Is she a witch?

While my Dad was always hoping that I would find Irish on his side of the family, (yay! I did), I have always wanted to find an accused witch!

And I did! Surprisingly this find wasn’t on Mom’s side of the family, where we have oodles and oodles of New England ancestors, it is on Dad’s side, where we find Clarisy/Clarissa Cross Rosa, the daughter of two New England raised parents and our only English ancestry on Dad’s side of the family.


Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Dudley were granted land along the Concord River in 1638. Located in this grant was an Indian village named Shawshin where in 1652 about a dozen families began to settle, with more families joining them in later years. Of course Shawshin sounded way too foreign for the intolerant settlers so they decided to rename the place Billerica, a much more musical, [yuck, not], and English name.

Rebecca _____ Chamberlain and her husband William, were one of those families that made the move. Rebecca and William resided in Boston for a very short time after they were married, in about 1648, before they settled in Woburn, until about 1652 when they made their final move to the new settlement of Billerica. Over the years of their marriage Rebecca became the mother of thirteen children, twelve of whom reached adulthood and ten of whom had children of their own. This is the little we know about her, (the rest we would have to extrapolate).

In 1692, when Rebecca was in her late 50s to early 60s1, during the Salem witch trial frenzy, Billerica became one of quite a few towns around Salem that soon found many of its citizens accused of practicing witchcraft. Although there is no testimony to such, it is the belief of many that Rebecca Chamberlain is one of those innocent  victims of the Salem witch hunts. In the History of Middlesex County, Samuel Adams Drake writes “Rebecca, the wife of William Chamberlain and John Durrant, both of Billerica, died in prison in Cambridge where they were incarcerated for witchcraft.” Rev. Henry Hazen, in the History of Billerica, states that Rebecca Chamberlain “died in prison at Cambridge, 1692, Sept. 26, possibly charged with witchcraft.”2

Others debate on the matter, one website states, “An examination of every paper in the Middlesex county court files from 1670 to 1700 has revealed many witchcraft cases, but nothing relating to Rebecca Chamberlain.” And I am not surprised, because from what I have learned reading a recently published book3 where the author states, “no trace of a single session of the witchcraft court survives.” Everything we know about the event is taken from accounts of the trials, preparatory papers, and two death warrants. Salem village in their enthusiasm to forget ‘it’ ever happened expunged their record books, so there is much documentation missing regarding what happened in those 9 months of crazy. Also, there was no daily paper, or twitter, around at the time to keep folks apprised of the daily goings on in the court room. So the fact that there are no records mentioning Rebecca, and many others who were also accused, but never stood trial, shouldn’t make one disbelieve or really even question. I believe. It is too coincidental that she was in prison at the exact same time all this hysteria was going on, and died there in September.

While I am excited to find that we most likely have an accused witch in the family, I am now imagining how horrible and sad her death must have been. The prisons these people were kept in were a veritable hell, barely maintained by fanatics fighting demons of their own imaginings.4

So, this Halloween I will raise a toast in memory of Rebecca Chamberlain. Accused witch. Innocent vicim.

Image of Salem witch hangings. No accused was ever burned at the stake.


  1. We don’t know exactly when she was born and can only speculate from her first child’s birth.
  3. The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff; New York : Little, Brown and Company, 2015, first edition. Excellent read by the way!
  4. ibid. digital edition p123-124 of 536 this is a description of the Boston jail being used for the accused: “The stone facility announced itself from a distance with a stench of refuse and rotting wounds…Visitors did not tarry long…Iron bars covered the open windows; one could reach out for provisions or in to touch a loved one’s hand. One could also spit and jeer; some came to the prison expressly for those purposes. Sarah Good…what remained of her clothing barely covered her body.” The description goes on. I imagine the conditions were similar in the Cambridge prison where Rebecca was incarcerated.


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. – 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