Poor Mehitabel Braybrooke was destined to be infamous even before she was born. The events of her life and the Puritan culture in which she lived explain her propensity for trouble at almost every turn. Mehitabel’s father, Richard Brabrooke, was born in England in 1612 and came to the struggling Massachusetts Colony and settled in the town on Ipswich sometime before 1648 as he was made a freeman that year. He owned a good deal of land, owned a farm, and hired people to work on his other farms. He also bought several indentured servants.
One servant was Alice Eliss, who worked as a servant in the Brabrooke home. Richard and his wife Joan were childless, and the discovery that Alice was carrying Richard’s child was met by severe discipline. The court ruled that Richard be fined and “whipped severely” and that Alice be whipped after the birth of the child in 1651. The court also ruled that Mehitabel be raised in the Brabrooke household by Richard and Joan and that Alice be provided for until she recovered from the birth of her child. Alice was also released from her indentured contract, and there are no town records of Alice after the birth.
From birth, Mehitabel was put in a difficult situation as her care and upbringing were likely under the control of Joan, her stepmother. Joan must have also suffered emotionally because of her husband’s infidelity. The thought of being responsible for her husband’s illegitimate child had to add anger to her humiliating status as a barren woman. Puritans often looked at a childless woman as one who lost favor with God.
We can imagine Joan and Mehitabel had a very cantankerous relationship. Several town records detail Mehitabel’s troubles, with the most notable mentioning Mehitabel setting her master’s house on fire in 1668. Mehitabel had been declared incorrigible by her father’s wife, Joan, and made to live as a servant in neighbor Jacob Perkins’ home. It appears Mehitabel had been smoking tobacco in a pipe. She claimed to have accidentally dropped it while standing on an outside oven attached to the home, checking to see if hogs were in the cornfield.
The courts (see records at the end of the article) convicted her “of extreme carelessness if not wilfully burning the house.” She was whipped, and Richard Brabrooke paid 40 pounds to Perkins. The court’s decision was largely influenced by a neighbor’s testimony who claimed that Mehitabel was a lying, spiteful young woman and a “filthy unchaste creature.” Goodwife Brag likely had been influenced by conversations with Joan Brabrooke.
John Williston, aged about twenty years, deposed that he and Mehitabel were going to the meadow to make hay before the fire, when “she told deponent that her mistress was angry with her, but she had ‘fitted her now,’ for she had put a great toad into her kettle of milk.”
Joan Brabrooke may have carried some bitterness about Mehitabel, but it was clear that Richard Brabrooke did not. When Mehitabel was just seventeen, Richard arranged her marriage to John Downing of Ipswich. He solemnized it by signing a deed giving the young couple half of his Ipswich farm that bordered on Gloucester. He also reserved the other half, his Wenham farm, and six other acres of Ipswich land for himself.
Most historians describe John Downing as the son of Emanuel Downing and Lucy Winthrop Downing, a wealthy landowner in Ipswich. Lucy was the sister of Governor John Winthrop. The Downings had returned to England before their son’s marriage. They leased some land and a tavern to John Proctor, who was one of the prominent people accused and hanged for witchcraft in Salem in 1692.
John Downing was noted as a planter on the deed to the farm given in the marriage contract. The title of planter meant that the person owned at least 150 acres of land, so it is likely that John Downing was a person of some means. We do not know John’s motivation for marrying this troubled girl. Town records suggest that both he and James, his brother, were left behind in America and had some alcohol troubles. They had no parents in America to provide guidance.
With this generous legal transaction, Mehitabel, as Richard’s only child, was given a dowry that far exceeded the marriage portion of most of her female counterparts. The book “Daughters of Eve” noted that Mehitabel was the exception to the typical fate of women conceived out of wedlock in the seventeenth century. Perhaps Richard Brabrooke found this generosity necessary because of his daughter’s sullied reputation.
