Thursday, November 1, 2007

Early America - Mary BLISS PARSONS

Mary came to America as a girls with her parents Thomas BLISS and Margaret HULINS. Mary was the mother of about 14 children 4 died as infants. She was charged and imprisoned as a witch, and found not guilty.

10th great-grandmotherThomas BLISS and Margaret HULINS / Mary BLISS b.1620 and Joseph PARSONS / Jonathan PARSONS-b.1657 / Mary PARSONS-b.1688 / Jerusha GRAVES-b.1717 / Jerusha COOLEY-b.1738 / Sylvanus BRONSON-b.1769 / Mary BRONSON-b.1806 / Martin Luther ENSIGN-b.1831 / Harriett Camilla ENSIGN-b.1859 / George Ensign SMITH-b.1898 / Camilla SMITH b.1926 / Lark / JR

(Margaret and Mary Bliss home Courtesy, Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, Springfield, MA)

(You will find information about Mary BLISS PARSONS searching the internet.)

Your grandmother is a witch and your mother is half a witch," the slave spat at the boy. The year is 1702. The grandmother in question is Mary (Bliss) Parsons, former resident of Northampton, Massachusetts, not much more than an outpost on the frontier of the western edge of English settlement in New England.

Although Mary had been acquitted by the courts of witchcraft in 1674, lingering questions about her behavior led many of her neighbors to ongoing suspicions about her and the Parsons family.

The Parsons' were one of the first families of Northampton and Mary Parsons was the subject witchcraft-related trials: in 1656, 1674, and possibly again in 1679. Her story is a fascinating one that sheds light on the workings of the Puritan mind and the early years of the colony.

The Mary (Bliss) Parsons Story
Mary Parsons is perhaps the most infamous resident of Northampton's early settlement period. She was involved in witchcraft-related trials in 1656 and 1674, and possibly again in 1679. Her story is a fascinating one that sheds light on the workings of the Puritan mind and the complicated social and cultural situation of the period.

The Parsonses were one of the first families of Northampton; Historic Northampton's buildings are located on what was once Parsons family land, where Mary and her husband, Cornet Joseph Parsons, started their family in the newly settled town. The Parsonses moved to Northampton in 1654, where the were very successful. Cornet Joseph Parsons earned his title as a color-bearer in the Hampshire Troop of Horses, and held various positions of merit in the town. In his early career, he earned money and distinction working as a merchant and fur trader for the Pynchon family, and eventually kept the first house of entertainment in Northampton; the Parsonses would eventually become the wealthiest family in Northampton. Their wealth can also be measured in terms of their family size: Mary and Joseph had a total of eleven children, most of whom lived to adulthood.
But soon after the Parsonses moved to Northampton, rumors of witchcraft began to circulate, implying that the family's success came at the expense of other families, and was the result of Mary's dealings with the devil. To head off the allegations, Joseph Parsons initiated a slander case in 1656, which he won. But eighteen years later, Mary was officially accused of and tried for witchcraft in 1674. She was eventually acquitted, but it seemed that the residents of Northampton, despite any court decrees, were convinced that Mary was a witch. Mary may have been the subject of another witchcraft inquiry in 1679; however, no records remain to prove this theory. Joseph and Mary Parsons left Northampton in 1679 or 1680, amid lingering questions and gossip.
The story of Mary's trial in Northampton serves to show how the law courts worked in such complicated cases, and establishes a pattern that can be seen in witchcraft trials across New England, eventually culminating in the Salem Witch Hysteria in 1692.
Background: Migration Hartford, Springfield and the Other Mary Parsons
The roots of Mary Parsons' problems can be traced back well before her settlement in Northampton, where she arrived only after several moves, first from England to Hartford, and then to Springfield. Mary was born in England, probably in 1628, and her family moved to Hartford soon after her birth.
After the death of Thomas Bliss, Mary's mother, Margaret, moved the family to Springfield, where the family prospered despite the loss of the father. Her sons were successful in business, and court records indicate that Margaret herself was quite business minded and well able to defend her property in several legal disputes.
Mary met and married Cornet Joseph Parsons in Hartford in 1646, after which they moved to Springfield; the first Parsons child was born in 1647.
Mary's troubles with witchcraft may have begun during this period, though in a rather unusual way. In May of 1649, another Mary Parsons, married to Hugh Parsons (and apparently no relation to our Mary Parsons) was the defendant in a slander trial brought by the widow Marshfield. William Pynchon heard the case, in which John Matthews and his wife testified that Mary (Lewis) Parsons had spread rumors about the widow being a witch; Mary denied them, but Pynchon found her guilty and sentenced her to be whipped or to pay three pounds to the widow Marshfield. But the troubles of Mary (Lewis) Parsons of Springfield were not to end here. In 1650, Mary's infant child died. It was said that Mary herself had killed the child, and she was accused of witchcraft. William Pynchon again presided over her case in Springfield, but as such an accusation was beyond his jurisdiction, he sent the case to Boston. The charges of witchcraft were dismissed, but Mary was convicted of the murder of her child, for which she was sentenced to hang. Mary probably died in jail before the sentence was carried out.
During her trial, Mary (Lewis) Parsons accused her husband of witchcraft, and her neighbors were prone to agree with her. Hugh Parsons was eventually indicted for witchcraft in Boston, although he was acquitted shortly thereafter; he never returned to Springfield.
It seems clear that this Mary (Lewis) Parsons was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and hers is a tragic case. What effect might this have had on another, younger, Mary (Bliss) Parsons, who was living in the same town and had the exact same name as an accused witch and a murderess? Testimony from later trials indicates that during the time of the Mary (Lewis) Parsons trial, Mary (Bliss) Parsons was known to have fits so severe that her husband locked her up to keep her from leaving the house. Such fits were apparently a common occurrence in young women during witchcraft times; the children of Reverend George Moxon experienced such fits during the same trial. But the fact that Mary (Bliss) Parsons was a grown woman made her look suspicious. In any case, many of those who would testify in her trial knew her, or knew of her reputation, from the time she lived in Springfield, and she would never be able to dissociate herself from the connection with witchcraft.

