Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could interview an ancestor from long ago? Please enjoy my interview with Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing, the main character in my historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem.
DONNA: Thank you for this unique opportunity to interview you, my 8th great grandmother. Would you start out by telling me about your beginnings−your birth?
MEHITABEL: I was born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts which was a Puritan colony. My birth mother was my father’s indentured servant. She and my father were brought before the Ipswich courts for the sin of fornication, and they were both whipped, and my father was fined.
DONNA: Tell me about your early years in Ipswich.
MEHITABEL: The courts insisted my father Richard had to take me to his home and raise me as a good Puritan child. Joan, my stepmother, always resented me and didn’t treat me kindly even though she had no children of her own. I was their only child.
DONNA: How did you and your husband, John Downing meet?
MEHITABEL: We were both born and raised in Ipswich. Everyone knew one another as the colony was still so young. He was ten years older than me, so we were not childhood playmates.
DONNA: You married him at quite a young age.
MEHITABEL: Yes, like you mentioned in the story, most Puritan women didn’t marry until they were about twenty-two, but things were not going well for me after my time in prison for arson. John wanted to marry me, but my father also rewarded his willingness with a very handsome dowry. My father gave John about half of his lands.
DONNA: So your in-laws really were the illustrious Emanuel and Lucy Downing?
MEHITABEL: Yes, but they had moved back to England and Emanuel had died by the time we married. Lucy was not attentive to her children she left in the colony. I heard that historians have even written about how Lucy foolishly put all her attention on Sir George, her eldest son. He certainly didn’t treat her well when she became elderly and was forced to depend on him.
DONNA: In your opinion, were the book’s details of your arson trial accurate?
MEHITABEL: Oh, yes! As I read the court reports about the trial, I am deeply embarrassed. The records present me as a fool and pretty evil, but I was only sixteen. The fire was really a horrible mistake, but I was guilty of starting the fire with my pipe. Standing back now, it all seems so surreal.
DONNA: What about the horrible things said about you in the testimony from your neighbors?
MEHITABEL: You can see where my neighbors got their wrong opinion of me. My stepmother, Joan’s words were quoted by others in the court records, calling me unchaste and a liar.
DONNA: It must have been horrible living with a stepmother who hated you.
MEHITABEL: Yes, I didn’t have a loving mother to guide and teach me. The goodwives of the village would criticize and gossip about me.
DONNA: Can you talk about the incident with the pigs tearing at your clothes?
MEHITABEL: That really did happen. Just like my setting the Perkins’ house on fire, I landed in court, and there is an account that exists to this day.
DONNA: So, was my accounting accurate?
MEHITABEL: Let’s just say that you were very kind, but you got the basic story correct.
DONNA: What about John Beare? Was he your real cousin?
MEHITABEL: Absolutely. He lived with us for quite a few years, and father gave him some property when John Beare was of age.
DONNA: What were the most difficult times in your life?
MEHITABEL: My two times in prison were horrible experiences. Prisons back then were vile, cold, and filthy. If your family did not bring food for you, you had to pay for it. If shackles were necessary, the prisoner had to pay for them, and we were given a bill for the cost of our time in prison if we were released.
DONNA: Did I spell your name correctly?
MEHITABEL: I notice my name was spelled differently in various records, but you chose the one I used: Mehitabel. I used that spelling in that letter “The Ten Persons of Ipswich”−the one we wrote in prison in 1692. That was my signature! Your readers should know that spelling wasn’t standardized back then. My maiden name is spelled Brabrook, Braybrooke, Brabrooke and even Brubruck on different records. Whoever was doing the writing decided on the spelling of a person’s name.
DONNA: How do you feel about having a novel written about you?
MEHITABEL: I am thrilled that finally an accurate and complete story of my life has been written. For the past 350 years, the only things known about me came from those Quarterly court records. It has been so hard to accept that my descendants could only read about my youthful foibles and sins, and even some of those were distortions. Can you imagine how hard this injustice has been to endure for over three hundred years?
DONNA: Is there anything else that the readers of your story should know?
MEHITABEL: They might be interested to know I am probably the only Puritan woman of my time who had historical documents from birth to my life’s end. Court and town records have left me with a rather scurrilous reputation, and I am grateful that you made a valiant attempt to see beyond the cold facts.
In the Shadow of Salem can be purchased on Amazon.com: