Witch Tales for Children

With great delight, last year I told my grown children I’d discovered a 10th great-grandmother, Susanna Roots (1621-1692) was an accused witch. From a safe vantage point in the 21st Century, this bit of trivia just seemed a ‘cool’ addition to family lore. Then we gathered together to feast and celebrate the winter holidays and my 10-year-old grandson asked me for a more detailed story of Susanna, the almost witch. The more I’ve considered it, the less cool it seems. A month has passed and I’m still struggling with how and how much to tell an intelligent, good and kind youngster about what happened to the victims of the worst in human nature.

History knows Susanna only as the wife of husband, Josiah Rootes (1613-1683). He came from Kent in England and arrived in New England on the ship Hercules with his mother and brother in spring 1634/35. He acquired property and Susanna as wife around the year 1639. The couple had six children and lived on the Bass River, which was part of Salem, Massachusetts until 1668 when it was set off as the town of Beverly.

On June 25, 1678, Josiah made a sworn accusation of thievery against William and Elizabeth Hoar. He claimed the family had stolen (clothing, apples, wood and hay) from him for nearly twenty years, and he had only just discovered proof – in the form of Goody Hoar’s apron.

That same day, Susanna first appears on record: Susanah Roots, aged about fifty-three years, Mary, wife of Heugh Woodbery, aged about forty-eight years, and Sarah Roots, aged about twenty-four years, deposed that about two months ago they saw Mary, wife of Samuell Harres and Tabitha Slew carry a parcel of small linen into Samuell Harris’ house.

Accusing neighbors of stealing is an ugly thing in a small community and perhaps, friends of William and Mary Hoars, Mary Harres and Tabitha Slew nursed enmity toward the Rootes family.

Five years after that, in the spring of 1683, Josiah Rootes died. He named Susanna executrix of his will and stipulated, “…my loveing wife Susanna [have] the use & improvement of all my small estate, what ever untill such time, as my son Jonathan cometh to the age…” and if she did not remarry, “[Jonathan] shall pay unto her, his said mother eight pounds, [yearly] duerring the terme of her widdowhood, or her natural life, and let her have the use of the west end of my now dwellinghouse, of a bed, beding, her firewood brought to the doare [door].”

For the period, this is an appropriate provision for a wife who worked land, maintained a household, bore and nurtured six children. Josiah’s specification that Susanna have the sunny west-facing room with cozy bed and fire burning is lovely and fitting after 40 years of toil at his side.

But Susanna did not execute Josiah’s will and a year later, she lost control of the living Josiah bequeathed her. Other men governed the 60-year-old widow as her health and strength declined with age. Nine years later, as she approached her 70th year, she would find herself carted into Boston and thrown into jail on a charge of witchcraft, which carried a sentence of death.

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