Born: c. 1629
Suffolk County, England
Died: c. 1695
Homemaker, care giver, and accused witch
Rachel Clinton was one of many people accused in the New England witch-hunts who regained her freedom in 1693 after a court-ordered reprieve. Her story shows how a formerly wealthy and respected citizen could be reduced to poverty after being wrongly accused of practicing witchcraft. It also one of the few documented accounts of witch-hunts elsewhere in Massachusetts prior to the Salem trials of 1692–93.
The Haffield family fortune
Rachel Clinton was born Rachel Haffield, the daughter of Richard and Martha Haffield, in Suffolk County, England, in 1629. Her father had a considerable amount of wealth and property but married below his social station when he took Martha as his second wife. Martha came from a poor family and apparently resented the higher social standing of Richard's first wife, and let it be known it in many ways, including showing great animosity toward the two children from his previous marriage. This economic discrepancy (difference) was destined to become a curse once the family arrived in the colonies.
In 1635 the Haffields sailed for New England aboard the ship The Planter with their five daughters, one of whom was six-year-old Rachel. They settled in the town of Ipswich, near Salem, Massachusetts, where they became one of the wealthiest families in the region. When Richard suddenly died in 1639 he left a will in which he ordered that his estate be divided evenly among his wife and five daughters. Yet the will triggered years of quarrels and bitterness in the family, particularly in regard to the children of his first marriage. Martha received the bulk of the inheritance as well as the power to distribute other funds to the children. Strife within the family was met with equal tension in the community, which resented the flaunting of so much excess in a time of widespread poverty. Court records of 1639 show, however, that the eldest daughter Ruth was formally charged with dressing too extravagantly. The case was dismissed because of the Haffields's great wealth.
Town officials step in
Martha never remarried after Richard's death. One by one the daughters married and started their own homes. As Martha's mental health slowly deteriorated, Rachel took over management of the estate with the full permission of her mother. Nevertheless, this arrangement was overlooked by local magistrates (legal officials) who felt a need to take matters into their own hands. In 1666 they decided to hold a court session to discuss what should be done about the widow Haffield's declining mental health and, more precisely, who should be in charge of her money. The officials granted partial power of attorney (right to handle financial and legal affairs) to Thomas White, husband of Rachel's half-sister Ruth, with the agreement that he would use part of the money from the estate to pay for the care of Martha. Initially he was given only the power to collect rents from properties owned by the Haffields. Several months later, however, White was given sole authority over Martha's affairs. According to John Putnam Demos in Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, his role was "to be as a guardian to her . . . and to receive and recover her estates." Two months after taking over full power of attorney, White brought a court case against Ipswich landowner Robert Cross.
Buys future husband's freedom
In 1665 Cross, who owned a fairly sizable estate, had employed newcomer Lawrence Clinton as an indentured servant (someone contracted to an employer for a specified length of time in exchange for free passage from Europe to the colonies). Almost immediately Clinton became involved with Rachel Haffield, who was single and wanted to be married. At this time, an indentured servant could be released from a contract only by paying the employer the balance of money due on the contract. Thirty-six year old Rachel and twenty-two year old Lawrence could not marry immediately because of this one stipulation, so Cross agreed to free Lawrence for the price of twenty-one pounds (an amount of British money). Rachel was still informally in charge of her mother's estate and cash, so she easily obtained the funds to free Clinton from his obligation. A year later her brother-in-law Thomas White took over the Haffield estate, and he decided to hold Cross accountable for the money because he claimed it had been illegally obtained. White charged Rachel with stealing the money from her mentally ill mother and pointed an accusing finger at Cross, whom he felt had taken advantage of Rachel's desire to wed.
Although it was common knowledge in Ipswich that Rachel had her mother's permission to handle the family money, there was never any formal written agreement. When the court granted power to White it robbed Rachel of any legal standing and made her look like a criminal for using the funds to free her future husband. In the court trial over the twenty-one pounds the jury decided in favor of White. This decision was reversed just a few months later, so Cross set up an elaborate scheme in hopes of reaping further profit from the case. He urged his former servant to marry Rachel and gain full access to her family's estate. He then told Rachel lies about Clinton's wealth in hopes of speeding up the wedding. According to Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England court records indicate Rachel felt used and cheated: Cross "told me a thousand lies more to delude me, so as to be married to him [Clinton] and to cause me to put money into his hands. Further, this deponent sayeth that in case the money now in controversy were taken from him again, then he would sell me and my husband Clinton for servants."
