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Bridget Bishop was the first person to be executed during the Salem witchcraft trials. In Salem folklore, she is portrayed as a feisty, fun-loving, lusty, innkeeper who can't seem to keep herself out of trouble. Recently, historians have painted a somewhat different picture, owing to the confusion with Sarah Bishop who also appears in the court records of the witch trials. Indisputably, the Bridget Bishop who was tried and hanged possessed a quick wit and independent spirit that could not be crushed by the court of Oyer and Terminer.
Written By Sarah-Nell Walsh
Actress Rebekah Clinard as Bridget Bishop in History Alive production of 'Cry Innocent,' by Mark Stevick, Salem, Summer, 1999.
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001
Bridget Bishop has developed into a colorful character in the legendary history of Salem Village. As the first woman tried and executed as a witch during the Salem witchcraft trials, she has attracted a lot of imaginative speculation about her character and behavior.
The Bridget Bishop that is most commonly portrayed is one who kept a house of refreshment for travelers, and a shuffle board for the entertainment of her guests. She generally seemed to have exhibited certain behaviors and appearances that exposed her to some scandal. She wore a showy costume for the austere Puritan times -- a red bodice. Her freedom from the severity of Puritan manners and disregard of conventional decorum in her conversation and conduct brought her into disrepute, so the tongue of gossip was generally loosened against her. She is portrayed as a folk heroine in Salem's story. A spirited, feisty, buxom, and lusty woman who flaunted Puritan morals with a happy public house where drinking and gambling occurred. Many say that it was her flashy taste in dress, her smooth and flattering manner with men, and the questionable gaieties that had gone on in her two taverns, which led to people gossiping about her as a witch as far back as King Philips War.
This, however, is not the same Bridget Bishop of history. Research done by historian David Green indicates that scholars and writers have confused Bridget Bishop of Salem with Sarah Bishop, a tavern keeper in Salem Village. Bridget Bishop lived on a small piece of property in Salem Town and was between fifty-five and sixty-five in 1692, when she was accused of witchcraft. The account below follows the more historically accurate description of Bridget Bishop's life, taken from Bernard Rosenthal's book Salem Story.
In 1666, the widow Bridget Wasselbe married Thomas Oliver and had a daughter named Christian. This marriage was less than idyllic. In 1678, Bridget was accused of calling her husband names on the Sabbath, and both she and her husband were sentenced to stand gagged in the market place for their offenses. In January 1679, Bridget and Thomas were both sentenced to be whipped for fighting. It was not unusual for Bridget's face to be battered during her marriage to Thomas Oliver. In 1680, she was accused of witchcraft. This accusation could have been facilitated by Thomas' claim that "she was a bad wife . . .the devil had come bodily to her . . . and she sat up all night with the devil." (Charles Upham, Salem Witchcraft). This accusation occurred after her husband died without leaving a will, and seems to be the classic case of a vulnerable, propertied woman being accused of witchcraft. She posted bond, and there is no record of any punishment. In 1687, she was charged with stealing brass objects. Her record then remains clean until she is brought up on witchcraft charges again in April 1692.
On April 19, 1692 at her examination, Bridget Bishop began her testimony with courtesy and deference. This deferential attitude soon gave way to anger as she realized that denying her involvement was not an effective strategy. The afflicted girls were in the courtroom swooning in response to the imagined spectral advances of Bridget Bishop. Magistrate John Hawthorne unleashed his loaded questions, asking, "How is it that your specter hurts those in this room?" Bridget replied, "I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is." Hawthorne turned this answer to his advantage by asking, "How can you know, you are no witch, and yet not know what a witch is." She replied, "I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it." Although it is not clear what Bridget meant by this comment, Hawthorne clearly took it as a veiled threat and replied, "You may threaten, but you may do no more than you are permitted" (Salem Witchcraft papers). No one can know for certain if this bold interchange earned Bridget Bishop the distinction of being the first hanged on the gallows.
On May 27, Phips established a special court of Oyer and Terminer to try those accused of witchcraft. On June 2, Bridget Bishop was the first person tried in the new court, perhaps because her previous witchcraft accusation made her a likely candidate. In her trial, spectral evidence was given an unprecedented status. She was charged with "tortur[ing], afflict[ing], pin[ing], consum[ing], wast[ing]: & torment[ing] her victims," Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Mary Walcott, and Elizabeth Hubbard. Bridget vehemently denied the charges at her trial, believing that to be the only way to avoid execution. She did not realize that her only hope lay in confessing to witchcraft. When Cotton Mather wrote of the evidence against her in his book Wonders of the Invisible World, he included preposterous stories that could best be called gossip. One such story recounts that Bishop cast a glance upon Salem meeting house, while walking under guard. This "look" caused a board, which had been fastened with nails, to be removed to another portion of the house. Her case served as a model for future cases to come, following a very predictable pattern. The "afflicted" persons made their accusations, which were denied by the accused; members of the community told of past acts of witchcraft by the accused; and one or more confessors validated the claim of the accusers. The court used spectral evidence as the primary legal basis to convict Bridget Bishop. Hanged on June 10, her death warrant emphasizes only the harm done to her accusers, primarily on the day of her examination, as the legal justification for the execution.
