Bridget Bishop (died 1692) was a tavern keeper whose wild temperament and flamboyant dress enventually caused her to be tried and hanged for witchcraft.
The seventeenth century was a time of great religious excitement both in Europe and America. The turmoil over religious beliefs may have led to the search for witches, which reached a high point in the colony of Salem, in present-day Massachusetts, in the late seventeenth century. It had been widely believed even before the Puritans left England that witchcraft was a well-practiced profession in Europe. (A witch, it was thought, made a pact with the devil in exchange for supernatural powers.) In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, thousands of people, mostly women and children, were tried and sentenced to death for this crime in Germany.
Witchcraft in history
Witchcraft had been a crime long before the trials in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The ancient Hebrews and Romans were convinced that some people had the power to enchant others or take the shapes of animals, and they believed that these people obtained their powers by making an agreement with the devil. In Europe during the sixteenth century, especially during the period of intense religious upheaval known as the Reformation, there was a renewed interest in witches. Tests for witchery, including a test to "swim" the suspected witches, or to dunk them in water until they were ready to confess their evil ways, became popular.
In England, King James II was an ardent believer in the evil of witchery. He had written a description of the antics of witches, which he spread throughout England, and offered a reward for exposing one of those who followed the devil. In the colonies, the brilliant preacher Cotton Mather had been caught up in the study of witches and had written about them in Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions. Suspected witches were being brought to trial as early as the 1630s, and over the years many had been banished or put to death. Each colony came to hold witchery as a crime punishable by death.
By the 1690s, it seemed no one was safe from the devil. Even upstanding citizens in Salem and the surrounding communities were being accused of witchery. So who better to suspect of being a witch than Bridget Bishop?
Little is known of Bishop's early life, though she was noted for her unusual ways. She dressed gaudily for her day, outfitting herself in red bodices for daily wear and in laces, often brightly dyed, for evening. (Samuel Shattuck, who dyed many of Bishop's laces, would later testify against her at her trial.) She made quite a picture, dressed in her famous black cap, black hat, and red bodice looped with laces of different colors.
Bishop owned two taverns, one in Salem Village and one in Salem Town. She got along well with the men— especially the young ones—who patronized these taverns. Much to the dismay of her neighbors, she allowed them to play "shovel board" (shuffle board) at all hours. One neighbor had even found it necessary to storm the tavern late one night and throw the playing pieces in the fire to quiet the merriment. Later, the incident was used against Bishop when her accusers remembered that the very next day that neighbor had become "distracted," or suffered a breakdown.
Known for temper
Bishop's temper alone was enough to make her suspect. All the community knew that often when her second husband bounced his wagon across the stream to their house, a loud and bitter argument followed. Before that, she had become the Widow Wasselbe when her first husband died under mysterious circumstances. Some, even then, had suspected her of causing Wasselbe's death. Later she married Thomas Oliver, but that marriage had not lasted. She finally married a successful lawyer, Edward Bishop, but sometimes she still called herself Bridget Oliver.
In 1679 Bishop had been accused of practicing witchcraft, but was rescued by the testimony of her minister, John Hale. Later, in 1687, she was again accused, and again acquitted. These charges stemmed from several claims against Bishop. She had been accused at least once of contributing to the death of a neighbor, and more than once of causing someone she had argued with to become ill. She had also been charged with taking part in the devil's sacraments on the Witches' Sabbath. On this day, it was believed, those faithful to the devil gathered together in the woods to worship him. The devil, in turn, would leave his mark on the body of each witch, a sign that he and the witch had made an agreement.
Origin of witch trials
Throughout the colonies the signs of a witch were well known: administering sacraments in the devil's name on the Witches' Sabbath, and dancing wildly and nude at the celebration in the forest. As in Europe, different colonies resorted to torture to extract the truth from suspected witches. Even before the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 to 1695, there had been more than 100 accusations of witchery in the colonies.
In 1692 a group of young Salem girls, for no apparent reason, began falling into wild fits and imagining that people's spirits—preparing to do evil—were separating from their bodies. Often they saw these people carrying the devil's book (in order to enlist others in their evil causes) and, just as often, they saw these people in the company of a dark man (presumably the devil in human form). These girls kept company with a female slave from the West Indies named Tituba, who was reported to have practiced some forms of magic. Spurred on by an overzealous witch-hunter, the minister Samuel Parris, the girls made accusation after accusation against Bishop and other suspected witches.
On April 19, 1692, Bishop was summoned to be examined by a preliminary court headed by John Hathorne (ancestor of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne). Also summoned that day were Giles Corey, the elderly husband of Martha Corey who once seemed ready to name his wife a witch but now stubbornly defended her; Abigail Hobbes, accused of falsely baptizing her own mother in the name of Satan; and Mary Warren, a servant girl whose imprisonment while waiting for this examination drove her insane.