The Feud: Bridgman v Parsons
Perhaps more important than Mary's own psychological make-up was the issue of the apparent long-standing feud between the Bridgman and Parsons families. The Bridgman family, consisting of Sarah and James Bridgman and their children, had arrived in Northampton soon after the Parsons; however, they were not nearly as successful as the first family.
The Parsonses and the Bridgmans' lives were certainly parallel in some ways, particularly in terms of their moves. Both families lived in Springfield during the same period, and presumably knew each other; both families moved to Northampton in 1654; however, their experiences in this new community were quite different. While Mary Parsons and her family seemed to enjoy constantly improving fortunes, Sarah Bridgman and her family repeatedly faced hardships.
The Parsons family would enjoy the honor of bearing the first child born in the new settlement, while the Bridgmans experienced the heartache and ill-omen of the first recorded death. Mary's fifth child, Ebenezer, was born in May of 1655, while Sarah's infant son died in 1656. Apparently after this family loss, Sarah began to speak ill of Mary Parsons, spreading gossip about her to their mutual neighbors. The talk came to the attention of Mary and her husband, and later that year, Joseph Parsons charged Sarah Bridgman with slander against his wife. For years, Mary would go on to have many healthy children (eleven in all), the majority of whom lived to adulthood and went on to have more children. The Parsons family grew larger and wealthier with each passing year in the new settlement. Meanwhile, many of Sarah's children died in infancy or were plagued with a variety of ailments, and the family was clearly not succeeding financially. As John Demos explains in Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England, the rivalry caused -"hard thoughts and jealousies" - between the two families, and was clearly an important factor in the trials.

