Susannah Martin: “Martyr of Superstition”
by Juliet H. Mofford
A marker at the end of North Martin Road in Amesbury notes: “Here stood the house of Susanna Martin. An honest, hardworking Christian woman accused of being a witch, tried, and executed at Salem, July 19, 1692. A Martyr of Superstition.” The memorial was moved from its original location, so “Here Stood” is inaccurate.
Most folks in early New England believed in witches and feared the mischief and mayhem these devil’s agents could cause. In 1692, over 200 men, women and children in Massachusetts Bay Colony were accused of the capital crime of witchcraft. Each case was unique, as documented on salem.lib.virginia.edu. This is Susannah Martin’s story.
Born in Buckinghamshire, England, Susannah North was 18 when she immigrated with her family to Massachusetts and settled in Salisbury. In 1646, she married the widower, George Martin, a blacksmith and original founder of Amesbury. They eventually had nine children.
Known for her “salty tongue,” Susannah Martin was a “scold,” who was frequently involved in disputes with her neighbors, “reviling them with foul words.” She was no stranger to court and in 1661 and 1669, was even accused of witchcraft.
William Sargent, Jr. and Thomas Sargent started the rumor that Goody Martin was a witch. They also claimed that before marriage, she had given birth to a bastard and strangled it.
George Martin twice sued William Sargent Jr. for slander for calling his wife a witch and claiming one of their sons was illegitimate. The court ruled in Martin’s favor, holding Sargent libel for slander in accusing Susannah of fornication and infanticide. A higher court dismissed the witchcraft charge, although this hardly quelled local gossip. Several months later, Susannah was back in court for calling one neighbor a liar and thief.
William Brown of Salisbury accused Susannah Martin’s spectre (or spirit) of tormenting his wife, Elizabeth. He claimed she assumed the form of birds “to peck Elizabeth’s legs and prick her with the motion of their wings.” These “bird spirits delivered prickling pains like nails and pins, causing Elizabeth Brown to cry out like a woman in travail until she sceamed, ‘Witch, you shan’t choke me!'”
“Pious and prudent” Goodwife Brown later testifyied against Susannah Martin, who appeared as she was milking the family cow. “For defaming my name at court,” Goody Martin threatened, “I will make you the miserablest creature in the world!”
Goodwife Brown soon “fell into a strange distemper and became horrible frantic and incapable of Reasonable Action.” Doctors declared her ailments “supernatural,” and diagnosed that “some evil person bewitched Goody Brown.”
Bernard Peach, another Amesbury resident, said he was in bed when he “heard a scrabbling at the window and looked up to see Susannah Martin climbing in. She jumped down on the floor and took hold of my feet, drawing my body into a hoop. She then lay upon me an hour or two, during which time I could neither stir nor speak. When loosened, I took hold of her hand and brought it up to my mouth and bit three of Goody Martin’s fingers to the breaking of bones, causing her to go out of my chamber, down the stairs and out the door…” He ran after her but she was nowhere to be seen, though he saw a drop of blood by the door and more blood on the snow. No footprints were evident which proved she’d flown home.
Martin’s court appearances included six lawsuits contesting her father’s will. She and her sister had expected to divide his inheritance after he died, then learned his earlier will had been replaced by another favoring their stepmother, Ursula North. The sisters were also involved in a court battle over North’s inheritance after she bequeathed her estate to a granddaughter. This litigation was also unsuccessful.
George Martin’s death in 1686 left Susannah impoverished and according to Puritan cleric, Cotton Mather, “The Devil loves to fish in troubled waters!”
Long the focus of gossip and grievance, Susannah Martin was a ready target for the Salem Witch Hunt. One of the first arrested from Merrimack Valley, she was taken into custody “for certain detestable arts called witchcrafts and sorceries wickedly and feloniously practiced…”
As soon as Martin was ushered into court, her accusers were ‘”tortured, wasted and tormented.” Several insisted seeing Goody Martin’s spectre upon the beam above. Their fits caused the defendant to laugh out loud and she dared to mock the proceedings with contempt.
“What! Do you laugh at it?” inquired one shocked magistrate.
“Well I may at such folly,” Susannah replied.
“Is this folly? The hurt of these persons?”
“I never hurt man, woman or child.”
“She hath hurt me a great many times and pulls me down!” one girl cried, causing Martin to laugh again.
“What ails these people? Do you not think they are bewitched?” another judge asked.
“No, I do not think they are bewitched.”
“Tell me your thoughts about them,” the magistrate coaxed.
“My thoughts are my own, when they are in, but when they are out, they are another’s”
“How come your appearance hurts them?”
“How do I know? They may lie for aught I know.””
“Are you not willing to tell the truth?”
“I dare not tell a lie if it would save my life!”
“Have you not compassion for these afflicted?
“No, I have none.”
“Do you not see how God evidently discovers you?”
