The Peculiar Trials of Mary Staples

It was said by Lucy Pell, the surgeon’s wife, that a witch had been living among them in Fairfield.  In 1653,  she claimed she heard such words herself from the condemned Goodwife Bassett who was imprisoned and awaiting her death.  Goody Bassett was a middle class wife, hence the term “Goodwife or Goody” and she was an outlier. While her husband was freeborn, they were not of the Puritan faith and she was an easy target for dangerous gossip. Little survives about her trial in 1651 and yet, three years after her passing, her words were used to make an ominous accusation.  

Lucy’s statement, preserved in a deposition, was directed against Mary Royce Staples, an outspoken woman who lived in Fairfield with her husband Thomas and their three young children. Thomas was one of the founding residents of the town and though he had no distinctive lineage or social station, he was well respected as a hard working farmer who also served as deputy. His land bordered that of Roger Ludlow,  the town’s founding father and designer of the four square settlement.  Ludlow, whose heritage connected him to royalty, was both an Oxford educated lawyer and an important magistrate. 

Fairfield Town Plan, 1648-1657

Early settlements in America placed individuals from very different backgrounds into close community structures.  This proximity did not necessarily equate to egalitarianism, as Puritans believed in a rigid social hierarchy that was part of God’s divine plan.  The two families, the Staples and the Ludlows, did not seem to get on very well. As early as 1651, there was a confrontation between Mary and Roger in the town meeting house where he accused her of lying. Remarkably for a woman of her day and station,  Mary stood up to Ludlow, denied the accusation and set before him a challenge to name a single untruth that she had spoken.  Ludlow did not give any specific instance. He replied that it would be unnecessary as she was known for telling tall tales.  

Perhaps he did not feel comfortable in repeating her words or perhaps there were no examples to give. What we can say with some certainty is that her challenge would have been perceived as a grave affront to his honor as it implied he was the liar.

Clashing with Ludlow was a rather dangerous act on Mary’s part as witch mania was spreading throughout Connecticut.  Fed by the concurrent trend in Europe where witch hunting was rampant, the Puritan settlers believed in the unseen hand of God as well as the power of Satan to harm them through magic. These fears were amplified by the brisk trade in popular printed witch hunting manuals that guided a male dominated hierarchy to identify suspicious behavior, mostly in women, and prescribed methods of torture for confession and punishment.  In England in particular, witchcraft had been a capital offense since the reign of Henry VIII, but there was an ever increasing concern for purging practitioners in the following century.  

John Hammond, pamphlet, 1643

As in England, the crime of witchcraft in Connecticut was an offense punishable by death.  Roger Ludlow included this proscription in his legal Code of 1650 that was adopted by the colony. Closely mirroring the laws of Massachusetts, witchcraft convictions required only flimsy evidence and testimony.  Unlike the capital crimes of murder or adultery, where one could have evidence, witchcraft was linked to inexplicable phenomena.  Someone falls ill, a crop fails, or a cow no longer gives milk and the cause was sought in the evil glance of a neighboring woman. 

Capital Laws, The Code of 1650, Roger Ludlow

Though these accusations were often directed to the poor and elderly living on the fringes of society, they were also aimed at people like Mary who were considered scolds; women who disrupted societal norms by their behavior or speech.  One contemporary account describes Mary as a “shrewd woman” impatient with social standards and “the laws of everyday life.” Accusing women like her with witchcraft was often an attempt to control or silence them.

In 1653, an opportunity presented itself for Ludlow to implicate Mary with the execution of Goodwife Knapp.  At the gallows, Ludlow claimed the condemned woman approached him just before her hanging and whispered in his ear that Mary Staples was a witch.  How do we know this happened?  Well, Ludlow shared this information not in any official capacity, but rather at a dinner party where he recounted the tale to the distinguished Reverend Davenport and his wife from New Haven.  Perhaps intending to encourage suspicion of Mary in the community, he most likely repeated this charge elsewhere and the news spread quickly.  When the gossip reached Thomas Staples, he understood how dangerous this rumor for his wife and really, his whole family.  Even to be associated with a witch could result in shunning, loss of property and potentially, one’s own life. 

Wisely, he hired legal counsel, collected testimonies supporting his wife’s innocence and attempted to have Ludlow arrested.  In response, Ludlow sued Thomas for wrongful imprisonment and sought the enormous amount of 200 pounds in damages. Failing to appear before the court, Ludlow left the colony and sailed to Virginia and then back to England.  He never returned to Fairfield again. 

In Ludlow’s absence, the court awarded Thomas 25 shillings in recompense for costs, but he continued to pursue the matter by bringing a slander suit against Ludlow. He knew he needed to clear his wife’s name as the damaging gossip could pose a threat even in the absence of her accuser. 

On May 29, 1654, the liable suit was heard in court.  Represented by his defense attorney, Alexander Bryan, numerous depositions were presented on behalf of Ludlow who recorded them before he sailed off. On there own, these documents would have been quite damaging to Mary.

In them, several women claimed that the convicted Goodwife Bassett named Mary as a witch and they also described small shining figurines that Mary was said to possess from local Indians that were meant to bring riches to whoever held them.  These graven images would have been deeply offensive to Puritans and considered tools of the Devil. 

Witches, Dolls and the Devil, woodcut print, The History of Wizards and Witches, 1720

Most damning however were the reports of how Mary reacted at the death of Goodwife Knapp. After the woman was hung and her body cut down, Mary examined the corpse looking for the devil’s marks that were used as evidence to convict her. Unconvinced by the moles or birthmarks she saw, she stated “these here are no more marks than I myself have.”  We can appreciate her intelligent observation today, but at the time, that one sentence would cast suspicion on her.  

The flaw in Ludlow’s evidence was that it was all written in his own hand and the court was not convinced of the legality or impartiality of these “second hand” accounts.  Further, the distinguished Reverend Davenport did not take Ludlow’s side in the matter and Mary was in good standing in her church. In the end, Ludlow was ordered to pay Staples 25 pounds in total for the reparation of his wife’s reputation as well as court costs.

Thomas’ use of the legal system to defend his wife did more than save her life.  It helped defuse the fervor for witch hunts in Fairfield, for a time.   After his death in 1688,  his elderly widow had to fight yet another accusation.  It seems likely that suspicions about her never really abated. When witchcraft panic returned to Fairfield in 1692, she was taken into custody and charged.  This time, the indictment  included her eldest daughter Mary and her granddaughter Hannah. 

Grand Jury Presentment for the Arrest of Mary Staples, her daughter Mary Harvey and granddaughter Hannah Harvey, 1692, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford

It was not uncommon for family members to be accused together, but it was rare to see three generations of women arrested simultaneously.  In this case a troubled teenage servant named Katherine Branch suffered fits and seizures and claimed she was tormented by apparitions.  Over the course of several months she named six women and a Grand Jury convened to hear evidence.

Townspeople recounted how these women bewitched their livestock and made children ill.  Testifying against the Staples women were John Nash, who claimed Mary was a “light woman” able to levitate at will and Hester Grumman who stated that Mary appeared at the foot of her bed at midnight dancing. In all, the evidence was spectral, non-substantial and thus non-admissible as the rules for proving witchcraft had become more discerning.  The results for all the accused women were acquittals, discharges and pardon.  Mary, her daughter and granddaughter were freed by the court and it was ordered that no evil should be spoken of them again. 

By the end of the 17th century,  reason and justice were taking precedent over superstition and fear.  A healthy skepticism for these trials suggest the people of Connecticut were increasingly unwilling to convict or condemn for such a crime. In 1750, witchcraft was removed from the list of offenses punishable by death.  

Considering her courage and her manner of questioning the world around her, Mary Staples really does stand out as an early American proponent of women’s rights rather than a witch.  To her honor, it seems fitting that the legacy most closely associated with her family name is one of education; two of her direct descendants were the generous philanthropists Samuel and Horace Staples.  Perhaps there was some inspiration in the trials of their ancestor Mary that encouraged them to build schools in the hope that ignorance should not contribute to another reign of terror.

Samuel Staples Academy, Easton, opened 1795; Horace Staples High School, opened 1884
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