I recently finished reading The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent and it left me angry and shaking my head in disbelief. How could this have happened? What was going on in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 that allowed a community to turn on each other? In the fear and emotion that gripped that community, families were torn apart, children were imprisoned and at least 20 innocent people died, and all for the express purpose of defeating the Devil.
The Heretic’s Daughter is one woman’s story about what happened, how it affected her family and the part she played in that horrible chapter of our history: The Salem Witchcraft Trials.
It is the story of Martha Carrier who was one of several women executed for witchcraft. The story is told from the point of view of her 9 year old daughter Sarah, and describes the events which led up to her mother being accused of witchcraft, sentenced and executed for this ‘crime’.
The story begins with an elderly, Sarah Carrier Chapman, writing to her granddaughter about what happened during the Salem Witchcraft trials and her involvement in those events. In sharing her story she hopes to “…sweep away the terror and the sadness and to have my heart made pure again by God’s grace…” The narration then shifts to the point of view of a 9 year old, Sarah Carrier, as she and her family move from Billerica to Andover Massachusetts due to a smallpox outbreak. Unknowingly, they carry the smallpox virus with them to Andover and Sarah and her younger sister Hannah are sent to live with her aunt and uncle until the quarantine is over. The girls thrive in this new supportive environment and Sarah develops a close relationship with her cousin, Margaret. When the smallpox outbreak is over, Sarah’s father comes to take them home where the family atmosphere is more rigid and discipline is frequent. Sarah’s mother, Martha Carrier, is a strong willed and sharp tongued woman who refuses to conform to her society’s expectations. She is intelligent, direct and unsubmissive and because of her non-conforming nature she seen as an outsider.
During this time the family hires an indentured servant named Mercy Williams to help around the house, but things don’t work out well. Mercy has a heated and tense confrontation with Martha and parts with the family on bad terms.
The rest of the story illustrates how the accusations which begin as whispers become progressively louder and louder. In time, others hear these accusations and repeat those words; words which have the power of life and death in them.
I enjoyed this novel because the author brought the story of Martha Carrier to life in such a vivid way. I had never heard of her before so it was nice to hear the story of someone who not only wasn’t a well known figure at the time but who was also an individual and a non conformist in her own right.
At first I really didn’t like her. She seemed austere and harsh. We are told that “… She had a tongue, the sharpness of which would gut a man as quick as a Gloucester fisherman could clean a lamprey eel.” And she seemed too eager to discipline her daughter Sarah by using a slotted spoon the “children named Iron Bessie” with regularity and determination on her. I knew what this story was about so I knew that later she would be accused of witchcraft and this introduction to Martha Carrier left me with little doubt as to why. She was harsh, unapproachable, and mean; it’s no wonder they thought she was a witch! But there was much more both to Martha Carrier and to the accusations of witchcraft.
One thing I liked about Martha’s sharp tongue was how she handled those who tried to shame her into submission using scripture. They would quote scripture that pointed out her failure to submit and she would just as quickly quote another scripture that exposed their insincerity and hypocrisy. The person left having failed at bringing her under proper authority. The reason I liked this was because it showed that she was not only quick and intelligent, but also willing to stand up for herself. She was unwilling to ‘go along to get along’ and although this probably made her life hard, she was living her life according to her own principles. She was more than a sharp tongue and abrasive personality though. She thoughtfully preserved her husband’s history respecting the blood spilled and lives given in the process. She nursed her mother and son in sickness and did what was necessary to take care of her family; all the while being true to her own ideals. She was a complex individual.
A glimpse of her Community:
Not only do you get a good sense of who Martha Carrier was through this novel, but you also get a good picture of the town and it’s people.
Accusations and Torture
Kent illustrated the vindictiveness behind these witchcraft accusations by showing the reader that people were mainly accusing those they held past grievances against. Those who accused Martha of witchcraft used her words against her by deliberately taking them out of context and her accusers all had something ‘against’ her.
Others who were accused simply confessed or implicated neighbors and townsfolk because they were tortured. A truly horrible fact that left me asking ‘What in the world is happening?’ Why were Christians torturing people for confessions of witchcraft? Something is wrong with this picture.
Another sad fact was that the judges and leaders were clearly not doing their jobs in upholding the law or protecting the citizens. In the courtroom the judges should have made the hysterical girls leave, which they never did, and the use of ‘spectral evidence’ should have been banned. Instead they allowed their “fits” to be an influence in the proceedings and as a result, justice was not served. There was nothing legal, logical, orderly or even godly about these trials. The fact that they sent men and women to their deaths based on nothing more than delusion and hysteria is shameful and unconscionable.
However, at the heart of this novel is the story of a family trying to stay strong and united as best they could under terrible circumstances. After she is accused we see the tenderness that existed in private between Martha and her husband Thomas. These were two people who lived their lives united by their ideals. Also, Martha and her daughter Sarah finally start to connect around this time. It was so sad that they were at odds for so long and just when they were starting to connect with each other ‘this’ happens.
In many ways this is also a coming of age story for our young narrator, Sarah. And this whole story is told from her point of view. She is also a strong person who stands up for herself and her family. She defends her sick brother while in prison and was held in jail on charges of witchcraft because she was her mother’s daughter: strong, direct and uncompromising. Although she lived the rest of her life with the memory of how she answered the judges about her own involvement in witchcraft, the truth is that she also made enemies and was accused by her peers of witchcraft because of past grievances they had against her as well. It was an ugly and vicious circle.
In many respects 17th century Salem, Massachusetts was a picture of a theocracy where to be different was to be suspect. They lived at a time when fears like smallpox and Indian raids were a very real threat. And with so much fear and uncertainty in their lives, they must have felt that hunting and persecuting alleged witches gave them a sense of control, a way to fight the evil in their land and to bring health and peace to their town.
In the end I think Martha Carrier was a strong woman, made bitter by adversity and loss. I’m not even sure if she was a Christian. She didn’t seem to be a woman of faith, and I didn’t sense any anger at God for her hardships. Instead she seemed to see the hypocrisy of the clergy and church members and refused to play along. She was guilty of not meeting cultural and societal expectations and she was willing to pay the price to be true to herself and her values.
There really is so much to explore and delve into with this book; I have only just scratched the surface in this review. Fears and emotions won’t ever go away, but we can learn to control both and let logic rule with compassion.
I really enjoyed this book! So much so that now I want to sink my teeth into a good history book on the subject. Does anyone have any good suggestions?
I’m interested in your thoughts now. What do you think about Martha Carrier and/or the Salem Witchcraft Trials? Tell me in the comments below.