“No, not a bit
“All the congregation here think so
“Let them think what they will.”
Though Susannah Martin proclaimed innocence throughout her trial, judges and jury amassed evidence enough. Nine journeyed to Salem to describe damages done them by Goody Martin from drowning their oxen to “flinging cats through windows to gnaw at people’s throats.” They welcomed the opportunity to settle old scores and revenge became court testimony.
Back in 1669, James Allen’s 13 animals drowned in the Merrimack River off Plum Island and washed up on Salisbury Beach. Goodman Allen had refused to cart wooden staves for Susannah Martin explaining that his oxen were too tired.
“Your animals will never do you more service!” Goody Martin told him.
“Do you threaten me, you old witch? I’ll throw you in the brook!” But when he went after her, she flew away. Allen continued on his way but his oxen were too weary to pull the load. He led them to the common pasture at Salisbury Beach to rest but when he returned two days later, they had vanished. He tracked the animals to Plum Island but when he approached them, they stampeded into the river and drowned. Allen was certain Martin’s malevolence caused the loss of his livestock.
Jarvis Ring claimed Goody Martin attacked him at night seven or eight years ago, in Salisbury. She “came upon me in bed and did sorely afflict by laying upon me so I could neither move nor speak.” He saw Goody Martin’s shape at his bedside. She took his finger in her mouth and bit down with force, then came and lay upon him awhile as formerly. The print of her bite could still be seen on one finger.
Joseph Ring, testified “meeting up with hideous shaped creatures,” and being “frighted out of my wits.” He was “taken to unknown places and to witch covens with dancing and feasting. The witches struck me dumb, so I could not tell anyone about their secret meetings.” They brought him a book to sign but he refused to become a servant of the devil. Ring said he spotted Goody Martin at these “merry meetings and April last, she did stand by my bed and pinch me.”
John Kimball believed Susannah Martin’s sorcery killed his livestock 23 years before. He’d purchased land from George Martin that he was to pay for in cash or goods. When the Martins came to collect, Kimball offered them the choice of three cows and other cattle, excepting two cows he was not free to part with. Goodman Martin was satisfied but not his wife who said, “The cows will never do you any more good (and so it came to pass), because the next April that stout, lusty cow lay with her head to her side, stark dead. And in a little while another cow died and then an ox and other cattle.”
Goodman Kimball explained he’d agreed to purchase a puppy from the Martin’s litter, but then, bought one elsewhere.
“Alas, I’ll give you puppies enough!” Goody Martin told him. And “…one night on my way through the woods, there appeared a black cloud …that made me tumble and put me in danger. Then came a little thing like a puppy…that shot between my legs forwards and backwards … Being free from fear I used all possible endeavours to cut it with my axe but could not hurt it. A little further, there did appear a black puppy somewhat bigger, which came at me with violence. It flew at my belly, then at my throat…I thought my life was going out and called upon God …”
Sarah Atkinson told the court that “One stormy day eighteen years hence, Susannah Martin walked from Amesbury to visit her in Newbury… the roads were deep in mud, not fit for any person to travel…However, Goody Martin arrived “her skirts and the soles of her shoes not even wet. I bid the children make way for her to come to the fire to dry herself, for I would be wet up to my knees had I come so far on foot. Yet Susannah Martin was as dry as I was, so I concluded her to be a witch.”
Robert Downer of Salisbury identified Martin as the she-devil who flew in though his window. He’d witnessed against her when she was accused of witchcraft years before and still believed her a witch. Goody Martin told him back then that “a she-devil would fetch him away and the next night, as he lay in bed, there came at his window the likeness of a cat that took hold of his throat and lay had upon him a considerable while and was like to throttle him. When he cried out ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost,’ she leaped to the floor and disappeared out the window.”
Amesbury poet John Greenleaf Whittier, a direct descendant of Susannah Martin, honored his ancestor with a long poem, ‘The Witch’s Daughter.’ Here are several excerpts:
The seasons scarce had gone their round,
Since curious thousands thronged to see
Her mother at the gallows-tree…
And still o’er many a neighboring door
She saw the horseshoe’s curved charm,
To guard against her mother’s harm;
That mother, poor, and sick, and lame,
Who daily, by the old arm-chair,
Folded her withered hands in prayer…
Who turned, in Salem’s dreary jail,
Her worn old Bible o’er and o’er,
When her dim eyes could read no more…
Let Goody Martin rest in peace;
I never knew her harm a fly,
And witch or not, God knows – not I…
Susannah Martin was convicted and condemned to death, even though she quoted Bible passages, something witches supposedly could not do. The 70 year old went to the gallows at Proctor’s Ledge in Salem, insisting she’d “led a most virtuous and holy life.”
Cotton Mather called Susannah Martin “one of the most impudent, Scurrilous, wicked creatures in the world.”