Here you will find the play The Devil Be Familiar, which I wrote, produced and directed in a performance on September 19, 1992 in Rowley, Massachusetts to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the hanging of my ancestor, Margaret Stephenson Scott. Margaret Scott, hanged on September 22, 1692, was the only victim of the witch trials from Rowley and at 77, the oldest of all those hanged at Salem.
The performance took place at the First Congregational Church of Rowley. As would have been the custom during Margaret Scott’s lifetime, the audience was divided according to gender, sitting on opposite sides of the central aisle. Most of the actors sat among the audience and rose to speak in turn. Actress and playwright Melinda Lopez played the part of both Margaret’s primary accuser, Mary Daniels, and Margaret’s daughter, Mary Decker Scott; actress Didi Stewart played the part of Elizabeth Hubbard. Rowley residents, along with my friends and family, played the other parts. My mother, Jane Pike Marx, played the part of our ancestor, Margaret Stephenson Scott.
My brother Stephen Marx videotaped the event, including the processional afterwards to the Green across the road from the Rowley Historical Society, where State Representative Palumbo read a proclamation from Massachusetts Governor Weld exonerating those accused of witchcraft. A stone commemorating Margaret Scott as a victim of the witchcraft delusion was unveiled and the Green where it rests named in her honor.
I hope to post the full video of the event soon. In the meantime, I have included stills from it in the script.
The Devil Be Familiar
a play concerning Margaret Stephenson Scott, hanged at Salem on September 22, 1692
If it were not for the catastrophic events that befell Margaret Scott in 1692, hardly any of us would have ever heard of her. Margaret Scott was a poor woman and a widow (or “relic” as they were called at the time); she was old and came from a small village. Such people are rarely featured in history. Perhaps for this reason alone, paying tribute to her this afternoon holds some special value.
But we also hope you find today that it is possible to come closer to the lives of people like Margaret Scott, even over the reach of 300 years. In Margaret’s case, we’re lucky. Because the New England settlers were such a litigious lot, we can use the many court records left behind to reconstruct even as anonymous a life as Margaret’s was up until the end.
From her marriage record we know, for instance, that she was born Margaret Stephenson and that she married Benjamin Scott in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1642. Already here, a bit of mystery appears. For there is a curious addendum to the marriage record. It states that Margaret Stephenson was “judged at liberty to marry.” Why was this necessary? Was she an indentured servant? In some kind of trouble? Divorced? We can only speculate.
After that first glimmer of conflict, only the familiar listings of births and deaths and marriages mark the course of Margaret Stephenson Scott and her family: Margaret moves to Rowley with her husband. She bears seven children and loses four. She becomes a widow and a grandmother.
Then, of course, there are the depositions that burst forth from the Salem court records in 1692, indictments against Margaret for witchcraft. It is from these documents (link?) that much of what you will hear today originated. Margaret Stephenson Scott will remain silent as she has come down to us. But in the spirit of reconciliation, you will hear the voices of the town minister, Mister Phillips, and Margaret Stephenson Scott’s two remaining children, Benjamin Scott, Jr., and Mary Scott Becker, as they might have spoken along with her accusers.
First typical townsfolk will voice some of the many concerns which may have fueled the fires of witchcraft hysteria.
Three hundred years ago, we must recall, the people of Massachusetts Bay were still very much in the business of settling a land, which meant, inevitably, displacing the native people. The great war against the Indians in 1675 still haunted them. It had cost, proportionally, more lives among the colonialists than any war this country has waged since. Even in 1692, the native population, on the verge of extinction, was desperately fighting back. Only two years before, the Governor, William Phipps, had led troops against the French and Indians ion an expedition that ended in disaster. The Rowley brigade, in particularly, had suffered greatly when their small craft was blown off course in a bitter storm, and landed in Barbados. Many men were lost, and the Rowley captain, Mr. Nelson, returned home a dying man. Heavy taxes imposed to pay the war dept burdened the town. Add to this the ministers’ growing concern about dissolution of religious zeal, and perhaps we can begin to imagine some of the many currents that contributed to the eruption of witchcraft hysteria in communities like Salem Village and Rowley in 1692.
(On September 19, 1692, exactly 300 years ago, Margaret Stephenson Scott was undoubtedly lying chained in a cell in Salem prison, awaiting her execution on the 22nd.
Three hundred years later(the day of the pardoning and the performance), We gather to bear witness to this simple Rowley woman whose life would still remain largely unrecognized except for the catastrophic events that ended it and the eloquence of her refusal to give in to her accusers, a refusal which cost her her life.
As the performance proceeds, I will be announcing each character, or group of characters, before they rise or come forward.
Announcement of Characters
THE COMPANY OF ROWLEY:
(Ends with slave woman: “…until I find the ones still warring with the English.”)
MARGARET SCOTT’S ACCUSER: MARY DANIEL
(Ends with Mary Daniel: “Then none may escape from Hell!”)