The first part of the examination had the accusers confront the accused. The young girls had been instructed, perhaps by Parris, in what to do. When Bishop raised her arm, they did too. When she was asked whether she was a witch and she answered "I do not know what a witch is" and rolled her eyes, the girls rolled their eyes too. They acted as though Bishop controlled them. Although the girls' actions did not seem to trouble Bishop, it influenced the opinions of the authorities. Bishop was sent to Salem Prison to await trial.
The Court of Oyer and Terminer met at Salem in June 1692. Acting as chief magistrate, or judge, was Deputy Governor Stoughton. Bartholomew Gidney, Samuel Sewell, John Richards, William Sergeant, Wait Winthrop, and Nathaniel Saltonstall served as additional judges.
Since much of the testimony against her had been brought out in the examination, Bishop was already convicted in the minds of many in the town. There was little real evidence against Bishop, but the colonists believed their certainty alone could determine her guilt. Cotton Mather, the most powerful minister in the area, described the trial and the colonists' attitudes: "There was little occasion to prove the witchcraft, this being evident and notorious to all beholders" (Starkey, p. 153).
Nevertheless, the judges listened to the parade of accusers. Bishop's earlier history was repeated: the noisy shovel board games late at night at her tavern, her bad temper, her first husband's mysterious death. Also, witnesses reported that as she was led to court, Bishop's sideward glance at the church had caused a board to detach from a wall and fly across the room.
Some women of the community searched Bishop's body for the always-evident sign that she had made a commitment to the devil. After sticking pins in her, they found an unusual spot, which they testified about in court.
Samuel Shattuck testified that Bishop was a flamboyant dresser who often came to him to have various pieces of lace dyed. Some of these pieces seemed too small for a woman to wear, he noted. (It was well known that witches often used dolls to represent their victims when casting spells; Shattuck implied that this was how Bishop used the lace pieces.)
William Stacy recalled that at age twenty-two he had been stricken with smallpox and that it was Bishop who nursed him back to health. (Bishop was said to have had power over men, which grew as she became older.) Later, however, Stacy had begun to doubt Bishop, and had talked with others about her. For this, he said, Bishop had plagued him. Once, he testified, the wheel of his wagon had stuck in a hole in the road. When he stepped out to look at it, however, the hole had disappeared. Now, although he was a decent father and husband, Stacy said, the shade of Bishop plagued him in his sleep.
Samuel Gray, Richard Corman, and Jack Louder were also pestered by the image of Bishop as they slept. Sometimes her image turned into a black pig, a monkey, the feet of a cock, or the face of a man. Gray suspected that because the men had declined her friendship she had punished their families. Bishop, Gray testified, had been the cause of the deaths of his and Shattuck's sons (she had first driven Shattuck's son insane) and of the daughter of another.
The most damaging testimony was given by John Bly. Bishop had employed him to tear down a cellar wall in her former house. Inside the wall, he claimed, he had found dolls ("poppets") made of rags and hogs' bristles with pins stuck through them.
Bishop's own testimony worked against her too. She was found guilty of telling lies, since some of the details she gave conflicted with what others said. Also, according to the court, early questioning had supposedly shown knowledge of witchcraft, yet Bishop claimed to have no knowledge of it.
Any evidence in Bishop's favor was not allowed. While they were in jail, Bishop had asked Mary Warren, one of the other accused witches, about the claims made against Bishop. Warren told Bishop that the girls had manufactured the evidence against her. Bishop attempted to use Warren's statements in court, but the authorities would not permit the remarks of a person they considered insane to go on the record.
Bishop's son would have testified on her behalf, too, but he had been arrested after beating the truth about the false accusations out of an Indian servant and then accusing the girls who were the prime witnesses in all the trials of game-playing. He had even suggested that beatings might return the girls to their senses, too.
In the end, there were no witnesses to defend Bishop. Even John Hale, the minister who had defended her in 1687, was now convinced of her guilt. Meanwhile, the young girls continued to be bothered by the evil cast upon them, they were convinced, by Bishop.
Bishop was found guilty of witchery and sentenced to be hanged, but hanging was forbidden by an old Massachusetts law. Conveniently, an old colonial law that made witchcraft a life-or-death offense was "discovered" and, on June 8, 1692, again passed into law. On June 10, High Sheriff George Cowan reported that he had hanged Bridget Bishop on Gallow Hill from the branch of a large oak tree.
Boyer, Paul, and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds., Salem Village Witchcraft, Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1972.
Hall, David D., Witch-hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.
Starkey, Marion L., The Devil in Massachusetts, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969. □