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The witchcraft accusations and trial of Margaret Scott, executed on September 22nd, 1692, long have been a mystery to historians. With the recently located depositions from her examination, the people, places, and events associated with Margaret Scott's trial can now be examined and the mystery surrounding her can be solved.
Spectors, Maleficium, and Margaret Scott
Written by Mark Rice (Copyright, 2005)
History 209, An Undergraduate Court, Cornell University
Spring Semester, 2003
Revised for presentation to the Berkshire Conference, 2005
Margaret Scott possessed the characteristics that made her a prime suspect for any witch accusation during early New England. However, Scott was unlucky enough to be accused during the Salem witch hunts. As a result, Scott, an orthodox suspect, was thrown into a very unorthodox witch hunt with very little chance of survival. The evidence of Margaret Scott's case highlights the nature of witchcraft accusations in New England and the Salem witch-hunt. In the end, Margaret Scott was accused and executed on charges of witchcraft due to prolonged suspicion of her character, the spectral evidence provided in her trial, the maleficium evidence against her, and the prominence of the accusers in her community.
Margaret Scott was the only person to be accused of being a witch from Rowley during the Salem trials. This was mainly due to the fact that community members long thought of her as a witch. She most likely was suspected of witchcraft because of her low stature in the community, the number of child fatalities,long widowhood, and begging; all common traits among people accused of witchcraft.1
Margaret Scott's origins are obscure. Born Margaret Stevenson in England somewhere around the year 1615, she first appeared in the record books in 1642, when she married Benjamin Scott. Initially the Scotts lived in Braintree, but later moved to Cambridge where they had four children between 1644 and 1650. The Scott family arrived in Rowley in 1651 where Margaret gave birth to three additional children. Of all the children, only three lived to adulthood. Still, by the time of the witchcraft trials, the seventy-seven year-old Margaret Scott had as many as eleven grandchildren.2
It is hard to pinpoint the status of the Scott family among the residents of Rowley. Evidence from Essex County records indicates that the Scots were not wealthy and never appeared in any positions suggesting importance or prominence. Benjamin Scott himself was never assigned a high-status title such as Mister or even the lower status title Goodman. The Scotts lacked the money to purchase their own land. Instead in 1664 the town donated land to Benjamin Scott.3 In March of 1665, Benjamin Scott was convicted of the crime of theft, for which he was "fined and admonished." However, six months later he took the Freeman's Oath, indicating he was both a householder and a church member, in short, an upstanding person.4 Benjamin Scott died in 1671 leaving an estate worth only 67 pounds and 17 shillings, not much by the standards of that time. However, Margaret had to live on this estate for the next twenty-one years and by the time of the Salem trials, must have been very poor.5
At first glance, Margaret Scott seems to have lived an uneventful life. However, certain aspects of her character made her a very likely candidate as a witch suspect. One such aspect was the high infant mortality rate among her children. Women in New England who had trouble raising children were very vulnerable to witchcraft charges. In fact, only 7 out of the 62 accused female witches in New England prior to 1692 had a considerable number of children.6
Out of Margaret's seven children, only three made it to adulthood. This does not consider any miscarriages or other problems that Scott may have had. Furthermore, only one of her three children born in Rowley lived to adulthood. The residents of Rowley would have been well aware of her high infant mortality rate.7
Another factor about Margaret Scott's character that made her vulnerable to accusations was her status as a widow for twenty-one years. Being a widow did not in itself expose a woman to suspicion.8 However, Scott suffered from the economic and social effects of being a widow for a prolonged period. The most dangerous aspect of being a widow was the lack of a husband for legal support and influence. Also, Scott, 56 at the time of her husband's death, was forced to live off her husband's small estate for twenty-one years. Often widows who were over fifty and not wealthy, were unable to find a new spouse and thus were reduced to poverty and begging. By begging, Margaret would expose herself to witchcraft suspicions according to what historian Robin Briggs calls the "refusal guilt syndrome". This phenomenon occurred when a beggar's needs were refused causing feelings of guilt and aggression on the refuser's part. The refuser projected this aggression on the begger and grew suspicious of her.9
Some of the depositions against Scott did involve misfortunes occurring to people who had denied her a service or good. Perhaps Scott actually used her reputation to receive favors, which could be very effective. If people believed that Scott was a witch, they might have eagerly given her what she asked out of fear of retaliation. However, if someone refused Scott and then fell on bad circumstances, witchcraft suspicions and accusations were almost a certainty.10
Evidence suggests that Scott's widowhood suffering and dependence on begging resulted in part from a lack of familial support. Only Margaret Scott's son Benjamin stayed in Rowley. When Margaret Scott was accused of witchcraft, Benjamin, who had six children of his own at the time, offered no legal support. He probably lacked the time and money to pursue a legal defense of his mother.11
A careful examination of the depositions and witnesses shows a clear pattern among Margaret Scott's accusers. Many who were wealthy residents of the town who cooperated in the effort to convict Margaret of witchcraft.
