The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World 
by Malcolm Gaskill.
Allen Lane, 308 pp., £20, November 2021, 978 0 241 41338 8
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These days​ , Springfield is the most populous suburb of Chelmsford, the county town of Essex. But until the 1950s it was a mere village, situated a mile north-east of the city on the old Roman road. This is where William Pynchon, a key figure in Malcolm Gaskill’s new book, went to live in 1610. Born in 1590 in Writtle, another Essex village, he grew up to be a convinced Puritan, profoundly unsympathetic to the church of Charles I and William Laud. Gaskill exaggerates when he says that in the 1630s ‘Puritans were jailed or put to death,’ but the regime was sufficiently hostile that Pynchon, like thousands of other Puritans, despaired of the prospects for the godly in England. In 1629 he became active in the Massachusetts Bay Company headed by John Winthrop, a Suffolk man. A year later Pynchon and his family boarded the Ambrose, one of Winthrop’s fleet of four ships that sailed for the New World, where there was known to be land for the taking. Pynchon settled seven miles south of Boston, near Dorchester, but subsequently moved and became the leading citizen of the newly founded town of Roxbury, between Dorchester and Boston. He served as treasurer of the Massachusetts Bay Company and traded directly with the Native Americans for furs, though it is unlikely that there was anything very equitable about his dealings with them. As the Jacobean diplomat Sir Edward Hoby observed, it was ‘lawful for a Christian to take away anything from infidels’.

Pynchon was a restless man and six years after his arrival in America he headed a group of settlers who moved from Massachusetts Bay to a new site. Formerly the home of the Pocomtuc people, and known as Agawam, it was a remote settlement, a hundred miles west of Boston. Pynchon had persuaded the Native Americans that they owned the land and could legally sell it to him. He transferred his estate from Connecticut to this part of Massachusetts and renamed it Springfield, after his home. As the colony’s founder and chief magistrate, Pynchon had Springfield firmly under his command. There, he was active both in the fur trade and as an author. In June 1650 his book The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption was published in London. Described by Gaskill as a ‘bracingly rational’ and ‘intensely heretical’ work, it was condemned in Boston for challenging Calvinist orthodoxy and burned by the hangman.

Life in Springfield was hard: a mixture of piety, toil, religious strife and competition for land. Men and women alike worked between ten and sixteen hours a day in a climate of extremes, with torrid summers and bone-chilling winters. Epidemics, floods, harvest failures and earthquakes exacerbated the hardship. There were tense confrontations with the Dutch traders and the other English settlements further down the Connecticut Valley; and, although Pynchon claimed to believe in treating them as equals, there was open conflict with the Native Americans.

Gaskill remarks that most colonists believed the natives to be, at least unconsciously, in league with the devil. But there was no witch-hunting in the first 25 years of New England. When it began in the mid-1640s it was not Native Americans that the settlers identified as witches, but people within their own community. Individuals struck down by a mysterious illness or injured in an accident would ask themselves who might plausibly bear them a grudge. In many – perhaps most – cases of suspected witchcraft it was the victims’ guilty consciences which enabled them to identify the witch.

The Massachusetts legal code defined witchcraft as ‘fellowship by covenant with a familiar spirit’. This was an invisible crime and accused people found it hard to prove their innocence. In 1649 the middle-aged widow Mercy Marshfield was quite exceptional in bringing a successful defamation suit against her accuser, Mary Parsons, a brickmaker’s wife, who was made to pay a fine to avoid being ‘well whipped’. Marshfield was more fortunate than the quarrelsome midwife Margaret Jones, who had been hanged for witchcraft on Boston Common in June 1648, or the servant Mary Johnson, pregnant with an illegitimate child, who was condemned six months later, having confessed to ‘familiarity with the devil’.

In the years following there was a flood of accusations. When in May 1649 Sarah Edwards’s cow produced multicoloured milk, she and her husband were convinced that it had been bewitched by Hugh Parsons, the brickmaker whose wife, Mary, had been fined for accusing Marshfield. In February 1651 George Langton, a carpenter, declined to sell hay to Parsons because he had none to spare. Parsons took this badly and occult revenge was suspected when, some days later, Langton’s wife, Hannah, pulled her bag pudding of offal and oats out of the kettle only to find it split neatly down the middle, ‘as smooth as any knife’. When the Langtons tried some counter-magic to flush out the culprit, it was Parsons who turned up at their door, though he promptly left when told (falsely) that George was not at home. A day or two later the pudding was pulled out of the kettle again; this time it had been cut into three long slices. A few months later, Simon Beamon, one of Pynchon’s servants, refused to help Parsons carry home some heavy sacks of flour. But when he trotted away on his ‘gentle, quiet horse’, he fell off, not once but three times, even though the placid horse had not shied and continued to move peacefully. It was not the last time that someone would come to grief after offending Parsons.

