Ahhhh yes, the good old days of the Salem Witch Trials…

Well, it is that time of year again which means I can finally post this ghoulish story which has been sitting on the back burner for a few months.

So, the Salem Witch Trials. I never really thought that I would be posting anything related to this particular bit of American history, even though I have ancestors who I know were involved in a few witch trials, none had previously been a part of this particular one.

Giles Corey being pressed to death by the citizens of Salem. The image of course is flawed as he was naked when the townsfolk decided on the evenings entertainment.
Giles Corey being pressed to death by the citizens of Salem. The image, of course, is in error, as he was stripped naked when the townsfolk decided on the day’s ‘pressing’ entertainment.

And, I have Esther Newell to thank for this excellent addition to the family archives. Esther’s mother was Abigail Smith, who’s line on her mother’s side goes back a few more generations to Mary Cheever, a daughter of Ezekiel Cheever.

This is not a picture of Ezekiel junior, it is his father, senior.

Ezekiel is famously known as a Boston school master who wrote a latin textbook titled Accidence: A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue. This publication was used for many generations in the schools of New England. (I am including his biography in this .pdf file, it makes for a pretty interesting, short, read.) Cotton Mather, in his eulogy about Ezekiel, remembered his great piety and “his untiring abjuration of the Devil.” Judge Sewall had this to say, “The welfare of the commonwealth was always upon the conscience of Ezekiel Cheever,”…”and he abominated periwigs.” Apparently he despised the wigs so much he was known to pluck the despised object off an offender’s head and fling it out the window. (Which if you ask me is pretty rude. I hate hoodies and baseball caps, but you don’t see me running up to folks to rip the ugly fashion wear off and fling the items out windows – although…I would really, really love to do that.)

Ezekiel and his wife Mary Margaret Culverwell came to New England in 1637, eventually settling in Boston where he became head master of the Latin school there. Ezekiel married twice and had a total of 11 children. Our ancestress Mary Cheever was a daughter with his first wife Mary Margaret. With his second wife he had a son Ezekiel, junior. It is this son who we have to thank for our Salem Witch Trial connection.

Junior and his siblings were brought up in a very Puritan household where his father was known for his “untiring abjuration of the Devil.” Eventually junior grew up, married, had children and settled the family in Salem. He earned his living as a respectable tailor. As he grew older he also became an official clerk of the court, due mostly to his knowledge of shorthand, and earned prominence in town, eventually taking the oath of fidelity and the freeman’s oath. The family outgrew their home in town, so in 1684 they purchased and moved to the Lathrop farm in Salem Town.

In 1689 he was promoted to a charter member of the Salem Village Church, eventually becoming a deacon, a position he held for many years.

It was during the Salem Witch Trials that he was promoted as an official of the court, where he was called upon to present depositions and complaints. As church deacon he also made calls to the homes of the accused for questioning. His name is seen as the notetaker for a number of infamous witch trials at the time. In many of his notations he saw fit to incorporate his own views and opinions on the proceedings. In the case of Sarah Good he noted the accused behavior as being “in a very wicked, spiteful manner…with base and abusive words and many lies.”

Poor screen shot of poor online image from court documents of Salem Witch trials, this particular document has Ezekiel's name.
Poor screen shot of poor online image from court documents of Salem Witch trials, this particular document has Ezekiel’s name about 2/3rds of the way down in the paragraph.

In fact, Junior was also an accuser, filing accusations and complaints against accused – Bridget Bishop, Giles Corey*, Abigail Hobbs, and Mary Warren, after witnessing a number of the, supposedly, afflicted and tormented girls being harassed by their, conveniently invisible, tormentors. He also accused Martha Corey, at her questioning, of afflicting Ann Putnam, Jr. and Mercy Lewis, based upon testimony he had heard from others and his own observations, protesting that Corey was lying before the court. His view of the proceedings was no doubt colored and distorted by his upbringing, and his father’s views on the devil and evil in the world.

It was a dark and evil time in American history, unfortunately merely one of many. Ezekiel remained heavily immersed in Salem Church affairs after the trials. There is no indication in the records, or history, that he suffered guilt or remorse over his part in the murder of innocent victims of this mass hysteria. It is quite possible the rest of his family was cheering him on. I can only hope that his sister Mary, who was living in Farmington, Massachusetts at the time of the trials, with her husband William Lewis and their children, was appalled at her brother’s involvement.

