat tied tight. Her neck was slipped through a rope loop tied to a branch on a great oak tree and she was placed halfway up a ladder. The ladder was kicked away and with death minutes away, Bridget uttered her last words:  “You will keep silent.” In Salem, her name is etched on to a rough-hewn cold slab – to reach it, you must step on or over her declarations of innocence, carved into stone for all time.

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