Captain Daniel Wicom appeared as the central figure among the accusers. As a prominent member of Rowley, any witchcraft affliction that involved Wicom, who filled many town leadership positions, would have led to legal action against Scott.12 According to depositions presented against Scott, the residents of Rowley suspected her of being a witch for as many as twenty years but no action was taken until his daughter became afflicted by her.
The Wicoms were not the only prominent family of Rowley involved with the accusations against Margaret Scott. The Nelson family also played an active role in the trial. Thomas and Phillip Nelson were brothers; Sarah was Philip's wife. Their father, Captain Philip Nelson, passed away in 1691 leaving an estate of 500 pounds suggesting that both Thomas and Philip were well off themselves. Unfortunately, records fail to distinguish between Philip the father and Philip the son. However, the prominence of the name of Philip Nelson in town records suggests that the family was wealthy and powerful.13
What is notable among the many appearances of Nelsons and Wicoms in the Essex County records is actually what did not occur. While the two families appear in many land disputes, they never appear as opponents. While one cannot assume that both families were friends, it is safe to say that they were not enemies. Philip Nelson gave testimony that supported Daniel Wicom in a 1679 trial and in 1680 the two men sided together in another court case. 14 The connection between the Wicoms and the Nelsons as Margaret Scott's chief accusers continued with the deposition of Philip and Sarah Nelson who testified to the affliction of deceased Robert Shillito, who lived in Daniel Wicom's tithing district. Wicom would have collected Shillito's taxes, been in contact with him, and have been very familiar with his supposed affliction. The final connection occurred in the deposition of Thomas Nelson. At the end of his testimony, the record indicated him as a member of the grand jury giving him the power to determine Margaret Scott's fate extending the Nelson-Wicom connection to nearly all aspects of the trial. 15
The depositions offered against Margaret Scott highlight the rumors about her reputation and the common beliefs that circulated about witches in early New England. Of the six depositions presented before the Salem Court on September 15th, four described the spectral image of Margaret Scott tormenting others. Some depositions given showed that many people suspected Scott was a witch long before 1692. The spectral evidence came from the depositions of young women who may have been influenced by their paranoia surrounding Indian hostilities, social pressures, and religious beliefs.