This time the jury found in favor of Cross, who was given back his twenty-one pounds. White let the case drop and focused his attention on selling off parts of Rachel's land, including the cottage where she had lived with her mother. He forced Martha to move in with him and his wife, leaving Rachel with nothing. In March 1668, almost immediately after the move, Martha died and the controversy over her holdings reached an even more intense level. The family farm was valued at about 300 pounds, and her own personal property was estimated to be worth about 50 pounds. White tried to seize everything and then attempted to collect a guardianship fee from the family, at the rate of 22 pounds per year, for taking care of Martha. He also added court costs involved in his case against Cross as well as expenses for Martha's funeral to his demands.
When Martha wrote a will six years prior to her death, she was still deemed to be of sound mind. In the will she specified that Rachel was to be in charge of the Haffield farm and other properties on the condition that she share the income generated by rents with her half-sisters Ruth and Martha. When they were granted only ten shillings apiece, the sisters sued for their share, which they had not yet received since their father's death; they lost their court case. During the struggle White passed away and the courts granted everything to his wife Ruth. Thus, almost thirty years after Richard's death, Rachel was left completely penniless while Ruth got the bulk of the estate to herself.
After Ruth gained control of the family wealth, Rachel was left homeless and penniless. She was even reduced to begging from her neighbors. She appealed to the community for assistance, claiming that her husband had abandoned her financially and emotionally from the beginning of their marriage when it was apparent she was not going to inherit the estate. Lawrence Clinton had a reputation for having relationships with other women and was charged in court both for adultery (a sexual relationship between a married person and someone who is not the person's spouse) and attempted rape. Although the courts ordered him to pay support to his wife, in 1671 Rachel went back to court to complain that he had not yet paid her any money. In the meantime Lawrence had fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman named Mary Greeley while carrying on an affair with another, Mary Wooden, for which he was publicly whipped. Humiliated and alone, Rachel begged the courts for a divorce but they refused to grant it. Instead they pressured Lawrence for back payment, which he would never provide. Rachel's case was not helped by the fact that she had admitted to having affairs with two men, for which she was also publicly whipped. At last, in 1681, the courts took pity on her and granted her a divorce. By this time Lawrence was already remarried and had fathered six children with various women.
Accused of witchcraft
During her later years Clinton was poor and completely alienated from the Ipswich community. Her lofty beginnings as a member of one of the area's wealthiest family had long before set the stage for resentment. When she plummeted into poverty and despair her neighbors ignored her sudden neediness and neglect at the hands of her husband and family. Viewed as an outcast and a burden, over time Clinton became a perfect target for accusations of witchcraft. Although records do not show the specific events leading up to formal charges, it is clear that her former Ipswich neighbors rallied against her (see Witchcraft 1687: The Deposition of Thomas Knowlton against Rachel Clinton in the Primary Sources section). Claiming she had a long-standing reputation of practicing witchcraft, they described bizarre events that had allegedly occurred as a result of her power. For instance, a woman named Mary Fuller, who had been her next door neighbor, stated that she had had an argument with Clinton and as a result a neighbor girl had died. Though it was later revealed that the girl had merely been sleeping, the community agreed that Clinton was capable of causing this kind of incident. In another instance, according to Entertaining Satan, a local man, Thomas Boreman, said in court that a wealthy woman had accused Clinton of "hunching [people] with her elbows" in church. He also claimed that one night strange animals crossed his path and then vanished into thin air as soon as he thought of Rachel Clinton. Other neighbors testified that on several occasions Clinton had cursed them and invoked the devil's name. They also contended it was common knowledge that she was a witch. Another man, William Baker, testified that ten years before the trial a massive quantity of beer had vanished from a vat without any apparent signs of a leak or theft. That same day he had been in a heated argument with Clinton and was sure she was responsible for the disappearance of the beer. Other witnesses testified against her with similar complaints.
In late 1692 Clinton was arrested as a suspected witch and was held in jail for many months until Massachusetts Governor William Phipps (1651–1695) granted the general reprieve to all prisoners in May1693. She died about two years later with no property, no relationship with her sisters, and no ties to any members of the community. The exact date of Clinton's death remains unclear, but on January 7, 1695, the small hut she lived in on Hog Island off the coast of Ipswich was granted to Ruth White.
For Further Reading
Ogram's 17th Century New England with special emphasis on The Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. [Online] http://www.orgram.org/17thc/index.shtml (Accessed July 7, 2000).