The transfer of responsibility for Mehitabel to her new husband probably seemed like a good solution for her father Richard, but Mehitabel continued to cause controversy throughout her life. Even after her marriage on Nov 2, 1669, Mehitabel was mentioned in town and court documents for drunkenness. She was once found passed out on the side of the road with the hogs tearing at her clothes, and she and John were accused of neglecting their own children. Court records in the 1670s and 1680s show Mehitabel accused of excessive drinking and “neglecting their children some days and nights, often leaving them alone.” John’s offenses were for excessive drinking and other misdemeanors.
Mehitabel made it into many town records during this time period, but her imprisonment in the fall of 1692 put her into history books. While we don’t know anything specific about the charges, Mehitabel Downing’s name appears as one of ten accused women petitioning for release from the Ipswich jail. They were all accused of witchcraft.
Town records in Essex indicate that in May 1692, there was a complaint and a warrant for the arrest and imprisonment of Mehitabel Downing. The details of the crimes were not documented, and the results of the petition have not been uncovered. On June 1, Mary Warren, an “afflicted girl” temporarily imprisoned at Salem, testified that the specters of George Burroughs, Good Nurse, Goody Proctor, and Goody Darling (Downing) came to her (Salem Witchcraft Paper 173). We are unsure if Downing could have been recorded as “Darling” as the original writer put both names down. Town records do not note anyone who could have been “Goody Darling,” nor is a “Goody Darling” listed in any records of accused witches. Therefore, it is likely that Downing was the correct name.
An interesting side note is the reappearance of Joan Brabrooke Penny in this document. Joan had married Thomas Penny after Richard’s death in 1681. Joan was in the process of asserting her inheritance rights after her husband Thomas’ death. His death in 1692 coincided with the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Women who stood in the way of another’s inheritance were the most likely to be accused of witchcraft.
Joan Penny, Mehitabel’s stepmother, was accused of witchcraft upon Mary Hill, the daughter of Zebulon Hill. She was tried and imprisoned in Ipswich on Sept 21, 1692. A fragment from a document in Thomas Hutchinson’s history indicates that Joan had been given the test for witchcraft of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. She did so without error and added, “so do I.”
The document further states, “She was bid to say the Lord’s prayer. When she came to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us, she said so do I. No other mistake, in saying the prayer, remarkable.” A woman’s examination (Joan Braybrooke Penny), Sept 21, 1692.”
It appears that both Mehitabel and Joan were released after months of imprisonment after being cleared by the Court of Judicature in Salem in January or at Ipswich in May 1693.
We also know that Mehitabel was released because of a record in 1699 signed by Mehitabel and John Downing showing they deeded property to their son, David Downing.
Mehitabel fades into history until later in her life. She and John Downing are mentioned in a document agreeing to provide for them in their later years. Her son-in-law signed it, and he used an affectionate term for Mehitabel and her husband, John.
Mehitabel and John’s children appear to have “married well” and were responsible citizens. Starting with a life that was cursed, Mehitabel overcame multiple adversities to end life well.
The History of the Salem Witchcraft Trials
Much has been written about the Salem witch trials, but a short synopsis might help interpret Mehitabel and Joan’s plight. The belief in witchcraft was relatively common in the colonies and England but reached feverish levels in 1692 in Massachusetts. A person was viewed with suspicion if they did not believe in witchcraft. The church members of Salem had been without a pastor for a few years, and any effort to secure one was tainted by political and financial undercurrents.
Life in the New England wilderness was full of danger, disease, famine, and death. Sudden and devastating Indian attacks plagued the settlers, and they viewed the natives as “children of the Devil.” The devil himself was also envisioned to have red or black skin.
Events reached a feverous pitch in early 1692 in York, about forty miles north of Ipswich, where the Candlemas Massacre, part of King William’s War, took place. An estimated 150 Abenakis commanded by officers of New France entered the town of York, killing about 100 of the English settlers. They also burned down buildings, taking another estimated 80 villagers hostage on a forced walk to Canada. The natives killed dozens of inhabitants and burned forty of the forty-five house to the ground. Several of the accusers were young girls who witnessed the massacre of their families.