"On June 10, 1692, High Sheriff George Corwin took [Bridget Bishop] to the top of Gallows Hill and hanged her alone from the branches of a great oak tree. Now the honest men of Salem could sleep in peace, sure that the Shape of Bridget would trouble them no more" (Upham). Bridget Bishop was the first person to be hanged as a result of the infamous Salem witchcraft trials.
David Green, "Salem Witches I: Bridget Bishop," The American Genealogist, Vol. 57, No. 3. 1981: 130-138.
Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story. Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1997.
Charles Upham, Salem Witchcraft, 1867.
Written By Sarah Nell Walsh
Bridget Bishop was a self-assertive woman who had been accused of witchcraft prior to 1692. Previous experience had taught her to deny allegations of witchcraft at all costs. Unfortunately, in 1692 the situation was different and her only salvation lay in false confession, which she refused to do. Bridget Bishop was married to Edward Bishop when she was accused of witchcraft in Salem. She was widowed twice before marrying Edward. Her second husband Thomas Oliver accused her of witchcraft, claiming that "she was a bad wife. . . the devil had come bodily to her . . . and she sat up all night with the devil." This previous accusation of witchcraft in 1680 was remembered and probably explains her arrest and sentencing in 1692.
John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin presided over Bridget's examination on April 19, 1692. Many of her accusers were present at the examination, including Elizabeth Hubbard, Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott. A summary of the courtroom examination follows.
As soon as Bridget Bishop entered the courtroom, the afflicted girls fell into fits. Judge Hathorne asked which witchcrafts she was conversant in, to which she replied, "I take all this people (turning her head and eyes about) to witness that I am clear." Then Hawthorne asked the girls if they had been afflicted by Bishop, to which Elizabeth Hubbard, Ann Putnam, Abigail Williams, and Mercy Lewis affirmed that she had. The afflicted girls charged her with having hurt them in many ways and tempting them to sign the book of the devil. Ann Putnam even went so far as to say that Bishop called the devil her God. Bishop continued to proclaim her innocence by saying that she "never saw these persons before, nor [ever] was in this place before." She claimed to be as "innocent as an unborn child."
At that point, Mary Walcott said that her brother Jonathan had torn Bishop's coat while fighting off her specter. When they examined Bishop's coat, they found the tear in exactly the same location. Judge Hathorne continued the attack on Bishop when he accused her of bewitching her first husband to death. She shook her head no in response to the question, which set the afflicted girls into fits. Sam Braybook affirmed that although she told him that she had been accused of witchcraft ten years ago, "she was no witch and the devil cannot hurt her."
Bridget Bishop apparently became frustrated with Hathorne's continual attack on her character and his disbelief in her innocence. Her deferential attitude soon gave way to anger as she slowly realized that denial was not an effective strategy. The following interchange between Bishop and Hathorne is very memorable and is often quoted.
Bishop staunchly states, "I am no witch." To which Hawthorne replies, "Why if you have not wrote in the book, yet tell me how far you have gone? Have you not to do with familiar spirits?" "I have no familiarity with the devil." "How is it then that your appearance doth hurt these?"
"I am innocent."
"Why do you seem to act witchcraft before us, by the motion of your body, which seems to have influence upon the afflicted."
"I know nothing of it. I am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is."
"How do you know then that you are not a witch."
"I do not know what you say."
"How can you know, you are no witch, and yet not know what a witch is."
"I am clear: if I were any such person you should know it."
"You may threaten, but you can do no more than you are permitted"
"I am innocent of a witch."
After this comment, Bridget apparently rolled her eyes towards heaven. Immediately, all the girls rolled theirs, and it seemed to the court that a devil was on the loose. After this examination, Bishop was asked if she was not troubled to see the afflicted girls so tormented. She answered no. When asked if she thought they were bewitched, she answered that she did not know what to think about them.
Cotton Mather, using the court records, wrote about the trial of Bridget Bishop in his book Wonders of the Invisible World. The trial was held on June 2, 1692 in the Court of Oyer and Terminer. Even Mather admitted that it was hard to prove the witchcraft, even though "it [was] evident and notorious to all beholders." During Bishop's examination before the magistrates, the afflicted girls behaved as if they were tortured. It seemed that by casting her eye upon them, Bishop could strike them down into fits. The only thing that would stop these fits was the touch of her hand upon the girls. Abigail Hobbs, a woman who had already confessed to being a witch, played into this drama by testifying that Bishop's specter tormented her because of her confession. She also affirmed that Bishop had been present at a meeting of witches, in a field at Salem Village, and took part in a diabolical sacrament.
In addition to this evidence, evidence of other previous witchcraft was brought to light. Bishop was accused of murdering children, bewitching pigs, and coming to various townsmen during the night. In further evidence, "poppets" were found in the wall of her cellar. These puppets were made of rags and hogs bristles, with headless pins in them. Bishop could "give no account unto the court, that was reasonable or tolerable." The final piece of damning evidence was when a jury of women found a "preternatural teat" upon her body. Within three hours, the teat had disappeared, adding to the intrigue.
Her case served as a model for future cases to come, following a very predictable pattern. The afflicted girls made accusations, which were denied by the accused; one or more confessors validated the claim of the accusers; and members of the community told of past acts of witchcraft by the accused. The court used spectral evidence as the only legal basis to convict Bridget Bishop. Hanged on June 10, her death warrant emphasizes only the harm done to her accusers, primarily on the day of her examination, as the legal justification for the execution. Bridget Bishop was the first person to be hanged as a result of the infamous Salem witchcraft trials.