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Martha Allen Carrier

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

August 5, 1692 five residents of Andover, Massachusetts were led to the gallows and, in front of a large crowd of witnesses, hung atop Gallows Hill in Salem for practicing witchcraft. The frenzy behind the Salem witch trials was based on the testimony of three young girls: Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Susan Sheldon, and reinforced by townspeople who used the accused as scapegoats for their own misfortunes and to escape persecution. Four of the condemned were men, including John Proctor, the main character in Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible." The lone woman was an Andover housewife named Martha Carrier. It is Martha, my 8th great-grandmother, I'd like to honor today.

She was born Martha Ingalls Allen in 1643 to Andrew Allen and Faith Ingalls, two of the original 23 settlers of Andover, Massachusetts. In 1674, she became pregnant with the child of an older Welsh immigrant, Thomas Carrier, who she married. The newlyweds relocated to Billerica. In 1676, they were blamed for a smallpox epidemic that claimed the lives of thirteen people including two of the Carrier children, Martha's father and two brothers, her sister-in-law, and a nephew. A group of selectmen ordered the family to leave town immediately or pay a surety of 20 shillings per week if they wanted to stay. The Carriers were barred from entering public places. Although Martha, Thomas and the other children were afflicted with the disease, they survived. This was later was used as evidence of Martha's "special powers."

Thomas' past is somewhat sketchy. According to Carrier family stories, Thomas's exceptional physical size (he was said to be over 7 feet tall) strength, and fleetness of foot, led him to be chosen as one of the King of England's Royal Guard. In 1649, when Charles I was put on trail and sentenced to death, it was Thomas who acted in the historic position as executioner. Unfortunately for Carrier, Charles's son Charles II would re-take the throne and gain control the country. In May 1660, Charles II ordered the arrest of those responsible for his father's death. Carrier adopted the surname "Morgan" and escaped to America around 1665. It seems that Carrier lived an unsettled life at first, moving three or four times between Billerica and Andover. Although the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not approve of Charles I, they also did not approve of regicide. The facts behind Carrier's actions may have found their way to the new colony and played a part in Martha's undoing.

To make matters worse, Martha took charge of her father's estate. She immediately ran into friction with her neighbors, threatening vengeance upon those she believed were cheating her or her husband. She was described by Magistrate Cotton Mather as "a woman of a disposition not unlikely to make enemies; plain and outspoken in her speech, of remarkable strength of mind, a keen sense of justice, and a sharp tongue."

In an excerpt from "Historical Sketches of Andover" the author notes that most of the accused confessed and thus averted the extreme penalty of death. Only Martha did not, at some time, make an admission or confession. "From the first moment to the last, under all the persuasions and exhortations of friends, under denunciations and threats of the magistrates and examiners, she held firm, denying all charges, and neither overborne in mind nor shaken in nerve, met death with heroic courage." Martha's three eldest children: Richard, Andrew, and Thomas were accused of witchcraft with their mother and tortured until they confessed. Their seven-year-old sister Sarah was not accused, but afraid and prompted by the interrogators, made to testify against her mother in court.

Several women accused confessed that Martha had led them to practice. Ann Foster said she rode on a stick with Martha to Salem Village, that the stick broke and that she saved herself by clinging around Martha's neck. Her nephew, Allen Toothaker testified that he lost two of his livestock, attributing their deaths to Martha. Samuel Preston blamed the death of one of his cows on Martha stating that they'd had a disagreement and she'd placed a hex on the animal.

On August 19, 1692, Martha and four men were carried through the streets of Salem in a cart, the crowds thronging to see the sight. Even from the scaffold, Martha Carrier's voice was heard asserting her innocence. Her body was dragged to a common grave between the rocks about two feet deep where she joined the bodies of Reverend Burroughs and John Willard.

On October 17, 1710, the Massachusetts General Court passed an act that "the several convictions, judgments, and attainders be, and hereby are, reversed, and declared to be null and void." They ought to have extended the act to all who had suffered, rather confined its effect to those in reference to whom petitions had been presented. On the 17th of December 1711, Governor Dudley issued his warrant for the purpose of carrying out a vote of the General Assembly stating "by and with the advice and consent of Her Majesty's Council, (to pay) the sum of 578 pounds to such persons as are living, and to those that legally represent them that are dead." Martha Carrier's family was awarded 7 pounds, 6 shillings.

On Tuesday, March 16, 1999, the Board of Selectmen from the town of Billerica, Massachusetts voted to rescind the banishment of the entire Carrier family as an "appropriate gesture" to the Carrier family. It was unanimously approved.

In October of 1995, I booked a two week's vacation just south of Bar Harbor, Maine in a little fishing village overlooking an inlet. I'd hoped to visit all of the lighthouses along the coast and then rather play the rest of the vacation by ear. After the first week's sampling of fresh fish and realizing that most of the lighthouses were off coast, decommissioned, or simply lighted totems and not reachable by car, I rambled south along the coast toward interstate 95 and home. It wasn't a planned detour. Passing through Danvers, Massachusetts enroute to interstate 90, I noticed the signs for Salem. And took the exit.

Early in October, the town had already started preparing for Halloween celebrations. Banners flying from poles and windows accented by the golden red leaves painted a watercolor backdrop against the wrought iron fencing and granite stones in the memorial graveyard. Following the curve of the rough-carved letters with my fingers, I read "Martha Carrier, Hanged, August 19, 1692."


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