While my Dad was always hoping that I would find Irish on his side of the family, (yay! I did), I have always wanted to find an accused witch!
And I did! Surprisingly this find wasn’t on Mom’s side of the family, where we have oodles and oodles of New England ancestors, it is on Dad’s side, where we find Clarisy/Clarissa Cross Rosa, the daughter of two New England raised parents and our only English ancestry on Dad’s side of the family.
Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Dudley were granted land along the Concord River in 1638. Located in this grant was an Indian village named Shawshin where in 1652 about a dozen families began to settle, with more families joining them in later years. Of course Shawshin sounded way too foreign for the intolerant settlers so they decided to rename the place Billerica, a much more musical, [yuck, not], and English name.
Rebecca _____ Chamberlain and her husband William, were one of those families that made the move. Rebecca and William resided in Boston for a very short time after they were married, in about 1648, before they settled in Woburn, until about 1652 when they made their final move to the new settlement of Billerica. Over the years of their marriage Rebecca became the mother of thirteen children, twelve of whom reached adulthood and ten of whom had children of their own. This is the little we know about her, (the rest we would have to extrapolate).
In 1692, when Rebecca was in her late 50s to early 60s1, during the Salem witch trial frenzy, Billerica became one of quite a few towns around Salem that soon found many of its citizens accused of practicing witchcraft. Although there is no testimony to such, it is the belief of many that Rebecca Chamberlain is one of those innocent victims of the Salem witch hunts. In the History of Middlesex County, Samuel Adams Drake writes “Rebecca, the wife of William Chamberlain and John Durrant, both of Billerica, died in prison in Cambridge where they were incarcerated for witchcraft.” Rev. Henry Hazen, in the History of Billerica, states that Rebecca Chamberlain “died in prison at Cambridge, 1692, Sept. 26, possibly charged with witchcraft.”2
Others debate on the matter, one website states, “An examination of every paper in the Middlesex county court files from 1670 to 1700 has revealed many witchcraft cases, but nothing relating to Rebecca Chamberlain.” And I am not surprised, because from what I have learned reading a recently published book3 where the author states, “no trace of a single session of the witchcraft court survives.” Everything we know about the event is taken from accounts of the trials, preparatory papers, and two death warrants. Salem village in their enthusiasm to forget ‘it’ ever happened expunged their record books, so there is much documentation missing regarding what happened in those 9 months of crazy. Also, there was no daily paper, or twitter, around at the time to keep folks apprised of the daily goings on in the court room. So the fact that there are no records mentioning Rebecca, and many others who were also accused, but never stood trial, shouldn’t make one disbelieve or really even question. I believe. It is too coincidental that she was in prison at the exact same time all this hysteria was going on, and died there in September.
While I am excited to find that we most likely have an accused witch in the family, I am now imagining how horrible and sad her death must have been. The prisons these people were kept in were a veritable hell, barely maintained by fanatics fighting demons of their own imaginings.4
So, this Halloween I will raise a toast in memory of Rebecca Chamberlain. Accused witch. Innocent vicim.
- We don’t know exactly when she was born and can only speculate from her first child’s birth.
- The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff; New York : Little, Brown and Company, 2015, first edition. Excellent read by the way!
- ibid. digital edition p123-124 of 536 this is a description of the Boston jail being used for the accused: “The stone facility announced itself from a distance with a stench of refuse and rotting wounds…Visitors did not tarry long…Iron bars covered the open windows; one could reach out for provisions or in to touch a loved one’s hand. One could also spit and jeer; some came to the prison expressly for those purposes. Sarah Good…what remained of her clothing barely covered her body.” The description goes on. I imagine the conditions were similar in the Cambridge prison where Rebecca was incarcerated.