Mary Bliss Parsons (1625-1712)

on Sunday, December 30, 2012
Descentme-->[name withheld for privacy]-->Burton J. Moyer, Sr.-->Mabel Jones-->Ella Boyd-->Thomas Parsons Boyd-->Susannah Smith-->Beulah Parsons-->Jacob Parsons-->Col. Joseph Parsons-->Mary Bliss Parsons
Born: 1625, Devon or Gloucestershire, England
Died: 29 Jan 1712, Springfield, MA, USA
Mother: Margaret Hulins
Father: Thomas Bliss
Spouse: Cornet Joseph Parsons

Margaret and Mary Bliss Parsons home, Springfield, MA.
Mary Bliss Parsons arrived in America as a young girl, along with her parents Thomas Bliss and Margaret Hulins Bliss, and the family settled in Hartford, Connecticut.  Around the same time, a teenaged Joseph Parsons also arrived; in 1646, Mary and Joseph were married and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where Joseph worked as a highway surveyor and merchant and owned large tracts of land (1).  In 1654, Joseph and four others were awarded a contract to build the Northampton, Mass. Town House, and the following year he, Mary, and their three children relocated to Northampton (2).  They opened the first tavern in town and busied themselves making money, having kids, and suing anyone who tried to cheat them (2, 3).

Then, in 1656, we find Joseph filing a slander suit against one Sarah Bridgman, who had called Mary a witch and accused her of having caused the death of Sarah's baby.  It seems there was no love lost between the Bridgmans and the Parsonses.  The two families knew each other in Springfield, and both separately moved to Northampton in the same year.  But while the Parsonses lived a charmed life, the Bridgmans suffered many misfortunes.  While the Parsonses would have the first baby born in Northampton, the Bridgmans' baby would be the first recorded death.  Eventually, the Parsonses became the wealthiest family in Northampton, with many children that thrived while little Bridgmans died.  The Bridgmans seem to have become convinced that this was due to Mary Parsons practicing the black arts, and they were not the only ones in town who thought so.  But they were the most vindictive, and there was already a history of witchcraft accusations in the area (3, 4).

Bizarrely, in Springfield in 1649 another Mary Parsons (nee Lewis--no relation to Mary Bliss or Joseph Parsons) was accused of slander for calling a local widow a witch.  Though she denied the charges, she was found guilty, whipped, and fined.  The following year, Mary Lewis Parsons' infant child died, and she was accused of murdering it and of witchcraft.  The case was sent to Boston and the witchcraft charges dismissed, but the infanticide charges were upheld and Mary was sentenced to hang.  She probably died in prison.  As is typical in such cases, the accusations spread--Mary even accused her own husband, Hugh, of witchcraft, and he was indicted in Boston, though subsequently acquitted.  Wisely, Hugh then moved away from Springfield (4).  One cannot help but wonder whether the coincidence of names played in a part in keeping rumors of "Mary Parsons'" witchcraft circulating over time.

Although Joseph won his suit against Sarah Bridgman, Mary's troubles weren't over:  in 1674, Mary, now a matron in her late 40s with a large brood of children, was formally accused of witchcraft by none other than the son-in-law of Sarah Bridgman (3, 4).

Fortunately, Mary was acquitted, and she and Joseph laid low in Boston for some time.  There is some indication that she was suspected again in 1679, when once again Sarah Bridgman's son-in-law gathered "evidence" of witchcraft (no original documents survive to confirm this however).  It would appear the community just couldn't let go of the idea Mary was a witch, yet it is equally interesting that the judge(s) saw her as innocent.  At any rate, Mary and Joseph moved away from Northampton for good in 1679 or 1680--and who could blame them?  Mary was damned no matter what happened; when the family prospered, it was said to be because she was a witch, yet when her son Ebenezer died in a battle with Native Americans, that too was chalked up to her witchcraft (though in that case it was seen to be God's vengeance).  Anyone's untimely death was rumored to be caused by witchcraft and by Mary in particular (4).  And the rumors lasted decades, for in 1702, she was once again slandered as a witch and murderess.  Luckily for her it did not come to trial again (3).  In spite of all this, Mary lived until her mid-80s, continuing to build upon the fortune that Joseph bequeathed her when he died in 1683.

Mary Bliss Parsons' story is doubly interesting given what it shows us about life in 17th century New England.  In Europe, many of the people accused of witchcraft were disenfranchised in some way--poor, elderly, widowed--often barely eking out a living on the margins of society.  But in New England, the trend was reversed, and it was successful middle-aged women who bore the brunt of the hysteria.  Any good  fortune seems to have made on the target of envy and gossip.  And witchcraft hysteria was not unique to Salem in 1692--at least 100 people were accused in the 50 years before Salem, at least 14 of whom were executed.  In the initial phase of witch persecution, between 1647-1663, Connecticut was particularly efficient in bringing "witches" to trial and executing them.  Mary Bliss Parsons was lucky that she came to trial after this period, when there was a time of relative calm before the storm at Salem (5).

Sources

(1) My family tree, www.ancestry.com.
(2) A Short Chronological Biography of Cornet Joseph Parsons, http://members.frys.com/~parsons/bio.html.
(3) Jury Finds Mary Parsons Not Guilty of Witchcraft, http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=142.
(4) Early America - Mary Bliss Parsons, http://larkturnthehearts.blogspot.com/2007/11/early-america-mary-bliss-parsons.html.
(5) Woodward, W.W. (2002) New England's Other Witch-hunt: The Hartford Witch-hunt of the 1660s and Changing Patterns in Witchcraft Prosecution.  OAH Magazine of History 17(4): 16-20.

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