The Slander Case (1656)
As Sarah Bridgman's gossip about Mary Parsons spread, Joseph Parsons decided to take decisive action to stop any further damage to the reputation of his wife and family. In 1656, during the month of August, testimony was presented before commissioners at Springfield in the case of Parsons v Bridgman, and in October the case was brought before the Magistrates' Court at Cambridge.
The testimony in the case involves various community members testifying on behalf of Mary Parsons that they had heard Sarah Bridgman abusing her character. On the other side of the case were the many individuals defending Sarah's accusations as not slander, but truth; these individuals cited various encounters with Mary that seemed to prove that she had caused them (or their property) harm.
It seems that Mary was believed to be the cause of a strange variety of problems for her neighbors. Chief among her offenses is the death of William Hannum's cow. Hannum testified that "Mary came to my house about the yarn that she missed and then we had a falling out about it and some discontented words passed on both sides: this was in an evening, and as I take it in March last and that evening all my Cattle were well for ought I could see by them, the next morning One cow lay in my yard, ready to die as I thought: which when I had considered I endeavored to get her up and at length got her to stand: but she languished away and died about a fortnight after, though I took great care night and day to save her, giving her wholesome drinks eggs etc. and this Cow being young was hefty before this very time." Such accusations, indicating that Mary was responsible for damage to livestock and property, appear frequently in the record, and were intended to "prove" that Mary was involved in witchcraft.
The focus of the case, however, was not Mary's guilt, but Sarah's. Sarah Bridgman's own testimony is perhaps the most damaging, accusing Mary of causing harm, not to her animals, but to her own child. Sarah testified that "having my child in my lap, there was something that gave a great blow on the door, and at very instant as I apprehended my child changed : and I thought with myself and told my girl I was afraid my child would die. And I sent out the girl to look who it was at the door, but she could see nobody about the house : Presently after the girl came in, I looking towards the door thorough a hole by the door, I saw to my apprehension two women pass by the door with white clothes on their heads, then I concluded my child would die indeed : and I sent out the girl to see who they were but she could see nobody : they made me think there is wickedness in the place."
As the case unfolded however, the many alliances within the community were uncovered, and it seems that some individuals who had first testified on Sarah's behalf later changed their stories. For instance, we learn that soon after testifying about Mary's curious behavior, John Matthews recanted, claiming that he "hath at present no grounds of jealousy for himself, of Mary Parsons the wife of Joseph Parsons, to be a witch, and that what he testified yesterday on oath was upon the earnest Importunity of James Bridgman and his Brother."
While the strange coincidences and incidents with livestock might be ignored by us today, members of her community, and perhaps even her own family firmly believed that Mary had supernatural powers. Curious stories of Mary had been circulating in the area for some time. For instance, "William Branch of Springfield testified on oath that when I lived at the long meadow and Joseph Parsons lived there, a certain time Joseph Parsons told me that wherever he lay the key his wife could find it : and would go out in the night and that when she went out a woman went out with her and came in with her but says Joseph Parsons God preserves his with his Angels: and further the said William Branch sayth that while they lived together in the Long Meddow; George Cotton told me that he following Mary Parsons in her fit, he followed her thorough the water where he was up to the knees and she was not wet : this thing I told to William Pynchon when he was here : who wondered at it but said he could not tell what to say to it."
But ultimately, what had to be proven was that Sarah had been spreading rumors maliciously. To this end, Mary's own mother, Margaret Bliss, "testifieth that Sarah Bridgman told her that she did hear that her daughter Parsons was suspected to be a witch." Hearing the recanting of some testimony, and finding other stories perhaps inexplicable or too wild it seemed clear that Sarah was guilty of slander.
The magistrates issued their decision in favor of the Parsonses, and ordered Sarah Bridgman to make public apology for her slander in both Northampton and Springfield, or to pay a fine. It appears that despite the financial hardship, Sarah chose to pay the fine rather than submit to the public humiliation.
The court's decision did nothing to change the opinion of Sarah or the Bridgman clan. In 1668 Sarah Bridgman died at the age of about forty-seven, but her family still held a grudge against the Parsons, and over time, the testimony from the slander case would be evidence in Mary's own trial for witchcraft.

Testimony of Mary's mother Margaret BLISS
Transcript of Margaret Bliss Testimony about Sara Bridgeman's Gossip.
Margarett Bliss testifieth that Sara Bridgman
tould her that she did heare that her daughter
parsons was susspected to be a which and that she
had heard there was some discontent betweene
the blind man at Springfeild and her daughter
& that she had done him hurtte and that there
was some words between the blind man & her
daughter and then the child of the blind man had
asounding fitte
June 20 [16]56 testified uppon oth before us
William Houlton
Tho Bascum
The Witchcraft Case (1674)

