Witchcraft in the New England colonies is almost entirely associated in the public imagination with the craze in Salem, Massachusetts, that erupted at the end of the 17th century. Yet on both sides of the Atlantic, prosecutions rarely reached epidemic proportions, with a scattering of cases making it to the courts every few years as long-simmering accusations finally became substantive enough to require the attention of early modern officialdom.
Malcolm Gaskill’s new book is a rich and beautifully written microhistory of one such case: that of Hugh and Mary Parsons of Springfield. Springfield itself was an anomaly. No New England ‘bible commonwealth’, it was instead, in the words of the historian William Pencak, ‘America’s First Company Town’. Located by the Connecticut River, Springfield had originally been part of the Connecticut colony, but through the lobbying of its founder, William Pynchon, it was incorporated into Massachusetts. The terms of the agreement with the Massachusetts Bay colony and Springfield’s geographical remoteness from Boston effectively left Pynchon with considerable freedom of action. He became the town’s chief magistrate, CEO and spiritual leader rolled into one. Pynchon’s objective was to maximise his returns from the fur trade rather than establish a godly community. Settlers were in Pynchon’s pocket for their land, employment and supplies. The debts marked in Pynchon’s ledger book were a key source of tension in the small and isolated plantation.
Hugh Parsons, a brick maker, arrived in Springfield around 1645. His skills ensured that he was in high demand and he was given a four-acre homestead and other land in the settlement. That same year, he met Mary Lewis, originally from Wales, who was working in the settlement