According to the evidence, Margaret Scott's specter first attacked Frances Wicom at the beginning of the trials at Salem around the tenth of June and continued to do so until the date of her examination on August 5th. The seventeen year old Frances gave her deposition to the court at Salem on September 15, 1692. Describing afflictions that were believed to be very common Frances stated that Margaret Scott "came to me and most grievously torment me by choacking and almost presing me to death".16
Several factors may have led Frances Wicom to testify to such a terrible experience including her home environment and its relationship with Indian conflicts. She undoubtedly would have heard first hand accounts of bloody conflicts with Indians. New evidence shows that a direct correlation can be found between anxiety over Indian Wars being fought in Maine and witchcraft accusations. In such a tense environment where New England was tormented by Satan through witches and Indians, who were thought to be servants of the devil, young girls would have been willing to accuse any one who was remotely suspicious making Scott, who already had a shady reputation, an easy target.17
Frances's family's high status in Rowley may have made also have made her a likely candidate for being "afflicted". The Wicoms's affluence would have made Frances the object of attention in Rowley society. Being afflicted gave Frances an outlet so she could say and do anything without any consequences providing a great release for a girl who lived in such a proper setting as the Wicom household and Puritan society in general.18
The second sufferer from spectral torture, Mary Daniel, also presented her deposition at the trial in Salem on September 15. It too listed many painful torments at the hands of Margaret Scott.19
No records of Mary Daniel's birth or parents exist. The first time Mary Daniel entered the record books was for her baptism on December 6, 1691. She next appeared for her accusations of Margaret Scott. There was a good chance that Mary Daniel was actually a servant in the household of Reverend Edward Payson, minister of Rowley at the time of the trials. 20 He obviously would have encouraged her to become a member of the Puritan faith.21
If Mary Daniel worked for Mr. Payson, her religious surroundings could well have had an effect on her actions. Recent converts to Puritanism felt inadequate and unworthy and at times displaced their worries through possession. Although Mary Daniel was never possessed, her baptism only a few months before the Salem witch hunt presumably increased the pressures of her religion. These feelings would only have been heightened if she in fact served in the household of the local minister.22
The third piece of spectral evidence against Margaret Scott came from another young woman, Sarah Coleman, who deposed that Scott's specter had tortured her on August fifteenth "by pricking, pinching, and choaking of me." Although born in Rowley, the twenty-two-year-old Coleman lived in neighboring Newbury with her parents for the previous nineteen years. The senior Colemans probably knew of Margaret Scott's reputation for witchcraft before they moved to Newbury; that knowledge, combined with the region-wide gossip about Scott's more recent malefic activities, undoubtedly in 1692 led their daughter to accuse their former townswoman.23
Two Rowley residents, Phillip and Sarah Nelson, testified about conversations with Robert Shilleto. The Nelsons deposed that Shilleto believed himself a victim of Margaret Scott's afflictions and "we have often heard him complaining of Margaret Scott for hurting of him, and often said that she was a witch." The Nelsons also described how his affliction lasted for two or three years before Shilleto passed away in 1687 showing that Scott was suspected of being a witch long before the Salem Witch Hunt occurred.24
Spectral evidence was not the only tool that accusers used in Margaret Scott's trial. Two depositions presented at her September 15th appearance before the court examined how Scott tormented people through maleficium, a witches's harming of one's property, health, or family. Of the depositions offered both presented examples of the refusal guilt syndrome among the accusers. The depositions also showed how an ability to predict the future, and damage to livestock raised suspicions against an individual. 25
The deposition presented to the Salem court on September 15th by Daniel Wicom provided evidence of maleficium. His testimony described an encounter with Margaret Scott that occurred about five or six years before the trial when he did not give Scott corn. He reported that Scott predicted that he would be unable to harvest corn that evening and immediately oxen started to act in a strange way making it unable for Wicom to harvest his fields. 26
Wicom's deposition provided an example of refusal guilt syndrome where he initially denied a good to Margaret Scott only to suffer an inconvenience directly related to what Scott was begging for. This testimony also provided evidence that described Scott's ability to predict the future, which was a trait thought to be used by witches.27