CHORUS OF THE BEWITCHED: Francis Wicom, Daniel Wicom and Sarah Colman of Rowley, Mary Warren and Elizabeth Hubbard of Salem.
(Ends with Mary Daniel: “Don not fear! Speak and you will be saved!)
SARAH NELSON AND PHILLIP NELSON II, also Margaret’s accusers.
(Ends with Sarah Nelson: “And at least shall have to put your name to it!)
THE ROWLEY MINISTER, REVEREND SAMUEL PHILLIPS
(Ends with Reverend Phillips: “…devil’s minions.”)
BENJAMIN SCOTT, JR., Margaret’s son.
(Ends with Benjamin Scott, Jr.: “…I called my home can touch me.”)
MARY SCOTT DECKER, Margaret’s daughter
The Company of Rowley
These women and men, girls and boys will rise and speak their lines from the congregation, which will be dived by gender on either side of the church, and from front to back, approximately according to their status with the Puritan hierarchy.)
Servant woman: Terrible thoughts cross my mind. Sometimes in Church I have to clamp my teeth down upon my lip to keep from shattering the holy silence with blasphemies.
Harried good wife: My husband chides me for not being more attentive in my wifely duties. But we have no money or space for servants, and my girls are too little to be of help.
Still, my husband is right to be angry when he comes home from the fields and nothing is cooked and the floor is unswept, and the stench of the babies’ swaddlings fills the house.
Sometimes I curse God for bring me forth a woman.
Servant man: My master thrashes me for drinking too much beer. (Pause) He’d drink too if he had a master such as himself.
Destitute soldier: All last year the Rowley Brigade was stationed up at Cocheco on account of Indian troubles. We waited for the attack that never came. Our wives and children were at home starving. Then what they pay us, in soldiers’ scrip, is worthless.
Second son: My brother will get everything, only because he was born first. I will grow up to be a peddler.
Young girl around 7: Yesterday I complained when Mother sent the boys out to play and kept us inside all day carding wool.
Her sister: (Pops up beside her) Then she went out anyway and Mother thrashed her HARD for it.
Slave girl: I cry at night when it’s cold, and I cannot see my mother anymore in my mind, and only a string of white wool appears before my eyes like the one my Mistress makes me turn and turn and turn off the wheel. In winter, all that rolls before my closed eyes is snow.
Widow Elizabeth Nelson: The one I sinned with sits across the aisle. I burn, knowing that no matter how smartly I dress in silk, my husband looks down and seems me naked and dwelling in the muck. Twice since his death I have met the other one in the woods. But his wife is healthy, and suitable husbands already knock at my door.
Young woman: I dare not speak out, lest he kill me. And, then, good God, what would become of my babies?
Doctor Bennett: All around me, out at sea, the men with their dried-up mouths were calling for me. What could I do? I had to save my precious medicines for those of high estate. But it seemed, since my brother Phipps was commander, I was to blame for all their suffering.
Last night I went to the bed of a dying girl. I plastered her with leeches. Her mother begged to know if she would live. I did not have the heart to speak.
I think so much of the boy we gave away. I pray he does not despise me for having let his mother hand him to her sister, Mrs. Phipps, to be the Governor’s son.
Young man: I can tell she’s getting fat now when I see her one the street. Soon, I know, she will reveal me.
Slave woman (seated next to the slave girl): One afternoon lately, I slipped out while my Mistress slept and followed a band of red-skinned women from the praying village at Ipswich. We traveled along a drained creek bed out to Hog’s Island. We walked barefoot, in the cool mud, one after the other, as the women of my village used to go, to and fro from our garden sites. These Indian women were friendly to me although we only spoke a few of the Masters’ words in common. I sat and watched them harvesting. The children gathered wood and played around us.
I stayed there until the sun had stained the sky and a great long-necked bird flew overhead, circled and settled in a nearby tree. The sea was flooding back up the creeks, so I knew I would not get out until after the next tide ebbed. Even then I could feel my Master coming at me with the whip. But then the soothing voices of the women and the sea flowing back through the tall grassed drowned him out.
As dusk fell, a band of girls returned with clams gathered from the mud flats. They cooked them in a stew with bright greens until the shells fell open in the broth. One of the harvesters beckoned me to join them, and I can verily say this as the sweetest food I’ve tasted all these years since I was snatched from home.
The next morning when I returned to my Master’s house, he greeted me with the whip, as I had seen he would. For days, I lay painfully on the barn floor, thinking I would die. Until a spirit visited me from where I was born, and comforted me, and gave me strength. I woke with her voice still in my ears, telling me to make my escape and travel among the Redskins, until I find the ones still warring with the English.
