Even though The Curse seems to have us as a city dropping off the history page; we were the first for many significant events of our Nation’s history. Newburyport’s star rose, burned brightly and then fell quickly. The first court house for Essex County was built here. Our court house was the first template for how trials were to be arranged and conducted across the future America. Only as the city’s embers faded, did the courthouse of Essex County move south. The first Tea Party occurred here before the Boston Tea Party – we set the pattern for rebellion with our burning of the tea.
And we were the first to have a witch hysteria twelve years before it occurred in Salem.
At first glance, the situation concerning our witch, Elizabeth Morse, seems to be disconnected with Salem, our southern neighbor. I give a detailed account here.
But according to research done by Wendy West, the seed that created the Salem Witch Trials started here in Newbury and in Newbury-port.
I was attending the annual meeting of the Sons & Daughters of the First Settlers of Newbury, Massachusetts. Wendy was relaying a fascinating PowerPoint and gave a talk on what she had discovered.
In summation, she found it was caused originally from ill feelings between the Reverend Thomas Parker and a new community that was splitting away from farming into a more prosperous merchant and fishing community. Rev. Parker wanted to continue the authoritarian class structure that was prevalent in England and a new group wanted to advance a more democratic culture through congregationalism. This caused a split between the first parish and the growing independent group that established a church in the center of what would become Market Square.
Not only did this group have doctrinal differences, they felt threatened by the authoritarian, class structure advanced by the Rev. Parker (He could have you thrown into jail in this Theocratic society) and this spilt over in community animosity and conflict.
Goody Morse was part of the sect that associated with Parker and he lived right next to Market Square in the midst of the other group that was openly hostile to the ‘old ways’.
Though the testimony against Goody Morse and his wife would be humorous in today’s world; it was deadly earnest back then with murderous intent. The issue, according to Ms. West, was the testimony made against Elizabeth. There were no two individuals to corroborate spirit manifestations. Many testified but according to court records, there must be two to three witnesses to verify such activity. In the end, Elizabeth who was declared guilty, could only be house arrested because no two people saw the same apparitions.
Move ahead a few years.
Many of the people who lived and were involved with Newburyport’s witch trials migrated to Salem. The same division between the old ways of England and the new America were occurring there also. It was somehow determined by experience that the mistake of non-collaboration in testimony would not be repeated. Now, the hysterical children saw the apparitions together at the same time; which then reinforced the accusations and resulted in death sentences for the many unfortunate souls of that era.
Not exactly something from which to be overly proud; but it does show our importance in the scheme of history. Her research is in great detail and should soon be coming out in book form. As we seek for National Landmark Status in Newburyport; this is just another feather in our cap on how our humble city influenced one of the most defining moments of our national heritage.