There were public calls for justice, by others, starting to occur by at least 1695 when Thomas Maule, a noted Quaker, publicly criticized the way the court proceedings were handled. There was also a group of jurors from the trial who asked a local Reverend to read aloud a public apology and their pleas for forgiveness. One minister admitted, “Such was the darkness of that day, the tortures and lamentations of the afflicted, and the power of former presidents, that we walked in the clouds, and could not see our way.” Even the Salem Village church began to seek repentance at they voted to reverse the excommunication of Martha Corey, Giles’ wife. Other church goers publicly asked for forgiveness from their fellow parishioners for their part, claiming that they had been deluded by Satan into denouncing innocent people.

Over time all of the accused were eventually pardoned by the State and the church. (Gee, that was mighty nice of them.)

Ezekiel Cheever, junior died in December of 1731.


Imagined scene of the questioning of the accused.
*Giles Corey – This poor man was the only lucky person to be pressed to death in this country. He might also be a relative of mine, not direct, but a cousin of some kind, as we also have Coreys in our ancestry. I haven’t found the connection yet though.
1. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/home.html – trial documents and other interesting items found at this site.
2. New York Times article, By BLAKE BAILEY: Published: March 13, 2009
5. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, by Marilynne K. Roach
6. Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of the State of…, edited by William R. Cutter, William F. Adams

Crazy Esther…


Esther Newell was dealt a double whammy in the world of history and genealogy. She was a women and she was crazy. Both of these issues made her doubly sure of not being relevant when it came to her descendants.

One can tell how irrelevant she was by the dismissive mentions made of her in biographies about her husband, Asa Lyon.

Esther was from Charlotte, Chittendon County, Vermont. She is said to have been born about 1762, although I have found no records that confirm this yet. She was the daughter of Rev. Abel Newell (a 1751 Yale graduate) and Abigail Smith (daughter of John Smith).1 She married Asa Lyon in 1796. They probably met in South Hero, Vermont, as he was employed there by 1794.

Asa was a 1790 Dartmouth graduate. He spent many years as a pastor of the Congregational Church in South Hero. Among his other accomplishments he was a member of Congress from 1815-1817 and served 13 years in the Vermont Legislature. He was also a Judge of Grand Isle County. Apparently he was regarded by many of his peers as one of the most talented men in the State.2

I have found many mentions of him in various books published about the history of Vermont and South Hero.  A great many accolades are heaped on him, but the only thing ever mentioned about his wife Esther, who birthed his children, is she was crazy.

In researching the history of the insane in the later 1700s to early 1800s, I found out that there were only two institutions built around that time period in America, one in Virginia the other in New England. But from what I have been able to glean from various published biographies, Asa kept his wife at home in his own care. There weren’t really any other options at the time. And even if he could put her in an insane asylum, she wouldn’t have been any better off. The treatment of the insane was pretty barbaric at the time. The reason for the institutions in the first place, was merely a place to put the crazy people who were dangerous, so they wouldn’t interfere with the ‘sane’ people out in the world. Those deemed insane, but harmless, were left to their own devices. They ended up beggars, the homeless of their time.

So poor Esther is treated with distain. It wasn’t like she had any choice in the matter when it came to being crazy, and we have no idea what kind of crazy she was. But she has been pretty much ignored even by those researching the Lyon family. Meanwhile her husband has had accolades piled on him by his peers, I am sure they were reasonable. Although one does get tired of the poor suffering husband routine. After all I do believe the vows were, ‘until death do us part’. He was merely doing his duty.

I have to say that for me it is refreshing to have an ancestress who is a bit more interesting than the run of the mill housewife, which is 100% of the lot. I greatly wish more of them had broken out of the mould, even a little bit.  Although I guess when I think about it, maybe they didn’t write a great novel or march for suffrage, but they did travel great distances across this country through the wilderness and help to carve out lives for their family. They crossed oceans in small ships leaving all they knew behind, in some cases not even speaking the language of the country they moved to, and suffered hardships beyond my comprehension or experience.

I guess more of them must have been just a little bit crazy.

1 New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making
of Commonwealths and the Founding of a Nation, Volume 1: p300

2 Bibliography of Vermont, p157