Mary Daniel (“Mayd,” 19 years old. Margaret’s most inspired accuser. An orphan/refugee of the war against the Northern Indians, she was “born again” as one of God’s elect only the year before. Her ecstatic demeanor conveys that she is under great stress which she experiences as a kind of euphoria. Her narrative style borrows heavily from the Captivity Narratives, so popular in this period, and at times has the same sexual energy. Her appeals to the Congregation make very little theological sense but exhibit a good deal of rude rhetorical power.):
“Within the most miserable of frames, the Lord most happily dwells.” So spoke the saintly Mister Phillips when he touched my forehead with water and pronounced me one of God’s flock, December 6, a year ago.
If this be so, then, I verily belong among the Company of Saints.
I was born at Casco Bay, an outpost so far up into the piney wilderness that the hand of God could barely find us.
I recall one Hunger Moon—as the Abenakis call it. So drear and desperate did our men become that once, the rumor went, they found a drunken savage lying in the snow, shot him where he lay, and brought him home as meat. My father called it “steak.” Burning our lips and tongues, we wolfed it down
I beg thy patience. I would not thus besmirch the House of God, except for you to know how those who live amongst the Heathen sink into the foulest filth, no better than savages themselves. (Pause.)
We did not know then, in our pagan innocency, but God had already raised His cruel hand to smite us down.
My mother was nursing her baby when we heard the heathens whoop. She quickly bade the little ones to get in bed and covered them, and told me to go out into the forest to fetch my father.
Even as I ran along, I smelt the fire and heard it seethe. When the whoops grew near, I hid in the pines, and watched the savages pass, branding their torches, towards where my family cowered.
All night, I stumbled in the forest, weeping.
Then at dawn a painted heather, not much older than myself, suddenly appeared and squatted next to me. The stench of bear grease filled my nose. I shrank back screaming as he reached out a tawny hand.
But God is Powerful. He had placed within that heathen countenance a heart as gentle as a deer’s. For, most wondrously, this Indian picked me up and carried me to safety, beside a soldiers’ garrison.
From there, I made my way down to your own Captain Wicom and his wife, Widow Platts, a most Godly woman, who reads daily from the Good Book. One afternoon as she read aloud of Job, it did appear to me how—just as Job—I too had suffered and been saved for God’s own purpose, “the only one escaped to tell the news!” It was then I saw how life lived in the Lord’s service would no longer be a burden but light as a feather. And it was then I fell in bliss into the company of the Lord and, as it is recorded, on 6 December 1691, was brought into the Congregation here at Rowley, under our Great Father’s servant, Mister Phillips.
From that time forward, the Lord has led me, painfully, until I might finally see why he saved me from the Devil’s grasp: (low, mean voice) To help cleanse this land of Devil’s work!
For nearly a year, even in my new virtue, a roguish disquiet afflicted me. Until that doleful season when my own family burned. It was then I strayed out past Pollipod Field, along an Indian path. A shape rose from the shadows, which did truly make me quake. For, in my first terror, I thought a savage lay in wait for me. Until I saw it was but a crone from town. Her grey hair was strewn about her face, most witchlike, and cross her cheek appeared a smear o soot. In her basket she carried livid yellow mushrooms even a heathen would tremble to eat.
I spoke sharply to her (for she had frightened me), and she retorted, more sharply still, and called me names.
As she passed, the smudge upon her cheek became no more than the orange pollen of a speckled lily, a bunch of which she held wrapped in her tattered apron.
That evening, when I tried to speak of what I’d seen, her shape came back to torment me. My tongue swelled in my mouth, gagging me so I could scarce breathe. And from that time forth, she has most afflicted me and also Frances Wicom, the Captain’s daughter, who herself pined and could not eat, choking half to death. Until such time as my master did take us both to visit the old witch, forcing her to loosen her grip.
Yet, still, I would not have spoken publically of my affliction had I not heard young Mister Cotton Mather preach at the last hanging, imploring us to press on against the Devil’s own discouragements. Twas then Job’s words rang in my ears again: “Here I am, as one saved alone to tell the news!” (Pause.)
(Accusingly): To you who mutter doubts I ask: Since Eve corrupted Eden, and Adam fell out of the garden, and His own son was forced to walk corrupted ground, can YOU say (she slaps her hand to her chest “I am the one the Devil cannot touch? I have never once felt the Devil’s breath sour MY bowels? Not ONCE has the Devil blistered MY soul?
(Shaking her head slightly, and in a bit of a school-marmish, sing-song tone): Even a girl like myself knows that those most fair to God may well be Satan’s favorites too. For is it not written that the Lord of Hell himself was once God’s most treasured angel?
(In more reasonable, earnest tone): Please, for what God makes me say, do not despise me. (She bows her head humbly.) The Lord has entered me, and freed my tongue, and stood me here before you. Thou canst not overlook us maids. (Building back up): I beg of thee: Let my terrified eyes be witness. Snuff out the Devil’s breath! (Almost begging): Oh, please, believe! The Lord’s own blinding light shows itself! Can you not see? One spark of Satan’s hotness, let loose in such a wilderness, will soon devour all God’s outposts! Then none may escape Hell!
