Bewitching Truth about The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Many young people learn their first facts about young America’s witch trials through the Newbury Medal-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond, written in 1958 by Massachusetts author Elizabeth George Speare. Inspired by Colonial Wethersfield, Connecticut’s witchcraft history, the novel is part of language arts curriculums in middle schools around the country. It’s also, however, one of greatest sources of mistruths about both Connecticut’s witch panic and those that took place throughout young America.

An excerpt from Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World explains:

Partly based on fact, the book tells the story of orphan Kit Tyler who, after her grandfather dies, travels by ship from her home in Barbados to live with her Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew in Connecticut’s Wethersfield Colony. The only place she feels free in this strict, Puritan community are the meadows, where she makes friends with an old Quaker woman known as the Witch of Blackbird Pond. When Kit’s friendship with the “witch” is discovered, Kit is accused of witchcraft.

Comparing fiction versus fact, the latter occurrence makes much sense. Being a “companion … of a known or convicted witch” was one of the colony’s Grounds for the Examination of a Witch and often employed. Other details and circumstances, however, don’t add up to reality, said Wethersfield Historical Society volunteer Martha Smart, who for 14 years worked at the Connecticut Historical Society as a reference librarian.

“Although it happens in the book, no one accused of witchcraft in Wethersfield was actually tried in Wethersfield,” said Smart, who several times a year leads historical tours of downtown Wethersfield that include a stop at the Buttolph-Williams House on Broad Street, which is featured in the novel. She and other docents there also tell the story of Mary Johnson, the Wethersfield woman and first colonist to admit to witchcraft (who is the focus of Chapter 3 of Connecticut Witch Trials: First Panic in the New World, written by long-time journalist at Literary New England Radio Show host Cindy Wolfe Boynton).

“Unlike the ‘witch’ in The Witch of Blackbird Pond, no woman in any Puritan community would be allowed to live alone,” Smart continued, “even if she were considered strange or an outcast. Married women were required to live with their husbands, and unmarried women to live with family members. Also, Quakers and Puritans did not mix. They lived in separate communities. But even though Puritans saw Quakers as dissidents, they would not persecute them as witches on religion alone. Remember that the Puritans left England for religious freedom, so even though they did not agree with the Quakers, they certainly did not attack them. Blackbird Pond is a great story, but it needs to be treated as such—as a story. It doesn’t portray the truth of Connecticut’s struggles with witches, though it can be used to teach tolerance and the need to be more accepting of those who are different.”

Also important is the fact that The Witch of Blackbird Pond is set in 1687: the last year of what Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward called “a quarter-century of silence where witch hysteria faded and not a single witchcraft execution occurred.”

Fanciful facts about Connecticut’s witch trials that are true?

  • Sir Winston Churchill, former English prime minister and one of the most significant world leaders during World War II, is a descendent of Mary Staples of Fairfield, Connecticut. Mary was accused of witchcraft in 1654, exonerated, and may have been charged again in1692, though records are inconclusive.
  • Lexicographer and textbook creator Noah Webster, whose name in the United States has become synonymous with “dictionary,” is a descendent of Lydia Gilbert of Windsor, Connecticut, who was tried and hanged in 1654.

If you didn’t already know, Literary New England is in the midst of a 5-day Witch-A-Thon. Check out earlier posts to see all the frighteningly wonderful things we have going on! The Witch-A-Thon ends tomorrow at midnight.

On Salem’s Witch House, Conversion Disorder & Witch Cake (though you may want to skip the slice of cake)

The Witch House (left), home of Salem witch trials judge Jonathan Corwin, is the only structure with direct ties to the 1692 trials that still exists in Salem, Mass. It’s now a museum. Mary Silbley, the most powerful witch in the WGN America television series Salem, lives in a house (right) clearly inspired by Corwin’s.

In the WGN series (Season 2 premiers Sunday, April 5), Mary Sibley is a main character. But the real-life Mary Sibley was only a minor one. Historical records show that the real Mary, a neighbor of Puritan minister Rev. Samuel Parris, encouraged Parris’ slaves Tituba and John Indian to make a witch cake, which was believed to have the power to reveal witches. Parris’ daughter Elizabeth and niece Abigail Williams were among the young girls barking like dogs, screaming wildly and acting up in ways that villagers believed could only be the result of witchcraft.

As the video here featuring an educator from the Salem Witch Museum explains, a witch cake was a form of old European white magic made out of rye meal and urine from the afflicted girls. The finished cake would be fed to a dog, with the belief that as the dog ate the cake, the witch would cry out in pain as the invisible, “venomous and malignant particles” sent from her body into the bewitched girls were mashed by the dog’s teeth. When this occurred, the identity of the witch would be revealed.

As we know now, all kinds of false beliefs and happenings contributed to the frenzy that became the Salem witch panic. One of the more fascinating aspects is the possibility of a medical condition called Conversation Disorder, which the Literary New England Radio Show talked about with best-selling author Katherine Howe when her latest novel, Conversion, was released this past July.

Hear Katherine talk about her book and Conversion Disorder in the Literary New England Radio Show archives, which she describes this way:

Conversion disorder is when you are under so much stress that your body converts it into physical symptoms. And when it happens in a group the term for that is “mass psychogenic illness.” But the term we’re more familiar with, the term that’s an old-fashioned Freudian term is “hysteria.”

Learning about Conversation Disorder was part of the inspiration for Conversion, which is set at a private school in Danvers, Mass. There, teen-age girls are falling into uncontrollable frenzies. As the media arrives, and the community scrambles to find someone or something to blame, a student who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit realizes what nobody else does: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic 300 years ago.

As Howe explains in our interview, the novel was inspired by several real-life events, including the Salem witch trials, of which she’s pretty much an expert. In addition to being a direct descendant of three Salem women accused of witchcraft, she is the author of The New York Times best-selling novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (about a young woman who discovers her ties to Salem) and the non-fiction The Penguin Book of Witches.
All of her books cast a spell 🙂

If you’ve enjoyed this article, check out the others we’ve posted as part of Literary New England’s 5-day Witch-A-Thon. Between now and Sunday, we’ve got witch book giveaways and lots of other frighteningly wonderful things going on!