Born: c. 1640
Died: June 10, 1692
Tavern owner and accused witch
Bridget Bishop was the first person to be put to death during the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693. She was accused of practicing witchcraft by practically everyone who had known her: her neighbors, husband, and employees all came forward to speak of being put under a spell by her, thus building the strongest case in all the Salem trials. No one defended Bishop. The townsfolk became convinced that witches were working in their midst, and fear quickly swept across the region. As a result twenty innocent people were condemned to die.
Known for flashy outfits
Little is known about Bridget Bishop's early life aside from her marriages. The public record of Bishop's life begins in England in about 1660 when she was around the age of twenty. She was married for the first time at this point, and she was soon widowed (her spouse died during their marriage) for unknown reasons. Bishop arrived in New England shortly thereafter and was briefly married to Goodman Wasselbee, who died under mysterious circumstances. She then married a widower, Thomas Oliver of Salem Town, in 1666, but this relationship ended in divorce amid accusations of witchcraft brought against her. In 1687 she married Edward Bishop, her fourth husband, a successful lawyer who would also eventually testify against her in court.
Bishop was known for her unusual sense of fashion and for her friendliness with men. She owned two taverns, one in Salem Village and the other in Salem Town. (Salem Village, near the Atlantic coast, was a bustling, densely populated city. Salem Town, farther inland, was in a poorer, predominately agricultural area.) She got along well with her patrons, especially younger men, as she allowed them to play games like shuffleboard until the early hours of the morning. Bishop's tolerance for this merriment soon aroused suspicion and anger from her neighbors. The fact that she dressed in bright, suggestive clothing also damaged her reputation. Bishop was famous for an outfit that consisted of a black cap and a red bodice (corset, upper part of a dress) looped with laces of various colors, which she had dyed to order by the local fabric dyer Samuel Shattuck. She was also known for her strong temper, an unacceptable quality in women of that day.
Long accused of being a witch
The first witchcraft charges against Bishop were brought in 1670 by her third husband, Thomas Oliver. Testimony from the trial has not survived but it is known that Bishop's clergyman, John Hale, convinced the community to let her go free in the hope that she would mend her ways. In 1687 she was again accused of being a witch and acquitted (found not guilty). These new charges came from several different people. One was a complaint that she had caused the death of a neighbor. Other neighbors agreed that after arguments with Bishop they had fallen ill or been tormented by her specter (spirit). Though she was not imprisoned on these charges they later resurfaced during the Salem trials.
On April 18, 1692, Bishop was summoned to be examined in a preliminary hearing at Salem Village. "Bewitched" teenage girls in the village had named her as a witch and held her responsible for their violent fits and spectral hauntings. During the first hearing the girls put on a great show, copying Bishop's every gesture as she sat on the witness stand. If she rolled her eyes, they would do the same. When she shifted her position they would shift too, but in a manner that attracted greater attention from the audience. Although Bishop denied practicing witchcraft, she stood hardly any chance of passing through this initial questioning phase and she was swiftly sent to prison to await trial.
Samuel Shattuck and the Tiny Outfits
Fabric dyer Samuel Shattuck testified against Bridget Bishop with his own peculiar evidence at the Salem trials. For years he had dyed lace and clothing for her and he spoke of mysteriously small pieces she frequently brought to him to be dyed: "sundry pieces of lace, some of which were so short that [he] could not judge them fit for any use," as quoted by Chadwick Hansen in Witchcraft at Salem. The implication was clear: Bishop had asked Shattuck to dye outfits too small to be worn by a human being, but suitably sized for a doll or replica of a person. This was interpreted as evidence that Bishop was a witch. Popular folklore held that a witch used dolls to cast spells on a person, and to make the spells work effectively the witch would clothe a doll in the same general colors and style worn by the victim.
Empowered by his confession, Shattuck went on to speak of an incident years earlier when his son had fallen into violent and strange fits. A stranger had suggested taking the presumably bewitched child to visit Bishop, as it was believed that blood from a witch's face was an effective way of breaking a spell. Shattuck agreed and paid the man to take his son to Bishop's tavern under the pretense of buying cider. Once inside the man was to scratch her face and draw some blood in order to stop the boy's illness. When they reached the tavern, however, Bishop refused to sell them any cider and instead scratched the boy's face before chasing the stranger off with a spade. The boy fell extremely ill after this episode and local doctors declared that he was indeed bewitched.
Shattuck's testimony, coupled with that of the men who had found the puppets in the walls of Bishop's house, made clear that Bishop was a practicing witch who had attempted to cause harm to her fellow townspeople. While other testimony was mainly circumstantial and likely caused by the fear her reputation provoked, the town dyer confirmed suspicions that Bishop's practices had been deliberate (on purpose) and malicious (with a desire to harm).
Evidence against Bishop came in many forms and from a wide variety of sources, thus indicating to modern historians that in all likelihood she was an actual practicing witch. This sets her apart from most of the other accused people who were innocent victims of local rivalries and fears. Bishop's case also fueled the public's imagination and made matters worse for others accused, as it presented tangible (able to be treated as fact) evidence of her guilt as a visible practicing witch. The most damaging evidence came from two men who had broken down a wall in her house while they were doing some repairs. As they were working the men discovered dolls with pins stuck in them, an apparently common form of witchcraft in which a person would inflict harm on others by making models of their bodies and harming them by injuring the puppet. Although nobody had seen Bishop put the dolls into the wall, the evidence was strongly against her and she herself was unable to summon a reasonable defense.