Chorus of Bewitched:
Mary Daniel (above); Frances Wicom: Rowley resident and daughter of Daniel Wicom, who also accuses Margaret; Mary Warren, Elizabeth Hubbard: From Salem, “afflicted” in the original accusations against Tituba et. al.; Sarah Colman: Daughter of Tobia and Susannah Colman of Rowley.
Frances: (Comes up and takes her place beside Mary Daniel.) When Mary had become most fearfully afflicted, living as she did with us, my father asked of her: “Who afflicts you so?”
But Mary would not say. Until at last she blurted out: “Tis the old hag that lives us Holme Street, towards the mills, near where the clay pits lie.” And still she could not name her.
Mary Daniel: I could not say because she bound my tongue.
Frances: But when my father named the one, she nodded pitifully.
The next night, when she was gripped again in the most fearful agony, and I too began to choke, Father sheathed his knife, and led us both to the hag’s dark door and smashed it open.
(Tone shifts, more animated, as if she’s forgetting the artifice for the story.) At first I saw nothing but the red orb of the hearth. Then I made out an old crone sitting beside, huddled over her pipe. A mass of herbs, like the outgrowths hanging from a cave’s murky roof, dropped down close around her head.
Daniel Wicom: (Stands from the men’s side.) Rest assured. I stood close by. I would have killed her on the spot if she’d tried to harm my little girl or the other one, whom I took in as if she were my own.
Frances: Poor Mary made as if to swoon, but I pulled her forward. She cringed and held to me.
“Go on!” I whispered, “One touch and the devil’s filth will be sucked back where it belongs.”
I forced Mary’s hand out, held it to the crone hunched by the hearth.
Poor Mary shrieked. The crone peered at us, and the light fell on her wizened face.
“Touch the girl!” my father roared.
Poor pitiful Mary was gagging on her tongue, and I too felt craggy fingers grip my neck.
My father bent down in the old hag’s face. “Bitch. You touch the girls or you’ll never stand again.”
He grabbed under her shawl, and she twisted away. Then slowly she put her old gnarled hand out, and we laid Mary’s small gentle hand upon it. You could almost see the evil coursing back, and instantly the affliction lifted. Mary sighed heavily. Then she fell upon her knees and gave thanks to God.
Sarah Colman: (Also comes forward, young and hesitant, stands by herself.) When my sister was in labor, and nothing could be done, I was sent to that same witch’s house for her brews. What the witch gave me saved neither the mother nor the child.
(More urgently, wringing her hands): I am so afraid! I don’t want to die! Yet I know there will be no life for me unless I become a wife.
Mary Warren and Elizabeth Hubbard: (Come forward together, arm-in-arm.)
Elizabeth Hubbard: (fierce) Speak the truth! Rip the devil from your tongue! Then you need not be afraid!
Mary Warren: (more pathetic) We too have faced torture! We too may never marry!
Sarah Colman: (joins them, slightly shyly) Yes, I see it! Everywhere the Devil lurks, ready to yank me into the forest!
Elizabeth Hubbard: (putting her arm around Sarah, protectively) Oh, Sirs, we beg of thee, rip this evil from our poor shuddering frames!
Mary Warren: Lay thy healing hands upon our befouled souls!
Sarah Colman: Lord, lay Thy cold hands on us!
Mary Warren: Yes, she yanks at me as well! I’ve seen her yet with Tituba!
Elizabeth Hubbard: The hag, the useful-up spiteful relic pulls us down to Hell!
Francis Wicom: (Also comes over) Hold us down ! Withdraw the Devil from our bowels!
Mary Warren: Lord, draw us to Thy goodness!
Elizabeth Hubbard: Heed His icy words of warning!
Mary Daniel: (who has stood aloof, comes over and joins them slightly stiffly): Do not fear! Speak and you will be saved!
Thomas Nelson, III, (32 years old, good-looking, vigorous, ambitious): (stands and comes forward to speak.) The name—Thomas Nelson—is quite familiar in these parts, ever since my grandfather crossed from Yorkshire with Mister Ezekiel Rogers. He was the wealthiest man to come—he was the one who built the fulling up at the end of Holme Street. But then God called him back while he was away in England, and his new wife quickly went back across the ocean herself, taking with her all that could be moved of the Nelson boys’ inheritance.
But let me not occupy our time fretting about the past. What I like to talk about is what I see around me and what lies ahead.
I will start most recently. Do you not recall the heavy hatch of locus that appeared some weeks past? Fearing how they might blight my crops, I went out into the night, loaded a cart with a rake and black grass from the marshes, and rode down to our fields. I dotted them with fires to smoke away the pests.
