An Interview with Mehitabel Braybrook Downing

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:

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Salem-Donna-Gawell/dp/1946016500/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1532380324&sr=8-2&keywords=in+the+shadow+of+salem+by+donna+gawell

 

 

What’s Your Family’s Immigration Story?

Most Americans have many family immigration stories. Those of us who are second or more generations Americans have ancestors who left their homelands under unimaginable harsh circumstances but passed on few personal records to tell their story. The typical immigrant was far too busy to keep a journal, and their descendants may have discarded the once treasured naturalization or foreign birth records.

My grandfather’s naturalization records found in the National Archives

Today, Americans whose ancestors came more than a hundred years ago might consider them as the privileged ones, but these immigrant stories are just as dramatic as modern-day people who cross America’s borders illegally or wait years until their visas are approved.  The immigrants from long ago didn’t just hop off the boat and get on with their lives. Their situation was often more desperate, and they often sacrificed much more. Continue reading

In the Shadow of Salem

I am excited to announce the release of “In the Shadow of Salem” (The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke.). After five years of research and writing, my historical novel is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com for a sizeable discount before the official release date of June 18, 2018.

“In the Shadow of Salem” is a historical novel about the life of Mehitabel Braybrooke, a Puritan woman born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Mehitabel was accused of crimes−the first for arson and the second for witchcraft. History has not been kind to Mehitabel, but what was the real story behind her scurrilous reputation? Would she ever be redeemed from her lifelong curse? Or was Mehitabel as wicked as her numerous Essex Court Records imply?

This novel is the first time any author has written about Mehitabel’s amazing life from birth to the end of her life. Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing is one of the 200 people accused of witchcraft during the Salem trials, but she found herself in the courts on more than a few other occasions. I’m grateful that she generated so many Essex Country court and town records and that she happens to be my 9th great-grandmother!

Please visit the pages on my website dedicated to Puritan history, articles about the real people who are characters in the novel, and “The ABC’s of Crime and Punishment in Puritan New England.

Link for ordering:

https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

 

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation-Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

This article has been modified from one of the chapters in my book Travel Back to Your Roots which is available on Amazon. The book describes how to begin genealogy for your immigrant ancestors, how to research and find records in Europe,  and how to achieve your end goal of traveling to Europe to visit their birthplace and even meet long lost cousins!  I did it and want to show others that it isn’t impossible, even if you did not inherit any information about your ancestors.

Three Sets of Cousins Mark and Donna Found and Then  Met in Sweden and Poland in 2014 and 2016

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

Traveling to Europe doesn’t have to be expensive, and the internet allows you to be your own travel agent. For those who are not tech savvy, an agent might be an option, but they typically will provide mainstream and obvious options. Independent travelers will find less expensive alternatives online that will make the trip more customized.

The ideal travel months for inexpensive European travel are just before and after summer vacation months. The prices and weather are likely more favorable, and the traveler has fewer people with whom to compete. Also, many European hotels do not have air-conditioning, and some that do will not allow the guest to control the settings. The popular areas around the Mediterranean in July and August are crowded, warm, and come with premium prices. Also, August is historically the month when many Europeans travel and you will have stiff competition.

You have two options to get to Europe: a round trip flight or a one-way transatlantic cruise with a one-way flight. If you have a flexible schedule and have three to four weeks for your trip, consider booking a transatlantic cruise for your journey to or from Europe.

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The Invasion of Ellis Island in 1944: The Untold Story


 

My father, Stanley Bryk served as a Boatswain’s Mate First Class in the US Navy during the World War II. He participated in four invasions, led the enlisted sailors of the USS Lyon and LST-372, shot down aircraft, and supervised the day-to-day operations of both ships. But, his adventures in New York City were perhaps the most distinctive and noteworthy.

 His LST-372 returned to the States to be refitted and rearmed before the Normandy Invasion. While there, the crew made a short stop to New York Harbor where Stanley took the payroll master to Wall Street to fill the payroll slips for the sailors.  He was allowed to use a Higgins boat which is a small boat that could carry troops from ships to open beaches. They drove the boat out, docked, took care of the paperwork, and then attempted to return to the LST-372.

A developing fog in the harbor began to pose a problem.  Stanley motored around looking for the LST, but gave up and attempted to land back on Manhattan Island.  Well, at least they thought they did.  To their amazement, they passed a towering figure−The Statue of Liberty.  Stanley knew that at least he was in New York City!  They finally landed on the adjacent island; Stanley had successfully invaded Ellis Island in that dense fog. 

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The Other Three Million Who Died in the Holocaust: The Forgotten Story of the Polish Christians During WWII

The forgotten story of the Polish Christians who were killed by the Nazis during WWII is one which few people outside of Poland are aware. All of the people in Poland suffered enormously during the Holocaust−both Jews and Christians. Six million Polish people died under the Nazis and half of these were Christians.  The German occupation and brutality overwhelmed all Poles during WWII, and this fact needs to illuminate the plight of all the Polish people. Unfortunately, some writers of the Holocaust deliberately distort the tragic circumstances of the typical Polish citizen while others might insert this fact in the last sentence of their article.