Life for the Parsons continued, with Mary bearing more children, and Joseph growing more successful in his business and civic life. But in August of 1674, Mary (Bridgman) Bartlett, wife of Samuel Bartlett and daughter of Sara and James Bridgman, died unexpectedly at a young age (probably about 22).
Mary Parsons was again suspected of witchcraft. At the urging of Mary's father, the widower Samuel Bartlett filed a complaint against Mary Parsons, and on September 29th, 1674, Hampshire County Court received the testimonies of family, friends, and neighbors. On January 5th, 1675, county magistrates conducted a hearing, at which Mary spoke for herself. Her body was searched for signs of "witch marks." The magistrates decided that this was beyond their jurisdiction, so they sent the case to the Court of Assistants in Boston.
On March 2nd, Mary was taken to Boston and "presented" at the Court of Assistants. She was then committed to prison until her trial, where she no doubt endured harsh conditions. While her family's money was probably able to buy her a larger cell and provide her with decent food and clean water, the situation was certainly unpleasant. On May 13th, Mary was acquitted by a jury of twelve men from the Boston area. William Pynchon sat on the case (along with other dignitaries). Again, Joseph's business dealings with Pynchon may have helped his wife's case, and surely the money and prestige of the family worked in Mary's favor.
After this, it appears that Mary and Joseph may have remained in Boston for some time, as Joseph had a warehouse in Boston and may have been engaged in some business. They still maintained their residence in Northampton for the next few years, but as Mary's reputation in Northampton had not improved, they do not appear to have been eager to return.
When Mary's son, Ebenezer was killed September of 1675 in battle with the Indians at Northfield, many felt that this was punishment for Mary's dealings with the devil. Local legend claims that they believed: "though human judges may be bought off, God's vengeance neither turns aside nor slumbers!"
Aftershocks and Outcome
In 1676, James Bridgman died; his estate probate inventory yielded a value of 114 pounds. While it might seem that with him, the grudge between the Parsons and Bridgmans would die out, this was not the case. Back in Northampton, on March 7th of 1678[/9], a man named John Stebbins died in mysterious circumstances. His wife was the sister of Samuel Bartlett, who was the widower of Mary (Bridgman) Bartlett. Believing that Stebbins had been killed by witches, Samuel Bartlett gathered evidence to send to Boston in 1679, although the court did not make any indictments. Unfortunately, Bartlett's evidence and the records of the case have disappeared; many suppose that Mary Parsons was suspected in the case, due to the involvement of Bartlett.
Since it was clear that the rumors and suspicions were not going to end, Mary and Joseph Parsons permanently left Northampton in 1679 or 1680, and returned to Springfield. Mary and Joseph Parsons' grandson, Nathaniel Parsons (1686 - 1736) probably raised the house that is known today as "The Parsons House."
Cornet Joseph Parsons died in Springfield on October 9th, 1683, leaving a large estate of over 2000 pounds to his wife and children. Mary went on to live almost 30 years more, and appears to have made a considerable fortune with the money.
While it might seem that Mary Parsons' troubles were left behind once she removed from Northampton, her reputation as a witch apparently lived on for many years. In 1702, Mary was again the subject of neighborhood gossip. Hannah (Parsons) Glover's husband, Peletiah Glover complained in local court that Betty Negro struck their son (Peletiah junior) and told him that his grandmother (i.e., Mary Parsons) had killed several people, and that his mother (Hannah) was "half a witch." Both John Pynchon and Joseph Parsons Junior presided and sentenced Betty to lashes at the hand of Thomas Bliss.
If marriages can mend fences between such bitterly opposed families, perhaps there was eventually reconciliation. In 1711, Mary Parsons, granddaughter of Mary (Bliss) Parsons, married Ebenezer Bridgman, grandson of Sarah Bridgman. Mary Parsons herself was alive to witness the union, although no accounts survive to detail her reaction to it. The young couple removed to Belchertown and had three children, Joseph, Ebenezer, and Mary. That their children were named after both of Mary's parents perhaps might indicate that they were still on good terms with her side of the family.
Mary (Bliss) Parsons died in Springfield on January 29th, 1712. Five of her eleven children survived her (Joseph, John, Samuel, Hannah, and Esther).


Jennifer Dix said...

Would you please consider removing this portrait? This is a painting titled "Mrs Baker," dated 1657, in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. There are no known portraits of Mary Bliss Parsons. Unfortunately, the Goody Parsons website you link to has caused a great deal of confusion by posting this picture next to the story of Mary Bliss Parsons. For details, see

iris1 said...

I am really enjoying your blogspot.. I am a distant cousin, my 9th great grandfather was William Clarke.

Callie said...

Mary Bliss Parsons is my 8th Great Grandmother. I very much enjoyed your article and learning more about her. She endured so much, hope to see her gravesite this fall.

Unknown said...

Mary Bliss Parsons is my grandmother about 9 times back. Interested to hear from other relatives.

Unknown said...

She is also my great grandmother a number of times removed. I live in Delaware.

Unknown said...

A great Thanks to those who have worked on so much of Mary's. I am named after Mary but my Last name is Bliss. Currently I do not live in Massachusetts. I love the homes there. If there were a way I could live there safely I would love that. So may God bless all of us. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I recently discovered that Mary Bliss Parsons is my 8x great aunt. Fascinating story that leaves me heartbroken for all that my ancestor endured.