Seeing no other man abroad, though, I wondered whether I bestirred myself in vain. As I stretched my sore back, and retreated to rest my eyes from the sooty flames, my gaze fell upon the dim outline of the neighboring fields. Which—since my uncle’s untimely death—are owned entirely by my cousin Phillip who neglects them sorely. I chafed then at the injustice of it: never would my land yield half the quantity of grain my cousin’s far more ample acres offer up, no matter how hard I labored.
I do admit, then, that I fell into a black mood and cursed my cramped inheritance and the unfriendly darkness. From there my thoughts went reeling after my young brother John, who so recently met death in battle against our enemies in Canada. With this I turned my restive thoughts back in upon myself for neglecting that small portion of God’s blessing I still had been allowed.
It was at this time that Captain Wicom appeared, much agitated and short of breath. I feared he came to warn of Indian attack, but he assured me I had no cause for such extreme alarm. Leaning close to my ear, he said he brought news of dangers more invisible, and perhaps, therefore, more insidious, which of late befallen his own dear family. He said he feared these threats, if left uncurbed, would spread like the pox that felled the Indians, and so infect us all.
He offered rum from his flask, took up a forked stick, which he hacked into a rude rake, and began to work beside me. As we threw more straw upon the flames, a locust sizzled in the air as it tried to jump away. The Captain told me how it reminded him of an Indian, with clothes afire, the way they’d come streaming out of the encampment, caught during the last days of King Phillips War.
Then he returned to his own, more grievous tale—of the afflictions of his daughter and his orphan servant girl, whom he said pined now at home, tortured near to starvation by their bewitchment.
As we trudged the small circumference of my fields, he stopped suddenly, as if a thought had just come to him and asked: Had I not lost two of my own cattle in a most mysterious way, some while back, and had not witchcraft then also been suspected?
I confirmed ‘twas true. My neighbors had suspected it.
The captain questioned angrily: “But who did they think could harbor such hard thoughts against a gentleman as upright as yourself?”
“Old Relic Scott,” I told him. For she had come the day before, pestering me for wood she said I owed her, and they had overheard it.
He tugged at his beard, thinking, then slowly spoke again. “SHE was the one I turned from my fields when she came to glean, and that same day my own cattle refused to pull the cart, and I thought it strange.” Then he leaned in again and whispered low, “My daughter named that selfsame hag yesterday while she was in her fits.”
“So not it’s clear,” he said, with much relief, “we have found our witch! soon now my girls will be restored to me.” He wondered, then, if I might not join with him, if necessary, to back them up, giving more substance to their girlish claims.
I said I’d think on it, but I was not too sure. For though I wished heartily for his girls’ release, I was a very busy man. Nor did I savor controversy, as my Uncle Phillip always had.
The Captain laughed heartily. He too disliked the court, he said, and would rather have none of it. If he’d had his way, he would have burned down the old witch’s house with her inside! But, knowing the good Reverend and such men would not approve of his soldier’s ways, he thought perhaps my name, along with his, would lend some manly credence to the frightful takes his daughter and Maid Daniel told.
Despite the late hour and his own family’s woes, Dan Wicom was most generous with his time. And as he labored next to me, his talk turned to the Narragansett lands given him for his part in the great war against the Indians. It was a broader stretch of land, he said, than all of Rowley, covering streams and waterfalls and a whole lake filled with trout. so well-ordered was this stretch of wilderness, so serene and hospitable, it seemed a miracle that savages alone had gardened it. Often, he said, lately, he thought of gathering up his family and taking them there and leaving this place behind.
Captain Wicom took out a pipe and filled the bowl with Indian tobacco and shared it with me.
“I do believe this land, one day, will all be tamed by gentlemen like you,“ he said. “Bold, fierce men such as myself were God’s first battalion, set forth to cleanse it of impurities. But gentlemen of your generation, denied their inheritance as you have been denied, son of a second son, will be the ones to own it. Unless, of course, we let the mischievous crones destroy us all.”
Just then a loon flew over, uttering its unearthly cry, reminding me again how it truly was a strange and wondrous land. Dan Wicom stood silent, puffing on his pipe.
The sun was already shining through the trees when he finally took his leave. I soon after gathered up my things and drove back home, past my cousin’s ragged fields, and as I went, I felt a new assurance enter me. It was as if my own sight rose above the forest and I surveyed, the way a hawk would, all that lay beyond this stifling spot. I saw the sweep of endless acreage which, I knew—if I might only lay my hands upon it—I could surely tame. And then I felt the truth in what the Captain said, of how men of good families and well-prepared to face adversities would be the ones to claim it.
But only if this place were cleansed of all the Devil’s company: the savages and witches and all the strange and evil things that still flourished in the wilderness.
Then, as my cart clattered down the rutted street to town, I recalled once more the day Old Relic Scott had come pestering me. I saw her old woman’s face, insolent and unafraid, close up against my own. And how my dead cow looked the morning after, still standing on its hind legs, and its front ones buckled under as if in prayer.