Samuel Parris 1653-1720
Reverend Samuel Parris played an important role in Salem’s history. After considerable negotiations, he accepted the town council’s offer, but rival factions seemed to question his authority from the start. Parris was a stern man who had never held a preaching position. It appeared he chose this profession after failing in a few other areas, one being a merchant in the West Indies.
Parris came to Salem with a wife, daughter, niece, and two native West Indies slaves, Tituba and her husband, John Indian. It appears that the female slave Tituba demonstrated various “black magic” enticements to some local girls, including the daughter and niece of Rev. Parris. These enchantments were supposed to reveal the names of the young girls’ future husbands. Parris’ daughter appeared to have an adverse hysterical reaction. The other girls joined in, most likely pretending to be under some type of spell.
These physical manifestations continued and were witnessed by several adults in the community. The girls began to accuse others of witchcraft to avoid punishment. We might now view their participation in black magic rituals as foolish and misguided childish play. The adult community viewed the children as innocent and incapable of faking bizarre behaviors. A doctor diagnosed them as being under the devil’s possession. The subsequent events started the accusations of innocent town’s people.
The slave Tituba was severely beaten and subsequently testified that she was indeed guilty of witchcraft and began to name two other women as her fellow witches. The girls who started the accusations were heavily influenced by Salem Village townspeople manipulating the girls’ testimonies. It appears the most common characteristic of the accused witches was that some of the accusing townspeople had property or inheritance disagreements with them. This also explains why so many of the accused were older and widowed. Many of them had no one to fight for their rights. The Rev. Samuel Parris appeared to have much to do with the situation becoming so out of control. One would imagine that his reputation would have been tarnished if he had been viewed as managing an out-of-control household.
The people who supported the children tended to be his strong followers. They stood to gain property and financial wealth if the accused were out of the way. New research shows that a clear geographical division between the accused and the accusers. The girls were certainly used and coached by their parents as the accusers tended to be aligned with the Putnam family from the more rural Salem Village. Those accused of witchcraft were friends and relatives of the Porters, a wealthier family from Salem Town.
There were several standard tests to determine if someone was a witch. One was any visible blemish to the skin, and another was the inability to say the Lord’s Prayer without a single error. Despite character witnesses and passing these tests, the accused were imprisoned, and nineteen people were hanged. Most were female, but one man was crushed under heavy stones as his punishment.
The young witnesses appeared to have gained much power and influence during this time and put on many demonstrations of being under the witches’ influence in the courtroom. Most of the evidence was based on “spectral evidence.” The girls would claim that the accused’s specter was invisibly choking or pinching them, among other ridiculous claims.
Contemporary thinkers have difficulty imagining why so many adults believed the accusations. The girls’ influence became more widespread in the area as they were brought to various towns to help the officials prove that the accused were indeed witches.
Just as suddenly as it started, the trials and accusations came to a rather abrupt end. The state authorities ruled that spectral evidence could not be used to prove witchcraft. The governor’s wife had just been accused, and authorities knew the situation was out of control. The prisoners accused of witchcraft were released. The communities gradually learned that sequence of events had created a huge miscarriage of justice. One of the witnesses, Elizabeth Parris, recanted her claims as she grew to adulthood and confessed that she had fabricated the testimony. Two others went through their adult lives plagued with emotional problems and did not marry or enter the church. The judicial system gradually reversed the judgments, and the church reversed their ex-communication decrees. Rev. Samuel Parris was removed from his ministry, and there is no further historical record of him.
In the Shadow of Salem is a historical novel of Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing’s life and experiences during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. The historical details mentioned above are woven into the story. Also, for more information on Puritans in America, the author wrote The ABCs of Crime and Punishment in Puritan New England. Both books are available on Amazon.
Author’s Note: Please note the various ways Braybrooke is spelled in the following testimony. Spelling was not standardized at this time and varies in documents.
Transcribed testimony from Massachusetts Town and Court Documents concerning Mehitabel Braybrooke
_______________________________________ The Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Mass.
Vol 1: page 250
Ipswich Quarterly Court – March 30, 1652
Richard Brabroke to be severly whipped for fornication, and the woman Alice Eilss, was freed from her service; and said Brabrooke was to bring up thechild and to provide for her till she be recoverd from her travail; and
after her travail to be whipped when Mr. Symonds and Majr Denison shallappoint.
The Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Essex County Mass. Vol 4: page 56 & 57
Ipswich Quarterly Court – Sept 29, 1668
Mehittabell Brabrooke, complained of for suspicion of setting a house on fire, being convicted of extreme carelessness if not wilfully burning the house, was ordered to be severely whipped, and to pay 401i. damage to Jacob Perkins.*
*Examination of Mehitabel (her mark) Brabrooke, aged about sixteen years, taken Aug. 15, 1668, before Daniel Denison:t
“On Thursday last was seauennight, her master Jacob Perkins and his wife being gone to the Towne, shee was left at home alone about 2 or 3 aclocke in the afternoone she was taking tobacco in a pipe and went out of the house with her pipe and gott upon the ouen on the outside & backside of the house (to looke if there were any hogs in the come) and she layd her right hand
upon the thatch of the house (to stay herselfe) and with her left hand knocked out her pipe ouer her right arme upon the thatch on the eaues of the house (not thinking there had been any fire in the pipe) and imediately went
downe into the come feild to driue out the hogs she saw in it, and as she was going toward the railes of the feild towards Abraham Perkins house shee looked back, saw a smoke upon her Mrs house in the place where she had
knocked out her pipe [torn] which shee was much frighted, and went into thesd Abraham Perkins [torn] to intreat her to helpe her about a kettle of cloathes, and [torn] kins sent her to their barne to call her mayd to come and looke to [torn] child whilest shee went to helpe this examinate and when[torn] wth the mayd the Sd Goodwife Perkins & I this examinate went [torn] towards My Mr Jacob Perkins house in the way wee saw the smoke [torn] the
house & then ran and coming to the house found the fire [torn] in the place aboue the ouen where I knocked out my pipe [torn] I ran for a paile of water but before I could gett out [torn] well the thatch flamed & for want of
Ladders & helpe being rem [torn] the house was burned downe, being demanded, why upon her first seing of the smoake she did not acquaint Goodwife Perkins she sd she was loath to fright her, and being asked why when she first saw it, shee did not goe backe to quench it she answered shee was so frighted shee durst not, she further Sth as shee was coming wth Goodwife Perkins toward the house she Sd to the Sd Goodwife Perkins why doe the woods looke blew beyond our house & Sd their was a great smoake behind their house.” She further testified that about an hour before the fire kindled on the house, the chimney was on fire a little above the wing at which she was frightened,but she quenched it with lye she had upon the fire in a kettle of clothes.
Mehitable was committed to prison, Aug. 15, 1666, not having bail ready.
-Brabrocke bound for his daughter Mehitabel’s appearance at the next Ipswichcourt.
Abraham Perkins, aged about twenty-nine years, and John Willyston, aged about twenty years, deposed that they heard Mehitable Brabrooke acknowledge that she put her tobacco pipe into the fire and dipped up a coal in it to
light it, etc. Sworn in court. Hannah, wife of Abraham Perkins, deposed that she went with Mehitabel Brabroock to the house and looked up into the chamber through the boardsthat lay very open on the side where the smoke was. When Mehitabel brought the water from the well, deponent got upon the oven and threw water there but it was so long before the water was brought that the fire spread. She
looked into both chimneys and saw no appearance of fire, only a few brandsends nearly dead under a great kettle hanging in the chimney, etc. Sworn,
Sept. 29, 1668, before Daniel Denison.*
Timothy Bragg, aged about seventeen years, deposed. Sworn in court.
John Williston, aged about twenty years, deposed that he and Mehitabel weregoing to the meadow to make hay before the fire, when she told deponent that her mistress was angry with her, but she had “fitted her now”, for she had
put a great toad into her kettle of milk, etc. Sworn in court.
Goodwife Brag testified that at her house she heard Goodwife Brabrock say that Mehitabell was a filthy, unchaste creature.
five shillings were given to the house.