The devils in paradise: Author pens novel inspired by her ancestor — the ‘witch of Northampton’
It’s been more than 40 years since Kathy-Ann Becker felt the spring thaw tingle beneath her feet during a lunch-break walk from her job in Northampton’s Forbes Library.
It came with a disturbing sense that something was very wrong.
“A woman stood here in great pain” was the chant that filled the 22-year-old Wendell woman’s mind, as she felt the ancient soil flexing and coming alive beneath the concrete and suddenly saw in her mind’s eye the city as it once had been, its buildings removed, to reveal meadows and the hills in the distance.
The strange sensations repeated over several days, as she felt she was walking in someone’s footsteps. At one point, she had the odd sense that she was being looked on disdainfully for some reason, so that she began walking with defiance, spontaneously stomping the pavement to assert her place.
Afterward, she recalls, “I laughed at it, because it doesn’t have a place in my belief system. I had no way to interpret it, and I still don’t.”
It wasn’t until 20 years later that Becker’s father, a Unitarian-Universalist minister in Ohio, called her to announce that his genealogical research had turned up a stunning fact: She is a ninth generation descendant of Mary Bliss Parsons, the “witch of Northampton.”
Just as she’d stomped the ground in 1972, Becker’s immediate reaction was to assert defensively that Mary Parsons was not a witch. Eventually, as a result of the further research she and her parents did into the woman who’s been called “perhaps the most infamous resident of Northampton’s early settlement period,” Becker decided to write a book about her.
“Silencing the Women,” which she spent eight years researching and writing, has now been published as what Becker describes as “a true story by a descendant of how one accused witch supported by love, faced off with the devils in paradise.” The author, who’s been Wendell’s town moderator for what will be 30 years this spring, will read from her first novel at Feb. 9 at the Shutesbury Athletic Club.
Window on the times
Mary Bliss, a 1628 native of Gloucestershire, England, emigrated with her family, settling first in Hartford, Conn., and later in Springfield. She married Joseph Parsons in 1646 and in 1654 moved with him and their three children from Springfield to Northampton, among the first families in that settlement.
Soon after their arrival, it was rumored that Mary Parsons was a witch, in part because of her husband’s financial successes, in part because she was said to have “fits” and also because she may have been confused with a different Mary Parsons who had been tried for witchcraft for murdering her child and sentenced to hang, according to a Historic Northampton website developed by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
A bigger problem for Parsons — who was remembered as being “possessed of great beauty and talents, but … not very amiable” and “exclusive in her choice of her associates and … of haughty manners” — is that she ran afoul of another recent Northampton arrival, who believed she had supernatural powers and accused her of witchcraft. The accusation led to a 1656 slander trial brought by Joseph Parsons, which he won.
The mother of 11 children, Parsons gave birth to the first child in the new settlement, while the other woman, Sarah Bridgman, suffered its first death, that of her infant son. After the 1668 death of Bridgman and later the death of her grown daughter, Parsons was charged with being a witch in 1674. She was jailed for three months awaiting trial and acquitted, but still accused by neighbors, and historians say there may have been another trial in 1679. The couple left Northampton for Springfield that year or the next amid lingering gossip, and Parsons died in 1712.
The trials in Northampton and Springfield anticipated those of the 1690s in Salem.
In the course of writing her fictionalized account of her ancestor, Becker “kept on receiving images I couldn’t understand,” doing research through the UMass Website, as well as at Forbes Library and the Northampton Historical Society.
“I feel in a way, we can experience the themes of our ancestors,” said Becker, who works as a registered nurse for Franklin County Home Care Corp. “We think we’re standalone units, but we’re a composite of threads from our past. I feel I became sensitive to it, but I had to be humble and accept it without my context.”
Becker studied 18 years worth of court records involving her ancestor and histories of the time to understand what was taking place locally. This allowed her to fictionalize her account, using real names and real places and reconstructing events she saw referenced.
She also familiarized herself with the 1599 Geneva Bible, and read and re-read the Psalms of David to set the rhythm for her words.
Becker, who converted to Judaism in 1984, reflects that she feels qualified as the daughter of two ministers to write this story of church and state.
“It’s about controlling people through fear and how people become enmeshed in situations beyond their control, about how their personalities cope and how a person is resilient,” said Becker, for whom this is also a story about “wrestling with God,” one of the core aspects of Jewish identity.
“That’s why I feel she was a heroine to me,” Becker said. “So I’d sit and read the Psalms of David over and over when I felt lost (in the writing) … That was my focus.”
Becker ends nearly each chapter in Parson’s voice with a quotation from one of the psalms, but removed some of them from her novel to “take a lot of theological weight out of it ... I decided that I was her messenger, so people could understand as much as possible that most of us would have been considered witches back then. My mission was not really to represent her to herself, but to represent her to people in these times, in an understandable way.”
Writing the book, which at times was accompanied by dreams of Mary Parsons that sometimes led to waking dreams, “opened my eyes to the struggles that people have in their lives to make sense of their lives. It gave me a feeling that we have missions to complete, that we’re tragic figures if we don’t see our missions and try to complete them.”
Becker, some of whose family members have struggled with schizophrenia, frightening her when she was hearing her ancestor’s voice, confides, “I worried that I was entering the world of witches. Then I took solace in horses and dogs and whales and dolphins, which have a sense of ‘community mind’ that humans also have capacity for, that can transcend the little boundaries of flesh ... that we are tied to a ‘one,’ and that time is not as structured as we believe, and there are less boundaries than we place on ourselves.”
It was good news, though, that Mary Bliss Parsons has stopped appearing for Becker, who last heard from her one day when she was in Newfoundland, meditating on her ancestor trying to discover what should come next in her book.
“I’d come to a spot where I wasn’t getting any impressions from her. I wasn’t getting any visions. Nothing. I stood there and all of a sudden I heard, ‘It’s done.’ So the book more or less ends at that spot.” The title of “Silencing the Women” comes from First Corinthians, in which Paul wrote “Women should remain silent in the churches.”
Ninth generation steps up
Becker says her book really pays tribute to the Puritan Anne Hutchison, whose 1637 trial in the Massachusetts Bay Colony — followed by her subsequent banishment — shook the religious establishment of the time.
“She was an early ‘minister’ who was silenced, and she believed everybody could have a personal relationship with God,” Becker said. “This is God wrestling … about finding who you are in relation to God. It’s all tied together: (Mary Parson’s) journey was tied to me understanding coming to terms with yourself and where we are on the planet.”
An incredible aspect of Becker’s journey is that it was paralleled by two other ninth-generation Parsons descendants documenting her life at the same time. While researching the book, she discovered that Connecticut writer Karen Vorbeck Williams was working on “My Enemy’s Tears: The Witch of Northampton,” a fictionalized account of the conflict between Parsons and Bridgman.
Another descendant, D.H. Parsons, has penned what she calls a more occult-like “diary” of Parsons, “The Strong Witch Society.”
Becker, who says she passed up signing a publishing contract to have more control of her work, finds it fascinating that the first accounts of Parsons’ life have all come out simultaneously from ninth-generation descendants.
“I have this image of the hammer of God striking the anvil, and sparks that come out are multicolored, and that each manifests a face of God,” Becker said. “To me, this book is a manifestation; it’s not truly her. She’s not a witch, and I’m not a witch. But there is magic.”