A Massachusetts jury acquitted Mary Webster of witchcraft in 1683, but her Hadley neighbors still thought her a witch – especially since she survived after they left her hanging from a tree.
It was nine years before the Salem witch trials would begin, a time when accusations of witchcraft were fairly common. In nearby Northampton, Mass., Mary Bliss Parsons was accused of witchcraft in 1675, but exonerated.
If accusations of witchcraft were common, convictions were rare until 1692-93, when 20 people were executed during the Salem witch trials.
But exoneration didn’t lift suspicion from the alleged witch. The Puritans believed ‘disturbing’ witches – beating or restraining them – prevented them from casting spells. So someone suspected of witchcraft could expect disturbances. For Mary Webster, the bizarre death of a prominent citizen nearly got her killed.
Half-Hanged Mary Webster
‘Half-Hanged Mary’ Webster was born Mary Reeve, daughter of Thomas Reeve and Hannah Rowe Reeve, in England around 1624. The family migrated to Springfield in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Mary married William Webster in 1670. He was 53 and she was about 46. They lived in the Puritan town of Hadley, Mass., 20 miles north of Springfield along the Connecticut River.
William and Mary Webster had little money, lived in a small house and sometimes needed help from the town to survive.
Poverty and neglect did not improve Mary’s fiery temper, and she spoke harshly when offended, wrote Sylvester Judd in his 1905 History of Hadley.
“Despised and sometimes ill-treated, she was soured with the world, and rendered spiteful towards some of her neighbors; they began to call her a witch, and to abuse her,” Judd wrote.
Mary Webster supposedly put a spell on cattle and horses so they couldn’t go past her house. The drivers found her and beat her so the animals could pass.
She once walked into a house and a hen fell down a chimney into a pot of boiling water. She had a scald mark on her body, probably from the hot water, but her neighbors called it the witches’ mark.
On March 27, 1683, the Northampton county court magistrates examined Mary Webster on suspicion of witchcraft.
The Northampton magistrates decided they couldn’t handle the matter, so they sent Mary to Boston in April.
They decided to indict her, “for that she, not having the fear of God before her eyes, and being instigated by the devil, hath entered into covenant and had familiarity with him in the shape of a warraneage, [fisher or wild black cat of the woods] and had his imps sucking her, and teats or marks found on her.”
Witches supposedly suckled their ‘imps’ or ‘familiars’ — maybe even the devil — in exchange for help with their magic.
At her trial on June 1st, 1683, the court found Mary Webster ‘not guilty,’ and she returned to Hadley.
Cotton Mather Weighs In
Mary Webster still faced persecution at home. A year and a half after her return, a prominent Hadley citizen named Philip Smith died a painful death.
Cotton Mather, notorious for supporting the Salem witch trials, devoted a chapter of his 1702 book, Magnalia Christi Americana to Smith’s last days and the mysterious circumstances that surrounded them.
Mather, along with people of Hadley, had no doubt Mary Webster murdered Philip Smith ‘with an hideous witchcraft’ – all because he had tried to help her.
At the beginning of January, 1684-5, Smith suffered fits and delirium, wrote Mather. He was in great pain, crying out, “Lord, stay thy hand; it is enough, it is more than thy frail servant can bear.”
Smith also managed to blame Mary Webster for his dire condition.
Strange things had happened at his sickbed. Ports of medicine mysteriously emptied. When others held him down during his fits, they heard scratchings around the bed and saw fire on top of it. They also felt something in the bed as large as a cat.
After Philip Smith died, his corpse had swelling in one breast, bruises on the back and holes that seemed made with awls. And though he died on Saturday morning, his body was still warm on Sunday afternoon though it was cold outside. On Monday his face was discolored, with blood running down his cheek. Finally, people heard strange noises in the room where his corpse lay.
The death of Philip Smith, ‘filled all those parts of New England, with astonishment,’ wrote Mather.
Disturbing Mary Webster
The young men of Hadley believed disturbing Mary Webster would ease Smith’s pain. So they went after her.
Thomas Hutchinson, in his History of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, described what they did to her: “While [Philip Smith] lay ill, a number of brisk lads tried an experiment upon the old woman. Having dragged her out of the house, they hung her up until she was near dead, let her down, rolled her sometime in the snow, and at last buried her in it, and there left her; but it happened that she survived, and the melancholy man died.”
Mary Webster earned the nickname Half-hanged Mary, and she lived another 11 years. The townspeople, no doubt, continued to persecute her.
Canadian novelist and poet, Margaret Atwood believes she is descended from Mary Webster. In 1995 she wrote a poem, Half-Hanged Mary, about her ancestor. Her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is dedicated to Mary Webster.
With thanks to Mary (Reeve) Webster, the “Witch” of Hadley from a talk by Bridget M. Marshall, May 2003. This story last updated in 2022.