Note: Let Goody Martin rest in peace, I never knew her harm a fly, And witch or not - God knows - not I?
I know who swore her life away;
And as God lives, I'd not condemn
An Indian dog on word of them.
-John Greenleaf Whittier
Written By Kate Murphy
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001
Maintaining her innocence up until the moment of her execution, Susannah North Martin was hanged with four other women on July 19, 1692 during the outbreak of witchcraft accusations in Salem. At the time of her execution Martin was 67 and a widow. She arrived in Massachusetts in 1621 from Buckinghamshire, England, married the blacksmith George Martin in Salisbury, in 1646 and had eight children. During the course of her examination and trial 15 of Martin's neighbors accused her of afflicting them through her specter, by pinching them or causing their farm animals to die. The Reverend Cotton Mather believed her to be "one of the most impudent, scurrilous, wicked Creatures in the World" Brave and outspoken, Martin refused to allow her accusers to shake her convictions. Standing in the courtroom, confronted by girls seemingly writhing from "afflictions" they blamed on her, Martin maintained that she only "desire[d] to lead my self according to the word of God." Asked what she then made of the afflicted girls, she courageously suggested that they might be the ones under the devil's influence, reminding the judges that, "He [the devil] that appeared in the sam[e] shape a glorifyed saint can appear in any ones shape." Her vehement denials made no difference; the court only took her defiance as proof of her reprobate character.
Martin was no stranger to witchcraft accusations, having been accused two decades earlier. Her husband, deceased by the time of the Salem outbreak, had countered the charges of witchcraft and infanticide with slander suits. Although he did not win decisively, Susannah was acquitted in the criminal courts. In public gossip, however, her reputation as a witch appears to have continued irrespective of the court's findings.
At the same time as the first accusations of witchcraft Susannah and her husband were involved in a series of legal battles over her inheritance. In 1688 her father, Richard North, died leaving two daughters, a granddaughter and his second wife to share his sizable estate. To the surprise of Susannah and her sister, they received only a tiny portion while the bulk of the estate passed to his second wife, who died soon after her husband. Susannah's stepmother left the majority of North's estate to his granddaughter, continuing the exclusion of Susannah and her sister. From 1671 to 1674 Susannah's husband and her sister pursued a series of appeals, all of which were ultimately unsuccessful.
These familial disputes over inheritance were incorporated by historian Carol Karlsen in "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman" into her interpretation of the Salem outbreak in socio-economic terms. Karlsen postulated that accused witches were not only poor, disagreeable old women, but also women of social and economic standing within their community. Specifically, Karlsen believes there is a correlation between witchcraft accusations and aberrations in the traditional line of property transmission. She notes that property, particularly land, typically went to the male relatives after the death of a parent. In the cases of many of the accused women, however, Karlsen discovered a pattern of women standing to inherit in the absence of male heirs. She develops this theme, and Martin's place within her theory, in chapter three of her book. Although Karlsen's book offers invaluable insights in the role of gender in the Salem outbreak, in the case of Susannah Martin her theory stretches a bit too thin. The inheritance debate, which Karlsen cites as motivational for Martin's accusation, is separated from the Salem outbreak by twenty years. Much fresher in the minds of her accusers would be the outspokenness demonstrated by her comments during her courtroom examination. In this case, the accused fits very well with the stereotype of the accused witch as a disagreeable old woman.
Martin's descendant, John Greenleaf Whittier, immortalized her innocence and bravery in his poem The Witches Daughter, published in 1857. Referring to Martin's refusal to lie to save her life, Whittier wrote, "she whose speech was always truth's pure gold/Heard, not unpleased, its simple legends told." Painting the scene of a pious woman, ancient for her day at 67, passing the days in jail, Whittier imagined Martin "who turned, in Salem's dreary jail/Her worn old Bible o'er and o'er/When her dim eyes could read no more." This theme of upright innocence also characterizes the multiple web sites dedicated to the memory of Susannah Martin and maintained by her modern descendants (see www.rootsweb.com/~nwa/sm.html and www.homestead.com/loseegenealogy/snmartin.html).
Carol Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, 1987.
John Greenleaft Whitter,., Mabel Martin: A Harvest Idyl, 1876 (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/WhiMabe.html).
Susanna pleaded not guilty but was convicted and hanged at Gallows Hill on July 19, with four others tried at the same time: Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, Sarah Wildes, and the famous Rebecca Nurse. Cotton Mather choose her case as one of the five that he detailed in his "Wonders of the Invisible World" (1693), a defense of the proceedings that, as modern scholars have shown, he would rather not have made. Mather clearly considered these five the most obviously guilty, and he commented that Susanna "was one of the most Impudent, Scurrilous, wicked creatures in the world; and she did now throughout her whole Trial discover herself to be such as one. Yet when she was asked, what she had to say for her self? her Cheef Plea was, That she had Led a most virtuous and Holy Life!" I suspect that her scorn of authority led Mather to this outburst, for Cotton Mather--the son of the Rev. Increase Mather and the grandson of two other prominent Puritan divines, Richard Mather and John Cotton--never, in his own estimation, received fully from the third generation of Puritans the respect that he thought his position and ancestry merited. But we must acknowledge that no one had leapt to Susanna's defense. When the venerable Lt. Robert Pike marshalled opposition to the trials, it was in behalf of Mary Bradbury, not of Susanna Martin, who was left to defend herself, unsuccessfully but with a sharpness of tongue that makes her personality still vivid after nearly 100 years. With her execution, Susanna Martin disappears from contemporary records. In 1711, the General Court granted compensation to many of the victims or their heirs, but Susanna's children made no application to the authorities and they received nothing. Susanna was not among those whose attainder was lifted. (info from the internet via Lufkin, Sorby connections)
Susanna Martin's memorial plaque reads: "Here stood the house of Susanna Martin. An honest, hardworking, Christian woman. Accused as a witch, tried and executed at Salem, July 19, 1692. A martyr of superstition."
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