There is no doubt that the real victims of the Salem Witchcraft hysteria were the two hundred men and women accused of the crime of witchcraft. The victims addressed in this article were those women who found themselves single or widowed in 1692 and imprisoned facing accusation of witchcraft from a team of devious teenage girls. The term “follow the money” helps us to understand the course of these bizarre events.
The issue wasn’t relative poverty or wealth of the accused. It was the existing system of inheritance that helps us understand their plight. In New England, the distribution of a father’s wealth occurred before and after his death. Daughters were often accommodated with a dowry at marriage and sons usually received a portion of land. A man’s widow was usually entitled to one-third of his real property for the remainder of her natural life. This property could be sold to support the widow, but only with the court’s approval.
In Puritan times, it was essential to have a husband or male relative act on behalf of a woman. Under English law, women had no right to own property, and if they inherited property, it would become their husband’s upon marriage.
Joan Penney, Mehitabel Braybrooke’s stepmother was one such victim. She had inherited a sizeable portion of land after the death of her first husband, Richard Braybrooke. Soon after his death, she married Thomas Penney, a man who had been married twice before. Upon his death in August of 1692, Joan found herself at financial odds with Thomas’ children from a previous marriage. Thomas had left all his estate to Joan except for 17£. His grandson Josiah Kent appealed to the local magistrates on the grounds that he was promised the entire estate as Thomas Penney’s sole heir.
Joan, who never had any children of her own, found herself accused of witchcraft by a former neighbor, Zebulon Hill. How easy it must have been for Zebulon to claim that Joan committed several acts of witchcraft upon his twenty-five-year-old daughter. Was the daughter working as his accomplice? Could Zebulon Hill have been promised a cut of the estate by Josiah Kent?
Joan languished in the Ipswich prison for months, and it is likely that she left her jail cell penniless and without any resources. Women like Joan were ruined after being taken advantage of by their relatives who were opportunists of the worst kind. The exact stories have not survived, but we do know these women like Joan were casualties in a society designed to keep property in the hands of men.
Rachel Vinson, one of Joan and Mehitabel’s prison mates, also experienced similar financial woes that lead to her imprisonment. She tended to marry poorly, first to a troublesome man who was frequently arrested for drunkenness. Her second husband was even more unpleasant and was convicted of beating their infant son in his cradle to keep him quiet. Her third husband, William Vison died in 1690, two years before the Widow Vincent would be arrested for witchcraft.
The court ordered Rachel’s child to be placed in the care of his grandparents. Rachel was left on her own with no adult male to defend her while she suffered in jail.
Joan Penney and Rachel Vinson are just two of the countless women who found themselves terribly alone during one of the most heinous events in American history. Twenty people were put to death by hanging or pressing during the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria, and more than two hundred were arrested and imprisoned.