‘Twas then I determined, if I must, I will join with Captain Wicom. I will testify. For, verily, I do believe, she is a witch.
Sarah Nelson (a woman in her early 30’s, she stands in the front next to her step-mother-in-law, Widow Elizabeth Nelson. She speaks shrilly across the aisle at her husband, Phillip Nelson, Jr., who has also stood up, but is staring with a glum expression straight ahead. She leaves small pauses as if waiting for his reply): Did I marry you, Rowley’s wealthiest son, Mr. Phillip Nelson, just to be left in the shadows?
God knows, ‘twas certainly not for your charming ways. First I watch my mother-in-law stealing out with men half her age while your father is off dying at Quebec. And all you do is groom your beloved fighting cocks. Now I must sit and listen while screaming girls are coddled and cossetted like princesses.
Your cousin Tom boldly rises to give the Nelson name its rightful place in town affairs. But what does my husband do ? Wallows dumb as a hog, plunked down in his fresh estate.
Your poor father would be shamed by you!
Phillip: (still looking forward, in a kind of monotone) I know the old woman only to see her in the street. I’ve had no traffic with her.
Sarah: Do you not recall old Shillitoe—when he worked for us—accusing her, the time when his fences fell and Widow Scott drove his cows back into his garden after they stomped her own? Do you not recall him running after her bellowing, “Witch!”
Phillip: Yes, witch and bitch and fouler names than that.
Sarah: So you, Captain Nelson’s heir, truly will sit silent while the Devil himself rides into town!
(Phillip gives a little shrug.)
Sarah: Well, if you will not testify, I shall for both of us. And for your father. And poor old Shillitoe. And you at least shall have to put your name to it.
(Phillip shrugs again, and puts up his hands, indicating a kind of weary acceptance.)
Mister Samuel Phillips, the minister, about 67: Though I weary of it, I have grown accustomed to the strife that has beset me since I first took Mister Rogers’ post as minister of Rowley. Still, when the house of Mister Parris in Salem Village was beset by witchcraft, I did not think these same troubles would travel so quickly to my own door.
Nor was I one to say at once that Relic Scott consorted with the devil. It is true I witnessed some slight ill behavior from her the year she came to town. Still, I am a Christian, and since she kept her distance while others plagued me, I let her be these forty years and watched her grow into an old woman, harmless seeming, as she wanders about the marsh and woods gathering her herbs to turn to medicine and earn her meager keep.
(Pause) This summer past, Goodwife Howe of Ezekiel Rogers’ first company (now removed to Ipswich) was accused. I went to comfort her in jail. I spoke for her in court and, though I saw the judges disapproved, I declared false specters were what plagued the girls. The day the Goodwife hanged, I led my Church in prayer and called upon my flock to fast.
Now, though, when the dissension springs up in Rowley, it takes a different turn. Relic Scott has nothing of the quality of Goodwife Howe. The men who stand against her are of such sound estate as cannot be dismissed. I know the maids who claim bewitchment are all Godly girls.
So what am I to do?
Even the ecstatic Cotton Mather leaves us confused. In his new treatise, “Wonders of the Invisible World,” he insists that no true Christian could call the afflicted girls imposters. Then, in the next sentence, he questions if the Devil might not be goading these poor creatures on. He instructs us to proceed most zealously, yet cautions judiciousness.
(Pause, mulling) Forty years ago, young Goodwife Scott walked so boldly that it turned boys’ heads. Young Philip Nelson liked to swagger after her in the yellow boots his father brought from England. Until she turned and bade him stop plaguing her.
She wore a red bodice then, and once Mister Rogers sent me to say it was too colorful. Boldly, Goodwife Scott contended: Did God hold back on gaudiness? Sweeping her arm around her, she asked “Why, if God did not care for colorfulness, did he make the world so gay?”
I returned: Were men to do as nature did? Would she have us, like heathen, paint ourselves with berries? Were we to copy animals?
Again she answered saucily: Do not those who call themselves most pious stroll the Cambridge streets with periwigs perched on their heads? Had I not seen ones from our own town come to church in paint and powder? She said she found in them no difference from the heathen.
So I steered a different track. I reminded her of God’s ascending order: What became a gentleperson of high estate did ill-suit herself. She did not answer, only shrugged me off.
(Pause) Before that, when I was at Harvard and she lived in Cambridge, I had heard rumors of Margaret Scott. Some students gossiped that she was Mistress Hutchinson’s disciple. One claimed she wandered into the wilderness and lived among the Indians for a whole season. He even said he’d heard she left behind an infant child.
Though I did not believe such stories, even of one so bold as she, when we met again in Rowley, I forbade my new wife to speak with Goodwife Scott.
Over the years, age bent the widow’s proud back, and drained her of all but grey and pallidness, and dried her skin like leaves. I believed nature (which she loved so well) had finally taught her what she would not hear from me: All pride is folly before the eyes of God.