Bishop's specter haunts neighbors
Several people came forward during the trial to complain of Bishop's specter haunting them, both in her image and in the shape of bizarre animals. A man named Richard Coman testified that eight years earlier he had experienced a series of frightening hauntings. Over a period of several nights he, his wife, and two friends who were staying at the Coman home had been haunted by Bishop and two other unfamiliar specters. According to Coman's testimony, she:
came in her red paragon bodice and the rest of her clothing which she then usually did wear. . . . She came and lay upon my breast or body and so oppressed me that I could not speak nor stir, no not so much as to awake my wife, although I endeavored much to do it. The next night they all appeared again in like manner and the said Bishop took hold of me by the throat and almost hauled me out of bed. (From Chadwick Hansen, Witchcraft at Salem, p. 67
The haunting apparently ended when one of Coman's friends called out the name of God in the room, but the damage was done.
Apparently, Bishop's reputation struck fear even into those who had never come into conflict with her. They too came forward with hysterical charges. A man named Samuel Gray described an incident that had occurred fourteen years earlier, when he awoke to an apparition (spirit) similar to the one described by Conan although he was not acquainted with Bishop. Gray claimed Bishop's specter had entered his bedroom and caused his sleeping child to go into fits. The child died several weeks later. When Gray finally came across Bishop in person he claimed he recognized her immediately (again by her clothing) as the specter that had invaded his house.
Candy the Witch
During Bridget Bishop's trial, a case similar to her own helped seal charges against her and confirmed the existence of other practicing witches in the Salem area.
A black slave named Candy, who came from Barbados, an island in the Caribbean, was examined on evidence provided by afflicted teenage girls who said she had bewitched them. Candy explained that she had not been a witch in Barbados but instead had learned everything she knew from local women who brought her "The Book," the witches' handbook, and instructed her. When asked how she was trained to hurt people, Candy said she had used puppets to inflict harm. When she was asked to bring these puppets to court she went out and fetched her collection of knotted rags. Some of these rags had grass and cheese inside of them, and all were held together with knots to form a figurine that slightly resembled a person. Historical documents show that when Candy brought the dolls into the courtroom the accusing girls fell into hysterical fits. She was forced to eat some of the cheese inside one of her bundles and apparently "that night was burned in her flesh" as a result, according to records collected in Witchcraft in Salem.
Other tests were run on the rag dolls to determine their power. One doll was put under water and instantly its targeted victim experienced the sensation of drowning or choking. Another of the female victims apparently tried to run to the river to drown herself as soon as her puppet was immersed, but was held back by neighbors. This brief episode helped confirm the case against Bishop while also leaving a record for contemporary historians regarding the faith people had in these supposed methods of witchcraft. They strongly believed that certain people could inflict damage through magic, a fact that affected all social interactions, particularly conflicts.
One of Bishop's neighbors, John Louder, recalled a similar experience in which she came to him in the night and strangled him repeatedly while sitting on him. He claimed he actually confronted Bishop about this event while picking fruit the next day and he immediately became ill. While recovering at home he experienced a vivid confrontation with a black pig that vanished whenever he tried to kick it away but then reappeared
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
again and again until he said the name of God. Louder claimed the beast left him alone after that but that it shook all of the apples off his trees on its way out of his house. While this testimony was sufficient on its own, Bishop made the error of claiming she had never met John Louder, despite the fact that they were neighbors.
Bishop's fate is sealed
Finally, Bishop's own husband testified against her in court, claiming he had witnessed her acts of witchcraft for many years as well as noting her absence from church each Sunday. (To miss attending church services on Sunday, the Christian day of worship, was punishable in some communities.) During her trial no evidence in her favor was allowed into the court. While she was being held in jail Bishop apparently spoke with Mary Warren, another accused witch, who believed that the teenage girls were making things up about her. Bishop tried to use this in her own defense in court, implying that the girls were simply being malicious, but the authorities would not allow these remarks to be put into court records. Bishop's son would have testified on her behalf but he was arrested during her trial for trying to beat the truth about the false accusations out of John Indian (husband of Tituba, another woman accused of being a witch, and who accused others of being witches; see biography entry) and for threatening to beat the accusing girls for playing games with the town. Even John Hale, the minister who had saved Bishop during previous charges of witchcraft, was now fully convinced she was guilty.
Bishop was declared guilty on June 4, 1692, and sentenced to be hanged. Although an old Massachusetts law forbade hanging, it was struck down on June 8: the courts applied an even earlier colonial law stating that witchcraft was a crime punishable by death. Thus, on June 10, Bishop was led through the streets of town bound to a cart as crowds of onlookers thronged around the first hanging of the Salem trials. On Gallows Hill she was hanged by High Sheriff George Cowan off the branch of a large oak tree in what was to be the first of twenty executions.
For Further Reading
Discovery Online—A Village Possessed: A True Story of Witchcraft. [Online] http://www.discovery.com/stories/history/witches/witches.html (Accessed July 7, 2000).
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969.
Hill, Frances. A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Kallen, Stuart A. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1999.
Ogram's 17th Century New England with special emphasis on The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. [Online] http://www.ogram.org/17thc/index.shtml (Accessed July 7, 2000).
Rice, Earle, Jr. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego, California: Lucent Books, 1997.
The Salem Witch Museum. [Online] http://www.salemwitchmuseum.com/ (Accessed July 7, 2000).
Starkey, Marion L. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. New York: Doubleday, 1989.