Donna Gawell Interviews Mehitabel from In the Shadow of Salem
Three hundred and fifty years ago the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts to establish a colony purposed to honor God and to live holy and exemplary lives. The American wilderness soon became a den of the devil, and the Puritans deferred to the Biblical injunction: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Thus began one of the most notorious times in our country’s history. As a historical fiction author from this time period, it was intriguing to go beyond the court and town records to present an accurate portrayal of a real Puritan woman. What follows is an imagined interview with Mehitabel Braybrooke whose life story is told for the first time in my historical novel In the Shadow of Salem.
DG: Would you introduce yourself and tell us were you born?
MB: My name is Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing. I was born in 1652 in Ipswich in Massachusetts which was a Puritan colony in America. My father came to the colonies from England in 1635 with very little and became a very prosperous landowner.
DG: Tell us about your early years in Ipswich.
MB: I carry the shame that my birth mother was Father’s indentured servant as it caused a great scandal in the village. Father andmy real motherwere whippedfor the sin of fornication. After that,the courts insisted my father Richard should raise me as a good Puritan child. Joan, my stepmother,always resented me and didn’t treat me kindly even though she had no children of her own. I was their only child.
DG: That must have been a difficult childhood.
MB: Yes, at best, Joan ignored me and let a servant tend to me. If I caused any disturbance, she would refer to me as a bastard and “her curse.” She was always in a foul mood, yelling and screaming. I would see other children treated so affectionately by their mothers, but Joan just wanted me out of her sight. Keep in mind that she made me refer to her as “Mother.”
My father treated me with great affection, and it was he who sometimes taught me to read and write. Mistress Hubbard, our minister’s wife also instructed me along with her ownchildren.
Father was sometimes afraid of Mother’s temper. I think their marriage was quite unhappy, and there was always a dark cloud hanging over our home.
DG: How did you feel when you first saw the love of your life?
MB: I had been in love with my husband John ever since I can remember. He was handsome and had tousled brownhair and would act foolishly during church meetings when we were children. The tithingman, who was charged with the task of keeping the congregation pious and sober,would knock him on the head with a stick. John would glance at me after he was punishedand smile like he was entertaining me. His father Emanuel was not pleased with his antics.
DB: When were you the happiest?
MB: My first year of marriage was my happiest. John was a kind and tolerant husband and never abused me the way many other husbands did. Women had no rights, and it was a blessing to have a spouse who treated me the way God wants husbands to act toward their wives.
I loved being a mother and wanted to prove I could be a better one than my stepmother Joan.
DG: What quality do you most admire in people?
MB: Kindness to others. Mistress Hubbard, our pastor’s wife is the best example of a truly admirable person. I don’t know what I would have done without her during my childhood. I would sit at her feet to learnthe scriptures and how to read. She always saw only good in me, even when I didn’t deserve her love.
DG: How would you describe yourself?
MB: I’m not the person I used to be, so it is difficult to say because I’ve changed so much over the years. I used to spend so much time thinking about my unhappy childhood.As a young woman, the sin of pride welled up in me. I was quite pretty and flirtatious back then. The goodwives of the village would criticize and gossip about me and received encouragement to do so by Joan, my stepmother.
I would like to think of myself as a strongand courageous person, but I faltered many times.
DB: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
MB: I have a hard time letting a grudge go and forgiving those who have deeplyhurt me. I suppose it goes back to how I was treated by Joan, my stepmother.
DG: Many people today think that Puritans were intolerant and very unkind. Can you explain your religious group to us?
MG: You must realize that Puritans hold themselves to a very high standard, one they believe God has set for us. The ministers preach from God’s Word which may seem harsh, butHis standards are high. We try to live according to His edicts.
Remember: in the 1600’s no society was tolerant, and many religious people were persecuted and died because of their beliefs. Puritans in the colonies were much more forgiving thanthose in England who burned heretics at the stake!
So, we Puritans are very similar to everyone else in that respect and feel that we cannot allow little sins to be unpunished as they will surely grow and lead us astray. The Devil and his minions are powerful and seek weak minded people to sign his book. Our laws and practices are for our owngood.
As far as being unkind, I think you would find that Puritans are very generous and loving. We consider bringing others into correctionas an act of great love.
DG: What about the whippings and being put in stocks? Isn’t that excessive punishment?
MB: Puritans had a limit to the number of strikes with a whip, and so a whipping wasn’t meant to kill anyone. The punishments were perhaps harsh, but those who watched learned a valuable lesson. There were more horrible punishments like slitting a person’s nose sothey looked like a pig or branding their foreheads so everyone knows of their crime for the rest of their lives. Of course, these punishments were reserved for more severe crimes.
DG: What is the worst thing you have done?
MB: There are several things, butthe worst wasnot my fault. I am most ashamed of falsely accusing my cousin John Beare. Such a foolish young girl I was, and I certainly paid the price for that sin. Fortunately, I did not hang nor was I branded.
DG: What were the most difficult times in your life?
MB: My two times in prison were horrible experiences. Prisons back then were vile, cold, and filthy. If your family did not bring food for you, you had to pay for it. If shackles were necessary, the prisoner had to pay for them, and we were given a bill for the cost of our time in prisonif we were released.
Of course, knowing that I might be hungif found guilty was always on my mind.
DG: What are you most afraid of?
MB: I’ve spent time in prison, twice actually, so I think I can handle almost any circumstance now. The only thing I am afraid of is not having a saving grace with my God. There was a time in my life when I thought He had forsaken me.
I might add I still am afraid of the terrors of the night from the forest, like the savages and wolves that might attack my family.
DG: Which living person do you most despise?
MB: I detest the judges who hung those 19 men and women in Salem in 1692. Those people were all innocent of witchcraft. I can’t understand how those men allowed such injustice.
DB: How do you feel about having a novel written about you?
MB: I should be more humble, but I am thrilled that finally the accurateand complete story of my life has been written. For the past 350 years, the only things known about me came from those Quarterly records from the court. It has been so hard to accept that my descendants could only read about my youthful foibles and sins and even some of those were distortions. Then, the gossips testified against me in court, repeating harsh names they overheard my stepmother say about me like “liarand unchaste.” Can you imagine how hard this injustice has been to endure for over three hundred years?
In the Shadow of Salem releases on Amazon on June 18, 2018.
Donna is a writer and genealogist who enjoys writing novels about her infamous and more humble ancestors. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mark. Her website, www.DonnaGawell.com features history and travel articles.