Monday, October 10, 2022

A Woman of the Witch Trials: The Story of Elizabeth Howe

Howe during her trial,
courtesy of Historic Ipswich
With October comes thoughts of falling leaves, cool weather, cozy sweaters and for many people, Halloween. Tourism peaks in Salem, Mass. around this time of year due to “spooky season” events and of course the town’s history with the Salem witch trials. The State Library has done other posts on Halloween and the witch trials (see here and here), but I want to focus this post on one woman in particular who was impacted during this time in history. Today I want to tell the story of Elizabeth Howe.

I came across Elizabeth Howe’s name while browsing our stacks for some “interesting items” to show to a tour group. A book titled A short history of the Salem village witchcraft trials: illustrated by a verbatim report of the trial of Mrs. Elizabeth Howe, a memorial of her stood out to me on the shelf and it quickly became one of my favorite items in our collection.

The book sparked my interest and I wanted to learn more about Howe. I found out that she was born near Yorkshire, England around 1635 and moved to the Massachusetts Bay Colony when she was three years old. She married James Howe and the couple had six children, living in an area known as Ipswich Farms near Rowley, Mass. James lost his sight around age 50 and Elizabeth assumed responsibility for the farm and children, taking on more than was typical or accepted for a Puritan housewife. 

Elizabeth and her neighbors, the Perely family, did not get along and there had been animosity between them for quite some time. Samuel and Ruth Perley’s daughter, Hannah, experienced episodes and said that she felt like she was being pricked by pins and put the blame on Elizabeth. Mr. and Mrs. Perely took Hannah to see several doctors, one of whom said she was under the influence of evil. The Perely daughter grew ill and eventually passed away, but the strife between Elizabeth and the Perelys did not end there. The rivalry continued with the Perelys even preventing Elizabeth from joining the Ipswich Church.

The backdrop of the Salem witch trials is best thought of by looking at the Puritans who had recently settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As many are familiar, they were a deeply religious group of people who thought it was each person’s individual responsibility to fight against the devil. The first accusation of a witch came in February 1692 and soon after the Salem witch trials began. The Perely family, with their deep-seated anger towards her, were the chief accusers of Elizabeth Howe. A warrant was put out for Howe’s arrest and on May 29, 1692, she was taken into custody by the constable of Topsfield.

Elizabeth, among other women accused, sat in jail enduring difficult, inhumane conditions. Elizabeth was lucky in that her family would visit regularly, bringing some items from home to her. On May 31, 1692, however, her trial began. The Perely family testified the next day, along with several others who attacked Elizabeth, blaming her for things that happened with their families’ health, livestock, and property. Howe’s own brother-in-law even testified against her. Despite Elizabeth’s friends and family coming to her defense, saying that she had been a wonderful person who never brought harm to another, she was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged on July 19, 1692.

Elizabeth Howe memorial stone,
courtesy of Historic Ipswich

Less than 10 years later, public opinion of the witch trials changed. People admitted the trials were a mistake that happened out of paranoia. The courts issued a written apology as a result of the shifting public opinion and families of the victims were compensated. There is no record, however, that Samuel or Ruth Perely ever apologized about the accusations against Elizabeth Howe.

The book that we own serves as a memorial to Elizabeth. It was written in 1911 by Martin Van Buren Perley. What is most interesting to me about this book is that the author was a member of the same Perley family who were the chief accusers of Howe. Martin Van Buren Perely wrote it as a memorial to Howe for everything that she endured during the Salem witch trials. The book contains a transcript of Howe’s trial, as well as a picture of her arrest warrant and background information on the Howe family. More than two hundred years after Howe was put to death in part due to the Perely family, one of their relatives published a book to memorialize her. There are almost countless books on the Salem witch trials, but this one stands out to me for that reason. While it doesn’t change the outcome of what happened, it brought closure to an innocent woman and her family. You can view this book in person at the State Library or on the Internet Archive.

Centuries later, the aftermath of the Salem witch trials is still being felt. 329 years after being convicted, the last person accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials was pardoned. Thanks to an 8th grade class at North Andover Middle School, Elizabeth Johnson Jr., who died in 1747, was officially exonerated on July 28, 2022. Fortunately the Governor of Salem at the time threw out her punishment to be hanged as the truth about the injustices of the Salem witch trials began to surface. Her name was never cleared though, until this year. Take a look at this New York Times article to find out more about the work that this class and their teacher did to make this happen.

For more information on Elizabeth Howe and the Salem witch trials, please see:

If you’re interested in other books that we own on the Salem witch trials, take a look at this list. Feel free to view these, and more, in the Library’s Reading Room. We’re open Monday-Friday, 9-5pm. You can also request them via interlibrary loan through your local public library.

Jessica Shrey
Reference Librarian

*Please note that images 2-4 & 6 come from Martin Van Buren Perley’s book