I thought of her, by then, a harmless used-up vessel, and was content to leave her go, as she grew close to God’s own judgment day.
But now I wonder at my leniency. I think upon the chance of her coming here from Cambridge so close upon my heels, and the troubles that have befallen me since then. Now I see how someone such as old Relic Scott might well serve in the Devil’s company and be sent to destroy the peace of our little town. Then would it not be fit for God to choose Mary Daniel, also of low estate, a mere girl and stranger to our village, to come and catch her out?
Therefore, I have decided: though Relic Scott has not touched me in any way for which I could fairly call her out, this Thursday I will preach vigilance and encourage all who can to lift the suffering of those afflicted by the Devil’s minions.
Benjamin Scott Jr., Margaret’s son. Mid-forties. A victim of what we would call these days “post traumatic stress syndrome”:
For a month or more, on our way home from Quebec, our small boat slammed in and out of hideous waves. Bitter sleet lashed us and drowned the daylight. I had been wounded, and burned with feverish chills. At night, my chattering teeth woke me.
The Captain forced those he deemed well enough to rise and bail. I saw Able Platts lean down and gulp the salty water. I helped heave his corpse overboard and watched the sharks pull it under.
In our fevered state, we wondered aloud who of the Devil might be behind our suffering, and I swear my mother came to mind. For she had chided me for following the Governor to battle, calling me a fool and mercenary.
Finally the sky calmed. A scorching sun blistered the skin of those who survived. There was no water. Nor would the Captain give food if we had nothing to give in return. Our mouths were so parched it hurt to breathe.
Then the Captain spied land. But what a strange unGodly place! Flowers draped the trees, strange bugs and beetles crawled over the ground. and colored birds, fit only as familiars of the Devil, squawked and jeered above us.
It was the picture of Hell. Everywhere Black men and women marched, chained on to the other, a white man goading them with his whip. Dying Indians huddled beside the roads. This was a land of dark-skinned heathen guarded by English masters of such ugly disposition it seemed fitting that they should be the Devil’s prison guards.
Now, when I sleep, these horrors return. When I wake, nothing of this place I called my home can touch me.
Mary Scott Decker, Margaret’s daughter, early 40’s, intelligent, strong-featured: A week before our mother was to hang, I sought out my brother Ben. I wanted him to come with me to Salem and plead with Mother to sign a confession and save herself. I had one with me, a sentence written out by a good neighbor.
Ben would not answer me. He took a paper out and spread it next to mine—a bill from Sheriff Corwin listing the expenses of our mother’s prison stay: so much for nails and locks, this towards the Sheriff’s salary, that towards chains. “Here is my inheritance,” he said.
Seeing he would be of no help, I went to Salem by myself. A throng was in the prison field. I heard a chant rise up, then quiet. Inquiring of a man, I learned that one of the accused, Goodman Corey, was being pressed alive. The chant rose up again—“Lay on the weight!” I shuddered hearing it, and quickly left.
As I approached the prison, a mild tune reached out to me from that unlikely place. Inside, I searched the room and saw the song came from two women, their arms wrapped around a third. She was Goodwife Corey. Then I spied my mother propped against a wall. Her eyes were closed, her head sunk on her chest. I waited until the song was done to go to her.
I had brought late plums my sons picked and a shawl from my daughter. Mother stroked the shawl and thanked me for it, and held a plum up to her nose. She confessed she was not eating now at all, and passed the basket on to share, holding one plum back to “smell the sun in it,” she said.
Then she inquired eagerly of home. As I spoke, I heard the crowd’s roar rise and fall through the thick walls, and my own gossiping voice made me flush. So I stopped and held her cold hands and blurted out what I had come to say: “Will you not confess? No one will blame you. Why should God leave such an opening, if he did not want you to take it?”
The place was silent. The women’s eyes, as they sought each other’s out, told me this was a matter much discussed among them.
Finally Mother answered. “If one of us should take that path, none here condemns her for it. But we, the eldest who have the least to lose, have chosen to speak no word, or if at all only the truth.”
“What of the children?” I demanded loudly, “What shall we tell them?”
“Tell them their grandmother is old,” my mother said.
I said no more. For even in this most foul cage, Mother already seemed to dwell in air.
Three days after, I saw her hang.
(Margaret Scott, in cloak, gets up from the pews and begins to walk forward, then turns to stand facing the audience below Mary Scott Decker.)
I had not slept that night. In the morning I watched a neighbor readying his wagon. He’d left off work, as if it were the Lord’s Day, to go see the spectacle of Rowley’s witch hanging from a tree.
I went alone. I could not bear another’s presence. I stood on Gallow’s Hill and watched the cart arrive bearing its load of prisoners.
First, one who sang that day in jail was brought forward. She stopped and spoke, and—though I could not hear her—her carriage was most eloquent.