Polish women forced to work at a Nazi slave labor camp

The Jewish experience of the Holocaust has been remembered and honored in numerous books, movies, and museums. The movie “Schindler’s List” gave us insight into the valiant efforts of businessman Oskar Schindler’s rescue of eleven hundred Jews. Irena Sendler, a Polish Christian nurse and social worker who served in the Polish Underground in German-occupied Warsaw saved more Jews than any other individual  during the Holocaust (besides diplomats who furnished visas.)  Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, but it was instead awarded to Al Gore for his work on climate change.

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Sunday Church Services in Suva, Fiji

Going to church in Fiji was a highlight of our Transpacific cruise to Australia.  Fiji is a predominantly Christian country, and the first missionaries were the Methodists. We had read about the unique and lovely experience of attending church in Fiji, and so I did a bit of research. I found the Facebook page for the Centenary Methodist Church which is close to the port and contacted them.  I received an immediate welcoming reply: “Bula, Donna!” with a request to know more about us.  I informed the cruise critic group and a group of Christians we had met onboard the Explorer of the Seas about the invitation.

Centenary Methodist Church in Suva, Fiji

 

Our group of about twenty walked off the ship together and easily found our way to the church which was about a ten-minute walk. Some church members were waiting at the stairs of the church for us and greeted us warmly. They had reserved the front pews for our group. 

Many of us had purchased school supplies and backpacks to offer as a gift to the church’s children, and these were placed on an altar table near the front. 

We had a chance to meet several groups of parishioners before the service, and they were very hospitable.

  

A Lali (ceremonial slit drum) announced the beginning of the service.  It functions as a church bell. At this time, the church was filled with the local parishioners and some other visitors.

Our gifts and the congregation’s offerings were formally accepted and blessed. Our fellowship group was introduced and welcomed by the pastor at the beginning of the service which was conducted in their native Fijian.

Many members shared their hymn books with us, and fortunately, the language is rather phonetic and easy to follow.

This particular Sunday was Youth Sunday, and the children mostly sat together with their teachers, and the “Youth” (who appeared to be ages 18-35) were seated in the front and did most of the singing and teaching.  The young women wore white dresses, and many had traditional Fijian hairstyles. Their worship was without instruments, and their voices were lovely, like angels singing, often in four-part harmony. 

The congregation is very traditional and conservative in their style of worship and dress.  The women wore their finest outfits, and the men wore a dark sulu (skirts), a white dress shirt, a tie, and a suit jacket. 

After the service, a curtain was drawn to allow the youth to prepare for a drama. While we could not understand the words, it was obvious the drama was about judgment day and began with the introduction of various types of characters: the humble, the arrogant, the unbeliever, and finally the man who begged crumbs that fell from the table of the rich man.

 

When the poor man died, he was placed on a stretcher that accidentally fell apart, but the performers improvised and just carried him out the front door. The children howled with laughter. The men returned with his coffin.

 

The judgment scene was quite hilarious and tragic at the same time. The Devil, dressed in blackface and clothing, beckoned those to be judged to join him. Two angels guided the judged to their destiny.  Those who went to hell were sent to a smoky area of fire. The congregation, especially the children, loved the drama, and we also found it entertaining.

Visitors can attend the Sunday services at 10:00, but I am so pleased that we were anticipated and especially welcomed because of my prior contact.  The entire service lasted about three hours and the Christian Fijian’s hospitality was warm and friendly.

Besides the lovely singing and sincere worship, I was impressed how reverent the Fijians are about their faith. The island is mostly Christian and has been so since about 1860 when most of the people were converted.

The military takeover relaxed some of the Sunday blue laws, but much of the city is closed on Sundays. It is only recently that some stores and the museum are open after church services and then only when a ship is in port.  Most of those in Suva attend services on Sunday.  Their desire to hold on to tradition is admirable.

We had lunch and walked around a few open shops (Jack’s is one of the largest) before taking a taxi (about $3 USD.) to the Suva Museum.  There are many interesting displays about Fiji’s history and culture, and they don’t hide the fact that cannibalism is part of Fiji’s past. Fiji was referred to as the Cannibal Islands in the late 1700-early 1800’s with good reason.  Sailors were terrified at the possibility of being shipwrecked in the area. The early missionaries left journals and stories about their eyewitness accounts. The last missionary was eaten  in 1863. This practice of devouring one’s enemy had more to do with power and humiliation than anything else.  What is remarkable is that Fiji as a culture seems to be traveling in a positive but opposite trajectory compared to many people from western nations who seem to be shedding their moral principles.

A Miss Fiji Beauty Contest was taking place outside of the museum. The young ladies were in their traditional dress, and a festival was also going on.

 

 

 

 

 

We walked back to the ship and stopped in a park to rest. There were some homeless people who target the tourists, but they were not aggressive.

The day was delightful and a unique cultural and spiritual experience, and the Fijians were hospitable and gracious.