More evidence centering on maleficium came from Thomas Nelson, whose statement was also influenced by refusal guilt syndrome. Nelson testified that when Margaret Scott was "Earnest she was for me to bring her wood" and he refused to deliver it immediately one of his cows acted in a strange way and another died.28 Nelson's deposition not only describes many classic characteristics of maleficium, but also includes information about his loss of cattle which was a symbol of status, common in many witchcraft accusations in New England. In attacking his livestock Thomas Nelson believed that Margaret Scott was a threat to his position among the other men in the town.29 In his deposition, Nelson testifies that after the death of his cows he "had hard thoughts of this woman."30
Major events in Margaret Scott's case coincided with important dates of the Salem witchcraft court. When compared to the testimony against Scott, clear patterns can be found between the evidence brought against her and the timing of the Salem court.31
Evidence from the girls' testimony was synonymous with important events in the Salem trials. Frances Wicom was the first girl to experience spectral torment in 1692 "quickly after the first Court at Salem." Frances also testified that Scott's afflictions on her stopped on the day of her examination, August 5. Mary Daniel deposed on August 4 that Margaret Scott afflicted her on "ye 2d day of the week last past," which would have coincided with Scott's arrest. The third afflicted girl, Sarah Coleman, testified that the specter of Margaret Scott started to afflict her on the 15th of August, which fell ten days after the trials of George Burroughs and Scott's own examination. Additionally, the 15th was only four days before the executions of Burroughs, John Proctor, John Willard, George Jacobs, and Martha Carrier; accused who were not "usual suspects" that brought considerable attention to the Salem proceedings.32
Once Margaret Scott's case came before the Salem court, the magistrates were eager to prosecute her for witchcraft. At the same time that Margaret Scott appeared in front of the court, critics of the proceedings had become more vocal expressing concern over the wide use of spectral evidence in the Salem trials. The court probably took the opportunity to prosecute Margaret Scott to help its own reputation. Margaret Scott's case not only involved spectral evidence, but also a fair amount of maleficium evidence. Scott exhibited many characteristics that were believed common among witches in New England. Additionally, the spectral testimony given by the afflicted girls bolstered the accusers' case. With a combination of solid maleficium and spectral evidence against her, the proceedings took only one day to complete. To the judges at Salem, Margaret Scott was perfect candidate to highlight the court's effectiveness. By executing Scott, the magistrates at Salem could silence critics of the trials by executing a "real witch" suspected of being associated with the devil for many years.33
Margaret Scott was executed at Salem as a result of a suspicious reputation, the combination of spectral and maleficium evidence against her, the close relationship among her accusers, and the timing of her trial. Margaret Scott's downfall resulted from a series of misfortunes that she could not avoid. Impoverished and isolated from her long widowhood, Scott's shady reputation made her an easy target for witchcraft suspicions. Her accusers' depositions describe many typical beliefs about witches in early New England built up over a prolonged period of time. Even the actions taken against her by the prominent families of Rowley were not uncommon in New England witchcraft. Margaret Scott simply could not avoid the key factor in her condemnation; her profile as a "usual suspect". Unlike many of the other accused before the court, Scott was faced with an equal amount of spectral and maleficium evidence. The proponents of the court saw the opportunity to use Margaret Scott to their advantage. Her case showed the court relieving a community of a long believed witch and distracted attention from other defendants who were convicted on much more questionable evidence.Traits common among accused witches are described by Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors (New York, 1996) Chapter 1; John Putnam Demos Entertaining Satan (Oxford, 1982) Chapter 3. Marriage record comes from John Noble, Ed., Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay Volume II (Suffolk, 1904), 125 It is notable that Margaret's name appears first in the court's decision. This implies that the controversy of the case revolved around Margaret and not Benjamin; biographical and birth records come from George Brainard Blodgette and Amos Everett Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts (Salem, MA, 1933), 329-30. Blodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts, 329. iv In both records, it is hard to determine which Benjamin Scott the courts are referring to. The Scotts had a son named Benjamin who would have been nineteen in 1665. However, someone the age of nineteen seems a little too young to be eligible to take an important oath so the Benjamin in question is probably the father. The record about the theft is provided by George Francis Dow, Editor, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume I (Essex Institute, 1911) 387; the record of the freeman oath is provided by George Francis Dow, Editor Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume III (Essex Institute 1913) 275. Records from the Probate Records of Essex County Massachusetts, Volume II 1665-1674 (Salem, MA, 1917) 238-9. Data based on