Eighteen months on, Jonathan Taylor claimed to have been attacked in bed by three demonic snakes. He, too, suspected that this was the work of Parsons. Then Taylor started to have ‘fits’. Other accusers came forward. William Branch, a neighbour, attributed his ‘strange stiffness’ to Parsons’s witchcraft. Parsons’s wife, Mary, disloyally reported of her husband that ‘the devil came to him in the night on the bed and sucked him.’ She even searched his body for the devil’s mark when he was asleep. Convinced that her husband had murdered their son Samuel by witchcraft, in order to make her work longer hours, she had no inhibition about publicising her fears.

Parsons did nothing to allay the mounting suspicion. Reluctant to settle a debt his wife owed to Marshfield, he lost his temper and warned her creditor: ‘It shall be but as wildfire in your house and as a moth in your clothes.’ Marshfield’s daughter, Sarah Miller, subsequently began to suffer ‘strange fits’, which were duly seen as the result of witchcraft. Parsons and his wife were now seriously estranged. Mary blamed her husband for the death of Anne Smith’s two daughters, the grandchildren of William Pynchon. She also accused him of bewitching a cow belonging to Pynchon’s servant Francis Pepper. Another of Pynchon’s servants, Thomas Miller, cut his leg with a saw and immediately assumed that Parsons was responsible. Up to this point, Mary had kept quiet about the fact that she had given herself to the devil and that her soul, leaving her body, had attended a witches’ meeting. But she now revealed that she had chosen to marry her husband because she suspected him of practising witchcraft. She was arrested, watched closely during the night and grilled about her belief that her husband was a witch. Her interrogators were particularly interested in how often Parsons had said that he would get ‘even’ with Pynchon’s stepson, the magistrate Henry Smith.

As a result of his wife’s allegations, Parsons was arrested and charged with witchcraft. A number of the people he had threatened or quarrelled with were invited to describe their subsequent woes. They included Sarah Edwards and her spoiled milk, the Langtons and their ruined bag pudding, and a young Welsh woman, Blanche Bedortha, who had endured an agonising pregnancy. Parsons was interrogated at length. A day or two later he developed acute stomach pains. At the same time, Joshua, his baby son, suddenly died; he was generally thought to have been killed by Mary, his mother. She confessed to both infanticide and witchcraft, though she tried to implicate her husband in the former crime, pointing to his failure to express any emotion when told of the boy’s death. Gaskill evokes the wretched plight of the Parsons’ firstborn, four-year-old Hannah, whose parents were now labelled witches, her father charged with murdering her brother Samuel, and her mentally ill mother tacitly admitting that she had killed her baby brother, Joshua.

At Parsons’s trial, conducted by Governor Endecott, the charge sheet was read again. Confronted with his wife’s allegations, Parsons defended his apparent lack of sorrow at the loss of their children, explaining that he had gone to weep in the fields, so that he wouldn’t seem unmanly or further distress his wife. Asked why she regarded her husband as a witch, Mary gave numerous reasons but especially emphasised the misfortunes suffered by his enemies. The upshot was that husband and wife were sent on a ‘spine-jolting trek’ to Boston to be tried for witchcraft and the murder of their son. Several neighbours and alleged victims also travelled to see the trial.

Gaskill, an omniscient narrator, tells us that at the end of her trial ‘Mary remained at the bar, her body looking like it might crumple, her face a wan mask of such fatigue and despair she was almost indifferent to what was happening.’ She had been acquitted of witchcraft on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to convict her. This was, naturally enough, a common outcome at witch trials. But when Mary was asked if she had murdered her infant son, she pleaded guilty. She was sentenced to hang, but died in prison soon after.

Parsons, after being kept waiting in jail for more than a year, was also put on trial for his life. On 12 May 1652, he was charged with ‘familiar and wicked converse with the devil’ and harming people with ‘devilish practices and witchcraft’ (maleficium). Despite an absence of witness testimony, he was found guilty. But a fortnight later the General Court ruled that he was ‘not legally guilty of witchcraft’, because there had been no proof of a diabolical covenant. He was released, but did not return to Springfield. He had lost everything, except his daughter and his life. After leaving Boston for good, he and Hannah probably went to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, which was famous for its tolerance.