When it was my mother’s turn, I held my hands up to my face and spread my fingers, so I could only partly see as she shuffled forward in her ropes. She does this, now. She twisted away from the Executioner and slowly hitched herself up the ladder. The Executioner, not knowing what to do, stood well aside. Her slow ascent unnerved the crowd. Some seemed to hold their breath, afraid that one so old and frail might fall.
When she reached the top, the Executioner followed her, and the crowd relaxed. A man beside me, flushed with drink, bellowed the way he would to make the cocks begin to fight. Mother pushed the Executioner aside and ducked her head into the noose.
She dropped. My hands flew up to catch her. (Her hands fly up, then drop. Pause.)
Through all that cold winter, I sought out my mother’s murderers so eagerly it felt like love. As in love, my heart stopped and my whole body trembled when they came my way.
Mary Daniel plagued me most. She too seemed fixed on me. I know she spoke of me; my friends said so. They feared she meant to call me out as well. I often dreamed of her, and thought upon our names which seemed to speak of some secret doleful harmony: two Mary D’s, the daughter and the damner.
I could see the fear that followed her and drove her to bring my mother down. She, who had been left to die and found her way back into the fold, could not abide to see my mother stray of her own choosing.
It should have eased my bitterness to see how pitiable she was. But I could not swallow food, and to cook even for my family burdened me. I saw myself as nothing more than a beast of burden among beasts. Sometimes I sank so low as to believe no place on earth was left where greed and jealousy and spite did not rule the human soul. As I thought longingly of death, I do confess, it was not God—for all stayed black around me—nor my husband—who did not know me in my misery—but my children who kept me where I was.
For though I paid them back with sharpness, I did cling to them, and not knowing what they did, they held me up: the suckling one in bed, the older ones as they went intent upon this little thing or that, still fresh in what their hearts could know.
Then finally this comfort did abandon me. One day in spring, my sons came home with talk of “witches.” They had followed an old woman passing through our town and tormented her with stones.
I railed at them and shook the eldest until his teeth clacked in his head. Then I recalled a time my mother did the same to us. The war with the Indians had reached its end, and an old soldier had come through town that year with a pickling pot on his cart. He said for half a penny he would show us what lay inside, claiming it to be the hand of the great heathen warrior, Philip, whose head we all yearned to see where it was posted over Plymouth town.
My brothers raced to tell my mother.
“How could it be,” my mother ranted, “that my own children should turn to scoundrels right beneath me? Damn this world! ’Tis not worth the breath I breathe to stay in it!”
I remembered what a shrew I thought her. Now as I heard my own sons so lightly calling out a witch, I wondered of my own self some similar thing: for what end do we women labor so? So that my sweet girl shall one day grow old and despised? And before that, that my sons shall turn vicious and despise me for lingering too long upon some piece of land for which they pine?
(Pause, then more optimistically): But if despair turned me from my goodwife’s duties, I can gladly say when I took those duties up again, I found comfort—though in a most unlikely corner. Late that summer, I recalled how I neglected the Gathering in which I had since childhood accompanied my mother. Quickly before the frost came, I sent my daughter to gather cranberries down by the marshes. I went out the other way to find what the forest still offered up. As I went, I spied my mother’s favorite mushrooms, bright yellow, beneath an oak. Having filled my basket and the pockets of my apron, I entered upon a soft leafy spot where sunlight warmed a natural meadow and the pines gave way along a little creek to gentle mossy ground.
I sat on a boulder rising out of the stream and let my feet cool, the way my mother liked to do. A speckled bird came down, and looked at me, and dipped its beak in the water after bugs. All around, the forest sheltered us. Sitting there so still and Indian-like, far from Christian company, I do confess, I likened the English to a voracious swarm landed upon the countryside, and wondered how long the land would last, and all the natural things that dwelt there, now we had come upon it.
I thought about what Father used to say of Mother: how the whole wilderness had become her garden.
Then I recalled a time from childhood. I had cried out at night in fear of Indian drums beating in the woods. Mother knelt by the bed and held me as she spoke. She told me that it was the Penacook saying good-bye to a dead soul, calling to the spirits from out of the earth to welcome it. She bade me listen well, for I would hear the heartbeat of Earth herself in it. As I lay there against her chest and listened, it seemed her heart and the earth’s heart and the drums beat together.
Now the warble of birds brought me back from reverie. Looking up, I saw a whole flock had alighted in the small trees around me. Though duller than in spring, they were plump from their summer stay in our woods, and I imagined them, then, as the spirits of those my mother lay amongst in prison. It was the 19th of September, and it struck me it had been that very day, a year before, that I had gone to her. As I listened, the birds seemed to speak to me in my unhappiness, telling me not to trouble myself so. When they flew off and I began to weep, foolishly, as if once more I’d been left behind, strange to say, one single bird of those warbling birds appeared again and stayed until I quieted, then disappeared again.
And so I rose, and feeling much comforted, took myself back home.