John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan, 72-3. Information on the Rowley children comes from Blodgett and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts, 329-30. Data and opinions from both Demos, Entertaining Satan, 72; and Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 263-4. Information regarding the status of widows from Demos, Entertaining Satan, 75; refusal guilt syndrome from Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 140-1. Information from Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 156. Information about begging from Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 276; biographical information about the Scotts provided by Blodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts 329-30, As for the occupation of John Scott, Blodgette and Jewett cite Benjamin Scott's will, which lists his son as "having been away to get a good trade" which can be interpreted as a merchant or sailor. Theory on social structure found in Demos, Entertaining Satan, 291. The court records from April 1677 are found in George Francis Dow, ed. Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume VI (Essex Institute 1917) 269; Records from September 1677 from Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Volume VI 327; Daniel Wicom's appointment as town attorney is found in Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume VII (Essex Institute, 1919) 213; The court case from 1679 is found in Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Volume VII 169-70; Daniel Wicom is listed as deputy marshal in a court case found in Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume IX (Essex Institute, 1975) 578. Biographical information on the Nelson Family from Blodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts 243-4; Philip Nelson is listed as a town recorder in Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County. Volume III (Essex Institute, 1921) 267. The 1679 case in which Daniel Wicom sued Samuel Phillips for "reflecting and reproaching authority" can be found in Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume VII: 184-6; The 1680 court case in which Wicom and Nelson disagree with John Person Jr. over land divisions in the town can be found in Dow, Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County, Volume VII: 352. Information on Robert Shillito is provided by Bodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts, 343; Thomas Nelson is listed as "one of ye Grand Inquest" proving he is a member of the jury in Gage, The History of Rowley, 174. This deposition, along with the others from Margaret Scott's examination, comes from a reliable account of the proceedings by Thomas Gage, The History of Rowley (Boston, 1840) 175. Theory on Indian War connection to witchcraft at Salem provided by Norton, In the Devil's Snare, 122. Biographical information about the Wicom family from Blodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, 408; The argument that girls used their afflictions and fits as a release is argued by Demos, Entertaining Satan 159. Deposition printed by Gage, The History of Rowley, 172-3. Biographical information provided by Blodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, 93; Trial testimony from Edward Payson printed by Gage, The History of Rowley, 173. Biographical information on Payson provided by Gage, The History of Rowley, 20-1; I must repeat that the assumption that Mary Daniel is Payson's servant is a guess based on the available evidence. Possession theory argued by Richard Godbeer, The Devil's Dominion (Cambridge, 1992) 114. Deposition quote from Gage, The History of Rowley, 174-5; Information about the Coleman family provided by Blodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusettts, 81; the importance of gossip in the spreading of the Salem crisis is described by Norton, In the Devil's Snare, 146-9. Deposition quote and description from Gage, The History of Rowley, 175; Robert Shillito was buried 21 August, 1637 according to Blodgette and Jewett, Early Settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts 343. A good definition of maleficium on which this is based is given by Norton, In the Devil's Snare, 8. Deposition from Gage, The History of Rowley, 171-2. The refusal guilt syndrome is discussed earlier in this paper, but is proposed by Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 140-1; information about suspicion of people who predicted the future given by Briggs, Witches and Neighbors, 173-4. Deposition from Gage, The History of Rowley, 174. The theory about the importance of livestock and cattle in the men's New England society is found in Demos, Entertaining Satan, 145-6. Deposition from Gage, The History of Rowley, 174. Dates from depositions listed in Gage, The History of Rowley, 169-75 Frances Wicom's deposition states that she is first afflicted at the first trials of Salem, which was June 2nd, therefore Scott could have been named as a witch any time between then and her arrest.
32 Testimony from Gage, The History of Rowley, 169-75; evidence of the August 19th executions from Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story (Cambridge University Press, 1993) 108.Doubt about spectral evidence was voiced by some ministers. Their concerns are described in Norton, In the Devil's Snare, 281-2; testimony of the afflicted girls of Salem is given in Gage, The History of Rowley 173-4.