Witchcraft​ was doomed as a felony because it was founded on the spurious belief that people could inflict harm on their enemies by occult means. Contemporary freethinkers dismissed the crime as non-existent. As the lawyers put it, it involved mens rea (a guilty intention), but not actus reus (a guilty act). Nevertheless, the fear of witchcraft endured for decades. In 1662 Anne Cole of Hartford confessed to entertaining a demon and meeting with other witches, including her husband, who was hanged beside her. The devil had promised Anne a Christmas party, which was not a feast celebrated in Puritan New England. In 1669 Katherine Harrison, the widow of Wethersfield’s town crier, had her conviction of witchcraft overturned by the General Court, but she was nevertheless required to leave the town for ‘her own safety and the contentment of the people’. The last witch trial in Hampshire County began in 1691, but the court case was postponed and then quietly dropped. In 1692, long after witchcraft accusations had peaked in Europe, the infamous Salem witch hunt in Massachusetts led to the deaths of twenty people. As the state’s royal governor said, ‘the devil took upon him the shape of innocent persons, some of the accused being of unblameable life.’

William and Frances Pynchon returned to England in the spring of 1652. They lodged in Hackney with kinsfolk until December 1653, when they bought an estate in Buckinghamshire. George Moxon, Springfield’s pastor, was also back in England by November 1652. He became a Congregational minister, but was ejected in 1660; he continued to preach and in 1672 was licensed to do so; he died in 1687. William Pynchon’s stepson, Henry Smith, also returned to England permanently in the autumn of 1652, leaving behind William’s son John Pynchon to take over as chief magistrate. In 1655, William sent the famous divine Richard Baxter a 440-page response to a critique which John Norton, the minister at Ipswich, had made of The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.

In October 1675 Springfield was pillaged by a group of Native Americans led by Chief Metacom. Many of its inhabitants were killed in the ensuing Metacom’s War of 1675-78. By the time of John Pynchon’s death in 1703, Springfield had revived. Its population had risen to eight hundred and would double in a generation, once the town was allowed to expand west of the Connecticut River. Over the 18th century, belief in sensory evidence of the supernatural diminished. There was, Gaskill says, ‘a shift in sensibilities about the seen and unseen worlds’. Early in the 18th century, John Hale, a Puritan pastor, published an influential book which debunked supposed proof of witchcraft, including, Gaskill writes, ‘everything believed at Springfield in 1651’. No more witches were hanged in New England after Salem; and the last English conviction was in 1712.

Gaskill provides his readers with a surefooted and gripping narrative. Apparently untroubled by any epistemological problems, he achieves this by giving his historical imagination an unusually free rein. He explains that, although his book is ‘a historical reconstruction, not a novel’, he has filled gaps in the evidence ‘imaginatively and made plausible inferences’. The reader will discover that these plausible inferences often involve tacitly claiming access to the unspoken thoughts of the people involved. He tells us, for example, that ‘in moments of solitude, at daybreak and the end of the day’, the Welsh maidservant Mary Lewis ‘stared into the chasm between her inadequate present and an ideal future’. He similarly asserts that Parsons ‘looked into the faces of his neighbours, their expressions furtive and defiant by turns’. There was a ‘look of desperation in his eyes’, and Mary, ‘day by day, week by week’, found it ‘harder to face people, harder to pray’. Gaskill’s imagination is again the only source for the suggestion that on one occasion ‘Pynchon shifted in his chair and shook the cramp from the hand grasping the pen, as he scratched line after line of testimony.’

Still, Gaskill’s Springfield joins Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, Tony Wrigley’s Colyton and other places of little intrinsic importance which for one reason or another have been immortalised by modern historiography. Like them, Springfield does not repay a visit in the present. Gaskill first went there in 2015. He found a city in decline, with a deserved ‘reputation for urban decay, drug crime and political corruption’. The early buildings had gone, leaving only some plaques and a few statues. There was, however, a plan to build an $800 million mega casino. When Gaskill returned in 2018, he took a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, its author Thomas Pynchon a direct descendant of William. In the local archives Gaskill found William Pynchon’s foundational agreement for the town of Springfield, dated 14 May 1636, and suggested to the city clerk that it be put on public display. There is currently no memorial for Hugh and Mary Parsons in Springfield like those which have been erected in other places where witches were hunted. Perhaps they will get one now.

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